Ice Network

Overseeing Fernández, Hanyu a challenge for Orser

Coach elaborates on different approaches he takes with prized pupils
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Brian Orser is not one to hold back his emotions while watching his skaters compete. -Getty Images

One year ago, Javier Fernández reached a major technical milestone in his career, landing two quads in his short program. This season, Yuzuru Hanyu also reached a major milestone, landing a quad loop in each of his programs. On the eve of 2016 Trophée de France, Their common coach, Brian Orser, took time to answer some questions from icenetwork.

Icenetwork: You are training two world champions, who, instead of standing pat, are still improving. How do you manage to push them so much?

Brian Orser: I try to present things so that they become their ideas. When I see that the stars and moon are lined up, I feed the idea in, and then I let them take ownership of it. I prefer doing it that way rather than me saying, "You should do this." I don't have to take ownership. If skaters want to be competitive, if they are competitive, then they need to come up with the idea and do it.

Icenetwork: Yet Javier and Yuzu are so far ahead of their competitors. One year before the Olympics, they could have just worked on their artistry rather than their technique.

Orser: Those guys are in such good shape. Actually, they have a different strategy. Yuzu is still very young (he turns 22 on Dec. 7), and he feels like he needs to push the sport forward. Javi has a different mindset. He will be 26 at the next Olympics. He is quite content with what he has now. He has very high PCS (program components score), and that's what he needs to rely on. He is confident with his components. He is not at the point (where he feels he needs) to add new elements. From one Olympics to the next, you need to be more technical, of course, and that's what he did. But there is a point where you have to say, "OK." You have your elements, but you can always improve the way you execute them. GOEs (Grades of Execution) are where you win a competition. Plus-one's (+1's) are not enough; you need +2 or +3 across the board to win. When you skate a difficult step sequence perfectly, completely in line with the character of the program and your music, you get a Level 4, +3 GOE and high PCS. My skaters don't have to (rely) on doing so many quads, which may be the case with other skaters.

Icenetwork: Yuzuru has a different strategy, then?

Orser: Yuzu is very focused on his quads at the moment. There are six quads in his two programs this season, two of which are quad loops (one in the short and one in the free). He has really stepped it up technically this season. It's a tall order for him, and I needed some time to understand what his strategy was. He wants to use this season to get mileage on these new elements. That means that he had to sacrifice some of his skating at the start of the season. His speed, his spins, his elements were not so good at first, because he was focusing so much on the quads. His step sequence was maybe 70 percent of the level it should be. Once he explained his strategy to me, I totally understood. I understand Javier's strategy as well.

Icenetwork: Do you think that explains why Yuzuru lost at Skate Canada?

Orser: Skate Canada would have been an easy win for him, but he wanted to get some mileage with the quads. He is considering the bigger picture. Now he wants to train the program so the quads will be clean. He wants to feel good prior to the last quad (two of the quads are in the second part of his free skate). Later in the season, he will shift gears to go to a different mindset. The one who has to be patient is me! And the federation, of course, and the fans, who expect something perfect each time. But he is making me a believer.

Icenetwork: You will coach Javier in quite a different way, then, I suppose?

Orser: For Javier, I really have to train him on cardio, because he needs such good cardio to do what he does in his programs. He needs to remain true to his choreography and expression, because that's his thing. There is a real charm to his skating. He also needs a lot of energy for his transitions. They are fantastic, but they require an awful lot of work. You have to practice transitions a lot. For me, transitions aim at making skating look more effortless. They are used to make speed without charging through and use your body tension to create the move. Once Javier learned transitions, when he arrived in Toronto, the sky became the limit. For David Wilson, his choreographer, creating transitions for Javier is so cool.

Icenetwork: Do you encourage your skaters to devise a specific strategy?

Orser: Another interesting case is Elizabet Tursynbaeva (from Kazakhstan, who just took fifth place at the Rostelecom Cup). Her mindset is to add all the mileage she can, by skating more hours and doing four run-throughs a day. I'm trying to make her focus on "run-through days" instead of doing them every day. I want them to be nervous run-throughs, important ones. I want her to learn to breathe. Each run-through has to be "the one" and not "I'll do the next one." I want her to sleep on it the night before and think, "Tomorrow, I'll do a big girl long program." Skaters may drift away from their strategy, and they need us to put them back on track.

Icenetwork: Your skaters seem to have so much confidence in themselves. How do you build that in them?

Orser: You need to trust yourself and the work you've done. I don't want to go in and roll the dice. I need to know it's going to be a good, solid skate. I ask skaters to pay attention to their average. At first, their average is not so good, maybe 70 percent. As you go on through the season, your average should reach 95 percent, with a couple of 100 percents to take it even higher. When you go to competition, you can count on your average to produce something nice in a competitive environment. I hate being unprepared.

Icenetwork: Isn't that what happened to Javier in Boston (at the 2016 World Championships)?

Orser: Exactly! You know, Javier comes to the rink from Monday to Friday. He does his best run-throughs when he comes back from the weekend on Monday, after a two-day rest. In Boston, he could not practice at all between the short and the long program because of his heel. So that's what I told him before his long program: "That's your Monday!" -- even though it was Saturday. And he felt good about that. He skated his free program the way he would have skated it on a Monday -- at its best.

As a coach, there are always scenarios you need to be ready for, and have stories and anecdotes ready. They need to be ready, and they can't be fake. Last week, Javier didn't skate well in his short program. He drew to skate first in his group here (at Trophée de France), just like he drew first in Moscow. He doesn't like to skate first in a group. If we were to repeat the same pattern here in Paris, then he might think the result would be the same. We don't want that. So we have to do something different. We're going to implement a different strategy tomorrow. I can't tell you yet...we'll see tomorrow night if it works (he laughs).

Icenetwork: You are coaching two of the best skaters in the world. How do you manage it?

Brian Orser: It's hard. Don't believe all those who say, "Brian has so many good students -- he is so lucky!" It's really hard!

This is the first time Yuzu has been training most of the season in Toronto. Usually, he goes back and forth to Japan. So he is not used to me traveling to Junior Grand Prix or taking two weeks with Javier. This is what I usually do, of course, but he is not in Toronto to see it. He feels left out. In fact, if I look at the bigger picture, it's perfect that I am away. This way, he can work on his skating skills and choreography, which he needs. It will be the same for Javier when I go to NHK with Yuzu. He'll have a lot of new things to work on.

I try to be sensitive and aware of everyone's feelings and needs. I see the pressure building up as the Olympics are coming up. I'm glad I spent two weeks with Javier, as we've done great things. It was the same in Canada and will be again in Japan with Yuzu. He'll get all the attention.

We'll have to organize a group discussion with the whole team -- coaches, choreographers, skaters -- to define how we will move forward, how we can support them and give them the best advice. There has to be a good, positive community in our rink, where skaters can feel supported and safe. I would hate having one coach and his skaters, and then another coach and his own skaters. We try to create a harmony in the community we live in. I take things personally.