Prior to departing for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, last week, Phil Hersh asked Nathan Chen's coach, Rafael Arutunian, questions on three topics about both himself and his prized student.
A few days later, without telling the skater at first what his coach had said, Hersh asked Chen the same questions.
On dealing with a very bad practice
Hersh: There was a lot of talk at this year's U.S. Championships about the horrible practice -- with six falls on quad attempts -- that Nathan had the day before the short program. (Arutunian interrupts at this point).
Arutunian: You guys think somebody falls, and it's a bad practice. Everything is a process. You wake up in morning, and you have a headache -- is it a bad day?
Hersh: It wasn't just media who noticed this. Skaters like Brian Boitano brought it up as well.
Arutunian: Around figure skating, many things can affect you: food, weather, sickness, ice conditions…
Hersh: Still, isn't it hard to come back from that kind of practice?
Arutunian: Only if the elements are not secure. Nathan's elements are basically done very, very well. That's why he can handle so many quads in his programs.
Hersh: Where does Nathan get the mental strength to forget a very bad practice?
Arutunian: From his previous life (meaning his experience). For seven years, he has been doing very well, jumping all those jumps, landing them. If you have 365 days in a year, why should one day affect that? If someone is falling for 365 days and right before competition they do one good practice, are you saying, "Now he will do it?"
When Brian Boitano was going for a quad toe, he was fishing for it, and the fish were not in the pond. When Brian was doing a triple axel, he knew it was there. We know Nathan has those jumps, so one day doesn't affect the other 365.
Hersh: What is there about you that allows you to say, "It's practice, this is not going to shake me?"
Chen: I've had the worst practices at nationals, gone out the next day and skated great. I've also had some of the best practices and then competed awful. I've known from experience that what you do in practice doesn't define what you will do in competition.
You're not being judged in practice. I always try to think of it as you're just putting all the bad jumps out in practice, so you have all the good jumps ready for the competition. You know that in practice you're never going to be perfect all the time. So, a lot of the time, I'm just working out the kinks and details I need to focus on during the actual event, so when I go to the competition, I don't have to overthink and I can just use what I've learned through practice.
Hersh: Now I will tell you what Raf said, which was basically that for someone who practices well for 365 days, one bad day isn't going to upset them, and that someone who is poor for 365 days and then has one good day, that's not going to make them good. Is that your feeling?
Chen: That definitely sounds like a very Rafael answer (laughs). I don't practice amazing 365 days out of the year. I don't think anyone is able to do that. We're all human. Today (Thursday, Feb. 1) is National Get Up Day, and that's perfect to use in this conversation, because that really defines a lot of championship athletes: They're the ones able to bounce back from a bad practice and use that as motivation and a learning experience for the next day.
On Chen's choices about what jumps to use in his free skate and his ability to change on the fly
Hersh: When Nathan goes out for a free skate, when does he decide which jumps he will do? Before? During the program? For instance, at nationals when he decided to do two quad flips instead of two quad lutzes, when did he decide it?
Arutunian: We have so many patterns of programs, we can play around with them, and we do that in practice at home. For us, it's not necessary (to always know) what is coming next.
Let's say you're driving a car. It's not necessary to know what kind of curve is coming. We can handle every type of curve, because we have a steering wheel that lets us manage it. We just drive and test the road on different kinds of curves. So, we can handle anything we want according to what is going on, what our competitors do.
Hersh: Can Nathan change that when he is in the middle of the program?
Arutunian: If he needs to.
Hersh: Let's say he finished an element in one corner and he wants to do a quad salchow next instead of the triple axel that was planned to come next. Do you work on changing?
Arutunian: We practice that. Everything he does, we practice. It does not come from the middle of nowhere.
Hersh: But he will have to use another setup for a different type of jump or maybe change the setup because it starts in a different place on the rink…
Arutunian: That setup is ready. He can change any time he wants.
Hersh: Have you ever had a skater good enough and intelligent enough to change at the last minute?
Arutunian: I wasn't good enough (before) to teach that. Now I realize I should train them to do that.
Hersh: When did you realize Nathan was someone you could train to do that?
Arutunian: The first day he came to me (at age 11 in 2011). Now I try to catch up on that with other (older) ones I coach. Unfortunately, I don't have that many young, upcoming talents.
Hersh: Some experts have told me it looks as if you are able to change difficult jumps when you are in the middle of a program. Is that true and do you practice doing it?
Chen: Yes and no. I have a planned approach for every program. However, if I make a mistake, I may have to change because of the rules. In practice, if something goes wrong, I will definitely try to think of what I can do to fix it. Sometimes, if everything is going right (in a run-through) and I make one silly mistake on one jump, I'll throw in that jump somewhere else to get extra practice in. Ultimately, it's just trying to follow the rules and trying to maximize my points.
Hersh: Do you practice doing a completely different setup (for a last-second jump change) from different places on the rink?
Chen: At times, yeah. But I try to stay consistent with the general setup of my jumps. I don't want to just randomly throw one in I've never done before. Sometimes I do try that just to challenge myself, to test myself to see if I can do it. At the end of the day, though, the program has to be a unified piece, and I don't want to mess up transitions for the sake of one or two jumps.
On Arutunian's reputation as a "tough love" coach
Hersh: You mentioned you don't have many young talents coming to you. Won't that change after your widely publicized success with Nathan?
Arutunian: In the U.S., there are some people who say about me, "Oh, he works only with older skaters" or "He's too mean." Those kids have coaches who every time say, "Oh, good job. Good job."
You don't say "Good job" every time, not 20 times a day. Come on. Whenever you win an Olympics, that's a good job.
Hersh: So you think they make the mistake of encouraging kids to think they are doing better than they really are?
Arutunian: That's a problem. Those kids are staying with a coach who says "Good job" because they like that. They will not come to me because I have very high standards. I can say "Good job," and it's really a good job, but maybe it's once a week or once a month or sometimes once a day -- but not 20 times a day.
On this subject, Chen was asked immediately for his reaction to what his coach had said.
Hersh: Raf thinks few young skaters come to him because he doesn't give out praise constantly and because a lot of people think he is mean. Is Raf sparing with credit so it means more when he does say, "Good job?"
Chen: I would say that's true. Also, I grew up in a very Chinese-based family, and my parents are exactly the same way. When they say bad things about you, you know they have your best interests at heart. They're not trying to pull you down; they're trying to actually raise you up. That's more impactful than them congratulating you all the time.
Sometimes, when I work with coaches who do congratulate me all the time, it feels fake, not genuine. When Raf does congratulate me, you know you did a good job. Ultimately, you know that regardless of what he says, he wants you to be better. So you just try to use that as a positive versus a negative.
Hersh: Do you agree that some people do think he's mean?
Chen: For sure, but they didn't really get a chance to meet him and know him.
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)