Igor Shpilband: There should not be idols in ice dance that cannot be beaten
Interview with Igor Shpilband. About his work with Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin and development of ice dances. Partly translated.
by Rustam Imamov for business-gazeta.ru dd.5th July 2020
Many experts noted how Diana and Gleb changed during the season. Do you agree with them?
Igor Shpilband: As for the first year of cooperation, we got along well. I also heard these flattering assessments from colleagues and judges and I notice progress myself. It is important that we do not stand still and move forward. Of course, there is much more work to be done. But if you take this season as an interim result, then everything is pretty good.
When you first started working with Diana and Gleb, what drawbacks did you noticed?
Igor Shpilband: There were certain problems. The pair is still junior and is only gaining their skills. We were not completely satisfied with the result that the guys showed at the beginning of the season and wanted to rework their skating. It’s about skating itself, and feelings from the performance. We completely rebuilt both rhythmic and free dance. In rhythmic, we came up with new lift, complicated transitions, worked on the speed of movements. In the free dance – came up with more complex approaches to the elements.
After the Grand Prix Final, we worked a lot on feeling the partner on the ice. My task is to make them look as whole on the ice, to have harmony between the partners. I asked the guys to talk more often with each other during the performance, to be more relaxed. And it gave its result.
From the very beginning, I noted that the guys had a great desire to work. I really enjoyed their relationship with each other. Gleb is very careful about Diana, respectful and warm. In dancing, mutual understanding between partners plays a key role. They are just starting their journey and they still have a lot to learn.
As far as we know, Eteri Tutberidze asked you to train them. Is it true?
Igor Shpilband: I’ll correct you, the initiative came from the guys themselves. They wanted to try themselves in a new environment.
But who approached you with the offer?
Igor Shpilband: Eteri Georgievna. She called me personally and asked whether I could work with Diana and Gleb, whether it was interesting to me.
Did you immediately agree or arrange a try-out for them?
Igor Shpilband: First they arrived for a short time. We looked closely at each other, evaluated the prospects of collaboration. I had no doubts: I knew this pair very well, saw them at the competitions and realized that they had talent. I don’t train those whom I don’t believe in, but I have believed in them from the very first day. Experienced coach needs only one lesson to understand how the skater works, how easy is it to work with him, what he is capable of. Based on this, you decide whether you can help or not. We quickly found mutual understanding with Diana and Gleb.
Sometimes it happens that good, talented and hardworking guys come to you, but after meeting you understand that it is better for them to try another coach. In this case, I do not spend their or my time, I wish good luck and ask to look for alternative options. In this case, it was not so. I am glad that they chose me as their coach. And I’m sure that together we will achieve a lot.
What is the current potential of the guys? Perhaps it is too early to judge, but is it realistic at least to voice intermediate forecasts?
Igor Shpilband: I don’t have much to hide here – with due persistence the guys will achieve a lot. They are very gifted physically, look great together, beautiful. Look how they match each other – you can’t help but smile at their workouts! And yet the main thing for me is that they have a desire to work. I don’t have to push them, I just need to guide them in the right direction.
One can easily imagine how to make a single skater stronger. For example, teach him a new jump. In ice dance, it’s not so easy to raise the technical value. How to progress in scores?
Igor Shpilband: I do not agree that everything is simple in single skating. To learn a new quadruple, add it to the program and skate the complicated program cleanly – this is not easy at all. It doesn’t happen quickly and a titanic work remains behind the scenes.
As for ice dance, we also have our own quadruples. But it doesn’t happen that a pair learn super-complex twizzles and win the Olympics due to them. It does not work like that. We must pay attention to the smallest details, subtleties of this discipline. A specialist will always distinguish champions’ skating from contender’s.
This is the whole difficulty of ice dance – we can not focus only on one element, to learn jumps and bet on them. It is important for us to show a comprehensive performance on the ice, where choreography, gliding, transitions, and partner relationships are needed. There are a lot of criteria for evaluation, and the pair that can achieve mastery in all components becomes the world champion. It is important to bend your knees right, to hold your position, and to show your emotions – everything should be united for victory. You need smooth movements, to feel the music, skating mastery… Therefore, people watch dances – only here the skaters meticulously work out every second of the program. One extra awkward movement and goodbye victory.
So, your task as a coach is to find small roughnesses and polish them to perfection?
Igor Shpilband: Right. We are working to improve each element. There are clear criteria for the levels, and the basic task is to execute the element to the highest, fourth level. But besides the level there is also a mark for execution. And it often depends on emotional factors, how a pair can win the hearts of judges. So you need to skate in such a way that no one pay attention to the flaws even if they happen.
