Ice Network

Coaches reveal secrets for handling elite skaters

Mozer, Orser, Haguenauer, Turberidze share proven coaching strategies
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Brian Orser acknowledged that his strict Irish Catholic upbringing may have something to do with how he coaches his skaters. -Getty Images

It's not easy to coach several of the best skaters and teams in the world all at once. Icenetwork asked four esteemed coaches -- Nina Mozer of Russia, Brian Orser of Canada, Romain Haguenauer of France and Eteri Tutberidze of Russia -- about how they handle the pressure that is building up as the Olympic Winter Games approach.

When asked how he felt about coaching some of the finest skaters in the world, coach Brian Orser was quick to answer: "It's hard. Don't believe all those who say, 'Brian has so many good students -- he is so lucky.' It's really hard!" he told icenetwork at the 2016 Trophée de France.

Coaching several of the main contenders for the podium, especially in an Olympic year, is quite tricky, especially during a competition like the 2018 European Championships.

"You can see how pressure is building up among them," a judge said here, watching the pairs practice.

It should be even greater in three weeks in PyeongChang.

Take Nina Mozer, for instance. For several years now, she has coached the cream of the crop in Russian pairs. Here in Moscow, she is coaching all three Russian teams competing: Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, and Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert.

"I'm coaching all of them at once, this is true, but only at competitions," she offered. "In practice every day, they don't skate together. They don't belong to the same group. Well, Natalia and Alexander, and Evgenia and Vladimir skate in one group, and Ksenia and Fedor skate in another group. So, there's no problem for training.

"Competitions are different, however, because my eyes need to be everywhere at the same time," she said, laughing. "Fortunately, I have a great team, with several coaches and choreographers, so we can work together."

"In fact, it's like coaching three separate teams," added Robin Szolkowy, who coaches Tarasova and Morozov alongside Mozer. "Here in competition, things are indeed different. We're not coaching the technical elements, really. When skaters reach a certain level, things change. Nina is more like a psychologist to her teams, working more on mental things. Her role is more to make sure that each one knows that he or she is ready. Like, 'If I wake you up at 3, then you have to be ready and be aware of it.' There's nothing more…so easy!"

Skating at different times certainly makes things easier, Orser confirmed.

"Actually, this season hasn't been too hard," he said. "Yuzu [Hanyu] and Javi [Fernández] trained together most of the summer and fall, which was good, but as soon as we entered the Grand Prix season, they were on different schedules. Javi and Yuzu competed in different Grand Prix. Then, Yuzu has been treating his injury and he wasn't around very much. Then Javi had Spanish nationals, and now it's Europeans. They haven't been on the same rink that much.

"Everyone has his own agenda. We're all going to the same place, but we're going there via different paths."

Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches a "who's who" of ladies skating, including Evgenia Medvedeva, Alina Zagitova and Polina Tsurskaya (who did not qualify for these Europeans), cites focus as being of the utmost importance.

"Each one of them is doing what she has to do on the ice. They are trying to achieve their best," she explained. "Of course, each one has her good days and bad days, but they are really good friends off the ice -- and on the ice, too."

As with all of these coaches, Tutberidze also has a special strategy. With her, it is the unique way she builds trust with her pupils, which results in her having a strong relationship with each one of them.

"'Work and talk' -- that's our motto," she explained. "You know, each girl is so different from the others. Take Alina, for instance. She is so 'girly,' She knows that she is pretty. She notices that she is being looked at. For several years, I tried to get her feminine qualities (to come) out, through her music and the feel for her body. Maybe I did too much! (She laughs.) She has managed to take all the changes that have taken place and internalize them. Her body talks, even when she skates poorly -- it means that she has something to tell us. Our job is to find out what is bothering her.

"Sometimes, Polina comes onto the ice and tells us she won't skate. So, we need to talk and talk. Then she skates, and at the end of the session, she'll come to us to thank us because she (didn't feel) she (could do) it. We need to work and talk all the time."

Alongside Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Romain Haguenauer coaches Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue -- the three teams that shared the "small podium" (the top three places after the short dance) at worlds in Helsinki, Finland, last March. Haguenauer emphsizes the need to build a strong connection with each of his teams, to make sure that jealousy or envy doesn't arise between training mates.

"It may be difficult to train three of the best teams in the world, but not quite for the reason you think," Haguenauer explained. "In fact, coaching several high-caliber skaters is very consistent with the preparation we want to give them. When you think of it, they may be the best in the world, but they have always trained in the same way, on the same ice as their own competitors. There's nothing new for them there. When I was in France, I once coached the six best teams at French junior nationals! It may not be the same level, but it's the same spirit. Skaters have always lived (in) such a situation.

"As coaches, you have to set the rules for your school, but we need also to help them cope with the situation. Skaters need to focus on what they have to do, more than on what their competitors are doing. In a way, as you can see, it already serves as preparation for competition, where they will skate on the same ice and be competitors. That's what we're here for!"

Strangely enough, Orser and Tutberidze share a common familial trait: Both are the youngest of five children. Could growing up in a big family help develop the ability to deal with several strong individual personalities?

"I had three big sisters in front of me, and I lived the tough times of their teen ages, when they didn't want to go to school," Tutberidze explained. "I saw my parents struggle and do their best, trying to look at [my sisters] from the side and find the proper adjustments. So now I can understand what my growing pupils may go through. You have to know one thing: In sport, your time is limited. You can never catch up. Time flies. A skater cannot say, 'I stop for now; I'll come back later.'"

"Maybe there is something to that," Orser said. "My parents were of Irish Catholic descent, and they were rather strict, with strong discipline. I had an upbringing of respect and honor, very strong values."

Has he passed such values on to his protégés?

"As a coach, I have to familiarize myself with my skaters' cultures," he said. "But those two values of respect and honor are valid in every culture!"

Skating on the same ice as one's competitors is tough for any skater, but they all know how much they have to gain from it. Separating skaters' agendas, developing a strong and trust-based confidence, and setting strict guidelines are keys for those coaches who are helping the best skaters in the world reach the peak of their careers. We will see how these strategies play out in PyeongChang a month from now.