Interview: Brian Orser, Coach at Toronto Cricket Club


Maryam: Hi, this is Maryam (@luckyyloopss) and Nina (@yonkaitenpooh) and you’re In The Loop. Today is Thursday, March 7th and we’re here at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club and we’ve had the chance to sit down with the renowned Olympic level figure skating coach, the one and only Brian Orser.

Nina: So I think the question we wanted to start with was, it’s a two-parter technically. The first one would be, you’ve had to deal with skaters getting ready for competition after a hiatus, or coming back from injury, or a hiatus induced by an injury. What is the biggest challenge you find about that certain process?

Brian: Coming back from any - let’s say an injury, for instance, it’s really quite critical that we have some kind of plan. Normally, the athlete wants to be back to where they were in a really short amount of time, and that’s impossible. Having some sort of plan, listening to your body, taking the time to have your body [be] fit enough to try to achieve, you know, to get where you were. I think the most common thing with any athlete, I can say that because I was a skater, is that you becoming impatient and you just want to be there, and that becomes frustrating. You’re really kind of in quicksand, you’re really not going anywhere. I learned a lot last year from heading towards the Olympics with Yuzu [Yuzuru Hanyu] that he exercised a lot of patience. He had great medical and physiotherapists [with which] he had [set] these little mini goals to try to achieve every single day, without trying to get to competition readiness in a few days. It’s impossible. I learned a lot from him and his patience, and he was doing a lot of off-ice training. There were a lot of things he worked on separate from the actual jumping, spinning, and run-throughs. He did a lot of mental training, a lot of imagery, and a lot of visualization. So while everyone else was doing their physical training, he was working on the mental, and getting it even way beyond what he would normally have. That was his strength last year and so I’ve learned a lot from that as well. So using the time wisely and focusing on things you’d not normally work on. That was my lesson and that's what I try to work on with the kids now when they're trying to come back from some kind of break. Really, it’s being physically prepared.

Nina: You mentioned obviously you’re “not going to get back to where you were”, how do you gauge when someone is ready to come back? How do you figure out at what level should you try to hit if you’re not trying to go for before an injury?

Brian: I think it’s just listening to your body. You can't do it on your own, you have to work with somebody. Now my stuff is on the ice. With the other athletes who have gone through situations or injuries or whatever, they work very closely with their physical therapists. You have to be physically ready to get back on the ice and do what we require, and you have to take baby steps. With Yuzu coming back, it was just to be able to do some turns, just to be able to do a bit of stroking, then single jumps. But at the same time, he was doing hours and hours of training off the ice to get his body ready to do it. It’s just taking baby steps.

Maryam: For the mental part of getting over injuries or getting back to where you were, do you think having a sports psychologist is necessary or can you get there with the help of coaches?

Brian: Sure, I mean, I think having a sports psychologist some people work with them regularly - I did. I think you can't just all of a sudden start working with a sports psychologist because of the injury. I think it's just communication with the therapist and communication with the coach. Again, to have a plan and to have something on paper. What we're going to achieve this week, what we’re going to try to achieve today, where do we want to be in three weeks from now? I know with Yuzu going to the Olympics, I knew that he could peak and be ready in a period of six weeks. From the time that he was starting to recover from his injury, it was literally six weeks to the Long Program at the Olympics. That's psychology in itself because it was like "Okay, I know you can do this in six weeks. We've done it before in six weeks. And guess what? We have six weeks." So it was a big kind of pressure off of our shoulders.

Nina: It wasn't a total unknown in that regard?

Brian: Yeah. Now I don't know if we’d manage it if we only had four weeks. The mind is incredible, so would he be ready in four weeks? I guess we’ll never know because I don't have a crystal ball. But we had the six weeks and it's been tested and true, and six weeks was kind of our magic amount of time.

Nina: So you've mentioned a couple times physical therapists, other people, and a lot of top skaters are working with coaching teams. Where do you think that your role as the coach fits in that, and how do you think that the team gets directed?

Brian: Well I think the key word is directing. I think that’s where I’m pretty strong. Of course, I have my skills technically. I can help someone fix a triple Axel or teach somebody a double toe loop. So I have some technical skills, but as far as what I do here and how i've kind of evolved into the role that I have now, I would have to say [I am] pretty good at managing a high-level athlete. So managing their off-ice training and managing their physical therapy and managing their day-to-day work. Coming in every day and having good energy because I’m all about energy. I can see when somebody comes in, just the way they walk past my office. I just see the body walk by - I can just tell by that what kind of day it’s going to be for that person.

Nina: How do you moderate based on that sort of thing?

