Photo www.flickr.com/photos/cultchaFrom what son-of-a-bitch and liar Came this thing,Where childhood’s exchangedFor medals?!What devil’s stateFound it to be so funTo steal the others’ fameIn broad daylight?! Alexander GALICH, «Olympic fairytale».
I’ve been asked so many times if the skaters defending the Russian flag need psychological help that I decided to devote an article to this subject. If I had to summarize this article in one sentence, it would be thus — «They don’t just need it, they require it no less than air, ice, coach, and choreographer».
Why? Because a child only truly enjoys skating until the first coach notices in him a spark of talent with championship fire potential. From that point on, the athletic life of the promising boys and girls will be under constant stress fed by several sources.
Sources of nervous pressure
The first source of stress builds up in a child himself, and results from an extremely tight schedule (early and late practices, school, homework, physical conditioning, encouraged desire to be the first, to make the team, not to disappoint one’s school, federation, country, etc.), as well as chronic lack of time for enjoying childhood and adolescence.
The second source of stress comes from the parents, many of whom sacrifice their own careers in the name of the child’s phantom one. It’s not rare that they loose professional jobs, good living conditions in their native cities, and sometimes even their families. There are numerous cases of mothers with higher education moving with their children to a new coach located in a different city or even country, where they have to crowd in tiny rooms and juggle several dead end jobs as cleaners, cooks, seamstresses, etc. They have no choice, as life in an alien world with its huge financial burdens forces them to put up with the humiliation. Obviously, such disadvantaged parents use up their nerve reserves with cosmic speed, and demand that their children become the champions of the country, world, Olympic, and Solar system as soon as possible. Alas, too often the sacrifice is in vain, and the moms release their disappointment onto the child whose only fault is failing to her dream.
Coaches are the third source. As opposed to many of their Western colleagues, ours tend live in under permanent stress on the verge of a breakdown. They also shoulder an almost unbearable burden. They must raise champions. To accomplish this, the coach has to be:
a) A diplomat, aptly managing his relationships with parents, school leadership, and the federation;
b) A stout defender of his interests before the colleagues, many of whom are more likely to trip one rather than extent a helping hand;
c) «In» with the rink director, blade sharpener, and the zamboni operator; and finally
d) A teacher and councilor of the students themselves.
It’s the latter that get the bulk of the coach’s negative emotions. Unfortunately, Russian Federation does not conduct regular training that would sharper their coaches’ educational and psychological skills, and those poor souls just lack the resources to do such self-improvement. Therefore, many coaches of both genders escape their stress through a well-known method of flying into nowhere on liquid fluid. After that, they come to work with a hangover, creating more stress in their groups. Many coaches not only can’t help their students, but urgently need a psychiatrist themselves.
Pressuring the talents
Skater’s childhood as well as the period of maturation (including sexual) and a big chunk of youth passes under constant pressure. It is during this period that a child, and later an adolescent, learns their first feelings of joy and disappointment.
Coaches and sports school turn those designated by the federation as very promising into award-getting instruments, cruelly cutting away any individual traits that don’t fit into the mold of an ideal record-maker set by P&P (it used to stand for Party & Power, now it’s President & Putin). Higher! Farther! More power! Go, Russia! Go! Go! Naturally, a strong-willed youth can either squeeze into the mold, or leave the elite sport with scraped ribs and traumatized soul. Figure skating saw tens, if not hundreds of those. I could name many who were too «inconvenient» to be allowed to the summit of the athletic route, but it’s not about the names.
A growing child — adolescent — young man/girl require an adult friend whom they can trust and ask for advice. Since athletes spend most of their time with the coaches and the same raw champion material as themselves, they develop differently, and their relationships with adults aren’t the same. Just as pressure deforms metal, so the characters and human relations change under stress. In conditions of limited free time in a space closed off to strangers, coaches and choreographers become surrogate parents. Teammates replace school buddies and non-athletic friends; there is not time to see the latter, and nothing to talk to them about anyway. First love and first sex are often replaced by what’s called screwing. The latter, by the way, has very little in common with real sex, because sex is a game of love, whereas screwing is an act without feeling or emotion, good for nothing but relieving the stress by satisfying momentary lust, sort of a FuckDonalds. One psychiatrist who’s worked with skaters in North America says that that many of them have only heard about orgasms; they’re therefore frigid, but that’s an issue for a different article.
Sometimes, personal relationships arise between coaches and students, but those usually start with at least one-way love, and often end in marriage. Though even that’s not always true; history of Soviet and Russia figure skating is littered with coaches who saw (and see) their students for one-night-skating sessions.
Then again, problems of relationships between male and female skaters (same-sex love is as of yet unpopular in Russian figure skating) is only a small part of what a professional psychologist should discuss with those entering life at large. In the process of learning and perfecting programs, while passing the various tests, skates, and competitions with all their successes and failures, skaters get into daily conflicts with themselves and their partners, coaches, choreographers, school teachers, parents, etc. Each of those conflicts adds an extra burden to the soul of the young creature, and a psychologist’s task is to constantly relieve the athlete of this unnecessary dead weight before the athlete will look for other methods, such as drowning the weight in a glass. Without a psychoanalyst nearby, the job falls to the coach. He must feel when a student needs a helping hand, an opportunity to slightly thaw on the warm shores of compassion before again plunging into the Northern Poisonous Ocean, where a skater lives as an amphibian, swimming for the medals, and sometimes staying on the bottom, not having the strength to go back up to the surface for another short breather.
