July 2014 An interview with Tom Zakrajsek. Tom competed in Men’s Singles and Pairs, then became a judge. But he’s made the biggest impact as a coach. Known for his technical coaching, he has groomed many elite skaters over the years including Ryan Bradley, Rachel Flatt, Jeremy Abbott, Max Aaron, Brandon Mroz, and Mirai Nagasu. He was also the 2009 Professional Skater’s Association Coach of the Year. He has a new website with a ton of great training tips at www.coachtomz.com. We talk about his idolization of Charlie Tickner, how he started as a coach with a very young Ryan Bradley, and his very detailed periodization plans for his students. 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating moment: This is going to require some thought. Well, I guess professionally my most embarrassing skating moment was when Rachael Flatt was at the 2009 world championships and her combination spin did not count. It didn’t cost her a place but she had gone to work with Lori Nichol to actually do a re-do of her junior long program, because between Four Continents and Worlds we changed the music. And in that process of the re-do, the spins changed and I never bothered to check the spins, and she ended up with an illegal combination spin. And it cost her four points. It didn’t make any difference to her finishing fifth, but it was at that level, to me, kind of really embarrassing. I took total responsibility for it, but I remember trusting her and Lori so much that I didn’t even bother to double check, and I thought, gosh, at that level how could something like that happen? I was not happy with myself about that. And I think what I learned after that moment is that it didn’t hurt to double check the rules in between competitions, or even at the competition.
On starting in skating: Originally I started skating at age seven because we lived in a neighborhood in Garfield Heights, Ohio, where they had a parks and rec rink, the Dan Kostel Recreation Centre. And they had ice in the winter, so we had a season’s pass to it, which we kind of got by default because we lived in the neighborhood. And at that particular time, when I got on the ice, I wasn’t very good at skating, and I remember people telling me I had weak ankles because I couldn’t hold myself up on a blade. So I had to have double runners. And of course I didn’t mind it because the double runners would make snow, and I could run my fingers through it and make snowballs and throw them at my friends [laughs]. However, everyone in my peer group, including my brother, kind of made fun of me for not being able to skate on one blade. It wasn’t the most positive experience for me, and frankly I didn’t want to do it, because I was so self-conscious and couldn’t really figure out — like, we didn’t have money for even group lessons at the time, so I couldn’t really figure out how to do it any better. So I just didn’t do it.
And about three years later my sister was enrolled in the learn-to-skate program, and it had snowed that day and my mom didn’t really want to drive her to the rink. So she basically told me I was going to walk my sister to the rink, it was about a mile away, so she could do her lesson, and I was supposed to wait there for her. And there wasn’t a great turnout that day, and the learn-to-skate instructor — her name was Betty Bosell, she was a student of Pierre Brunet – basically said, Terry, tell your brother he can skate because we don’t have a lot of skaters today. And I really didn’t want to, but she kind of persuaded me, and they stuck me in the first class, and they tested me. And by the end of that session, maybe a half-hour class with a half-hour practice session, I was doing a flip jump. And it was like, I don’t know how I could do it, but they kept saying, go to the next class [laughs]. And I ended up in my sister’s class. And that afternoon, when my dad picked us up from the rink, he got a call from Betty Bosell, and she said, I’m just telling you that your son should have private lessons in skating. And he said, you mean my daughter. And she said, no, your son [laughs]. And he said, my son doesn’t really know how to skate. And she said, you should call up Phil Racine at the Plaza Figure Skating Club, yada yada yada. And a few months later I ended up with a solo as the Gingerbread Boy in the local club show, and after that I really stayed with it. I think that in a three-year span I had developed more coordination, I had played a couple of different sports. And maybe my brain had matured, I could focus a little better, at least on what was necessary to skate better.
On idolizing Charlie Tickner: I was a big-time fan when I was a young boy in skating. He was certainly one of the top skaters in our country, and became a four-time US champion. And by that point I would follow skating religiously, and look at his pictures in Skating magazine. I think it’s just natural — whoever’s the best in the country or the world, you just kind of study them and see what they’re doing. And then he became world champion and an Olympic bronze medalist. I remember I was working at a local grocery store and my boss would not let me take time off to watch the Olympics live. So I quit my job as a sacker because I wanted to watch the Olympics live [laughs] — Charlie, and Tai [Babilonia] and Randy [Gardner], and Linda Fratianne and all those people in the 1980 Olympics. That’s how committed I was to skating at that point, and such a huge fan.
