Brian Orser: if I stop learning something new as a coach, then I’m over as a coach
Big interview with Brian Orser at the Junior Worlds. About his skaters, difference in training junior and seniors and harm of social networks.
by Maia Bagryantseva for sports.ru dd. 7th March 2020
I see you at the rink all day, I don’t understand when you manage to eat and relax. Do you watch only your athletes or someone else is also interesting for you?
– Oh, I have enough of my skaters. And besides, do not forget that Cricket Club has a lot of guys here: dancers and single skaters, all from different countries, our club is truly international. For example, we have a girl from Australia, this is the first world championships for her. God, how nervous she is. Also a girl from China – we just started working with her. So there are a lot of ours.
How many national team jackets do you carry with you? Or do they give you jackets here?
– No, here I have only Canadian jacket.
What can you say about Katya Kurakova? Do you like her short program today?
– I am very pleased with her skating, well done. Strong skaters skate here, and Katya was able to get into a good warm-up for the free program. And in training, she also got a great group. By the way, she got into a group with Russian girls, who are simply incredible, fantastic. And of course it was very useful for her to skate with them. She was in over her head, she gets motivated easily – because she loves competition and generally she’s quite ambitious. So it’s great that she has worked with them like this for several days.
We are both happy, in general. Also with the scores, by the way. The scores were ok, fair: levels, judges gave an underrotation, but it really was, everything was fair. We worked a lot, for example on the underrotations. And I see the result. Of course, we have something to improve, but all this is for the summer, we have a work plan.
In general, she has been working with us for a couple of years, but last year she could not compete, so she mainly trained. And this season she has one competitions after another both among juniors and seniors. Grand Prix, challengers, national championships in both categories, world championships – current in Tallinn, senior Worlds in Montreal is still ahead. And every time she gets better and better.
Is there any difference for a coach to bring juniors or senior athletes to competitions?
– For juniors, World championships is the peak of the season, incredible stress; they all want to show themselves as best as possible, but they still have little experience. So yes, there is a difference. Juniors need to be watched more, they should be guided more – off the ice, I mean.
Seniors already know everything perfectly: how to warm up, by what time to be ready, what to do at the warm-up. And for juniors I have to send a text message with a reminder: “training tomorrow at this time, the bus leaves that time.”
But they are not alone here, their parents are with them.
– Yes, but I don’t want parents to interfere.
It’s differently with different families. In my practice, there were cases when I had to tell parents: everything is OK, I’ll figure it out, let’s let the guys feel like adults and independent. Then they get the feeling that they are managing their life, they start to understand what responsibility is.
Are parents allowed to practices at Cricket Club?
– They are not allowed at the skating rink itself, but we have a special zone from where they can watch the training through the glass. They can’t go inside and somehow comment on the course of the lesson. Although this has happened before and now it happens if I, for example, left for the competition. And, they also like to use sign language, haha. In general, it still depends on the age of the athlete.
I think Javier Fernandez adapted the best to independent life without parents. He came to us when he was 18 or 19, and spent 8 years with us. He was very independent, lived in a separate apartment, cleaned it himself, cooked himself, went shopping, got to the rink. Well, the first year he had some problems with being late. In general, there were small problems with understanding how the schedule works here. Everyone around me kept saying “What do you want, he’s a Spaniard” – and it really pissed me off, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m terribly punctual. But slowly he adapted, and we decided to adjust our schedule a bit for him.
Yuzuru lives with his mother, she helps us a lot. But at the same time, she does not interfere in the training process. That is, it doesn’t happen that she comes to me and starts saying what Yuzu needs to do in training. But even when I coached Yuna Kim, her mother did not interfere in our work directly, at least not through me. She expressed her daughter’s opinion, and pretty carefully.
What about Zhenya?
– Her mother also does not interfere in the work process. I think it was not easy for her. After all, we have a completely different system of training. In addition, she skated herself, understands figure skating and knows how athletes trained before. For her it was a serious step to trust us, stay away and be patient.
