I wrote the following about 4 months ago but I didn’t hit “Publish” for some reason. My work situation has changed since then and I don’t get to work with this group of skaters any more. The lessons however have stuck.
I have fallen in love again – Rachel need not be jealous or concerned for it is not romantic love or the feelings of love that I create as a muse for writing. I’ve fallen in love with coaching high level athletes since I was tasked with looking after the strength and conditioning needs of a group of figure skaters in March.
Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect. As an athlete, I was never very good; I was the middle of the pack and was happy with any finish in the top half and ecstatic with the one or two finishes in the top quarter. I trained hard to make up for a lack of talent and as anyone who doesn’t have the correct fiber typing and didn’t do the correct type of training at key periods in their development knows, hard work is a very poor substitute for talent. I probably came within a couple of places of my potential, which might have been in the top 15 -20%. Before I began working with the figure skaters I felt that I was probably as athletic as most of them – given that I am about twice their age and likely stronger than all of them. It turns out, my belief was not rooted in reality. Figure skaters are athletes in many ways that I would never have considered.
My understanding of them changed very quickly one day in late March when we were able to go outside for the first time. The snow had melted enough to allow for them to run laps outside of the building. Being who they are (young, bright and looking for any way to make their workout easier) all but one of them decided to cut their lap short and come in the back door, walk back to the workout room and pretend to be winded. Initially I thought they had run really quickly, but there was something strange about the way they looked – their faces weren’t red, they finished together in spite of their differing running abilities and the guy who I thought would be the fastest was the last one back and he didn’t finish with the group. Once I figured out what had happened, they were assigned more weights instead of running. The guy who ran the lap was the only one I let run it again and given that I wanted to make sure he ran hard, I ran with him. I embarrassed myself trying to keep up. It was close for the first 100 meters, but he was pacing himself. I started to surge and catch up with him, but he looked back and accelerated. He finished about 20 or 30 yards in front of me and a lot less winded that I was. I said “do you feel good about yourself beating an old man?” He laughed with me as I called it a workout. This was the sign of things to come.
As the weather got nicer, we were able to spend more time outside sprinting. One of the things that struck me was just how quick most of them can run. Technically, their running isn’t that smooth – all of them would benefit from ironing out some of their arm movements and relaxing when they run, but boy can they accelerate and their top speed is something to be envied. They are on track to run as fast as any of the football players I have trained who are the same age in spite of the fact that they do not train to be quick runners. This was the most remarkable thing to me, they don’t work on starts, accelerations or top speed tempo work – they jump and spin and dance with quick feet on the ice; football players train their starts for the 40 in combines. The speed of the figure skaters is remarkable when compared to those athletes who are actually trying to get faster.I look after 3 groups which are determined based on their skill level. The elites are the top group followed by the senior A and then the senior B. The elites tend to be older and all of them have been skating for a very long time – some started when they were 2 and are now 18. The B’s tend to be younger (ranging from 8 to 14) and the A’s are a range of ages from 12-17. I’m not certain what the criteria is for moving up in groups, but it has something to do with the type of Axel they are able to do – I think a B becomes an A once they can consistently land a double.
I look after 3 groups which are determined based on their skill level. The elites are the top group followed by the senior A and then the senior B. The elites tend to be older and all of them have been skating for a very long time – some started when they were 2 and are now 18. The B’s tend to be younger (ranging from 8 to 14) and the A’s are a range of ages from 12-17. I’m not certain what the criteria is for moving up in groups, but it has something to do with the type of Axel they are able to do – I think a B becomes an A once they can consistently land a double.
I’m not sure if I am coaching any future Olympians but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was. The drive of some of these athletes is remarkable. I have little doubt that the drive comes from the fact that they started when they were young and didn’t realize that they could give less than 100%. A few of the younger elite group will cut corners and complain about the work I assign, but when they come to work, they work intensely. They work like they are trying to make up for a lack of talent and in that way, they remind me of myself.
The toughest part about working with them is that they do so much skating. They are on the ice at least 2 hours a day and it’s closer to 5 hours a day during the summer. This makes it challenging to train them not because they are tired, but because some of their eating habits are abysmal. I can related to this because when one is completely engaged in their passion, eating falls by the wayside, but their performance suffers because of it. The first version of food journals I collect from them looked like something a middle aged lawyer would have submitted – one or two meals a day of fast food, less than the minimum amount of protein, too much refined sugar and not a mention to any vegetables. When asked about it they all said basically the same things “we don’t have time to eat”. I got the evil eye from a few of them when I said “if you don’t have the time to eat, you don’t have the time to be the best”.
I feel for them because they know they should be spending more time and energy on nutrition, but they’re also told that they need to spend more time on skating, and school, and ballet, and a multitude of other things that conventional wisdom dictates will make them better performers. Regardless of their conflicting agendas, only a quarter of them are at or close to the right body composition to excel. My desire to be a better coach means I’m offering them parts of my lunch, commending them on their positive nutritional changes and praising them for making the tough decisions to skip the burger and fries and suffering through another salad of mixed greens, ground flex seed and chicken breast.
The strangest thing about working with them, and it’s only something that I noticed after reading Speed Trap again, is that I am forming unique and purposeful relationships with them. Some of the athletes really like me – they know I care about them as people and as well as athletes and skaters. I talk to them like adults regardless of their age and I try to explain my rational for choosing the exercises and program they are following. To others, I am just another coach who is trying to get them to do things that they wouldn’t spontaneously do. There is rarely a battle of wills because I’ll be very blunt with them and let them know that I do not suffer when they do not work, they suffer and in particular, their on-ice performance this season will suffer if they don’t try.