Skaters who moved to the senior level early achieved high results
Rafael Arutyunyan, Tatiana Tarasov, Inna Goncharenko and Valentin Nikolaev shared their opinion about quick transition of Kamila Valieva to the senior level.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for russian.rt.com dd. 15th August 2020
Should we strive to bring juniors to the senior level as early as possible?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Firstly, it is very competent: the sooner an athlete reaches the top level, the easier it will be for him to start performing maximum tasks. All my coaching experience shows that almost all skaters who moved to the senior level early achieved high results there. Therefore, I understand Eteri Tutberidze’s actions in relation to Kamila Valieva.
Another question is whether the athlete himself is ready for such move. And Valieva, in my opinion, is ready. She has a quadruple jump, a triple axel. I do not think that she will immediately begin to show her maximum, but this is not necessary at the moment. Unless, of course, the skater, coach, or parents have the ambition to beat everyone right now. In fact, it’s very good that Kamila got the opportunity to perform at the senior level a year before the Olympics, when there is time to understand how she will look there. Especially in terms of the second mark. Let’s be honest, it is impossible to improve the “junior” quality of skating and to make it mature in a few months, it takes years.
Valentin Nikolaev: Ideally, a debutant is anxiously awaited. Or he needs to appear and amaze everyone. Like Oksana Baiul appeared at the end of 1992. She could lose at some intermediate competitions, but her skating, plasticity and musicality impressed everyone. Entering the senior level early was part of a long-term strategy. I remember how Galina Zmievskaya was asked why she didn’t send the skater to some qualifying competition, giving the right to go to the junior worlds, and she answered: “We have other tasks. We are preparing for the Olympic Games.” In this regard, Galya has always been a great strategist.
Sometimes an incredibly successful program hooks in junior skating, as, by the way, was with Valieva’s Girl on the Ball program. But in this case, one must understand: there is no guarantee that the next program will be as outstanding. And then you can lose. The main danger is the desire to catch up and surpass everyone, and at once. To this day, I consider the strategy of Alexei Mishin wrong, when in 1998 he began to speed up the preparation of Evgeni Plushenko so he could replace Alexei Yagudin, who left the group. They caused incredible excitement around this, calling Zhenya’s success a breakthrough into the future, but in the end he lost the Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Inna Goncharenko: Every girl has a moment when she enters puberty and this is, as they say, Pandora’s box. You never know what and how will happen to her. Let’s say, the bones start to growth, but the muscles and ligaments do not keep up, and here we get an injury. Especially now, when ladies’ skating is oversaturated with the most complex elements. Therefore, everyone wants to get the result before this process begins, move to the senior level, to declare themselves, to take a worthy place at competitions, to get some titles and awards. Senior sports it’s a different money, sponsors. Show me someone who doesn’t want it.
But while the skater is performing at the junior level, it is quite difficult to predict how she will be perceived as senior. And everyone, one way or another, strives to get there as quickly as possible. Moreover, the rules allow. According to them, the world junior champion has the right to compete in two senior Grand Prix next season. In my opinion it’s stupid not to use it. It’s a big question whether it is necessary to artificially hold juniors from reaching the senior level so that older girls have the opportunity to skate longer. From time to time in our sport we hear the idea to create age groups “under 18” or “18+” in ladies’ skating. But is it necessary? I dont know.
Tatiana Tarasova: Talented children should be given the opportunity to reach senior level earlier, because sometimes they can do more than seniors. In a year Valieva will have the right to compete in the Olympic Games. In order to count on a high result there, it would be good to be in the mix now. Why wouldn’t Kamila compete with seniors? Senior competition gives a completely different experience. This is a different level of skill to grow to.
Should the athlete have the task to be better than their rivals in all competitions in a row?
Rafael Arutyunyan: Absolutely not. From a coach’s point of view, this is simply illiterate. I, of course, do not exclude the possibility that a person can be prepared so well that he, by default, surpasses everyone else and he does not need to make so much efforts to win. But this almost never occurs in our sport. This means that you need to set yourself the task of being the first where it really matters. With experience, high-class athletes come to this understanding themselves and learn to calculate their own strength. Therefore, the same Valieva needs to think how to build correctly the entire path that she intends to go to the Olympics.
Valentin Nikolaev: Generally, it is not very reasonable to set the athlete the maximum task at all competitions in a row. It loads the head too much, and for a person performing at a serious level, it is already too busy. The task for an athlete like Valieva should be different – gradually approach the Olympic Games. In Russia, despite the very high competition among girls, you can always choose those competitions for her that would allow her to skate without excessive stress. But next season, during the Grand Prix, it will be clear who and how much competitive is.
In my opinion it’s not very reasonable to set a goal for Kamila to beat those who left the Tutberidze group at all costs. Now Anna Shcherbakova can do this well, she is in the most advantageous position. No matter what they say about Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, you need to understand a simple thing: in a couple of months neither one nor the other will skate better, no matter what specialists work with these skaters.
Inna Goncharenko: If Eteri Tutberidze created a team whose task is to work for the maximum result, of course, she will strive to ensure that her athletes always win. And every day the coach will prove that her athletes remain the strongest, regardless of whether someone leaves the group or not. This is strategy. If an athlete reaches the Grand Prix level, then she is obliged to show everything that she is capable of, because no one knows whether she will hold out in the next season. There are also other girls.