I have said more than once, there is a certain period of time – one and a half years. Perhaps, for Zhenya and her team it was harder than for others – because she had grown into the system that had brought her up. This is not bad at all, don’t get me wrong, just here everything wasn’t the way she was used to.
Of all the boys in our team, Javi is probably the best example. The first year of our work, he did not show any special results neither at the European, nor at the World Championships. And suddenly, exactly one and a half years later, he wins the bronze medal at Worlds!
When Yuzu came to us, he has already been to the World championships, took third place there – and after a year and a half, he becomes the Olympic champion.
And now the same story with Jason Brown. At the US Nationals, he was simply magnificent, he is on an incredible rise, quadruple jumps start to turn out. Of course, we do not force things, but go at our own pace, even though everyone is talking about quads now. But he is a patient guy – it took us exactly 18 months to make him who he is today. Tracy (Wilson) and I were amazed how greatly he controlled the situation during the performances at the US Nationals.
Is it difficult to make skaters believe in this scheme?
– The main thing is to understand: our first season may not be the most successful and this is ok. Of course, we don’t want anyone to this as excuse and we don’t want to set them up for this – everything can go fine. But further it will definitely be better, you just need a little time for the athletes to get used to our system.
We give them the tools to make decisions and make independent choices, the right choices, because many athletes are told what they should do and how. Well, it may work with children and maybe juniors. But senior athletes are adults, they must be responsible for their training, not to be late, decide for themselves whether they need to work more. This is my case, by the way.
When I was still competing, I was looking for any opportunity to have an extra skate somewhere, do extra physical trainings. I was running past the coach’s house so he could see how great I am, but he didn’t even know anything. I expect this from my athletes.
But wouldn’t it be more convenient for you as a coach if the skaters just obeyed you and did what you tell them?
– Well, ok, we are telling them and then question arises: should I do a run-through today? And some guys will think and agree: yes, let’s do a full run-through. Of course, no one likes to do this – it’s hard. It’s like a marathon – well, let’s run our marathon today?
As a coach, of course, I understand that they need to do a run-through. I can go the simple way and say: today you are doing a run-through of the program. But I can make them think that this is their decision. They must do this – not because I forced them, but because they understand this will make them stronger. And if they do it today, then in three weeks their skating will become better – all because of the right choice.
And there are athletes who prefer not to do this. And you know? They never succeed. Everything is simple here – some just can not survive the decline in results, they need everything at once. And there are plenty of “well-wishers” around who are whispering: it’s all your coach’s fault.
How is your practices organized? Do juniors and seniors skate together?
– No. We alternate training sessions – separately juniors, separately seniors, although there are some joint classes. For juniors it is very important to be close to successful skaters. Sometimes it happens when several senior athletes go to competitions, I come to juniors and say “You, you and you skate with seniors today.” And for them this is a huge event, they are trying their best to show what they are capable of, to be called again and again.
Of course, it is a huge motivation for them to skate on the same ice with Hanyu, Medvedeva or Junhwan. Joseph Phan, by the way, like Katya Kurakova, performs this year both in juniors and seniors. He also goes to Montreal, that is, in total we are bringing there four of our athletes: Yuzuru, Junhwan, Katya and Jason, which is a very good result for our team.
We have to interrupt our interview several times, because people who want to take pictures with you come all the time. Is it always like this?
– Well, during the competitions, yes, it’s almost always like this, especially in Korea and Japan. In Canada, by the way, it is not, ha ha.
Canadian figure skating is going through hard times. What do you think is the reason?
– Well, before the Olympics in Korea, everything was fine. We had Scott and Tessa, Meagan and Eric, Kaetlyn Osmond – that is, for eight years we had a real gang of great athletes. And now we have … I will not call it a recession, I will better say “reconstruction”. Canada, unlike Russia, cannot boast of so many strong athletes. You do not have to go through the phase of stock recovery, you replenish them automatically – you know what I mean? And that’s not bad at all.