My coach at the time, Dick Rimmer at the Kent Figure Skating Club, he and his wife Linda had a really fancy VCR setup, and they used to record all the Olympics and all the World Championships, and encouraged us to watch and learn. But for me, I really wanted to see it live. That was the suspense. And that eventually led me to relocate from Garfield Heights to Denver to work with Norma Sahlin, Charlie’s coach. I picked her because she was Charlie’s coach. My dad called Carlo Fassi and asked Carlo about it, and Carlo said he was interested in working with me, and we had a discussion about it. We knew that there were a lot more skaters in Colorado Springs that were working with Carlo, but for me it was pretty much an easy decision. Seeing Norma at competitions, she had that kind of aura about her where you could tell she was an extraordinary coach, she was a personality. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about her that just kind of drew me to her, and Charlie. Jill Trenary was there when I went there, she had just relocated from Minnesota, and Sharon Carz, and several other skaters. It was right after the 1980 Olympics.
At 2009 Nationals, Charlie was the technical specialist on the panel, when Jeremy [Abbott] won and Brandon [Mroz] was second and Evan [Lysacek] was third and Ryan [Bradley] was fourth. For me, I don’t know how much significance that had for Charlie. I had many drinks in the bar that night [laughs] and was talking with Charlie about it, and he said something to the effect that Norma would be proud. But for me it was really cool, because it was three athletes that I had trained at that point — I had trained Ryan and Jeremy for a really long time, and I think Brandon I had for maybe four years. So with Charlie being the specialist, that was kind of icing on the cake. It was a really nice moment.
Thinking back, what really attracted me to Charlie and his skating was that he was graceful and strong at the same time. There was nothing awkward about his skating, and nothing flashy or showy about it. It was just really good quality skating, very masculine in its delivery, very powerful, very athletic. There were guys at the time that were really good jumpers and did lots of triples, and there were guys who were really good artistic skaters who didn’t do as many triples, and he was like the combination, the happy medium between that. And I think that’s why he became a world champion and an Olympic medalist.
On competing at US Nationals six times: I was not good at all. I was never near the podium, and for me that means not good at all. Yes, I got to Nationals six times and did the best I could, so on one level that was gratifying, but on another level it was disappointing because you know you’re one of the best skaters in the country, and everybody competes to win on some level, or to at least medal. So when you’re not in the medals and you’re in whatever place you’re in, 10th you think about what you’re doing. Looking back, I think I did an awful lot on the budget that I had. At that point I was on my own and I was attending the University of Denver. My father basically said, we’ve done so much for you for so long, if you want to do this you’re going to have to do it. So I ended up getting a job as the editor of the DU Clarion, to make some money. I waited tables at a restaurant called Sea Galley, which was kind of like Red Lobster, on the weekends. And I used to come in to the rink and pay Norma for lessons in dollar bills, because that’s how they would tip me [laughs]. The paycheck for being the editor was decent but not substantial, so I was on a shoestring budget. Looking back, I worked my butt off and I think I made the most of what I had. But on some level it certainly wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be on a national podium or to be a national champion.
My weaknesses were the artistic side of skating. I never had the luxury to be able to do ballet classes or to afford all the extra stuff that it took to really be a performer. Once I joined Disney, I learned so much from Jill Shipstad and Bob Paul. At one point in between Disney tours, I did Dorothy Hamill’s Nutcracker and I worked with Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy, and that experience on a professional level with those choreographers taught me a lot about performing. In hindsight, if I could have had anything like that, if I could afford all of that, I probably would have done a lot better. I don’t think that I was the worst artistic skater, but compared to Christopher Bowman and Paul Wylie, I wasn’t in their same league. And there were a lot of skaters in between Christopher and Paul and myself. But Brian [Boitano], 1988 was really the year that he broke out artistically. It’s funny, I recently had a conversation with Mitch Moyer, and if you look at all of the great champions, they develop artistically last and technically first. It’s kind of like the progression, it tends to be the way to build skating. Maybe they have more balance that leads to that later in their careers, they tend to be jumping less so they spend more time on the nuances of their performance, they have more confidence, they can deliver things in a different way than when they were younger.
