This four-part article was based on interviews with seven elite figure skating coaches Kori Ade, Marina Zoueva, Tom Zakrajsek, Phillip Mills, Jim Peterson, Audrey Weisiger, and Yuka Sato; an elite competitor and Olympian, Paul Wylie; and two prominent and highly successful sports psychologists Dave Diggle and David Benzel. In our third installment we look at the secret ingredients for competition success from renowned coaches Audrey Weisiger and Yuka Sato.
Audrey Weisiger Continues to Amuse and Amaze
Audrey’s light-hearted personality and amazing experiences combine to make her a renowned, unusual and dedicated member of the skating community. She is a two-time Olympic Team coach and a frequent presenter at the PSA Conferences and Canadian Coaches Conferences. In 1999, Audrey was selected as the Coach of the Year for the PSA and USFSA. She has worked with numerous skaters, most notably Michael Weiss and Timothy Goebel.
In 2003 Audrey started the wonderful Grassroots to Champions program (http://grassrootstochampions.com/) to help give serious competitors advanced skill refinement and competition readiness training. The program has grown significantly in numbers and popularity over the years. This work, with its many well-known coaches who help teach the program with Audrey, gave rise to the amazing Young Artists Showcase (http://youngartistsshowcase.net/) – a place for young choreographers to enhance their skills and talent while obtaining positive feedback and training.
Audrey says her best strategy to connecting with her skaters is to keep it simple. She thinks very methodically about competition readiness, although you won’t find her crafting a formal 4-year plan. She always works her skaters with the long-term in mind but she lives by the philosophy that long-term goals morph. Like planning any big event, such as a wedding, she was always ready to embrace change.
A mainstay of Audrey’s plans includes a six- to eight-week Battle Plan for each skater leading up to the start of the competitive season. She said, “Preparation is key, pressure is a privilege and it takes a lot of heart to accomplish greatness.”
A strong advocate for practicing how you compete and going out to competition as if it was just another day at practice, Audrey commented, “The only person you are competing with is yourself and it is how you deal with your demons and nerves at competition that will set you apart from the rest and the best.”
Audrey’s unique training methods cultivate an environment of preparedness and readiness for the times when her skaters are in the spotlight. “I was very meticulous in my training. I would throw change at them such as turning out the lights when they were on the ice. I might take my students to unfamiliar rinks to run their programs while other people were deliberately getting in their way. Michael Weiss liked to prepare for competition by training in isolation but I mixed things up for him too. It is very important to create changes in the athlete’s routine in order to stay motivated and always expect the unexpected.
“You must know your athlete and ask them, what is the mission of this run-through and/or this competition? Why did we come here? Will you do your job as if we are practicing at home? Respect yourself and remember it is a privilege to have accomplished what you have.
“One summer I had a skater competing at the Liberty [Summer] competition. One of the rinks caught fire shortly before her event. But she handled it like a champ taking the Gold because she was used to the various changes that came her way during training.”
Michael Weiss was one skater Audrey worked with long term. In 1993 they began to discuss ideas for the 1998 Olympics but those ideas were never a firm multi-year plan. Rather Audrey incorporated space and time in every plan to accommodate options in skills, goals, and even unexpected program changes. “Things change and skaters must be able to take on new personas and act the part,” she said.
“I remember one day as we approached the height of the season and Michael, a man at that point, told me he wanted to be outside playing golf, not inside at the rink. I made a deal with him that after he accomplished specific goals that we mutually agreed upon we would go golfing. He had a great session that day!
“It was always important for me to have a strong knowledge base of each athlete. I had to know what motivated them and what would keep them focused and calm. Some skaters are motivated 100% of the time but most are not. I always had an arsenal of ideas I could call upon to help each individual skater.
“I had the privilege to work with Tim Goebel during the inception of the new IJS system in 2006. Tim told me that he knew he had to adapt or die in order to succeed. We worked very hard at learning these new rules and changes. One of the biggest challenges Tim ever faced took place the year before the new IJS at the 2005 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Portland. Tim’s good friend, Angela Nikodinov, lost her mother in a tragic car accident in Portland just before the competition began. Tim was devastated by the loss. In fact he was so upset he could hardly stay composed and thought of withdrawing, which I would have supported if that indeed was his decision. We discussed things and decided that Mrs. Nikodinov would have wanted him to skate.
