Talkin' 'Bout Coaches, Their Styles and Approaches
The thread title looks a bit crap to me, but anyway, here we go...
The season has ended for some skaters (sob) and we hear some coach changes taking place, and we fans have started debating who should be coached by who. So I thought it is perhaps interesting to discuss about different coaches and their styles and approaches.
To kick start, here I post my translation of the article about Nobuo Sato, whose current and former students include Takahiko Kozuka, Mao Asada, and Shizuka Arakawa, to name a few. The article appeared in Nihon Keizai Shinbun Newspaper (equivalent of the Financial Times in Japan, and believe it or not, they do provide insightful and informative articles on sports as well as on stocks and shares) in both print and online, in March 2011.
There are three parts, based on an interview with Nobuo and his wife and fellow coach, Kumiko, talking about Nobuo's competitive career in the 60s, his early days in coaching, and what he believes in as a coach. Hope you enjoy it!
I am also planning to post a translated article of the similar nature about Utako Nagamitsu, Daisuke Takahashi's coach in the next day or two.
Part 1; His illustrious students
He teaches adult skaters in the afternoon. Nobuo Sato (aged 69) takes a hand of a lady in her 80s, and her skating improves immediately. There is no difference in his sincerity in teaching between now and when he faces Takahiko Kozuka and Mao Asada.
His attitude is earnest. ‘She started skating in her 50s’, he says, ‘this rink (Shin-Yokohama Skate Centre) is warm so the ice surface melts slightly and becomes ideal to skate on. Good ice helps skating skills to improve. Advance in the facilities supports the current success of Japanese figure skating.’ His honesty and sincerity is apparent in the way he talks.
It’s been 60 years since he first skated. He was introduced to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame last year; he is the second Japanese person to receive the honour. His history reflects the post-war history of Japanese figure skating. He was a 10-time Japanese National Champion, and his achievements include the 14th finish at 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, the 8th finish at 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, and the 4th finish at 1965 World Championships. He is the first person to land a triple jump in Japan too.
He retired from competitive skating in 1966 and got a day job in a company. However, there were only 6 years left before the first Winter Olympics was to be held in Sapporo, Japan, and the JSF made him a coach for the Japanese team. He coached Kumiko Okawa, whom he was to marry later, and Tsuguhiko Kozuka, Takahiko’s father, preparing for 1968 Grenoble Olympics. ‘I was too involved and busy by then, taking on a number of students, to write even a self-evaluating sheet for my day job, so I quit.’ He left the company and became a full-time coach.
Just like his personality, ‘his coaching style is honest and realistic’, his daughter and 1994 World Champion, Yuka Sato describes. And that coaching style helped to produce many successful skaters, including former Japanese Men’s Champions, Minoru Matsumura and Masaru Ogawa. Since he started coaching together with his wife Kumiko, he taught Yuka and Takahiko from the scratch.
Those who came specially to be coached by him include Fumie Suguri, Yukari Nakano, Miki Ando and Shizuka Arakawa. ‘It was impossible to turn down such a keen and enthusiastic offer’ he says about the latest addition, World Champion, Mao Asada. They are all illustrious skaters in the history of Japanese figure skating.
There is no secret method as such in his coaching; if anything, he’s always ready to acknowledge what were wrong with what he’s done and to change for better accordingly. ‘People often say we need continuity and integrity in the way we coach, but I believe it is OK to negate what you’ve done.’ For example, in the old days, it used to be important to keep the good straight posture while skating so that skates could run fast and smooth; but since Toller Cranston (Bronze medallist at 1976 Innsbruck Olympics), it is now considered to be better to dance, bending the torso, while skating.
What was the mainstream yesterday becomes what is obsolete tomorrow – it happened all the time. ‘I sometime think I’m outdated. But I have no qualm about accepting and introducing something new, as, for me, it all started as mimicking (of foreign skaters) even when I was a competitive skater myself.’
Many unexpected, however, have happened, one after another, lately. Nowadays, there are a lot of voices coming from outside the traditional inner circle of figure skating; in addition to coaches, skaters now have choreographers to listen to, agents if very popular, and parents who are so emotionally invested in their children’s success. He says with a sigh, ‘it has become very complicated to coach since 1998 Nagano Olympics.’
