Interview: Stéphane Lambiel Had A Word With Us

Stéphane Lambiel board-side at Internationaux de France 2018 practices (   Photo credit: Clara   )

Stéphane Lambiel board-side at Internationaux de France 2018 practices (Photo credit: Clara)

Clara: Hi everyone, Clara (@daejangie) here. While I was in Grenoble a bit before the Men’s Short Program, Stéphane Lambiel, double World Champion, Olympic Silver Medalist in 2006 and coach of great renown was kind enough to sit down with me for a brief chat about the changes to the IJS, his coaching philosophy and his work as a choreographer. Here it is.

Clara: I’m here with Stéphane Lambiel. Thank you for talking to us.

Stéphane: Thank you for having me.

Clara: I guess mainly what I want to concentrate on is your experience as a coach, but I wanted to start with - and I’m sorry, I’m sure everyone’s been asking you about this over the past four years - but-- the quad revolution. As a skater who was part of the first wave to really bring in quads consistently, what do you think is the main driver behind the explosion of quads recently? Is it just the incentives of the judging system, is it equipment, is it jump technique? What do you think has really driven that?

Stéphane: I think it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a lot of work, it’s determination it’s the system that wants to push the skaters to learn quads, it’s precision, it’s...everyone is putting so much effort into the quad jumps so of course, we see a lot more quads nowadays than twenty years ago. I mean, a quad is a quad and it’s amazing to see the development in the technical aspect of figure skating. I’m very impressed with a lot of things. I am a little bit disappointed to see that quads are taking so much time from the beauty and the aesthetic of figure skating so I think we are still in the process to find the right balance between putting quads in the program but not sacrificing the rest of the program.

Clara: Sure, so you’re on the side that thinks the rule changes are a step in the right direction, I guess?

Stéphane: I think we are going in one direction and this is not fixed so I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll find the right balance and we’re going towards something that will hopefully get better with time. We need time, the new judging system is still new, there are changes every season almost, so we need to be patient I guess, and to make the programs and the development with the rules but at the same time, we have to keep skating alive. Skating is a very emotional sport and we have to channel the emotions in the performance. It’s still there, and I still see some great performances but I also see a lot of programs where I feel it’s only a combination of elements. That’s something we should - with the rules - try to avoid.

Clara: And that’s possibly going to get more difficult, especially in the free with 30 seconds off, right?

Stéphane: Yeah, you have less time, you have to do more quads -- you don’t have to but it’s strategy… in any case, I think what is important is to sell what you have the best that you can. That’s...I think with the +/-5 [GOE], that’s what the judges really want - to see that when you master something, you sell it [in] the best way and that’s where you’re going to get the best GOEs. I can see that.

Clara: Has it changed the way you choreograph, losing those 30sec on the Free?

Stéphane: Not really, I always start with music and music gives me an image and atmosphere and then from this atmosphere, I create a story where I really want to build images. What I want is that the skater feels comfortable with the choice of music so usually, I try to have the skater put his feeling in the choice and really make it very personal so the process of choreographing becomes natural. And we can create, together with the skater, the atmosphere that the skater is comfortable with, and the movement he’s comfortable with, but taking some edges and some risks to make it look original, and at the same time, beautiful and harmonious. I think the process of choreographing remains the same, with or without those 30 seconds. It’s, of course, a challenge to place the elements, it’s a big challenge, but once the music is chosen and the skeleton is made with the elements, then we can really let go and imagination comes pretty quickly when you have the right image towards the program that you want to create.

Clara: So you choreographed the Free for Gabi [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron] this season.

Stéphane: I helped, I didn’t choreograph the whole program. I helped them in the beginning of the process, creating the program. We were working on choreographic content so they could use it for the Free and then with their coaches, they were putting all these pieces together. And it was really interesting because what I just discussed was the process of choosing the music and that took some time until we both agreed on the music that they will pick. It’s the story of a relationship between a man and a woman and it’s a very usual story but I think there is no one better than Gabi and Guillaume to explain it with their movement, with their fluidity but also with their precision, with can I say... dramaturgy that they have when they skate, you can really feel how they feel, and that’s how we connect with them. So it was really interesting to go through the choice and then creating the atmosphere, understanding how we will create the atmosphere so they can express themselves the best way they can, and put some Lambiel touch here and there. So we worked on that content and I’m really excited and I look forward to see the final product because since we worked together in July, I was in contact with their coaches but I haven’t been able to see the final product so it’s going to be very interesting to see it on Saturday.