“Even while waiting for his 5-minute warm up for his short program Tim could not compose himself and kept breaking down. I knew I needed to do something to snap him out of it. I hit him in his right arm reminding him that he needed to pull in on his jumps; Angela’s mother would have wanted him to get it together. He went on to skate a beautiful clean program. This was one difficult accomplishment for Tim but one he remains proud of.”
Audrey always encourages her skaters to look at the bigger picture and repeat words like ’I can and I will.’ At times, skaters can become extremely nervous at the boards, so she finds small ways to interact with each student in order to keep them calm and focused. She noted, “Fear is universal. Each skater has a different way to cope with their nerves. Leading up to the event, I frequently encourage my skaters to read an inspiring story or watch an inspiring movie. Sometimes we play a hand slapping game or a card game before taking the ice. When my skaters make that first step onto the ice under the spotlight they can be confident that they are fully prepared and it’s their time to shine.”
Yuka Sato’s Team with Jason Dungjen Helps Prepare Their Skaters for Competition Readiness
Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen are beautifully decorated skaters that have had many successes in their own right. As they have made the transition into coaching they have codified many unique training options to prepare each and every student to be ready for competition. Yuka shared some of the strategies she and Jason use with their skaters to get them to be their best at competition.
“Getting ready for the competitive season is a work in progress”, Yuka suggested. “We work with each skater to clarify their expectations and goals for the season. We want to know what they plan to accomplish. To achieve these long-term goals we set interim or progress goals. We work to build each skater’s confidence and to help them feel in control of their technique and ability to execute clean elements.”
Yuka and Jason strive for balanced training focusing, separately at first, on artistry, performance and technique. By the time their skaters are ready for competition they should be on auto pilot. “We work to sharpen the skater’s ability to deal with the unknowns, the what-ifs that always seem to happen at competitions. I remember in 1994 competing against Tanya Harding and having to wait while she showed the judges her broken skate lace. It seemed like a long time until I got to take the ice. We all have our own interesting competition stories.
“After Jeremy Abbott hit the boards during his short program at the Sochi Olympics he got up and was able to complete his short program because he was well-trained. During his long program he showed such determination and perseverance. To me that was something truly beautiful that came out of that Olympic experience. He managed to be proud of all of his accomplishments and that performance proved how strong Jeremy really is. We were very proud of him too.”
Yuka and Jason develop a specific program for competition readiness with individual aspects built in for each skater. Certain training programs may be conducive for one group of skaters, such as Jeremy Abbott or Alissa Czisny, but not for other skaters. Yuka says, “Each stage of training for competition is a step-by-step process. We believe this process helps our skaters build confidence.
“Skating is a personal journey. Some competition nervousness will always be there but each competitor has to manage it in their own way. Even after a less than stellar event we work with our skaters to find the positives and learning experiences that occurred in that competition. None of us can be perfect all the time so we need to celebrate the positive outcomes and embrace the mistakes.”
Yuka continued, “I think the key to performing up to a skater’s potential is to treat each training session as if it was competition. There will be so many different circumstances and physical conditions a skater may experience throughout the training day that the performance at competition should just become another program run-through.”
Like many coaches, some of Yuka and Jason’s skaters work with a sports psychologist to assist with increased mental resiliency. Yuka commented, “There is pressure coming from many directions – from the skaters themselves, media, associations, coaches, and family. Working with a sports psychologist can help skaters deal with great pressure as well as gain mental toughness.
“I’ve had great experiences as a competitor, a professional skater, a choreographer and a coach. I was lucky enough to be successful. The past few years of experiences with both Alissa overcoming her hip injury and Jeremy’s accident at the Sochi Olympics have taught Jason and I something very important. Alissa and Jeremy have dedicated their lives to becoming the kind of the skaters they are; yet things didn’t always turn out as they had hoped. It is truly heartbreaking to witness your skaters having to accept the disappointments in the way that they did. However, the hard work they put in and the courage to stand up when they fell down just shows how they value themselves as individuals.
As we train our skaters to compete well, I realize it’s important to make sure that every angle has been covered. This includes what happens in a range of possible outcomes from having a skater win to coming in last. We try to prepare them for all outcomes so when they take the ice they can be as confident as possible.”
This four-part article about competition confidence was written by Merry Neitlich, Director of the Coach’s Edge. Merry is a contributing member of the PSA as a National Seminar and PSA Conference presenter. www.coachsedge.biz