On his education: When I was coaching in St. Joseph, Missouri, I got the equivalent of a physical education degree. I had already graduated from the University of Denver with a BA in English and mass communications. And when I started coaching, Missouri Western State College was just a stone’s throw from the rink. I read an article in the Skater’s Edge newsletter by Alice Berman, it was an interview with Alexei Mishin, and he was mildly critical of US coaches spending a lot of time on the ice talking with their students instead of drilling them. He really didn’t say anything directly about the American coaches lacking formal education, but he talked a lot about how Russian coaches had formal education at the university level. So I had been coaching for maybe a year and a half and I was looking at all the top coaches in the world, and in the late 80s, early 90s they were pretty much all Russian [laughs]. And so I was saying, I’ve got free time so I’m going to educate myself. What I wanted to do was a graduate program, so I went to the University of Kansas and I explored getting into a graduate program right away, and that’s when I found out that I couldn’t because my degree wasn’t going to let me jump in. So I had to do the equivalent of 24 credits in physical education. When you do that, they don’t give you a degree in PE, even though you technically earned one, but they don’t give you one because you already have one. So I did those requirements to get into the program at KU. So I was ready to do the commute and go to KU to do a master’s degree, but then I got an invitation from Kathy Casey to go and coach at the World Arena, which threw a wrench in my educational plans. Do I say no and do my two-year degree and then go to Colorado Springs, or do I say yes? There wasn’t a program at Colorado College like that, and the program at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs wasn’t the exact one that I was going to do at KU, it was more physiology and science-based. At KU I could choose my emphasis, and I had chosen sport psychology and biomechanics. I did not want to do the physiology part. But at UCCS I had to do one that was more science-based. So I said, to heck with it, I’m going to say yes to Kathy and do my degree there. So then I ended up with my master’s degree right when I first moved to Colorado Springs.
On agreeing to be a coach at the World Arena: I thought a lot about it, and I got on the phone with Kathy, I was so nervous, and I told her no. I was a little secure in St. Joseph, and not quite sure about wanting to do a different degree, I had already been accepted at KU and was excited about doing that. I was intending to tell her yes, and in the course of the conversation I changed my mind and said no. And I hung up the phone and I was kind of shaking. And my friend Robbie called me 10 minutes later, and was like, what are you doing? [laughs] You said no to Kathy Casey and a job at the Broadmoor Skating Club in the World Arena! And I was like, but, and he said, no buts, you just hang up and call her back and tell her yes. So literally, I hung up and called Kathy back, and she picked up the phone and said, Hello? And I said, Kathy, it’s Tom, I changed my mind, I’m sorry, I really want the job. And she said, is there something wrong with you? [laughs]. And I said, no, no, it’s just a huge decision, and I really do want to work there. I look back on it now, and think, thank God for Robbie. I mean, Kathy had seen me do some work at the junior national level in a small town like St. Joseph at a small club, and she knew that to do that in that area meant that I had some coaching expertise. That’s what she told me. And certainly I knew Kathy because she coached many of my competitors. But the other part of it was the Broadmoor Skating Club and the World Arena and all the coaches that were there, in my mind, I was in awe of them. And I remember saying to Kathy, I make $36,000 a year in St. Joseph and that’s a guarantee. I’m going to move to the World Arena, and you think I’m a good coach, but nobody’s going to want to take lessons from me so you can’t guarantee me anything, I’m not going to make any money [laughs]. And she said, of course you will. I want you to come to the World Arena and I want you to do for our learn to skate program what you did in St. Joseph. Take those kids out of the learn to skate program and develop them and get them to junior nationals. And I thought, well, I can do that.
I don’t teach learn to skate any more, but I remember hearing Frank Carroll at a PSA conference several years ago saying he taught skaters at all levels, all the time, because teaching the top skaters is different from teaching a beginner. So I really always like to have at least a couple of pre-preliminary, preliminary, and pre-juvenile skaters, because that is the real teaching of skating. They know nothing about how to do it, and it’s your job to fill their brain and their body with the correct information. And I’ve done a lot of developmental coaching, from the grassroots to the world level, it’s kind of how I built my coaching career. I wasn’t really handed a top skater, because of who I was. I was unproven. I was only a modestly successful figure skater in my own right. So I really had to prove myself and prove that I could coach and develop athletes. That’s how I do it, and certainly I’ve been blessed over the years to have skaters at the elite level who have decided to move and relocate with me, most recently Mirai Nagasu. But I’m 24 years into my coaching career, and I’ve been reflecting back on that, and it’s just been a lot of work. But the good thing about it is that I don’t feel like I’m working, because I love figure skating and I love coaching and I love working with young people. And the other part about it is, I think I can stop for a moment and look back, but it can be overwhelming thinking about it, so I’m more the kind of person that is day in, day out, setting a training plan and working to the plan, trying to help the athletes work where they are within that plan. So I really have a kind of tunnel vision about that, which I think is a good thing. I don’t want to dwell on the past or the future, but just to live in the present.
