Brian Orser's success as coach based on 'take ownership' philosophy

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BOSTON - Truth be told, coach Brian Orser is rarely home, trekking across the planet to attend figure skating competitions with his talented stable.

But this week in particular, he’s never been busier. At these world figure skating championships, the Toronto Cricket, Curling and Skating Club – where Orser is a director of skating – has 10 competitors.  Skating teams from many countries aren’t that big. The Cricket team is multi-national, with skaters from Spain, Japan, Canada, and Kazakhstan.

For starters, Orser is coach of the top two men in figure skating at the moment: reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and Olympic champion and world record holder Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.

Nam Nguyen of Canada performs during the Men's Short program at Skate Canada International in Lethbridge, Alberta October 30, 2015. Fifty-six Olympic and world championship athletes are competing in the event, which is the second of six stops on the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. REUTERS/Jim Young
Nam Nguyen of Canada performs during the Men's Short program at Skate Canada International in Lethbridge, Alberta October 30, 2015. Fifty-six Olympic and world championship athletes are competing in the event, which is the second of six stops on the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. REUTERS/Jim Young

Former Canadian champion, Nam Nguyen – fifth in the world last year – is the third man that Orser must juggle at this event.  He also has three in the women’s event, including two Canadian champions.  

Orser has turned into a master coach. It’s helped that he’s seen the sport from all angles: world champion skater, pro skater, judge. He has his own philosophies, which appear to be working very well.

One of them is that it’s good to push the sport forward with all these quads we’re seeing now – the Chinese skater Boyang Jin, is “from another planet,” he says -  but Orser insists that all of this must not come at the expense of the actual skating ability,  the artistry, the ability to turn an edge.  

“For me, as a coach, I will not let anything get in the way of artistry and the program,” Orser said. “I want them to show their styles and I want them to continue to develop.

Both Fernandez and Hanyu keep pushing themselves in different directions. Both Javi and Yuzu’s programs – both the short and the long – are masterpieces, Orser says.

Yuzuru Hanyu, of Japan, performs during a men's practice session prior to the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Monday, March 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Yuzuru Hanyu, of Japan, performs during a men's practice session prior to the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Monday, March 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Orser has had a good two-month chunk of training time to spend with Hanyu, who often crisscrosses the planet, sometimes spending home in Japan. And he’s seen Hanyu through his latest injury, a minor one involving the instep of his left foot which prevented him for seven weeks from landing toe loop jumps. Hanyu in the past season, has done two quad toe loops (and one quad Salchow) in his free program.

Because of the injury, Hanyu has been training to do five quad Salchows between the short and the long. “So the quad Salchow kind of found its way,” Orser said. And the happy accident of all this? A quad Salchow is worth more than a quad toe loop. Hanyu has found another way to break his lofty world record of 330 points.

This week, Hanyu will do both quads in his short. He’ll still do three quads in the long, but two of them will be quad Salchows.   

Orser has had to have the mental alacrity to bring out the best of people from different cultures. It works for Orser because “what we teach is not cookie cutter,” he said. “It’s not my way or the high way. It’s whatever is best for the athlete.”

He said he was a little concerned when Fernandez, a laid-back charmer, won his world title.  “With that, he got more offers and his feet went up,” Orser said “He was doing shows, and it was all great. But I was a little concerned that he might be content with that.”

“How do we get him back on the ice and train this season?” he asked himself. But Fernandez surprised him by taking the initiative. As soon as he came back last summer, he came back to work with focus.

At the Grand Prix Final in his home country, Fernandez added a second quad to his short program. Hanyu was already doing it and getting tremendous scores. “I was patiently waiting for Javi to come up with this idea on his own,” Orser said. “Then he takes ownership of it, rather than me going: ‘Okay, you’re doing two quads in the short.’ Nobody ever wants to do it that way.”

He teaches his athletes to take ownership of all they do. He tells them they are the boss, even the young ones. “They are in charge, and then they go out and skate that way,”  Orser said.

Orser was a reluctant coach in the beginning. He never thought he’d be in the position he is in today. “I’m so blessed to have such talented skaters that believe in me and believe in my team and believe in themselves,” he said. “They work hard. And they love skating. That’s important. They love to compete. So they have all the tools.”

And this is what he told Nguyen, when he stepped off the ice on Tuesday after a troubled practice on Monday.  He’s less experienced at this game than Fernandez and Hanyu. But he has what he needs. If not today, then tomorrow.

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