Brian: Sometimes you just have to go okay, I need to sort of give them a little bit of a boost, and just the way I come out and motivate some of the other kids, [I’ll] include that person, and we may do some stuff as a group just to get the energy going. There are times where you just have to let them have that mediocre energy. Then plan what we're going to do based on what that energy level is. So you can't always have high energy and you can't always just randomly hope that you have a high energy. There are times that you have to sort of give it a bit of a spark and get it going, then there are times that you have to let it be and work on things that you need to work on in that sort of margin of energy. I really base a lot of it on energy, and energy is based on rest and recovery. There are times where they've been pushing hard and it’s mid-week, and I don’t normally do this but I’ll say, “You know what? You need to go home. Go home, get some rest, go get a massage.” Or it’s like, “Okay let’s just push this through for the next session because you’re going to take tomorrow off.” It’s like, “What? I’m taking Thursday off?” "Yes, you are!" And then "This is what you're going to do, and I don't want you sitting around on Playstation all day long like Javier Fernandez did." (Laughter) But it’s like "Have a plan, get up at your normal time, go get a massage, get some fresh air." Whatever it is, it's an act of rest and its a change from what we're doing and lo and behold, they come in on Friday and they're back to that energy that we're looking for. Even when you see someone with good energy, [asking] "What did you do today to get that energy going? What did you do last night or yesterday? Because we need this energy at a competition. We need this for the Long Program." I just had this conversation with Evgenia [Medvedeva]. Her second session was amazing, she had a different energy and there was a lightness to her skating, there was a quickness to her jumps and I was like "Let's acknowledge it and figure out." I don't want to take any chances and just be like "That's how you compete on that day and have that same feeling and that same energy." But you can manage it and you can manipulate that. So the first session was okay, the second session was great and she just said "Yesterday I just rested." Okay, so rest is the key because she's just used to just pounding, pounding, pounding, more and more and more. And there's a time and a place for all of that, but now as an adult and competing you have to be quite strategic and you have to make it happen and not just hope. There's lots of little kids, they just hope while they skate and they come up with the energy.

Nina: Like approaching rest as part of training?

Brian: Yeah! It really is and what you watch on television and or if you go down and see a show and get some culture, or whatever it is that motivates you and inspires you - these are all parts of the puzzle because I don't want to go to a big competition and just roll the dice.

Nina: You want to control the variables that you can.

Brian: Control every bit of the way. But it's not only me controlling, it's them taking some control too. So that's kind of my role in all of this and already I've switched gears a little bit with some skaters for next season. Trying to find some [program] music, trying to find what direction we're going to go with them for their next competitive season. I get involved with the costume - sometimes the kids actually design costumes. We find the right people - the right people to cut the music. What [are we] trying to achieve with the music? What journey are we taking this panel of judges on? There's so many parts of it and it makes my head spin - pardon the pun. (Laughter)

Nina: So what's the most rewarding part of being a coach?

Brian: Just seeing it all come to fruition. There are some days when Tracy [Wilson] and I are out there and we've got all of these amazing athletes and it's just like a well-greased machine. All the parts are all moving smoothly and there's a nice harmony with the session. Everybody's got good energy and they're doing their things and we just stand back and we just watch it. And we go "Wow! This is good skating. We're really lucky." But you can't become complacent because as soon as that happens, the wheels fall off, so you have to keep it well-greased. And then there are days where it doesn't [work] and sometimes we just have to accept that too.

Nina: How else do you judge yourself on how you're doing as a coach? How do you know if you're doing an effective job beyond someone's placements at a competition? How do you tell day to day?

Brian: I just like to see that we can make a small difference on the day to day with an athlete. Even if it's just [that] we have our little meetings in my office, Tracy comes in, the athlete comes in - "What's going on? How can we help?" [It's] not a matter of simply hearing excuses, it's just a matter of talking through stuff. "We're here for you and you are this good as a skater and we can see more from you - but how can we help you get there?" It's not a matter of cracking the whip and saying "Do it again. Be better." So when it does happen and we can see that we've made a little difference, then that's rewarding. When they go to a competition and they come off the ice and they get to the kiss and cry and everybody's really happy - that makes me happy. When I see that they do that fist pump at the end of the program that makes me happy because I know that's what they're capable of and if the result comes along with it, that's awesome. It's fun to have great results. I'm not competing with other coaches and I'm not trying to have any records for the most Olympic Champions - I'm just doing my job and if we produce them along the way, we produce them along the way.

Nina: Going back to your competitive career, what's the memory that you cherish most?

Brian: Hmm... I don't know. There are, of course, the results. Being a World Champion is pretty exciting and the Olympics - carrying the flag into the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics in Calgary. That was exciting. I just love to skate, so I remember some really magical moments that nobody else saw. I was on the ice, I was up at the early hour I trained [at]. It was not a great rink but we had amazing ice and we had a pretty good sound system, and there would be times where it would just be me on the ice and I'd put on music and there was nobody - maybe the Zamboni driver saw something.

Nina: Zamboni drivers see all!

Brian: It's funny because there were times where I'd be, usually these guys are maintenance guys and they'd be working, working, working on whatever, but there would be times where I would just be going through my stuff and improvising and doing big jumps and then I'd see that person had stopped to watch. [Nina: That seems like a compliment] That's a huge compliment. This one guy, I'm trying to remember his name now but anyway, he would stop and watch and I was like "Okay, I've really done something great here." So those are my best memories, those days of skating.

