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Frozen with fear: Dealing with skaters' nerves

Coaches agree mental preparation just as important as being physically ready

Boston-based coach Bobby Martin, seen here doling advice to Jason Wong at the 2010 Nebelhorn Trophy, is big on mental preparation.
Boston-based coach Bobby Martin, seen here doling advice to Jason Wong at the 2010 Nebelhorn Trophy, is big on mental preparation. (Klaus-Reinhold Kany)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(09/20/2012) - For a non-skater, standing in the middle of a huge ice rink under bright lights in front of thousands of people would probably cause paralyzing stage fright. Skaters get nervous too, but they have to find a way to overcome the anxiety and perform their programs the same way they do every day in practice.

Several top coaches weighed in with their techniques for helping skaters overcome nerves and deliver when it counts. All of them say that the process begins long before competition, with simulations, seminars and daily analysis of run-throughs.

"I always like to treat nerves as a positive thing," Tom Zakrajsek said. "It means they have energy -- it means they are conscientious and they want to do well -- and I help them channel that energy in a constructive way. The whole orientation to competition should be fun and exciting. I work with my athletes on setting a goal and achieving it, and I think that puts them in a positive mindset to compete."

"We stress preparation," pairs coach Bobby Martin said. "It's 100 percent about being prepared for the experience you're undertaking, in the middle of the rink, under the bright lights.

"The first thing is to acknowledge that I work with human beings, not cyborgs. Everyone is going to feel nervous. The kids don't go home and plug themselves into the wall!"

Todd Sand tells his skaters that a perfect competition is very rare. Being ready for a competition is all about being able to adjust.

"When you feel one with the world and everything's clicking and you have an incredible competition -- you're lucky if you have that once or twice in your career," Sand said. "Even the amazing performances that you see, the people who skate pretty clean all the time, that's how they train and they're prepared to do that. They're constantly compensating and adjusting."

Kori Ade, who coaches Jason Brown among others, was a psychology major in college and emphasizes mental training for her students along with the physical work of skating.

"I started [working with] Jason's generation when they were about 7 years old," Ade said. "They have had mental training from the beginning, because I felt like it was a very important part of their happiness and well-being and fulfillment on the ice. I knew that it was important to build a whole athlete."

"You can come up with a variety of things to do to help people," Zakrajsek said. "A lot of times skaters don't breathe properly. And keeping their heart rate calm, so they can function without tightness. For me, the culture of competition is fun, it's exciting, it's about shared experience, rituals we have with the kids."

Simulations

As the season approaches, many coaches simulate the competition experience as closely as possible in practice. Skater will perform a six-minute warm-up and then wait for various lengths of time, mimicking the wait for their draw, and then take the ice and have one shot to skate their program.

Several clubs, including the Broadmoor, the Skating Club of Boston and the Saint Paul Figure Skating Club, have weekly exhibitions. Skaters wear costumes and makeup, and perform in flights of five or six, with a warm-up and sometimes an announcer, in front of an audience.

"Simulations are really good," Sand said. "We talk about practicing like we compete and competing like we practice. It's a cliché, but it's true."

"We put them in situations where they feel what it's like," Martin said. "It becomes less daunting and more normal. Your body doesn't feel the same on game day. They have to get used to feeling uncomfortable. We do as many competitions and events and performances at the club as we can."

"The first thing you have to remember is if the skater is 100 percent prepared, that's 99 percent of dealing with any kind of anxiety," Audrey Weisiger said. "If they're ready, that's the big thing."

Zakrajsek feels there's nothing like the experience of competing to accustom a skater to dealing with nerves. However, he also uses simulations, having skaters time their run-throughs the same way they would have to in competition.

"If a skater is nervous about skating last, you can have them warm up in five minutes, sit for 45 minutes and then do their program," Zakrajsek said. "I have a strategy for skating last, and I give them my ideas about why it's the best spot and very easy. Ultimately, I think nerves and pressure are a great thing. Competitors thrive on the pressure; they want to skate well."

Expect the unexpected

Despite the best preparation, unexpected things happen in competitions. Skaters need to be trained to not freak out when something bizarre and beyond their control happens.

"There's always that weird situation where the lace breaks, the music doesn't start, the costume rips," Weisiger said. "Number one, be prepared. Skate that program so many times, in different rinks. I do sneak attacks during run-throughs, where I'll flip the lights on and off, have someone in the stands scream at them or have someone take flash pictures."

Seminars

Zakrajsek and Ade both use seminars and classes to work on the mental side of the sport. Zakrajsek calls his "sports concepts class," while Ade has developed TAPS, Total Athlete Performance Seminars.

"I've come up with a series of mental drills and games that work on mental toughness," Zakrajsek said. "You need to have a mental firewall that goes around your brain and doesn't allow any viruses in. In my sports concepts class, we act out scenarios that would make athletes nervous, do some role-playing. Many times the skaters who have competed a lot develop a bank of solutions, like if the ice is wet or they get stuck in traffic and they were late for their warm-up. They can reference the solutions as opposed to a skater who doesn't compete a lot."

"There was a point when every athlete I worked with was getting better technically and getting worse emotionally," Ade said. "So many of them were frustrated, crying, with bad body language. So I said, we're going to get together and deal with this. I break up the class by level. The elite skaters have had some really in-depth discussions."

For one seminar, Ade had her students write down their ultimate goal.

"I told them, 'Dream as big as you can, and make it elaborate, make it a great story.' Then I shut the lights off and said, 'Well, too bad, because your career just ended. You either had an injury or your parents told you you couldn't skate, and you're done.' I told them to turn the paper over and write down their biggest regrets, if that happened. That was a really profound thing for them to think about."