Clara: Did you all come into it with a desire to make it stylistically different from what they’ve done before?

Stéphane: Of course, I was trying to feed them with some new vocabulary on the ice and trying to give them another way of doing the things they do great. But at the same time, Gabi and Guillaume have their own style, they have their own way of expressing themselves. By asking me to help them, they’re not scared to take any risks and I think that’s exactly what you want to do as an artist is to develop yourself by taking risks but at the same time, remain who you are and be exactly who you are and what you want to show. They were so clear when they express themselves, it’s so easy to understand what they want to express; I don’t want to change anything of that because that’s who they are and that’s why we love them.

Clara: Sure. Of the few programs that you haven’t choreographed this season, has anyone stuck out to you in particular choreographically? What have you enjoyed?

Stéphane: I really really enjoy Satoko Miyahara, I think she is a very refined skater. What I love about her is that she’s not only executing but she’s really feeling the music and that’s something that is quite rare nowadays because, like we said before, we have so much to focus on during the program that sometimes, the music is kind of next to the program. When I see Satoko, I can feel that she’s connecting with the music, connecting with the audience, connecting with herself and that’s something I really enjoy when I watch her. When we choreograph together, she’s always very receptive; it’s the way she applies and the way she puts the movement in action, [it] shows me she’s a really fantastic artist and a fantastic skater. And of course, Deniss [Vasiljevs] is my student, I choreographed his free program with a Japanese contemporary dancer Kenta Kojiri. We worked on that “Last Samurai” program when we were in Latvia, in Deniss’ hometown. Yeah, Deniss was really excited to skate to a Japanese themed program. He loves Japan and when he’s interested in something, he puts so much heart into the work, so it was fantastic to do this choreography with him and with Kenta. We were putting a lot of images in that program; it’s always great to see how big his imagination is.

Clara: Yeah, you can tell he’s really feeling it when he skating it.

Stéphane: Exactly, full of creativity; he’s a very creative boy and you just have to open the door of creativity and he just throws things at you that you cannot even imagine; it’s amazing.

Clara: Since we’re discussing your coaching now, de facto, there’s a saying - possibly sexist, I don’t know - that women become their mothers. Do coaches become their own coaches? Is that something you see happening? Do you see any of your past coaches in the way you manage your students now, is that something you seek or seek to avoid?

Stéphane: Of course Peter [Grutter] is a model; he’s 76 now and he’s still coaching. I have to say that the passion he has, he has transmitted to myself. And the same way, Salome [Brunner], my choreographer since [I was] 10, she has transmitted so much to me, not only the passion but the whole concept and their philosophy of figure skating. It’s a lifestyle. It takes a long time until you understand it but I think I’m following their steps for sure; I’m following what they do, the way they are, I’m doing it in my special way, I have to say (laughs) but for sure I can feel both of them in my daily working.

Clara: Did you come into coaching with an idea of the kind of coach that you wanted to be?

Stéphane: Peter is a very patient and not very… it doesn’t feel like he pushes you and that’s something I’m still working on because I really understand that the initiative to do something has to come from the skater. And in order to have the skater be responsible for what he does, you need to push them without them feeling it. Peter was a master of that, he was never… or maybe he didn’t need to push me because I was myself a hard worker (Clara: Probably a bit of both) Yeah, a little bit of both so that’s something I’m taking from Peter, trying to learn that way of pushing without pushing (laughs).

Clara: And you have to because you have skaters from all over the world in Champery. Do you have to adapt the way you manage that, depending on where they come from?

Stéphane: Of course. I think each person is different, not even because of the nationality and culture, just because each person has their own system, their own fears, their own qualities, their own life, their own surroundings so I mean, you have to deal with the person. You don’t want that person to become exactly the same as the other, you just want that person to develop their way, their character, their potential and that’s something that I’m very convinced. That I don’t want to make this student look exactly like another, but I want this student to be the way he wants to be and I’m going to talk about the plan with them, I’m going to understand and try to be receptive with how they want to look on the ice, what they want to perceive. I can sense when a movement is not comfortable, then we’ll discuss it and then I can pull it out. I can talk about it. Something needs to be personal when you skate and I will not try to put my way of doing things on them, but I want them to absorb what they want to absorb from my experience and from my knowledge, to be able to express themselves.

Clara: When you think about the Lambiel or the Champèry brand of coaching, what sets you apart? Do you think it’s that or the pushing without pushing or something different?

