As I said in last month’s blog, July is the first official high intensity training month in the sport of figure skating. It is a time when skaters begin doing a lot of sections and full run throughs of their new programs. It is also a time when they begin to compete and test the waters with their new material in order to be ready later in the season.
Well prepared skaters who are physically fit and train “clean” programs with quality skating skills, elements and performing ability may at times perform poorly due to a lack of confidence. From a coaching perspective, I am always fascinated when this happens. This is “THE” biggest mystery that every coach and parent would like to solve. If a skater has trained properly and prepared in every way they in fact should feel confident–yet somehow they don’t. In most cases, the coach and others on the high performance team are confident that the skater is prepared because they have witnessed the training and preparation but the skater doesn’t “feel” it as they get closer to the moment or when they are in the moment.
Over the course of my 24 years of coaching I have worked with many talented skaters who have prepared themselves to various levels of readiness and success. I am now in a phase of my career where I am starting to also train foreign skaters (Canada, Sweden, Italy, Mexico, etc.) Of course we know there are differences in training methods for skaters all over the world. North Americans tend to start training earlier and train full run throughs of their programs and Europeans generally begin training later and train mostly sections. So what is the BEST method of preparation to develop the confidence necessary to compete and reach your goal? This question requires further discussion.
On his Pyramid of Success legendary coach John Wooden placed the CONFIDENCE block directly underneath the block of COMPETITIVE GREATNESS. He defines confidence as the belief in oneself that comes from knowing you are prepared, and he also knew that confidence was a requirement for great success. Sounds easy but not every athlete has inherent self-belief and not every athlete is eager to prepare. Additionally, sometimes athletes with good intentions prepare only partially–meaning they neglect key weaknesses in their skating because it is too difficult to do it all (a weak spin, not working on a difficult jump required for success at their level, not using facial expression in their run throughs because it will throw off their focus on the elements, etc.) This eventually becomes an issue because when they perform their “clean” program under pressure but are lacking in some critical developmental area their results suffer. If this mindset is allowed to become fixed they will never reach their full potential and become the best in the sport. Their participation in the sport will “fill out” the event so to speak but they won’t realistically be able to reach for the podium on their own merits.
It’s difficult to mention just a few words about John Wooden since his Pyramid was all encompassing and so very thorough. It’s NOT hard to believe that he worked on it for over 17 years. Another point worth noting is his definition of full effort during practice. This is something I see vary on a daily basis in ALL of my athletes at EVERY level. One of his famous training phrases was: “No whining, no complaining, no excuses. Just give me your full effort now.” And he would also add, “Perform at your best when your best is required…Your best is required each day.” A great mantra for the Steve Jobs’ instant access generation.
Here are some of my suggestions (in random order) for developing confidence in figure skaters:
1. Competition Readiness: An athlete should never compete without adequate preparation. No matter what phase of periodization they are in they should always display a minimum level of performance. This job falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach (and parents if the skater is a minor) in making sure the skater follows and sticks to a readiness plan. It doesn’t matter if they “win” or “medal” every time but acquiring physical and mental control through training does build the self-confidence they need to know they can produce a desired result in competition or reach a specific goal each time they go out to compete. So onward to lots of hours and repetitions to build a myelin path that is lightning fast and rock solid.
2. Self-esteem: In my layman’s terms having self esteem means you “feel” good about your “self” because people around you (mainly your parents) have told you positive things when evaluating your attitude and approach to life. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell calls this a “concerted cultivation” type of parenting, where parents actively foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills. This is an important part of building confidence but in my opinion is the smallest piece to the confidence puzzle. The positive feelings associated with self-esteem usually wane when the people on the high performance team begin to offer the criticism necessary to reach the top or they cannot constantly reassure the skater or they are not physically present in the skater’s life (for one reason or another) in order to deliver the positive message.
3. Self-efficacy: In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of building confidence in skaters. This is the feeling of accomplishment they have about themselves because they have worked long hours through the developmental process to achieve their goal. This feeling of personal competency feels “good” and lasts for a long time because the achievement of the goal is REAL. Research has shown that people who have very high feelings of self-efficacy also have strong feelings of personal confidence in their ability to continually complete tasks and reach goals–in other words, they have grit. This is in contrast to people whose parents praise them too much in hopes of building their self-esteem. Google Carol Dweck now and read some of her work for the best explanation to this complex scenario. Additionally, in the book Driven From Within, Michael Jordan’s mom said, “I told him not to wait for anybody to give him anything. Work hard so when you get the gifts they are yours.” I don’t think there is a better quote about how to produce self-efficacy if you are a parent–or a coach.
4. Doubt vs. Trust: Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “You can’t dream up confidence. Confidence is born from demonstrated ability.” So the skater must apply themselves today in practice in order to feel confident later in competition. This is commonly referred to as deliberate practice. I am often asked what my last words are to skaters before their name is announced. These are usually the moments when their self-doubt can take over. I often say something to the effect of “trust your training.” Legendary figure skating coach Frank Carroll says the skater should always do their program like they intend to compete it in competition. I totally agree 100%! When skaters use a practice method that is exactly what they will do in competition there is no better way to demonstrate their ability and thus build confidence. This is how they (and we) won’t see any difference between how they train and how they compete.
5. Role Model: Finally, Three-time World Champion and two-time Olympic Silver Medalist Patrick Chan trained at the Colorado Springs World Arena for several years. Even though I didn’t coach him, watching him do rep after rep and do run through after run through with quality skating and performing ability was truly an amazing experience. He was an athletic force of nature. He was totally driven. As US Champion and twice World Team Member Max Aaron has said, “I watched Patrick train like a beast so I must, too.” Personally, I miss seeing that level of total commitment he had even in spite of any error he might make. Patrick, if you are reading this post please come back and visit and remind everyone how to train like a champion.