Do you have any guidelines in this regard? A pair that shows the ideal or is close to the ideal …
Igor Shpilband: Of course, I do not work in a vacuum, I look at colleagues, communicate with them, we learn from each other. But it will be difficult to single out a specific pair. Let’s just say that there are several strong schools that inspire me to work even harder. First of all, it is a Russian school and a Canadian one.
If we talk about these schools, interesting thing happened last year – the French pair Papadakis / Cizeron from the Montreal ice rink lost for the first time in a long time to Sinitsina / Katsalapov, students of the most successful Russian coach Alexander Zhulin. How will this situation affect world ice dancing? When there is healthy competition and the spirit of competition this is always a positive moment. Still, we have a sport of the highest achievements, not a talent contest. Each performance should be evaluated at each specific competition, there should not be idols that cannot be beaten. Otherwise, there will be bias in scores. New champions, the turnover of leaders are important for the development of ice dancing, their popularization. Sometimes we lack this.
Specifically, the results of the European Championships are difficult for me to judge, because I was not there. It’s not the same to watch it on TV, the scores are made up of the feelings in the arena, of the atmosphere, the spirit of the performance. You can’t feel it through the screen. Some judges opinions on a pair are already being made based on the results of training, which are also closely monitored. Judges look closely at the trainings and make notes for themselves what is a pair capable of. The official training at the big competitions is almost part of the performance. If the training was unsuccessful, it will be difficult to convince the judges with a confident skating.
Gleb told that after the unsuccessful Grand Prix Final, you talked with the judges. Did you want to understand what exactly were the pair’s mistakes?
Igor Shpilband: Right. It was important for me to understand the opinion of the judges, how good my new pair looks, how they judge them along with the leading young athletes of the world. To understand the disadvantages, what we need to work on. We draw conclusions and have approached the Russian Nationals with a completely different attitude.
How ready are judges to make such contact?
Igor Shpilband: Judges are always open – both Russian and foreign ones. Before the competitions, of course, no one comes to the judges. But after – please, this is only welcomed. This is part of their and our work, there is nothing unusual in this, no ethical conflicts or contradictions.
I do not communicate in order to deal about more loyal refereeing. I just get an explanation of the scores. When I see that the scores after the performance do not always look obvious, I wonder why these or those elements were not rated as highly as we expected. After the conversation, I begin to understand what the problem was and only then I think how else to solve it.
Have you ever wanted to file a protest during your long years of work?
Igor Shpilband: For 30 years of work, everything happened. Of course, there were cases when I disagreed with the decisions of the judges. I think I didn’t file any protests, but discussed the decisions of the judges with them fairly tough after the competition. But don’t take it personally. Judges are also people, there is a human factor. It happens that the technical team makes a mistake, some scoring errors occur. Yes, it hurts and the price of such errors is high. But, on the other hand, this is just a sport and life does not end at one competition. You can always recoup. The mistake of a doctor or pilot is much more expensive. Over time, I began to take it easier.
In your work, do you often adhere to a tough style, familiar in Russia, or democratic, as in the West?
Igor Shpilband: I don’t know, it’s hard for me to define and evaluate my own work. Here you should ask the guys. Well, and I do not believe in such strict distinctions – a rigid style, democratic. It seems to me that any coach in different situations uses different tricks to reach his athlete.
I don’t command the skaters like a general, and they don’t do everything like soldiers. I do not like this approach, it puts the skater in the wrong position when he does not need to think about his development. Ideally, the student should himself notice his shortcomings, find ways to solve them and offer them to me. And discussing with him various options, from the height of my experience I can tell what will be better for him.
At the same time, the athlete may not agree and, if he convinces me we will focus on his version. This approach increases responsibility, but at the same time, translates the work into a hobby, pleasure. After all, it is much more pleasant and interesting to come up with ideas for programs yourself, and then implement them on the ice. Rather than simply fulfilling the requirements of the coach.
I used to trust my skaters, respect their opinions, visions. After all, this is their career, their life, not mine. I am only the wayfarer who leads them along this road. But sometimes you need to motivate an athlete a little if he goes astray. To help him. If at this moment he does not understand that he needs help, even a conflict is possible. But in the future, he will be grateful that I explained him what to do.
The mentality of the athlete is very important here – how much is he ready for such freedom. Is it closer and more understandable for you to work with Russian skaters or are the Americans more comfortable?
Igor Shpilband: To be honest, I do not see any diametrical differences in the Russian and Americans guys. I worked in America for 30 years, I did not have such experience in Russia. But I had Russian athletes, plus I see how my Russian colleagues work, I know their methods, requirements. And there is no hard line between the Russian style of coaching and the American one. Everything is mixed up.