Alexei Mishin: The New Wave Will Bring Plushenko-Caliber Stars
Synopsis of intro:
Figure skating professor Alexei Mishin has been lucky in life. Lucky that his father was skating and wasn’t afraid of sending his son to take classes in the “bourgeois sport” of figure skating. Lucky with his first coach Nina Leplinskaya, the best student of legendary Nikolai Panin-Kolomenkin. Lucky to have met his skating partner Tamara Moskvina, nee Bratus. Lucky to have met his wife.
Lucky with his students – the coach himself can’t say how many he trained. Some were talented, some not so much. Some made their mark in his heart, some have been purged from memory. It is the success of his students that turned a merely talented coach Mishin into a figure skating maitre.
We interviewed Mr. Mishin in early October (?? This year?) in Novogorsk during the first showing of Russia’s figure skating team, where the coach introduced his new students who will rule the next four years.
“Plushenko Asked Not to Waste the Music”
Q. Many figure skating fans are obsessing over whether Plushenko will continue to skate.
A. He will continue to skate but how he will continue will be his decision. His Olympic gold medal took a lot of work, energy and psychological stress to reach his goal. Presently Zhenya has enough interesting work and projects. His latest TV showings and his part in Stars on Ice demonstrated that he is talented in many ways and can become a real TV personality. He turned out to be a great TV host with a great sense of humor and dynamics. He’s a creative guy. His next step may be in the movies – he’s been offered some parts but there were all cameos. I advised him to stay away from small parts and suggested that if he wants to try to act on film, he needs a more serious approach to properly showcase his many abilities.
Q. Does he always listen to your opinion?
A. He has a mind of his own, but always listens to those he considers smart. He ignores people if he doesn’t believe in their intelligence, although even those can contribute something of value. However, it is always his decision. So it’s a double-edged sword to decide whether his skating career will continue. If he stays amateur, he’ll stay younger longer. In my opinion, people in show business wear themselves out much faster. Athletes have to stay in shape, mind their schedules, early to bed, late to rise, train, recover. But whatever he does, he’ll remain a bright star.
Q. What does HE want?
A. That’s what he says: “Don’t waste the music – I’ll take a break for a year.” This is a smart decision because you need some distance to see the important things. Perhaps his decision will be smarter after this break.
Q. So are you saying that presently he is going through a time of experimentation and trying different things – so that he has some options in case he returns to skating and decides to retire after performing in the Vancouver Olympics
Q. But a lot can happen during this year; he’ll have a lot more rivals. Is it really smart to take a break?
A. The breaks of the sort he has to take are complicated and dangerous.
”I’ll Introduce a New Star in the Next Four Years”
Q. Who are your current students who will replace Plushenko?
A. I never said that any of my students replaced each other. They are all talented skaters; they didn’t replace each other, they just rose like the sun. “The king is dead, long live the king.” Besides, even if they don’t come from my team, there are enough skaters in the world to provide great leadership for our sport, because it is naïve to think that any accomplishment can become the ultimate and the last. Everything is always developing – science, technology, art, figure skating; this process never stops.
Q. But you do have a sizable team in St. Pete, don’t you?
A. Yes, I work with my wife Tatyana. Presently we are coaching Katya Gerbold, Ksusha Doronina, Andrei Lutai, Nikita Mikhailov, Dima Beliakov, Artur Gachinsky, and some very small kids as well. We wish good luck to all. We wish that they compete with their rivals, compete with themselves and grab the spot worthy of the rank of coaches who trained them.
Q. Can any of them rise during this season?
A. I think that I will introduce a new talented male or female skater to the figure skating world in the next four years. I promise I will. One, two, or even three for the Russian skating team.
Q. Didn’t you say that girls are hard to work with, and you would only do it as an exception?
A. Yes, it’s hard, but glamorous!
“The Skater Never Skates Alone”
Q. How difficult will it be for your new skaters to compete with the stars like Joubert, Lambiel, Buttle, Sandhou and others? Seeing as they have no backup and Plushenko is out for at least a year?
A. Yes, it will be hard, but the skater never skates alone. That’s an illusion. The skater acts in tandem with his coach, so for instance, when a skater comes to an event with coach Joe Schmoe, that’s one thing. When he comes with Alexei Mishin, that’s totally different. When the judges see a skater backed up by a coach of this caliber, they understand that we mean business. It’s just a different attitude, a different view. Besides, it makes the skater feel more confident when a coach of this rank is watching his back
We know very well about the strengths of the top skaters in the world, and we are not discouraged. We are capable of training strong rivals. What is strength, anyway? The flip side of strength is weakness. When the top skaters like Sandhou, Buttle, Lambiel, or Joubert feel that they are on top of the sport, a year or two from that point will be the best part to send in an alligator to nip at their heels. When they reach the top, they will stop for a bit, while the skaters we send to chase them will be running very fast, and trying to catch up. However, lots of things need to happen to make that possible. You need a really talented skater. Someone who doesn’t let it get to their head. Someone with a coach who doesn’t get lazy. Someone who has the right conditions for the work. The skater needs to train as part of the group, not alone. Because every skater in a group has their own strengths, and you need to draw on these different strengths, to gather them around you.
That’s how I always worked. I believe that’s the right approach, at least for me, because this approach relies on leading by example. The foundation of my method is coaching by pointing to the example of senior skaters in the team. I know coaches who prefer to work with only one skater. Of course, if you take in the skater when he or she is already developed, then you don’t necessarily have a team. However, when you are starting from scratch, the team is necessary. Once upon a time I had a group that included Urmanov, Yagudin, Novoseltsev, Tataurov, Shashkov, and Plushenko came around much later – everyone beat up on him, and he was reaching, striving, working and winning. If I make a skater a leader, give him some wings and start to blow them up, I think that would be the greatest mistake of my life.