On developing plans for athletes: A lot of my colleagues say, I don’t know you find the time to do that. But for me, when I started coaching, and started taking PE classes and learning about the science of sport, and hearing Mishin make those comments — I just thought, well, gosh, if I’m going to be a great coach, that’s the only way. I’ve been writing these plans for 17 years, and I just gave a presentation at the PSA conference on how you take the theory of periodization and apply it in the plan, and I gave some specific examples for the pre-preliminary skater, which is the type of skater that 95% of all coaches work with. How do you take them from their first steps on the ice to being a US champion at the lower level, and then develop that to the world team level? I opened my plans and shared a lot of what I had done, but in the process of doing that I realized that I wrote a lot of bad plans at first [laughs]. I probably did do a fair amount of overtraining, but that was my message to the coaches, that nobody starts out doing something like that being good at it. You just have to commit to the process and then go through it and look back on it, and make adjustments.
I remember I had no idea how to write a plan, and I wrote one and showed it to my professor at Western Missouri State College, and he looked at it and said, wow, this is really good. That gave me a lot of confidence, but the results that year at the St. Joseph Skating Club were really awful [laughs]. And I remember feeling confident that my professor liked what I did, but that it was really good theory and something went wrong in the implementation because the results weren’t there. To me that was a good moment, where my professor gave me the confidence to keep trying, but I learned through experience that if the plan isn’t implemented at the right time and in the right way, then it’s not really a good plan. It is still, at a certain point, trial and error, but what I feel I have a good read on is the basic template. Not for one season, but for a good maybe eight to ten years for an athlete. That’s what I feel right now is my prized intellectual property. I feel really confident about how to go through that process. I know for some people it may come across as a little arrogant or cocky, which certainly isn’t the case because I always want to learn, and I’m still learning. I have still to coach a world or Olympic medalist, so those are still some of my professional goals. But I do feel good about the structure that I know. And I try to educate the parents and the skaters that I work with about that, so they can trust me even more with their goals and their careers.
Frank Carroll has said to me, Tom, I could never spend all that time writing like you. And I said, Frank, maybe I shouldn’t be writing [laughs]. But the flip side of that was that maybe it doesn’t work all that well. But Frank has it all in his head, he’s also been doing this for a lot longer than me, and he’s had great success. I think there is a huge kind of intuitiveness about him that is a gift, and I am in awe and admiration of that. The best coaches on some level have it. They may not have it in such a structured and written way, but they have it intuitively. That’s more subjective maybe to their personality type and their intelligence and experience.
Most of this, I would say 98%, is transparent to the athlete. That’s just the way I choose to do it. I know some coaches give their skaters training plans, written plans for their notebook or whatever. I don’t do it that way. The training plan that I write is in my notebook, it’s something that I glance at when I’m coaching. And I will give them certain tasks or things to do, and at their age level they may not be aware of that. Certainly a skater like Rachael Flatt was really aware of it even when she was 15 or 16. Brandon didn’t want to be aware of it, he would say, Tom, just let me know what you want me to do and what you expect of me, and I will also do what I think I should do. So there’s a certain amount of trust, where someone like Brandon didn’t want to clog his mind with all that, and I respect that. When you’re on Team USA, you have to do this sort of planning whether you want to or not, because it’s required for funding and things like that. But most of the work I do with my developmental skaters, I guess the easiest way to describe it is listening to what your coach asks you to do [laughs]. And the plan for each skater is really based on their goals, not my goals for the skater. That’s the other part of it. In the PSA presentation, the main point is when you coach at all levels, you have to be really good at what I call staggering. Meaning, when Max Aaron starts his season on July 1, my regional competitors are already 14 weeks into their season. So where they are in the training plan isn’t the same, but I have to coach them at the same time. Some months that’s easier. July is a really intense month because there’s a lot of overlapping going on. But once they get in season, it kind of levels out and it’s a little easier.
