We had some very sad news last month. As the difficulties continued to rage on in Ukraine, my daughter’s Ukrainian coach, Boris Uspenski, was fighting his own battle for survival and sadly breathed his last. He was a wonderful, larger than life character, very much loved by all who knew him. And he had such a special bond with his skaters that he will have left them many lessons for life. His legacy will live on in them, whether through their skating or by applying what they learned from him to other parts of their life.
The bond between a great coach and his or her skaters is a truly special one. Often, your coach knows you better than your school teachers. You are not just learning to skate, but participating in your very own passion. That passion can produce great happiness, frustration, sadness, anger, fear – the whole caboodle. And your coach stands by you as you experience each and every one of these emotions. Older and wiser, a coach can usually predict the outcome of whatever you attempt. Your coach is rarely surprised. But whether you do something well, or not so well, they are there to encourage and support you every step of the way.
A Different Kind of Support
A coach’s support is necessarily different from that of a parent. A parent’s overriding need is often to protect their child from harm, discomfort, unhappiness. A coach will help the child navigate those seas and learn from them, anticipate them fearlessly and conquer them. To illustrate this difference, notice what happens when a child falls over in front of its mother. Usually the child will cry. From babyhood we learn to attract sympathy and attention from our parents by crying. But if the mother is not there when the child falls, often there are few, if any, tears. As it is in this case, the coach still cares but, by virtue of that very different bond, is able to convey an invisible strength to that child, through empathy and a deeper understanding of the subject at hand. And a reminder ‘Where you are now is further ahead than where you were yesterday, but not as far as you will be tomorrow. Try again.’
Spare a thought for those parents who are also coaches to their children. The roles have to be different and it’s a tough juggling act between the two!
Keep the Communication Going
It is unfortunate that in skating the communication channels are not always as clear as they could be by virtue of the fact that coaches are frequently working with their skaters at the most uncommunicative of ages; chiefly, the teenage years and under, when shyness can cripple – not just in conversation with the coach but it can also be a daunting prospect to speak up in front of a peer group too. For the skater it is hugely important that the coach understands what is going on in your mind in order to help you get the best out of your potential – and for the coach, it is so important never to assume you know what is behind a poor performance or a change in attitude, without exploring gently and sensitively with your skater the cause of whatever it is that is worrying them. And if at first they won’t open up, give them some space and a path to come back to you, away from their peers, when they are ready.
Show You’ve Listened
Skaters, take time to appreciate the role your coach plays – not just in skating, but in your life. The coach is only human. He or she has their own life. Their own families, joys and challenges – yet in very unsociable hours and year-round cold, they choose not comfort, fame or glory, but to selflessly share their time and wisdom with you, the skater, to enrich and enlighten your life. They have been where you are, they have experienced their own moment of brilliance and they know that this is your time. And the best way you can repay all that they give you is to keep the channels of communication open (they aren’t mind readers!) and to use what they have taught you. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and bring them back a gold medal every time. It just means you skate your best to show them that you have listened. Every lesson, every practice, every performance.