Brian Orser: “I don’t have a magic wand”

Two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser has seen a lot of success as a coach. He coached Yuna Kim to Olympic Gold in 2010 and now his students won five major titles in the 2013/14 season.

Note: This interview was originally conducted at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships 2014 and updated at Worlds 2014.

Q: This was a very successful season for you. Your three students Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernandez and Nam Nguyen won five titles this season. How do you feel about that?

Brian: It is really exciting. I’m just really extra proud all of them, because they work hard, they work well together and they have seen some success.

Q: What is the secret of this success if you want to share that with us?

Brian: (laughs) I just have a really good team that I work with. I’m not a one-man show. I have Tracy Wilson who does an amazing work. Just the way our schedules have been, whenever I am away, she is there, so for instance when I was in Sofia, she is putting in full days at the Cricket Club and working with Javier and Yuzuru. So she is a great part of the team. I have some great choreographers such s David Wilson and Jeff Buttle and they are constantly working with the skaters. David is there a lot working with both of these guys. When I am away with them, he is working with Nam and some of the other kids we have. So they are always in good hands, and plus I am communicating with them constantly. I communicate with them and I believe in them. I think that’s the biggest thing. I believe in them, I believe in what they are capable of and I’m constantly part of their skating life.

Q: We were wondering how you manage since you are travelling a lot to competitions. You mentioned Tracy Wilson. Who else is there?

Brian: There is a girl by the name Paige Aistrop. She really helps with the spins. She not only understands the levels, but she knows how to teach spins very well and finds the best positions for each of the skaters. They experiment with some new things just to make sure we get the levels and the GOE, which is really a big part of success these days, the GOE of all the elements. It’s not just doing a triple-triple, but it’s doing really a triple-triple with speed and quality and flow. That’s where you win championships, it’s the GOE.

Q: Although Yuzuru and Javier made some mistakes at the Olympics, all your skaters are mentally strong. How do you explain that?

Brian: I am not a psychologist, but Tracy and I both had a lot of experience. And each skater is different and we try to understand each of them individually to go out and compete. As an athlete, if you are prepared for a competition, then you become mentally strong. I was always taught, you just can count on your average. So you have to work on your average and get your average up. So you are not going to a competition hoping to skate well, you’re going to a competition knowing you’ll skate well and hoping you’ll do your average. I have an app that’s been developed. It’s called peak performance skating. I work with a hypnotist and it’s specifically for skating. So it has all the skating lingo and it’s about performance. It’s a relaxation technique and it reinforces a lot of the stuff they need to know about skating and performing and competing. There is two of them that you can select as an athlete. One will put you to sleep, because you have so many of those evenings when you are lying in bed and you’re trying not to think about the quad Salchow or think about the combination, and sometimes you have some negative thoughts in there that you can’t get out of your head. It is a 30 minutes program and it takes you down to sleep or it takes you up into an energized state. So whatever you need. My skaters listen to that and it’s available now. So you can go on the app store and can buy it. It was a couple of years in the works.

Q: Did the skaters also contribute to it?

Brian: No. I just did it from some of the things I talk to the kids about when they are competing. How they see themselves at the end of the program, how you see yourself victorious, how you see yourself cheering, the feeling and even how you see the panel of judges, if they are content and satisfied with what they have seen. I kind of work everything backwards. And then just some of the things about how you feel when you are skating. You feel light, light as a feather and you have nice flow and your knees are working well. Your choreography is precise and all those things that you need to have reinforced in your head. And even if you do go to sleep, which happens quite often. I asked Javier about it how was it and he said I went to sleep the first minute, but he is listening to it and it tells me he is relaxed. So it’s good. The words are still going into his head. This person is a hypnotist, so he has experience with that. And I used to do that when I skated. I used to have our sports psychologist, so I did it with a person. We would get together with some of the athletes, we would get into a room and he put us into a state of relaxation, reinforced some things, exercised our brains. Sometimes it wasn’t even skating, it was a certain different journey of colours, pastures or whatever. Then he would take us out of it so that we would be totally relaxed and everybody got sleepily out of the room and go to sleep. Some of us would even fall asleep right there during the procedure. I think it is interesting and it worked for me when I skated. It’s not fool-proof, but they made the most important things, they are prepared.

Q: How different are your three champions?

Brian: They are all completely different, especially Javier and Yuzuru, different cultures. Yuzuru was more sheltered and he lives with his mother and he is in university, so he is doing a lot of studying, very, very disciplined, especially off the ice. Javier has a Spanish culture, he lives on his own, he spends a lot of time with his girlfriend. He cooks for himself, he cleans for himself, he gets himself to the rink every day. He is more social and just a more free spirit. That is what makes him special. And Nam of course, he is 15, he is a kid. His parents are Vietnamese and they are very strict and discipline is number one in everything, whether it is skating or school. He skates early in the morning and he comes in the afternoon. Actually he is half time in school for this season, because he has got so much going on. So he scaled back some of the commitments at school. But he is also a good student. His parents are very much involved. So we work together with some ideas, sometimes we clash. I’m trying so hard to understand everybody’s culture. I try to balance it all. Nam works probably the hardest of all of them, to be honest with you. He does the most run throughs. He skates more than the other boys do.

Q: What about the girls, Elene Gedevanishvili? You even have Georgian culture in your school.