Professionally, but without a gift
However, not all coaches have the gift of winning their student’s trust. Among the elite, I’d first name Tamara Nikolaevna and Igor Borisovich Moskvins; their students not only don’t flee them, but stay on good terms with them for years after leaving the big sport. After Moskvins, I’d place Lyudmila Georgievna and Nikolai Matveevich Velikovs, who seem to have a truly God-given gift of educators and teachers, whereas Lyudmila Georgievna also got the patience that the Lord took from the fallen angel. If you ask why I still put them after, and not before the Moskvins, I’d say that to turn talented skaters into champions, the coach sometimes needs to set aside his angelic patience and show a devilish toughness. That’s why Moskvins have more champions.
In Moscow, I guess only two coaches bothered with psychological preparation of their technically ready athletes — Tatiana Tarasova and Yelena Tchaikovskaya.
Their methods were very different. Tarasova created an atmosphere of a large family, where she hatched her chick-champions like a mother-hen. Sometimes, Tatiana Anatolievna would see that she wasn’t enough to solve the problem; then she’d invite a professional psychologist. It was with the help of such a professional that Tarasova made Alexei Yagudin an Olympic champion.
As to Yelena Anatolievna Tchaikovskaya, her relationships with the athletes are more along the lines of teacher/ educator. At one time, Maria Butyrskaya switched from to Yelena Anatolievna. She was long capable of becoming world champion under Victor Nikolaevich Kudryavtsev, but unfortunately could not handle her problems. The new coach managed to tech Masha how to show on stage everything she was capable of so well that she did win that World championship. A couple of years before joining Tchaikovskaya, Butyrskaya complained to me precisely of the lack of attention from the coach, who hardly said a word to her after she left the ice. At the time, thanks to Kudryavtsev, this girl time could out-jump all the other competitors but could not get a handle on herself during the competition to show everything she was capable. All she wanted was to warm in the well-deserved rays of her coach’s praise and encouragement. Masha also sometimes wanted to share her personal problems with someone outside her family. As Victor Nikolayevich couldn’t foot the bill, sometimes Sergei Cheskidov and I became her outlets.
Of course, Tchaikovskaya’s personal interest sometimes took priority over psychology, but the falling apart of USSR, radically changing the mindset of the young generation, also played a part in the lowering of her students’ skating quality. Perhaps it was because Yelena Anatolievna failed to find common ground with the first post-Soviet generation, to really understand its character and its thinking, this most experienced of coaches failed to handle neither the certainly talented Christina Oblasova, nor the difficult but promising Julia Soldatova and Lyudmila Nelidina. Then again, the same problem prevented Alexei Mishin and Victor Kudryavtsev from helping Yelena Sokolova to the highest steps of the podium. To be fair, the intelligent beauty wasn’t lucky with when she was born — in 1998, she wasn’t yet physically ready to win, whereas by 2006 American and Asian continents have raised competitors that were too young and too strong. In Salt Lake City, though, Lena could have well displayed her superiority, but psychological instability got in her way. As one medical joke said — the patient started getting better, but didn’t get there.
Alexei Nikolaevich Mishin does not employ an on-staff psychologist/ psychotherapist. This is probably why none of his female students reached the top places of the world elite. Despite extensive experience and a long effort to work with the fair sex on ice, Mishin became world famous only as a singles man coach. Many of the girls in his group complained of the coach’s rude, often humiliating jokes. Apparently, the Professor fails to notice when a child becomes a young woman, and misses the opportunity to change his work methods. Or, perhaps, he just doesn’t want to.
The students of Victor Kudriavtsev, now deceased Stanislav Zhuk, Zhanna Gromova, and countless others have likewise been negatively impacted by the lack of someone nearby with professional skills of talking the athletes in a way that helps them relief the nervous tension we now call stress. However, the Russian Skating federation has always chosen to ignore the problem of the skaters’ psychological stability; it was this way during Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and it is this way today. This is why now, when the coaches who’ve been scattered all over the globe are starting to return to the Homeland, the misunderstood athletes are looking to represent other countries. They are misunderstood, but they are not non-promising, which means that their problems are psychological rather than physiological. Few of their coaches or parents can afford a «star» psychologist.
However, Sigmund Freud himself couldn’t solve all skaters’ problems alone, just as Tatiana Anatolievna Tarasova wouldn’t be able to turn «Stars on Ice» into World champions. Each Figure Skating school needs friendly on-staff psychotherapists, allowing all promising athletes (and their coaches) to turn to them with all their problems.
Today, Russia calls itself the «Empire of good», and in order to satisfy its grandiose ambitions the highest leadership in the country has even gotten along with the «land mafia» of the city of Sochi, absolutely unsuitable for the Olympics, especially a winter one. Now, therefore, the record-makers have become one of the main exhibits of Russian Golden fund. Therefore, to increase the quality of athletic gold, it’s time to direct the troops of skilled psychologists into the fields of figure skating.
 Skating with celebrities type TV-show, where Tarasova was the head judge