Tatiana Tarasova: If I were in Tutberidze’s place now, I, perhaps, would also have a desire to beat everyone, despite the loss of two skaters. In general, it seems to me that this is the right desire to be stronger than others. Another question is that you can’t formulate the goal for an athlete like this. He must perform as well as possible the task that he has at the current stage. If he does this, he will have a chance to continue competing.
What is the biggest difficulty of the pre-Olympic season?
Rafael Arutyunyan: This is either an injury or reaching the peak too early, when a person simply burns out before the start. In other words, it is important not to overload the athlete either physically or by excessive responsibility.
Valentin Nikolaev: The hype in the press can get in the way. Even seniors with good life experiences are seriously affected by it. When you hear from all sides that you are great, it can be very hard to resist. And the person relaxes, starts to believe sincerely that he has Lady Luck on his side. This is dangerous because constant praise creates a distorted idea of one’s own capabilities. And at the first serious failure, he may simply not withstand the hit, break down psychologically.
Inna Goncharenko: First of all, the difficulty is that you never know what will happen on the finish line. On the one hand, it is a big risk to debut in the Olympic season with a girl who has never competed with an seniors before. On the other hand, there was the example of Alina Zagitova, whom Zhenya Medvedeva brought to the Olympic gold medal. Literally pulled her out on herself. The same way, Valieva is following Shcherbakova now, and someone else will certainly follow her. This is the coach’s strategy. We all think about tactics and strategy in one way or another.
Tatiana Tarasova: An Olympic year is always difficult. It is not the same as previous seasons. This is a big responsibility, tougher competition, and psychologically it is absolutely impossible not to think that the Games happen once every four years. If we talk about the next season, it won’t be easy for everyone, because there are many strong athletes in Russia. I am sure that neither Sasha Trusova nor Alena Kostornaia will give up their positions. I also see that Zhenya Plushenko has a very strong desire to achieve results, and as a coach, this makes me very happy.
If we talk about training, the difficulty, perhaps, also lies in doing what you need to do, not what you like. It’s hard, but it’s impossible to win without it.
If the age limit is revised upward after the Beijing Games, will it be necessary for girls to strive to have all triples at the age of nine?
Rafael Arutyunyan: I don’t think they will raise the age limit. It is not beneficial to Russia, and they listen to our country at the international level. But if we talk about early specialization, this is a good thing. Children are light, everything is easier for them. Another question is that you need to work with them very carefully: whether he will break his legs and injure his hip joints depends on how properly the child is taught to jump. It is important to preserve the body’s resource as much as possible so that the skater is able to skate when he grows up.
You can train in such a way that the athlete will best everyone, but will exhaust his resource very quickly. And you can achieve a performance at a high level for as long as he wants. But this is more difficult. It is necessary to find the right approach to strengthening the musculoskeletal system to the number of quadruple jumps, especially toe pick jumps, which put excessive stress on the foot. To ensure that you can do everything that you need to, but with minimal energy and physical costs. This is the kind of work I do with my athletes.
Valentin Nikolaev: Specialization at nine years old, in my opinion, is the wrong thing. The child still has no “brains” at this age – any pediatrician, teacher or child psychologist will tell you. You can look at the experience of the general education Waldorf school, where in the first four years students lag far behind the level of a regular school, and finish it greatly surpass the others. There, for example, they do not study the exact sciences with small children, because a child, up to a certain age, thinks in images.
Figure skating is the same exact science if the training process is not drill. If at an early age there is a continuous race for survival, children simply break down. And the worst thing is that they break down psychologically, and for a very long time. This is exactly what happens when a child wants to skate but he is told that he is not fit.
So I am not a supporter of early specialization in general. What for? To create a conveyor of stars? It won’t work out. A conveyor is when, at one end of the production, you load 10 tons of metal, a certain number of wires, lamps and other parts and at the other end you get 15 machines with the required characteristics. If out of 10 tons of metal 14 defective machines come out and only one meets the declared standard, this is not a conveyor, but an unprofitable production. It is clear that only a few become champions in sports, the rest are eliminated in one way or another. But they should leave with minimal losses.
Inna Goncharenko: I find early specialization helpful. If triple jumps are already a thing of the past and you need to learn more complex elements, it is more relevant to start learning them earlier. It’s like in a general education school: once the first graders came at the age eight, then at seven, and now six-year-olds go to school already knowing a foreign language, or even more than one. And children are sometimes tested in two languages. The criteria are changing. The same in figure skating. One cannot expect that quadruple jumps will be canceled and everything will return to the old times. This process can’t be stopped.
Tatiana Tarasova: The abilities of those girls who are skating now are ahead of the previous generation. And so it will be. I come to training every day, I see small children jumping, and I understand that this process, when a child starts trying quadruple jumps at the age of 12, cannot be stopped. These skaters are different. They have been skating since they were four, doing choreography and general physical training every day. But nobody forces them to work like that, they strive for it themselves. Therefore, they grow. And coaches grow with them.