And yes, the interest of the public is falling accordingly. To save the situation, we need a superstar, like Michelle Kwan. Like the days when Brian Boitano skated, Scott Hamilton, in the times of great duels. Recall the duel of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada, and Miki Ando did not let them to relax.
Do not forget, now you can watch figure skating at home at any time on the Internet, now you have round-the-clock access to any programs and any competitions. It’s not necessary to go to the other end of the world. In Russia, of course, the situation is different now – stadiums are full with spectators.
Ice dancers competed the day before, and I saw how Eteri Tutberidze came to the stands to cheer for Diana. But Eteri could not watch the performance itself – she went into the lobby and stood during the whole program of her daughter there. Have you ever been so nervous about your students that you couldn’t watch their performances?
– Yes, by the way, we ran into each other there, behind the stands, greeted and smiled at each other. We are living people.
Well, a coach hasn’t got an option not to watch the performances of his athletes. I must say that parents worry about their children much more than friends or coaches. I can’t even imagine how hard it is. To see your child there, on the ice, under such a crazy pressure, to know how much work has been done, and there’s nothing you can help him.
Are you get tired of figure skating? Dos it happens that you want to give up and leave to the beach for a month?
– Of course, I always wait for the end of the season and the opportunity to go somewhere on vacation. Now everything is planned too – however, now we are all dependent on the coronavirus. But so far the plan is this: right after the Worlds in late March, my partner and I will fly to India, because he comes from there.
We have been married for 11 years, and I have never been there before, so we fly to his family. Usually, my vacation falls on the beginning of June, and in India it is terribly hot in the summer. So we bought tickets, but while we are waiting with booking a hotel, let’s see how the epidemic situation will develop.
Usually my whole vacation is one week. This, of course, is terribly little, so this year I tried find two. Work doesn’t allow me to rest longer. In the spring I usually have one seminar after another, I fly to Thailand, then to Italy, then to Australia, I held training camps – couple of days here, week there.
Have you ever been invited to Russia?
– No. But never say never.
I am happy to fly where there is a need for my knowledge. Well, I myself study during such seminars. I always say: if I stopped learning something new as a coach, then I’m over as a coach. I learn from all these young coaches as they learn from me. I need this exchange of fresh ideas, I like to inspire them and be inspired myself. If I felt that “now I know everything”, it means that I stopped being a good coach and lost the right to stand at the board.
ISU often invite me for consultations, development of some areas, training for coaches. I like to feel this responsibility for how and in what direction figure skating is developing. Because people complain all the time: either the rules have changed, or the judging system. Stop complaining! Do something. Train athletes, pay attention to what the audience expects of you, what kind of skating they want to see.
The innovation of this season is the ISU award ceremony, the ice Oscar that has been talked about so much. How do you like this whole idea?
– I think it’s a great idea. After all, we have a rather glamorous sport, a few flashes and sparkles won’t hurt. I am sure skaters will be happy to have a reason to put on a beautiful dress and walk along the red carpet. It’s great that they will have a chance to feel special, like celebrities – because they deserve it. It is likely that this will help to return attention of the public and media to figure skating in America and Canada. And it is good that awards will be awarded not only to champions. There are also a bunch of nominations “newcomer of the season” and “best costume” …
… and “the most valuable skater”, there is such a nomination. If you were to decide, whom would you choose?
– Yuzuru Hanyu. And I do not say that because he is my student. He brought so much to figure skating – for athletes, for spectators and for fans. Yes, of course, most of his fans live in Asia, but do not forget that this is our main market today. Actually, he is very popular in Russia, I know. Well, he’s a boy, and man’s skating, unlike women’s, is not at its peak in Russia, he does not take away the rightful glory from Zhenya, Alina and your new girls.