On the criticism that his skaters have more technical than artistic skills: It’s interesting to hear that criticism. I coached Jeremy for 11 years, and when he was a pre-juvenile and juvenile boy, he didn’t look like he did when he won his senior national title in 2009. I would like to think that because he only took lessons from me, he didn’t really work with other coaches, I had something to do with that. Because it wasn’t like he was taking lessons from Tom Dickson or anybody else. Most of those years were three to five lessons a week, at most, with me being his voice until he got a little more accomplished and had access to funding where he could afford a choreographer or something. I don’t know if people realize that or if they think, oh, Jeremy was always that talented and that good. But what Jeremy always had was those soft knees and ankles, and a lot of the other stuff had to be developed. The other example is Carolina Kostner. She’s an exquisite artist, and she wasn’t when she won her first world medal. She was 17, that was nine years ago. If you look at that video on YouTube, Carolina beat Michelle Kwan on technique, not on components. And everybody in the skating world went, that’s not fair, Michelle should have had the medal because she’s the better component skater. And what do they say about Carolina now? For me, I look at that, and I go, Carolina was 17. What are they saying about the 17 year old women on the scene now? They say they don’t have any components. A lot of young girls and men at those ages, unless they’re in love with dance that much – most of the skaters have to develop. They develop in front of everyone’s eyes, and social media are so prone to criticism while they’re developing. I wouldn’t ever think less of Linda Leaver when Brian Boitano was world champion in 1986. That long program versus what he did in 1988, it was a natural progression for him. It wasn’t because Linda did a better job in 1988 than she did in 1986.
From my point of view, it is about developing the complete package. But it’s not about me developing the complete package. I see it as each skater has their own style, and one of the things I take pride in is that I always encourage my skaters to be unique and to be themselves. I did a post on my blog recently about technique and artistry, and I talk about being influenced by so many men when I grew up — people like Toller Cranston, Scott Hamilton, John Curry, Robin Cousins, Jan Hoffman, Charlie Tickner. If you look at all of them, they were all unique, they were all on the world podium, they all had strengths, they all had weaknesses. They were not the same. And to me, the thing our sport needs is that individuality. It needs people that approach the sport in different ways. We don’t need five Patrick Chans. Patrick Chan is Patrick Chan, Yuzuru [Hanyu] is Yuzuru, Javier [Fernandez] is Javier. One is not better than the other. Maybe on a given day one might win and the other might not, but if I look at the IJS and think what it’s doing, it’s homogenizing everybody and forcing everyone to skate a certain way. A spin has to look a certain way, a footwork has to look a certain way. To me, the challenge is to find your unique style within that system and communicate that to the audience, of which the judges are a part.
My job as a coach is to encourage all of my athletes to be the best they can be in every area, of which the skating components are a part, because this is a sport where you have to look good doing it. But you can have the most artistic skater and they won’t do well under the new system either, because they’re going to need a quad jump, or more than one. That was obvious at Worlds. I love Jeremy and he skated his lights out, but with one quad, he was fifth. How many points behind third was he? It was substantial, I think it was more than 25. Not that he wasn’t rewarded enough in his artistry, but even if he was awarded more in his artistry, it wouldn’t have made up that point difference. And Patrick Chan threw down that gauntlet when he won his first world title with two quads. And for me it’s been amazing to see that there are several component skaters that kind of ignore the quads. Now how could you be a component skater and ignore the quads, when Patrick Chan is the best component skater in the world, and he’s doing two in the long and one in the short. I look at it, and to my eyes they’re giving him the title, they’re handing it to him. Nobody is going to beat Patrick on components. And look at his components at his first world championships, they weren’t as good as they are now. He didn’t pull 9s back then, he had to work for that. He had to develop that over seven years. So for me, the whole question is how to approach this, and it’s like a process. Now do all of my athletes stay in the sport for nine to ten years once they get to the top, to develop into that kind of performer like Carolina? Well, no, I haven’t really had that yet. Jeremy is one that I started, but obviously he went on to Yuka [Sato]. But most of my other athletes didn’t stay in long enough to develop to that level. Do I tell them not to work on their components? Absolutely not. Do I want them in dance class? Yes. Do I encourage them? Yes. Do I force them? No. Ultimately that’s their choice, and I think they’re all aware. I’ll use Max Aaron as an example. Last year Max knew what the criticisms of him were after he went on to finish seventh at worlds, which by the way is quite a high finish for a US man in the years since 2010. It was always part of our plan to work with Lori Nichol, but he also knew he had to work himself up to that. When he was a junior man, he wasn’t ready. Max has worked with Jeff Buttle, Tom Dickson, Caterina Lindgren, Kathy Johnson — I supported him and exposed him to all of that. He worked with Patrick for a whole year. So if people are going to criticize his components, they don’t know the amount of work he’s done to improve them. But is he going to get it right in one year? No, it’s going to take time.