Stéphane: I think it’s pushing without pushing, and it’s for sure precision but still personal. It’s a precision within the personal working ethic.

Clara: I can see that. There must be some emotional boundaries and management stuff.

Stéphane: Yeah and the skater comes on the ice with his own personality and what I expect as a coach is the attitude, the positive attitude towards work. To be a figure skater takes a lot of energy, it’s a hard life, it’s becoming more and more - it’s always been but - a lot of pressure to go out there and get judgment from the crowd, from the judges, from the technical panel, from the coaches and from themselves as well. It’s a lot of judgment and you need to have wide shoulders to bear it. But once you have the right attitude, you’re not afraid of facing any of the judgment.

Clara: I remember in an interview with Brian Orser, where he was saying he said one of the challenges coming into coaching from skating was how to be in a Kiss and Cry for example when a skater’s had a disappointing skate, like how not to project disappointment out, how to be neutral, comforting. What have you found most challenging about the transition?

Stéphane: It’s, I mean -- (laughs) myself, I’m a very emotional person and it’s really hard to not show my disappointment, I think. But still, I think when you’re in the Kiss and Cry, it’s right after the performance. Of course, if you’re disappointed, you need to behave but you don’t need to hide the disappointment. It’s not the right moment to do a debrief, it’s definitely not the right moment so you just take your marks and then once you digest your performance, then you can debrief with the skater. But I think it’s important to behave, and to respect, to respect your work and to respect sometimes it’s not working the way you want and sometimes it will work way better than you expected. And that’s something you’re aware [of] when you go to compete and it’s something you have to deal [with]; the pressure and stress is part of the job. I tell my skaters, ‘Don’t try to get the stress away, do it. Do with the stress, it’s your friend, it’s what will bring the performance up there. With the stress you will succeed, not without.’ I feel a lot of people try not to be stressed but all skaters are stressed, all skaters are nervous, all skaters want to do their best, so it’s the one who will use it the best way.

Clara: That’s the last thing I wanted to ask you about because you worked with Mikhail Kolyada this season. We love his skating, he’s amazing, he’s got such beautiful Skating Skills, but he seems to suffer with nerves, right? I’ve seen him at 3 competitions this season, [and at] two of them he just wasn’t able to perform the way he wanted to. So I was wondering how, as a coach, how do you think about that psychological element? Do you work with sports psychologists for your skaters?

Stéphane: I do work with a psychologist, I was seeing someone back when I was competing. And I think the trust is really important, I think the keyword for me is trust. Sometimes, for example Mikhail, I’m not too worried because he’s a strong guy, not only physically, I feel mentally if he lets go, he will be stronger. He can do everything, he really can and I’ve seen him in practice, he’s so strong, he’s so capable, but he wants to control everything. And in competition you just have to do your job, don’t try to control because you’re late on what you have to do if you try to...or try to see yourself doing things. Just do them, don’t try to control everything, put the energy in action. That’s my feeling but I think that’s something you should probably discuss with the skater as a coach. And if you’re not willing to do that, then to find someone [who] can do that approach of making it happen.

Clara: So it’s the coaches first step and then...

Stéphane: I think so, I think if the trust between the skater and coach is strong enough to face that and to discuss together, it’s possible. Then that’s totally feasible.

Clara: Good to know, I hope he manages to let go this season, I want to see Carmen clean.

Stéphane: Yeah, once he will let go, it will feel very easy. But right now because he’s not letting go, it feels really complex. That’s how I feel. (Clara: Yeah, I can only imagine.) It just feels like a mountain. Once he will do it, he will be like ‘Oh my god, that’s actually not that difficult.’ So to be on that edge is a skater, it’s very frustrating because I’m sure he’s ready to skate a great performance, and he will just need to right ‘let go’ to do it (laughs).

Clara: We’ll pray. So last question: we’re going to see Matilda and Deniss skate. Anything we should look out for in particular?

Stéphane: To enjoy their performances. They are my students, I love them so much and I wish them a great performance and I hope that everyone will enjoy their skating, their energy, I hope they can connect with everyone.

Clara: I’ve not see Matilda live yet but Deniss always does (laughs). Thank you so much for your time.

Stéphane: Thank you very much.

Clara: So there you have it. We have a couple more interviews coming in the near future, so keep an eye out for those. And if you want more figure skating coverage, head on over to episode 19, where you’ll find Dani, Kat and Tilda recapping their highlights from the Internationaux de France competition. Thanks, everyone! See you soon.