Business, Gender Edition Figure Skating: Coaching Multi-Gender Sport
By: Belinda Noonan • 4 years ago •
MUM WAS A SKATER BEFORE SHE WAS MARRIED SO I SPENT A LOT OF TIME DURING MY EARLY YEARS CRYING BESIDE THE RINK. EVENTUALLY, SHE THOUGHT THAT IT WOULD BE BETTER TO GIVE ME SOMETHING TO DO, SO THEY WOULD LAY OUT A ROW OF LOLLIES AND ORANGES ON THE ICE AT BONDI JUNCTION SO I COULD SKATE ALONG AND PICK THEM UP. I WISH IT HAD BEEN MONEY!
here is a picture of me at age 2 at Bondi Junction being held up wearing a pair of skates with little bells on the front of them. I don’t know that the bells helped but I got hooked and took up skating seriously at 7. It wasn’t long before Mum and I were doing a commute from home to the rink, 30 minutes each way, a couple of mornings a week and in the afternoons.
I’d get changed in the car, eat breakfast in the car and sometimes even have dinner in the car when we were lucky enough to get hamburgers on the way home. I got into it pretty thick and heavy right from the outset and improved quickly because the more you do something, the better you get at it.
I was competing from 8 and was immediately successful in minor club competitions. Figure skating was a small sport and there weren’t many ice rinks in NSW and Australia in those days, making it relatively easy to win, especially as I was little, quick and really liked jumping. I wasn’t into the artistic side of skating, preferring the thrill of the speed and seeing how high I could go.
I won my first national title at 10 as a pairs skater. Although I’m not that physically suited to pairs, I did pursue it for a while but singles were my preference. When you’re a singles skater, it can seem scary having to perform on an open ice rink and fill it, but that aspect never worried me. You’re in absolute control, so any mistakes are yours and the success is yours as well. The outcome is dependent on your physical, emotional and mental ability.
I won Junior Singles and moved up to the Seniors when I was 14 or 15 where I won the Senior Pairs in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975. I did have a hard road in the Senior Ladies national titles because the competition was strong and sometimes I didn’t skate up to my own expectations. I did some training in Canada and London, competed in international competitions and won gold in Holland in 1976, then Silver in 1977 in Zagreb, Croatia. Winning the national title at home was the holy grail for me and I finally achieved that in 1979.
A NEW CAREER
My transition into coaching was really fired by the fact that I wasn’t selected to compete at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980. The male singles champion also failed to be selected due to some very strange selection policies, even though we were both good enough to go. I always had a desire to coach and often handed out hints and tips to people I saw doing something wrong, but not being selected helped me turn to coaching in earnest.
Technical coaching in Australia was very poor at the time and I’d been overseas a lot. I felt I was pushing the technical boundaries when I came home, even though I had a coach I treasured. Double axels, for example, were relatively uncommon at the time with only a couple of us in the country actually able to perform them. None of us really understood biomechanics and human movement but some talented skaters could just execute the movement without knowing the ‘why’.
My biggest influence in coaching was Linda Brauckmann who I met in Canada when I was 12. Linda revised all of my technique and it was like being in an entirely new world. I spent three months with her and it completely changed everything I did in figure skating. Coming back to Australia was like stepping into a time-warp and going back decades.
There were very few ice rinks in the country and anyone coaching was probably only doing it part-time so there weren’t major advances in techniques until the 1970s. Rinks were built, including one in Sydney which my Dad was involved in starting and was built as a Cooperative. Canterbury Olympic Ice Rink Cooperative became known as the home of champions and is still all about putting back into the sport.
I started my coaching career at Canterbury and essentially ended it there as well. I was successful pretty quickly because I was determined to coach how I wasn’t coached and to avoid coaching in a negative way. Part of that was not overloading my charges with multiple instructions that they would battle to carry out.
I had national champions at all levels right from the start, but I suppose the first really big one was Cameron Medhurst who wanted to break into the top 10 in the world and moved from Sydney to Melbourne to train with me. We achieved that and I think he made me more of a coach than I made him a skater.
That led to a successful coaching period between 1988 and 1998 when I coached Stephen and Danielle Carr, who competed as a pair in the top 10 in the world. Stephen was also a very good singles skater and was the first Australian to land a triple axel at the Olympics.
Coaching the pairs was very interesting because it involved dealing with male and female athletes at the same time. I found that Stephen responded best to things he could see while Danielle was better at responding to what she heard. This seems to be a repeating pattern. If you showed a male something he’d get it but if you talked him to death, he’d switch off. With girls it is definitely more about what they hear.
Stephen still has exercise books crammed with every skating element from every single session. That was a recommendation by psychologist, Clark Perry, who was also instrumental in Australia’s success in swimming at the time. By doing that, Stephen could see exactly what he’d done and where he was succeeding or failing, and this helped him gather his thoughts.
Danielle was 21 when she came to me and her technique wasn’t good. She looked me in the eye and said she wanted to go to the Olympics and meant it. There was plenty of physical preparation to do and she also kept a journal which helped advance her skills.
The other thing about coaching the girls is that they’ll often defend their positions until the cows come home! When you tell the boys where they’re going wrong, they’ll generally think about and then come back to you a few days later to say they can probably do it that way. The girls were often a bit more problematic and it’s a matter of finding their individual triggers to achieve the desired result.
When I was coaching a pair, I often had to look at them and treat them as individuals. Stephen and Danielle were brother and sister so we always had to take that relationship dynamic into account alongside the very stressful, competitive situation as well. They were Olympians in 1992, 1994 and 1998 and took advantage of all the opportunities they were offered.
KNOW YOUR ATHLETE
The advice I have for people coaching multiple genders at once is to ‘know your athlete’. Forget who you are as a coach and figure out each person to the best of your ability. I don’t think the actual genders matter all that much – it’s about the person and their individual traits and learning processes.
It can help to know the parents and home situations as well if you’re coaching children because they will be a product of their environments. Their personalities will be fairly formed by the age of five and it will be difficult to make major modifications after that.
To other female coaches having to manage the demands of family and the profession: you absolutely have to get a team on board to help you cope. Doing it alone it doing is tough and definitely not a recipe for success.
Belinda Noonan is the figure skating consultant for the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia. A former National Champion herself and international competitor, she now turns her talents to coaching elite skaters and has spent many years commentating for Australia’s Winter Olympic TV coverage.
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