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PSA Forum Addresses Prepping Skaters for Performance Golden Ticket

by Liz Leamy

Photo courtesy Amanda Taylor, PSA

(8 October 2012)   Competitions serve as a forum where skaters get to showcase their skills, gain experience and build their strength, but most importantly, they represent a bottom line and a place where an athlete can make or break their reputation, future and career. 

“Skaters determine their lives in competition,” said Nikolai Morozov, the esteemed Olympic coach who famously guided his two Japanese charges, Shizuka Arakawa to Olympic gold in 2006 and Miki Ando to the 2011 World title. “How they do place will affect everything in their lives.”

No doubt, competing is an extremely challenging endeavour, particularly at the high levels where skaters are performing triples and quads on a consistent basis, and is why the Professional Skaters Association dedicated an entire morning forum to this very topic at its annual conference in Boston last May.

This forum, titled ‘Competition-Best Practices’ featured Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic champion, Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medallist, Todd Sand, the 1998 World silver and two-time World pairs bronze medallist with his wife, Jenni Meno, and Kaisa Nieminen, coach of the 2012 World Synchronized Champions, the Rockettes of Finland, who discussed their experience, ideas and methods.

The forum was moderated by Merry Nietlich, a California-based educational and marketing consultant and three-time U.S. National Adult Champion who is owner and manager of the Coach’s Edge, a coaches learning theory resource company. Nietlich orchestrated this panel based upon a survey she had conducted back in February 2012.

“Everybody wants that silver bullet about how to keep skaters calm [at competitions],” said Nietlich, who had interviewed several thousand coaches and then had discussed the results with each of the panellists prior to the forum.

“Each panellist was fantastic,” said Nietlich.

This forum turned out to be one of the most popular seminars at the PSA Conference and with good reason, since it addressed the all-important issue of how to prepare skaters effectively for competition, an endeavor that requires insight, understanding and timing by the coach so they can help an athlete to perform at an optimal level.

Famous U.S. skaters who were master competitors include Michelle Kwan, the iconic nine-time U.S. Champion, five-time World titlist and two-time Olympic medallist and Evan Lysacek, the 2010 U.S. Olympic Champion.

Other star former U.S. competitors include Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic titlist, Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion, Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medallist; Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champ; Peggy Fleming, 1968 Olympic gold winner, Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 Olympic champion and Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic gold medallist, among others.

“These are examples of athletes who have had that instinctive ability to skate their very best at competition over and over again,” said Peter Burrows, the iconic New York metropolitan-area based coach who guided Elaine Zayak to the 1982 World title. “This kind of skater sees competing as a window of opportunity and knows how to jump right through it.”

Burrows, reputed to be one of the most effective trainers in contemporary American figure skating, cited the importance of practice and said proper preparation can help insure successful competitive performances.

“The better the skater trains, the better they’ll be prepared for competition,” he said. Burrows currently coaches Samantha Cesario, the 2012 Liberty champion and 2011 Eastern senior ladies gold medallist with MaryLyn Gelderman in Monsey, New York.

The panellists shared their thoughts on several key subjects.

Preparing and training for competition

Paul Wylie:  “I tend to plot the season out on paper. For me, to see the entire picture was a big thing.”

Kaisa Nieminen:  “We do drills and basic skating all the time.”

 “I feel the final month [before the competition] is very important and the physical and mental training is most important before that. As we get closer to competition, I learn to trust my girls.”

Sarah Hughes:  “I trusted my coach (Robin Wagner). I didn’t want to do program run throughs when everyone was watching, but Robin just told me not to look at them.”

Todd Sand:  “I did a lot of double run throughs, I think double run throughs give you a lot of confidence, but however you prepare, it’s difficult for everybody.”  “I also tried to train like we were competing right after the season was over.”

Competition performance

Paul Wylie:  “I worked with many sport psychologists. I was the world’s greatest choker (up until he won silver at the 1994 Albertville Olympics). The sport psychologist [I worked with] said for me to think for 30 minutes every day about winning an Olympic medal and that 30 minutes was very transformational. He said to go and do my job and I did.”

Sarah Hughes:  “Since I was young I had the ability to focus and concentrate when I needed to, but that day of competition is always difficult. It’s always different and you don’t know how you’re going to wake up and feel. The best thing you can do is to know yourself.”  “Get to know yourself through training and schedules. I had a set of rituals, even down to when I would eat.”

Kaisa Nieminen:  “The girls all prep themselves. They know what to eat and do with their makeup and routine. I want to trust them and they understand my role and when they stand out on the ice, I have to trust them.”

Debriefing skaters after a performance

Paul Wylie:  “In competition, you really need someone who sees the big picture (like my coaches, Evy and Mary Scotvold). This happens over time. So much is at stake when a skater competes [at a major event], what a skater does [at the Olympics] will forever change their lives.”

 “As a skater, I needed to talk it out. We would debrief afterward, but not at the event.”

“One of the things to focus on is the heart rate, it helped me to get focused. In Albertville, I would walk around the Olympic Village and check my heart rate and that was very helpful.”

Sarah Hughes:  “Over the past year, I’ve spent time visiting female Olympic champions and each one [I’ve spoken to] remembers specifically what they did that day. Tenley (Albright, the 1958 Olympic champion) told me about Cortina and how she would do a jump and land it in the sun. (That Olympics was held at an outdoor arena in Cortina, Italy.)

“Having a support system and knowing what you’re going to do has been a consistent thing in successful skaters.”

Kaisa Nieminen:  “I wait to see the video to give feedback. Then, I am more like a commentator. Many times, I try to pick up just the good things and if somebody makes a mistake, I don’t have to point it out.”

Dealing with difficulty/falls the day of the competition

Paul Wylie:  “I missed both of my triple Axels in the warmup before the short program (in Albertville). Evy was great. Instead of flipping out, he said ‘It’s fine, you’ve got this jump and focused on something very specific [regarding my technique] and told me I had done the jump many times and I had it.”

“The coaches need to think for students at that very moment.”

Todd Sand:  “I think as a coach you also have to prepare yourself emotionally just as you would the skater. As a coach, you have to get yourself ready by keeping it simple and keeping the skater focused on something positive.”

Kaisa Nieminen:  “I trust [my skaters] and what they are. If somebody’s stressed, try to tell them to do it like you’ve [always have] done it. Do beautiful skating like you always do and enjoy.”

Sarah Hughes:  “Most of the time, Robin [Wagner, Hughes’ coach] was more nervous [at competition] than I was and it helped because on a daily basis [in practice], she was the one who was calm an I was [nervous]. It was reversed for us because at competition I was very calm.”

“Now I see my seven-year old nieces who compete sometimes and they should enjoy it. [Competition] is hard and a lot of pressure for everybody. Kids are so invested in the sport and in performance at that moment. It can be like a symbol of your character and [we think] do [we] rise to the occasion or what does [our performance] say about ourselves?’’

“You want to have a good memory of [the performance] and to have good memories even if there’s a mistake.”

“It’s a thin line to figure out and sometimes you undervalue what you do.”