For another exercise, Ade told her students to write a poem about when they feel most vulnerable and nervous on the ice, starting with the line "I stand alone." Then she picked three or four skaters at random to read the poems aloud together, taking turns reading one line at a time.

"It brought goosebumps and tears to everyone's eyes," Ade said. "It was the most beautiful collaborative effort. It was like, 'My heart beats like a bat in its cage.' 'My heart trembles within me.' Even though it's an individual sport, they realized that it's happening to all of us and it's how we deal with it that matters."

On the big day

Coaches organize competition days in detail. Eliminating the unexpected removes sources of possible stress, and if skaters know exactly what to expect, they are less likely to be anxious and rattled.

"Even with little kids, we talk about time management at an event," Martin said. "We micromanage that hour before their event so they have tasks and things to do. Some of them like to burn off energy, so we get them moving and sweating. Some of them shut down, their heart rate slows, they get quiet, so we have to fire them up. It's a lot of trial and error."

"Every coach has to learn what their skater needs," Sand said. "Some skaters you need to get to relax and be calm; others you have to get their energy up.

"At competitions, the skater is going to be nervous. They might have some anxiety, they might be a little scared, but you can get them in the right frame of mind. Once we get to the rink, I'll go through a process I've thought out in my head before, what I want to remind them of technically, how I want them to approach the warm-up, what I want them to do between the warm-up and the program. I try and plan out the day."

"I always do a dress rehearsal," Weisiger said. "I say, 'When are you going to arrive at the arena?' 'Where are you going to be?' 'When are you getting your outfit on?' 'When are you getting your skates on?' I call them fire drills.

"Sometimes when kids are very anxious, you have to distract them. I've played cards, played hangman, so they can't think about how nervous they are. The number one job for any coach is to know their athlete."

Martin says that an attack of nerves on the day of a competition is a natural human reaction. He emphasizes that the moment following the end of the program is a valuable time for learning.

"The amount of time you've been working with a kid lets you know what that kid needs at that time. They might be afraid to go on the ice, but they might be more afraid of you! Get them on the ice, successfully get them through their program, and then you have an incredibly alert student, and it's a good time to teach them something."

It can be helpful for both the coach and the skater to rehash a competition after the fact. With time, knowing what worked and what didn't can help a skater cope with nerves as well as improve his or her skating. Martin says he always sits down for a post-competition meeting with his skaters.

"We go over everything," he said. "We talk about distractions, where they stayed, how the travel day went -- everything that has to do with the competition. We also talk about the hour before: Did we do something that didn't help you out? Did I hold your water bottle in the right hand instead of the left? et cetera. If the athletes know we have their back, there's nothing that might stress them out."

Deer in the headlights

Despite all the preparation, every coach sometimes has to calm a panicked athlete by the boards, moments before he or she has to take the ice for a program. All coaches agree that you need to know a skater well to know what will work for him or her at the moment of truth; different skaters need different handling.

"In that moment, I could say anything, from a firm word, getting in their face, like 'You've worked for this, calm your breathing down,' or 'Relax, focus on your breath,' " Zakrajsek said. "Sometimes it's not the words, it's the tone. The worst thing to do for an athlete is to be nervous and insecure around them; they sense that."

"I might get in their face real quick, I might grab their hand, make sure they're in their own body and things are OK," Martin said. "Some people thrive, eat the tension; it fuels them, and they become better when they perform. I have to understand when to get out of the way and when to step in and give them a little push.

"Unfortunately, in our sport, they don't get to [compete in front of a large audience] much. You practice in the rink all year and suddenly you're on live TV at nationals."

"I've had someone come over like a deer in the headlights," Ade said, "And I'll make a loud noise, I'll slap the boards, and I'll say, 'You have to snap out of this. Remember what a good athlete you are and how prepared you are for this moment. Whatever's happening inside your head isn't real; it's not based on fact, and it doesn't have any merit. Here's a rational way to look at it, instead of an emotional way.'

"I steer them away from their emotions. I say, 'Do you think a Super Bowl quarterback comes out to throw a pass and says, 'This doesn't feel right?' We can't go down this emotional path right now. I will deal with your emotions after you're done, but right now it has to be rational. You're here, you're ready.' "

"It depends on the kid," Sand said. "Coaches come across that all the time. A kid is super-reliable under pressure and all of a sudden you see that glazed look in their face. It might be that you need to take them aside and get them to breathe. It might be that they need a 'slap across the face' -- not literally! Just try to get them to realize it's just skating!"

Mark Mitchell remembers a moment when his student confessed that he hadn't slept at all the night before.

"I said, 'You know that you can do it, you're trained, you can sleep when it's over.' Your body goes on automatic pilot. Train for anything! That's what we do. If you have a cold, get on, do your program. What if you have a cold in a competition? If you want to compete with a cold, then let's practice with a cold."

Weisiger retold a story she heard from 1960 Olympic champion Carol Heiss, who said she was nervous before a competition once and her coach, Pierre Brunet, took her to a water fountain and stuck her face in it.

"I think laughter is a powerful tool because it releases so much tension," Weisiger said. "For a lot of tense athletes, some of them find humor in anything because they're so wound up. Sometimes you even have to make them mad, push that button, if that's their personality, like a warrior."

"My approach to skating in general is that it shouldn't be everything you are," Sand said. "My responsibility is to make the kids better people too. It's not the be-all and end-all of their existence. I would remind them of the good training and remind them that they can do this no matter how they feel, if they trust their technique, and that usually works."

At the end of the day, Weisiger recommends perspective and balance to go with the mental toughness.

"I say to them, 'You're trying to win! If you're trying to get yourself to that mental place, go out there to fight.' These are tools of the athletes. You're using which tool you need to get yourself in the right place. And in the big picture, what's going to happen if you skate great today? What's going to happen if you don't skate great? You'll be the same person you were before."