He has done so much for marketing and PR of figure skating around the world. For ISU, this is a ready-made brand, he attracts an audience, television, sponsors, ratings. He is simply the best of the best. And then there is this magnificent duel with Nathan. Two such different amazing skaters, they move each other forward and this is very cool for figure skating.
I know what I’m talking about: in my time there was our “battle of Brians” (Orser and Boitano), 8 years of constant fight. We started with the junior world championship in 1978 – I was fourth there, and he took bronze. Well and further up to the 1988 Olympics.
Remember, at first there were Tuktamysheva and Sotnikova, then Lipnitskaya appeared. Healthy competition is always good, it does not allow us to stand still. Obviously, it was Brian Boitano who helped me become better, grow above myself. So Yuzuru also needs such competition. First, Javier Fernandez, then Patrick Chan, and now Nathan Chen. It is very important to him.
What can we expect from Hanyu in Montreal?
– He brought back his old programs, and this was a wise decision. At some point, I told him: maybe we’ll bring back the last season’s short? And he replies “You know, I also thought about this.” In any case, we were going to change the music for this season’s program a bit, we were not happy with everything. We liked the program itself, but it was not very convenient for him, especially the part with jump combination.
You know Yuzuru, he does not try to put the jump into music accents, he wants them to blend perfectly, he has his own rhythm and his own vision of a perfect hitting the music. In general, we had questions for that short program. We were going to do something with the music, but we faced various difficulties. In general, we liked the idea of bringing back the old program – besides the fact that it is just a masterpiece. We haven’t skated it for a whole year, we missed it, it’s like getting an old beloved suit from the closet.
And a similar story with the free program – it just suits him better. What’s next? I don’t know, nobody knows. What is his plans – the next Olympics? Another World championships? Yuzuru does not share his plans with the surrounding. But this is not so important now. If he continues, if we have joint work ahead, then there will be new programs, a new vector of development.
He is a master of “reinventing himself”. Remember all his programs – it is always a new direction, new horizons. He is ready to do something new.
Do you discuss the future with Evgenia?
– Yes, but now is not the easiest moment. She is at the rink, training, everything is according to plan. But I think she was a little discouraged.
You see, now we have guys who are preparing for the World Championships, and she’s not among them. Although she deserves it, because she is a great skater. Yes, she doesn’t go there because of all this situation with a broken boot at the Russian Nationals. It’s fair, no questions, there’s nothing to complain about, it was a misfortune.
At the Grand Prix in Moscow we all saw that she was in good shape, both psychologically and physically. I think that these were her best performances in life. For me, they were better than her performances at the Olympics, because a woman skated here, not a girl. She was able to combine technique, emotions, presentation of the program and this was a new stage of development for her. And now it’s difficult, because she froze a little.
I’m focused on working with those who are going to the junior and senior world championships, and she has usual trainings, not dedicated to any important event. In such a situation it is difficult to motivate yourself, but she is a fighter. She goes out, trains with the other guys, doesn’t miss anything.
We have already begun to work on the programs for the new season. They have already appointed a time with Shae-Lynn Bourne for working on a free program (to the music from the Cirque du Soleil show), we also chose the music for a short program. It will be choreographed, if I’m not mistaken, by Jeff Battle – they will do it in the near future, maybe they have already begun. She takes all the necessary steps, she thinks a lot, yes, she has a hard time. Athletes of this level have pride and self-esteem. It’s hard for them to go out and not win, as before, but this is a sport.
Imagine, the era of figure skating has changed before her eyes. Only two years, and the arsenal of the skaters of her wave – combinations with triple flip, with a triple lutz – is already not enough. Just two seasons ago, the main weapon was 3-3 combinations, and now so much has changed. But now it is necessary that one of these young stars was able to hold on in the sky at least for a while.
They are beautiful, they are magnificent athletes – we need to have time to get to know them better. I would like to see their development and not only in terms of which quadruple they mastered. It’s interesting how they will reveal the programs, how they will work on movements, on what they want to say to their audience and viewers. And this comes only with experience. It doesn’t matter in which area – whether you are a singer or an actor, you need to have something in your soul that you will share with the audience.