Brian: I didn’t work with her this year, one of our other coaches did at the rink. When she wanted to come back that was totally fine. I told her last year when she left, we separated on really good terms. She needed to explore. I said to her when she left, you are always welcome to come back. I probably don’t say that to everybody, but to her, because she is such a great kid. She knew I was too busy to take her on at the last minute. She understood that completely. But I worked with Sonia Lafuente a little bit as well, and now the Kazakhstan girl, Elizabet Turzynbaeva. She has tremendous talent. We’re just getting to know each other. She had visa issues, it took her a long time to get her visa. She missed most of the season with me. I’m excited that this spring we can start with her, start fresh with a clean slate. Our programs, our choreography, our vision, our schedule and she is going to have to adapt to that. I think she is willing to do that.

Q: What is the atmosphere like in the club with all those skaters from different countries?

Brian: Well, another key to the success is that we’ve created a really great community and there is an environment that’s positive. We always have to fuel that and to make sure that is staying positive. Every day, Tracy and I we try to read the skaters, especially the ones that are competing at a high level, just to see where they are, what they need and we communicate a lot and we don’t take anything for granted. We pay attention to them. We are always alert to really not let anything slip by. We can read everybody pretty well, if someone needs a little boost, if somebody needs a break. Sometimes they need a break from me, sometimes I need a break from them. We get through it and kind of check all of our egos and do our work.

Q: What if Patrick Chan now asked you to train him. Would you have time for him?

Brian: I don’t know actually. Yuzuru and Javier are committed for the next Olympics and this is direct competition. I have to look at it that way. If this had happened four years ago, five years ago, it would be a different story. But I have to protect these guys as well. They came to me and they came to me first. I always kind of go in order. Javier was with me first of these top skaters now and then it goes Yuzuru and then it goes Nam. That was kind of the order they came. I don’t want to use the word priority, because I try to keep them all equal. But they understand when I have to go to Spanish Nationals or when I have to go to Japanese Nationals. I really try my best to balance everything.

Q: What is your coaching philosophy?

Brian: I don’t know if I have a philosophy. I think it’s just communication. We have a style, a technique that we really enforce and we hope that the skaters buy into it. So far they have, most of them, have bought into it. It takes time, it takes patience and we don’t do the quick fix, and I don’t have a magic wand. I think it’s just communication and keeping a really positive environment and the communication. That we’ve created at the rink is great, not just with the skater and the coaches, but with some of the parents. Even some of our adult skaters are so supportive, so proud and helpful. They’re part of it, the administrative staff, they’re part of it, and everybody is part of this, even the heads of the other sports at our club, because we have multiple sports. They are very supportive and proud. This is just a really good community. I think that really my philosophy is – I try to make sure that everybody is ready, whether that is costumes or music, choreography and levels, all those things. I surround myself with great people. That’s my philosophy.

Q: What are your plans for the next season?

Brian: First of all I’m going to have a break. I’m actually going to Spain for my vacation this year. Then we start back into it and just start energized. We have to make a decision with Nam, what’s going to happen to him, whether it’s junior or senior. That’s a tough one. But there is the Kazakhstan girl that’s going to be (junior) and I have a South African girl, Michaela (du Toit). She is just starting, she is young. But they are going to do some Junior Grand Prix. So we have to get that organized and then senior Grand Prix. The Final is in Barcelona this year, which is great, so some extra pressure on Javi. He can manage. We just start thinking about the next Olympics and it is amazing how quickly the time goes from one Olympics to the next. It seems like an eternity, these guys are thinking, oh my god four years, but it’s going so fast. We start thinking about the strategy, where we want to be in four years with them. How we see them, what they look like in four years, what they are doing, what their maturity level is, where the growth is, what direction we might want to have them grow towards. That’s what we did with Yuna (Kim). We had the four year cycle with her and we had an idea. We have a couple of not so great programs, but they were part of the growth. Our least favourite was the Waltz in 2008, but we kind of had to do that in order to get to the James Bond, to get to the Danse Macabre. We had to go through that. It’s a process.

Q: Do you think men’s skating is going towards more and more quads?

Brian: Yes, it will happen. Javi has had some success with the quad loop and we discussed this before and this last summer. I just think he didn’t get his head wrapped around it, I think just because of the Olympics, we have what we have. But now we have another quadrennial and maybe it’s time that we introduce the quad loop and that maybe will be our project this summer to try to maybe focus on that. Yuzuru would be the same, he will do the Sal and the toe for now. Not sure if he’ll get a quad loop, maybe a quad Axel before that, it’s so big (laughs).

Q: Your transition from competitive skater to performer in shows and now top level coach went so smoothly. How did you do that?

Brian: After I finished competing in 1988 I toured and did shows for maybe 17 years, but during that time I did a lot of seminars. I was teaching. I was learning teaching of skating and not so much coaching, but teaching. I kind of got the bug for it. I kind of got the feeling that I have a good rapport to the skaters and a good technique of teach them plus I could show them. I do have my skates on every day, I’m out there and I am quite active. I help them with their own transitions into jobs and all that and I make up most of those. I don’t know, it did go very smooth and I don’t know why. Maybe just because I have a passion for it. I want the kids to do well, I want to bring out the best in them. And if they’re willing to do that, together we’re just sort of jumping with both feet and we do it.

Q: Thank you for the interview!