Nevertheless, he does not appear to take those seemingly negative changes too seriously after all. Kumiko says, ‘he is very easy-going, contrary to what many believe. He does not get bogged down by minor details. That’s the reason why he is still willing to coach.’ His students’ age ranges from 6 to 83 years, and to teach them all, he still stays on ice from the morning till the night.
Part 2; Discovery of the wide gulf between Japan and the West
Osaka, 7 years after the World War II ended – there were not many amusements available back then and the ice rinks in Umeda and Namba were extremely popular, so popular that one had to wait 2 hours just for their turn for boots hire. Nobuo’s mother, who was a skater before the war, was asked to teach skating and Nobuo, then 10 years old, went along with her.
‘I loved playing when I was a young boy’, he says, ‘and skating was just like playing.’ In 1953, when he was in the 6th grade at primary school, he started training seriously. In those days, both casual skaters and competitive skaters changed to special wooden slippers from ordinary shoes when getting close to the ice rink, as they were afraid of bringing dirt onto ice.
In 1957, he won his first National Championship at the age of 15. He landed a double Lutz in his free programme, the first skater to do so in Japan. It was common to spend 6 hours a day in practice then; 4 to 5 hours of which was spent doing compulsory figures, which was the largest component of the final score. That meant major part of the day’s practice took place in the early morning, before leisure skaters arrived at the rink.
In those days, ice resurfacing meant spraying water on the ice. To avoid the thickening of the ice, they sprayed water only a few times a day. There was always a large amount of ice shaving on the ice, as if it had just snowed. ‘The outermost part of the ice, where a large number of leisure skaters had concentrated, was the smoothest as friction melts and smoothes the ice surface. So all competitive skaters raced to take their positions there’, Nobuo recalls.
When he participated in his first international competition at 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, he did the same in the official practice session and started drawing a figure of 8 in the outermost part of the rink; someone shouted at him and told him to move along. He then learnt that there was such a thing called ice-resurfacing machine in the US and the ice was smooth anywhere in the rink.
Everything he saw, he heard was new to him when abroad. Overwhelmed by the wide gap existing between Japan and the West, he did not believe he ‘could ever beat the foreign skaters - no way!’ He fell in his Olympic debut, and the photo capturing his chin about to hit the ice was published in the newspaper. ‘It was embarrassing!’
However, after graduating Kansai University, he learnt how to condition the body for the first time and his skating started to improve. He was the 4th in the 1965 World Championships and the 5th in the following year. He then retired. Many told him to stay in competition, but he was determined; ‘figure skating is a physically demanding sport, contrary to how it appears on surface, and it is also demanding financially and emotionally to the family. I think the peak year for single skaters comes when they are 23 or 24 years old.’
He became a coach soon afterwards, and started to look after top elite skaters. But he was still young, more physical than theoretical, and preferred ‘showing how to do things and was proud of it.’ Looking back now, he could not call it ‘coaching’ at all. A Swiss coach, whom the JSF invited to train Japan’s home-grown coaches for 1972 Sapporo Olympics, told him that if he had been asked, he would have put Nobuo to teach skating to children in the countryside. Nobuo was made to realise how inferior he was as a figure skating coach.
European coaches focused on the accuracy in basic technique; how to do a particular turn, how to position the free leg when landing jumps, and so on. Up until then, his coaching style was based on American one, emphasising on smoothness and beauty of the glide. He got confused between the two different approaches. It took him several years before he could digest all and established his own methodology.
‘I have never thought skating was fun. It was all about endurance and perseverance for me. Do young people nowadays call it “enjoying oneself”?’*
After many struggles and successes, he is now the most established coach in Japan. In Kansai University Ice Arena, there hung gigantic images of Nobuo and Kumiko, who are alumni, as well as Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda, both of who currently belong to Kansai University Skating Club.
*Translator’s note; I believe here he refers to the phrase commonly used by current crop of Japanese top skaters – ‘I’d like to enjoy skating / performing’ when asked what they want to achieve at big competitions.
(BTW, I used to go to the ice rink in Umeda when younger, and, though it was closed down a while ago, I wonder if it was the same one as Nobuo Sato used to go to. If so, I would be somehow ‘whelmed. )
Last edited by mot; 04-06-2011 at 03:24 PM.
Part 3; The greatest emphasis on the basic skating skills
Nobuo’s famous for teaching good skating skills. Why do blades glide on ice?
‘It all starts from there. If there isn’t a single line connecting from that starting point to an execution of a particular element, there must be an error in technique somewhere along it.’