Have you ever been offered to become a commentator, at least for a while?
– You know, I did comment on the 1994 Olympics, that is, about a hundred years ago. And to be honest, I wasn’t good at it. I was open-minded, called a spade a spade, I tried to look for positive moments in all athletes. I can distinguish good from bad skating, but I still felt that I couldn’t reach the level, that I couldn’t do it perfectly. Just for someone it turns out naturally, but for someone not.
Tracy Wilson would be an excellent commentator. Imagine someone is sitting in Colorado or, say, in Krasnoyarsk and from Tracy’s commentary they learn something new. Why the scores was lowered, why this element was not counted. That is, it is important to speak with the audience, not to be higher than the audience. Scott Hamilton and the legendary American commentator Dick Button were exactly were like this, now the same can be said about Ted Barton.
Just think: there are 48 participants in the ladies short program. And for each of them it is necessary to find words, to notice something good, to feel sorry if something failed. And most importantly, you should be prepared that for a carelessly expressed opinions you will be crucified on the Internet. All these social networks, Instagram, everything gives a platform to different people for anonymous expression of opinion. This is also my problem, I take everything too close to my heart.
Do you know how hard it was for me in December when this whole situation happened with Yuzuru and the Grand Prix Final? I didn’t go there. Everything was very simple: Yuzuru, perhaps, decided to experiment a little. We had one coaching accreditation. And Yuzuru decided that he would try to go with another coach, because at that moment he needed more support in a technical issues.
But did he discuss this with you?
– Not really. And I think for him it was also a rather difficult moment. I found out that I was not going, the night before – it made me and the other coach to feel pretty uncomfortable. I did not want to upset and bother Yuzuru, and then this whole story happens with the loss of a passport! And as a result, no one was with Yuzuru.
In parallel with this, I posted photos from my trainings in order to dispel the rumors that I was somewhere else with other athletes. And I was at home in Cricket, doing my job. And then I decide to read the comments under my posts (usually I don’t do this), and there … “How dare you to leave him alone,” “where are you,” “how dare you.” And then curses. And then threats. “Better you die,” “what kind of coach are you,” “burn in hell.” My God.
But people didn’t even know what was really happening. It was terrible. Now I understand what to read on the Internet and what not. In general, it is better not to read anything, because sometimes it is pure poison, and it poisons your life. Some people just have too much free time. And people like Yuzuru, like Zhenya, like me – we all want to please everyone, we try to be good for everyone, but this is impossible.
Someone didn’t like your hairstyle, someone didn’t like your costume, and someone was not happy with the edge on your jump. A man sits on a couch and makes a complaint: oh, yes, he still has not learned how to jump lutz from the right edge. Well get up off the couch and jump this lutz yourself. And teach someone. All this, of course, is not very fair.
Do you teach your guys how to behave on the Internet?
– Yes, we talk a lot about this. I’m trying to explain that you don’t have to read all this. Did someone not like your short program? Well, ok. There is no need to read it. And someone, on the contrary, will like the short one, but won’t like the music for free program. And what to do? Therefore, I advise them to shelter from this.
You know, when I was skating, there was no Internet. But there was media. I still remember the morning after my performance at the Calgary Olympics. Next morning newspapers came with the headline “Orser is great, but he is still a loser.” It just broke my heart. And a similar thing is happening today with social networks. Only a hundred times worse.
Maybe we should hold some kind of training seminars for athletes? How to handle social networks?
– We are just going to hold such a seminar in the near future. Someone should talk to them and explain that your whole future life may depend on the stupidity that you post on the Internet at age 14. And Google now remembers everything, there are no secrets anymore.
We keep our old photos in shoe boxes in the garage, and no one can get to them, and today’s children have their whole life in sight. It’s much harder for them.