Nina: So there are a lot of moments when, at some point during your career, the skater might feel like they're stuck or on a plateau. Do you have any advice as a former skater, as well as a coach, for how to get over those?

Brian: There are so many variables to an athlete's journey. Whether it's things at home, things at school, bodies changing, growing, injuries - there are all kinds of things. And not everybody will go through to become a World Champion or a National Champion. What's important to me is that they love skating and sometimes we don't accomplish big goals but having them understand that everything they learn in skating and this journey that they're on helps them with everything in life. It helps them, for instance, when I was teaching Christina Gao, she was a girl from the US. She was a beautiful skater, she was with us for like 5 years and she accomplished some great things. She went to the Junior World Championships a few times, she did some really great things. She was never US Champion in Senior, she was never on the podium at Worlds - but she was a really good skater. And she was really clever! She took everything she learned in skating, even the disappointments, and applied it to her academics. And at the age of 17, she got accepted to Harvard. [Nina and Maryam: Oh, wow] She would take two days a week and she'd go and train for her SATs. Even here, six hours this day, six hours that day - and it wasn't driven by any parents. She knew what she was capable of and she got accepted to university and she had to leave us and go to Boston and she trained there. And she still continued to do well in skating and managing going to school. But that was one of my biggest accomplishments, we helped her get those tools to do well. She looks back on skating and has a really good feeling about it. [Nina: That's all you can wish for] There's nothing worse than when a skater defines themselves based on a result. When they don't get that result, they define themselves as something less. I was guilty of that too because I never won gold at the Olympics, so I was kind of that loser guy that never made it. Everybody was expecting me to win and it took me 10 years to get over it and have perspective. And I'm probably a better coach because of it. Now that I look back at it and go "Wow, that was good skating. The 'Battle of the Brians' really gave something to the sport of figure skating and to media and television." And I'm proud of that now. I was disappointed after the first 10 years after it, I couldn't even watch it. Now I feel really good about it, but it takes time and I'm not defined by whether I won gold or not.

Nina: But does it feel like a bit of a betrayal when a skater does a Tano on a jump?

Brian: (Laughter) No, because now they do it with both hands over their head!

Nina: That's a Rippon!

Brian: (Laughter) Right? Exactly!

Nina: Okay, so we've just got a couple of wrap-up questions. So what have been your favorite moments so far this season? [Brian: Oof!] The season's gone by so fast... Feels like I was just at Autumn Classic.

Brian: I mean to watch Jun Hwan Cha get into another sort of category of credibility in figure skating...

Maryam: Yeah, medalling at every competition.

Brian: He's been doing really well.

Nina: All those bronzes.

Brian: I'll take it! And then for him to well at the Grand Prix Final, that was really incredible.

Nina: That's such a big deal!

Brian: [Canadian] Nationals with Joseph Phan for his Free Program, that was a great moment. And Yuzu, it's always exceptional moments with him. Going to Worlds next week is going to be... mad. But it's kind of fun to be part of all of it. [Nina: In the thick of it?] Everybody has their role, everybody is important. We kind of move as a big nucleus and I marvel at the level of stardom, and that's exciting. He keeps giving back to the sport and he keeps taking the sport to new levels and to see him here and training - you don't get the perfection every single day. He's human. It's quite a journey with him, any time with him is always quite a journey. Oh! You know what? The best moment of this whole season was when Javi won Europeans!

Nina: That's the single one?

Brian: That is the single one!

Nina: That's a great moment. What a perfect way to end it.

Brian: But that was great because we've had 8 Europeans together, and he's won 7. We did 7 in a row [Maryam: That's crazy] and I looked back at, I was watching on YouTube, the very first one where he came 5th or 6th or something. Then he won the next year, but he was a baby, he was only 19 or so. And then I'm looking at him now as a young man who's organized - so organized that he was able to go out and win. We had a part in that, he was like our child and it was really cool, actually. His family was there for his last one and [his] parents are so thankful to us. Not for teaching him skating, but for teaching him life skills. He came here on his own, he was kind of a loose cannon, he was all over the place and he was a bit irresponsible but that's a 19-year-old. But he had no direction, and so now he's very gracious and respectful and he thanks people and he has time for the fans. He got himself prepared [for Euros] in 3 weeks, and I don't know how he did that. (Laughter) That was a great moment, I have to say. That was maybe one of the best moments of my coaching career.

Nina: Other than your own students, who do you really enjoy watching?

Brian: The top dancers, the French [Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron], I love them. And all three of our Canadian teams, love them.

Maryam: They're doing amazing this season.

Nina: They really are.

Brian: And I was always a Carolina Kostner fan.

Nina: Who isn't?

Maryam: Yeah.

Nina: Thank you.

Brian: We're good?

Nina: Yes, thank you so much!

Kite: So thank you, everyone, for listening. If you want more figure skating coverage, please head over to our website, for all of your figure skating needs. Thanks and see you soon.