He has taught his own daughter Yuka, who is now coaching US skaters representing their own country on the international stage, and Takahiko Kozuka, whom he started teaching when he was too young to skate on his own. Their basic skating skills are highly acclaimed and described exemplary at ISU judges training seminars.
He would never allow his students, even if they came to him after being trained by another coach, to neglect the basics. That is the same with Mao Asada. ‘Of course’, he admits, ‘I think carefully before I say anything to the two-time World Champion, in case what I say casually messes up her skating. I spend time considering and evaluating how to approach the problems first.’
It takes time for improvement to come about, and sometimes it fails to show. But he is patient, which his wife Kumiko and daughter Yuka list as his major strength.
He continuously observes (his skaters and their skating). Kumiko says, ‘even when I get wound up, he remains cool. I admire him for that. Of course, time to time, I wonder why he needs so much time getting what is so obvious.’
Some skaters show massive improvement after a very short time spent with their coach. Some criticises Nobuo’s coaching style as too slow, saying that not everyone can wait that long, even knowing the outcome will definitely be there one day.
‘I am not really flexible and easy to adapt. I believe it would be eventually quicker to go step by step. It would take much longer to undo what has been done to get things right.’
It’s been 6 month since he became Mao’s coach, and she said there have been so many new discoveries for her and now she understands why things have to be done in a certain way. ‘While everything seems to be new to her, still her skating has improved a lot. She’s a talent indeed’, Nobuo praises her.
Yuka is relatively new to coaching and often asks Nobuo for his opinions, and Nobuo in return asks Yuka for help to choose choreographers, costume makers, and dance classes for his students. They are now known as ‘Sato Family’ in the world of figure skating.
He finds it hard to relax now that two of his students are top skaters of the world. Kumiko, however, admits how lucky they are as a coach. Some already look forward to the double gold medals in Sochi in 2014. Nobuo says he would not be able to face going to the rink to coach them, once he started thinking about such a huge responsibility.
Funnily enough, he’s never placed too much importance on the final placement, as a coach or even as a competitive skater. ‘It may be something to do with my lack of confidence, but in baseball, you are great if you’re a .300 hitter – so I think it is good if I can smile from the heart three times in every ten competitions.’
So we asked him to hit a home run in the most important competition of all. He gave a wry smile. It is not his way. His way is not to be over ambitious, but just to do what one has to do at a time.
Nobuo in his competitive days;
(from 0.44min onwards)
While his spin rotation was anti-clockwise, his jump rotation was clockwise!!
He said that in the interview in the above clip, for him the podium finish at international competitions was impossible, because of the huge technical gulf between Japanese and foreign skaters. So it became his chief mission as a coach to fill in that gap.
Last edited by mot; 04-06-2011 at 03:25 PM.
What a wonderful interview! Thanks so much for giving us the chance to read it. I often think how delighted Mr. and Mrs. Sato must be to see their daughter carrying on their coaching tradition. I love that Nobuo Sato says that he actually consults Yuka from time to time.
One thing that I found fascinating (among many other interesting details) is what Mr. Sato said about the way posture changed after the 1970s, and that Toller Cranston was one of the main reasons for that. I'd love to hear more about that.
I remember once in the 1980s or maybe even the 1990s, Donald Jackson briefly returned to skating and competed in some pro competitions. It was fascinating to see how different his style was from the then-current movement style. Whereas the difference between the 1980s and today isn't that pronounced, in singles at least. Of course there are more triple jumps, but the overall way of skating, the flow from movement to movement, is roughly the same, I think. (There's been more drastic change in pairs and ice dancing, I think, due to the increasing complexity of lifts in both those disciplines.)
Skeptic Satirist Critic Muppet Fan
Thank you for this translation MOT. What an valuable insight from this illustrious man, not only in his career but his personal philosophy and approach, placing importance on the basics and the fundamentals, also his humility and lack of ambition on final placements. He appear to take everything as a learning process, unafraid to negate things that doesn't work (some people can be too proud to acknowledge mistakes or stubborn), even as a coach, even till now, which is humbling .
By the look of it, the Sato family is practically a personal dynasty in this sports. Has there been other family enterprises in figure skating world that lasted as long or has as much impact as the Sato?
Last edited by OS; 04-06-2011 at 06:42 PM.
Trixie Schuba's biggest fan!
I think Nobuo Sato IS my idol.