Friday, May 29, 2009

The Op-Ed: What's in a Coach?

If you follow U.S. Figure Skating you'll know that there has been a flurry of coaching changes the past several weeks. Inoue and Baldwin, McLaughlin and Brubaker, Mirai Nagasu, Jeremy Abbott, did I miss anyone?

I'm wondering why make a switch with perhaps the most important season of your life in front of you? For many, my question may in fact be the answer. "It's the most important season of my life and I feel I need to do something bold and different to be prepared."

My approach would be totally different. I love the show Survivor on CBS. I'm always in amazement when they decide to vote out the most predictable tribe member. "I may not like tribe member x...but I know what I'm getting with tribe member x...I'll keep predictable and vote out tribe member y who is unpredictable." I guess, in an Olympic Year if I was a skater I'd stick with what I know and not go with the unknown. But then, I'm not the skater...

Perhaps it's that they feel they know their new coaches by seeing their work with other students, or perhaps even their own careers. I can respect that Inoue and Baldwin can look at Meno and Sand and say, "Wow, when they competed they had something we need." Or Mirai Nagasu looking at Frank Carroll and saying, "He's done such an amazing job with Evan Lysacek, I think I need that kind of training situation."

Perhaps it's that they felt like they need more attention. In the cases of McLaughlin and Brubaker and Jeremy Abbott, they were training in...shall we say...crowded situations. Keauna and Rockne were training with, realistically, 70% of the top pair teams in the U.S. with Dalilah Sappenfield. Abbott had to not only share his time with Rachael Flatt, but also two of his chief competitors Ryan Bradley and Brandon Mroz with Tom Zakrajsek.

What I desperately hope isn't the case is a bad result at the end of the season (all of these skaters that have recently switched kind of ran into that) and they believe it's the coaches fault. Rarely that is the case and so often I feel that is what happens. Seems, at the very least in the case of Nagasu (Charlene Wong appears very supportive of the decision) and hopefully all of them, this isn't what has transpired.

I'm forced to look back and see if recent Olympic Season coaching switches have been successful. In 2006 I can think of only one and its success is debatable. Sasha Cohen switched from Robin Wagner back to John Nicks and she won the Silver Medal (she kind of backed into it but a Silver Medal nonetheless). In 2002 Michelle Kwan went coachless after working for years with Frank Carroll, she won the Bronze but many saw that as a failure and less a success (I think any Olympic Medal should be celebrated...that ain't easy!). Going as far back as 1998, I can think of one success. Lu Chen's Bronze Medal performance, with new coach Liu Hongyun, was seen as an amazing result given her performance the previous season. However, the best results seem to be with those skaters who, at the least, have a season or two under their belt with their coach.

So we'll have to see how this season plays out with all these coaching switch-ups. History, frankly, is not on their side. Maybe this will be the group to defy the odds...perhaps not.


Anonymous said...

I am definitely surprised by all those changes. After Joubert changed directly after worlds, I thought that that's it. Nobody else will change before the Olympic year. Go figure.

And regarding Abbott, it might have been crowded there, but changing coach after a decade, the off-season before Olympics and after the first season in which he had real success? It smells somehow strange.

Alana said...

I have no idea what it's like for figure skating, but for any musical instrument, a lot of teachers make you change after a few years because they stop being able to see/hear mistakes. After seeing someone train for years, you lose objectivity about them. So it could be that.

Or it could just be like pro sports teams who fire the coach when the team has a bad year, even though it's not always their fault.

Katrina said...

Alana, I don't agree with that about musical instruments. I am trained in piano, flute and voice and with my piano I had the same teacher for many years (who was extremely good) but I left her because my last year of playing under her, she just wasn't gelling with me.

I had the same flute teacher all through middle school (when I started playing) and then switched teachers all through high school (as my first teacher graduated college)

I have been with my voice teacher for quite some time and I am still learning and don't have any plans to leave him until I go to graduate school.

I have been in music a long time and I've never heard of any teacher doing that to any student. Usually it's the student's choice to leave.