Q. Tell me honestly, what can we expect this season?
A. Expect nothing. We can’t count on anything, however, the potential of Russia’s figure skating will sooner or later bring results. This potential includes the institution of figure skating in the country, creative talent of high-caliber coaches, experience of lower level coaches and the judging system that’s currently in effect. In some countries, the judging cadre is so far from realities of figure skating that frankly, it adds no value whatsoever. In Russia, figure skating judges are a force. The judging corps, the coaches, the skaters, the public – all of that forms the figure skating culture in the country. Based on these indicators, Russia is still a leading figure skating power.
“All My Students Came From Poor, Broken Families”
Q. How long will Russia rule figure skating? Will this sport turn into a pleasure of the elite, like tennis? Will you have your choice of skaters then?
A. It is true, fewer kids turn to figure skating today. But I think that for instance, the TV skating shows are working in our favor by increasing the popularity of the sport.
Q. They might be. However, if a kid wants to do figure skating, can his or her parents afford the skates, the costumes and the coaching? Even today, each additional hour of training for a beginning skater costs at least 1,000 rubles.
A. Yes, that’s something to worry about. Parents need to fund figure skating, but not completely. We need parents to be involved because it would be wrong for the state to fund the sport when many kids are simply starving. I think that the first job of the state is to feed its people and provide jobs. After that, they can turn to figure skating, tennis or badminton. I tell my skaters that I don’t need any more champions – I raised enough. But I would be pleased to raise one more, so go on and work, keep striving, and I will help you.
Q. Many coaches in other sports today are staying that kids that come from wealthy families don’t have enough motivation, because the main drive comes from parents and not kids. So kids who want to skate, cannot, and those who can, don’t want to.
A. You are correct. I always said that the hunting dog never runs fast with a full stomach. All my best skaters came from broken families with very modest means. However, I am a unique coach who provided vital support during the definitive stages of my skaters’ development: I took them abroad, I paid for them to come to events, bought clothes and shoes and coaching time. I am lucky that out of ten skaters I funded, three paid back fully for my financial and emotional investments. These are Urmanov, Yagudin and Plushenko. All three never cheated me out of a penny, they always compensated me for my work properly. That’s very important, because in many cases, decency and honesty of a person is most obvious in his or her financial dealings. Luckily, my current skaters resemble the heroes I used to coach. They are very motivated, driven by results, and they haven’t been touched by corruption in the modern sense of the word.
“Skaters Are Placed Into Boundaries For Ease of Judging”
Q. This season the qualifying round has been canceled for everyone except dancers. Is that good or bad?
A. The more rounds to an event, the more chances that the right skater will win. If the competition is determined by only one program, only one jump or only one spin, someone can become an accidental winner. However, when the event includes a qualifying round, short and long program, then you just can’t win on a lark.
I understand what International Skating Union is trying to do. They want to make the competition less onerous, cut back on the number of judges and skaters, as well as travel and lodging expenses. But I was always fond of the qualifying round because it takes away the first stress of the competition. Anyway, it’s silly to discuss this now because the decision to do away with the qualifying round is final, whether it’s right or wrong.
However, I believe completely that doing away with compulsory figures was a great idea, because only the naïve believe that figures were a foundation of figure skating. Only dilettantes believe that. It’s true that one great dilettante called Nikolai Panin believed that compulsory figures are, well, compulsory. But he simply had no idea how far the sport would progress.
Let me explain. A human body has two sets of software. One is responsible for slow movements, the other for fast. Perfecting compulsory figures does nothing to develop the facet of the skating talent responsible for the highest difficulty of jumps. So what you used to have was that certain skaters were talented in figures, and the other in free skating. And when we experimented with our top skaters and increased the level of difficulty of their compulsory figures, the quality of their free skating tanked. Why? Because these things require two different talents. If we got rid of free skating and kept the figures, we would have had very different champions. Compulsory figures harmed figure skating, so it’s stupid to say that they improved the sport. On the contrary, the compulsories impeded the development of the sport.
Getting rid of compulsories caused lots of hot debating. The reason it was so hard to let go is that the termination of figures resulted in declining pay for coaches and incomes of skating facilities. Before, the rinks used to be full of skaters who were practicing drawing lines on ice day and night, with perseverance met in nature only in elephants, and they were paying and paying and paying. Then, overnight, it became unnecessary. Compulsory figures were canceled. And the sport called for skaters with different talents, and coaches of different talents. The sport began needing judges who wouldn’t lie down on the ice and watch the lines. The sport needed judges with a broader perspective. The spectators changed as well. This was a real revolution of the sport.
Q. What about the new judging system? Wasn’t it a revolution as well?
A. I see what the sport is coming to. The new rules result in making all talents look the same. Free skating is beginning to look like compulsory figures. For instance, all girls do the same spirals. The rules say that if you want to do a level 4 spiral, you need to glide backwards with unassisted leg lift in a difficult position and a change of edge. The spirals are all the same, and so are the spins. Lambiel no longer shines with this spins because everyone is doing the same things. Four positions, backward setup, sit spin, change of edge. Lambiel used to be a genius; now, you can’t even notice him. All skaters are becoming the same. But it is easier to judge them, that’s for sure.
Q. So is the pendulum moving away from art and closer to sport?
A. I think it’s moving closer toward objectivity. When you put skaters into the same boundaries, it’s easier to judge them. However, I also think that when this trend comes to its logical conclusion, the pendulum will swing back. And that new wave will bring us the stars of the caliber of Yuri Ovchinnikov, John Curry, Toller Cranston, the Protopopovs, Urmanov and Pluschenko.