What Coaches Teach Their Olympic Competitors

Yao Bin at the boards at the 2007-2008 Grand P...
Yao Bin, Chinese skating coach. Image via Wikipedia

One of the aspects of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics I most enjoy is watching athletes with their coaches, just before an event or afterwards. It was moving indeed last night, watching Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao (the oldest skater, at 36, competing this year) win gold and  Qing Pang and Jian Tong take silver in pairs figure skating. If you’d have named China as a figure skating powerhouse even a decade ago, who would have agreed?

It’s due to Yao Bin, their coach, who was profiled in a lovely NBC item last night that made clear how much he, too, personally sacrificed along the way, rarely seeing his own son as he helped others perfect their athletic skills to international standards. It was moving, as cameras moved off-rink, to see him and the skaters openly weeping with pride and joy at their collective achievement.

Reports the Times‘ Jere Longman:

The three Olympic Chinese pairs come from the country’s winter sports capital of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, and are all tutored by the same coach, Yao Bin. Only one Chinese female singles skater, and no male singles skater, qualified for the Vancouver Games.

Juliet Macur’s New York Times profile of skater Evan Lysacek today offers a taste of what coaches do to keep their athletes going:

Lysacek said the key to winning a medal here was staying calm. At the 2008 nationals, when he was trying to successfully defend his title, he was so nervous that he nearly hyperventilated before his short program.

To refocus him, Carroll told Lysacek to remember all the hard work he had put in. Then he slapped Lysacek, leaving a mark on his face as he took the ice. Lysacek said he did not mind it.

“You have to believe in yourself and realize that you’ve done the work; I think about that a lot,” Lysacek said. “I let it all sink in after a practice where no one is cheering, no one is watching. It’s just me in a cold, stinky locker room, all by myself, exhausted.”

A coach able to help his or her athletes reach Olympic-level skill must combine tremendous skills — both emotional and physical.

I was coached, in saber fencing, by Steve Mormando, a two-time Olympian. He took a bunch of raggedy-ass mid-30s New York women, back when women just didn’t fence saber (and certainly not at the Olympics) and turned us into ferocious competitors. He pushed us in every way he knew how, sometimes much harder than we had ever pushed ourselves.

One night, worn out and fed up, I sat in  a stairwell and cried. I didn’t come to practice for about a month, deciding whether any of this was worth my time and effort. We all knew that, if anyone knew what it took to become excellent, to compete effectively through injury and pain and fatigue, Steve did. He’d been there and done that. Trusting his judgment of us meant seeing ourselves in new and unfamiliar ways.

If you take up a sport late(r) in life as an amateur, especially, you need someone who truly, madly and deeply believes in you. Not just what your body can do, but what your spirit will do to push past your limitations.

I came back, determined to get as good as I possibly could, and qualified for, and competed at, nationals four years in a row.

He knew how to push us, and when to back off.

You have to want it more than anything. A coach can only get you so far.

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