I remember sitting with Norma at one Nationals event, I think it was the ladies, and I criticized a skater for something. And she looked at me and she said very politely, Tom, be very careful about looking at something and criticizing. Because you don’t know the amount of effort that went into that performance. You don’t know how many lessons they take, what the family can afford, what the situation is between the coach and the student. You don’t know the emotional hardships in someone’s life. And I remember going, oh wow, was that like a killer. And it really opened my eyes to putting criticisms. I mean, I certainly try my best not to look at other people and say, so and so needs to do this, or so and so coach needs to be better at that. That’s so not where my mind is. Do I follow social media to see that criticism about me? No. Do people tell me about it? Yes. Does it matter to me? Quite frankly, no. And the reason is that I know what’s in my heart, I know how I do my job every day. I’m open to hearing that criticism, but it’s not founded in reality. And I’ve asked other people about it, people who work closely with me, and that’s how I feel about it. And to anybody listening out there, it’s certainly the furthest thing from the truth. Anybody that gets criticized that has low component scores that I work with, we’re certainly addressing it every year as part of their plan and their overall development.
On the criticisms that he pushes injured skaters too far: Sandy Rucker at one point, that was Sandy’s choice [to compete while injured] because she was doing the TV special for Lifetime and she was getting paid money to do that. That was certainly not my choice, I just happened to be her coach at that time, and that was such a unique situation. I look back on that and go, oh my gosh [laughs]. Regarding Josh Farris, that was his choice to compete, and it was his parents’ choice for him to compete. I highly recommended that he withdraw, and certainly for him, he felt that if he didn’t compete, a spot at the world junior championships was on the line. And that’s why he went out to compete and try. But certainly it wasn’t worth it in hindsight, and that’s why I advised against it. And again it’s not me. A coach never has the right to withdraw a skater from a competition. It’s the athlete’s right to try. Did I support him in his decision? Yes. So I feel that’s my role as a coach, to advise him, but he and his family made their own decision and I supported that decision. It didn’t work out that he was selected for junior worlds that year, but he had been in the Junior Grand Prix final, he was fifth or sixth, so he was one of those juniors that could have been selected based on how he performed in seniors. That’s always a tough call, but it’s never my call because it’s never my skating. With Rachael Flatt that year, and I think everybody knows this, she was injured the whole season. So it wasn’t like she went into Nationals or Four Continents that year uninjured. So, you know, the whole year she had been injured with that leg injury, so there wasn’t anything new when she went to the world championships. Now whether something about the diagnosis of the injury changed — that’s different. But she was injured that whole season on that leg, and been skating quite well and doing quite well. So I don’t know what people would want to say about that, except that I do know there was a huge expectation for three ladies [at next year’s worlds], and they were in a position again to have three ladies, and that didn’t happen. And that’s part of sport. Watch any other sport, listen to any other athletes and coaches and fans discuss things, and — I don’t mind people criticizing that situation, because that’s what fans do and that’s what the public does when they’re looking at things like that. And we’re probably all guilty of it to some extent when we watch other sports. However, I would say to everybody that unless you know all of the facts, then you really shouldn’t be criticizing. And certainly by no means did I encourage Rachael to compete, and tell her she had to compete with an injury. Not at all, that wasn’t even the case. So if people think that, it is the furthest thing from the truth.
On helping his students prepare mentally for competitions: They might come in and say, I’m tired, my body’s sore. And if they’re a Team USA member, I’ll say, okay, what can we do about that? You’re going to be getting off a plane in this country and be jetlagged, you’re going to get one official practice that’s probably 40 minutes long, and then you’re going to have to compete the next day. So the way you feel now, tired, is going to be very similar to jetlag. So what can we do to do what I call deposit inyour bank of solutions. If we can work through this today, then you’re going to be mentally stronger to handle a similar feeling when it really matters. To me, that’s kind of a typical thing for a coach to hear, an athlete saying they’re tired. But that’s the other thing, they have to be tired when they’re training because otherwise they’re not training. I sometimes laugh at my skaters when they tell me they’re tired, as if that’s a reason to not train. Because any time you’re in a cycle, the cycle is going to start with a lot of heavy load, and then it’s going to taper. So in the initial stages of a meso-cycle, they’re going to feel tired. But that doesn’t mean that they’re overtrained, and that doesn’t mean that they can’t train. But it also depends on what kind of tired it is, if it’s sore muscles or if it’s pain from an injury. That’s what you have to ask the athlete.
On changing the plan if things aren’t working and a competition is upcoming: All the US Olympic Committee research that I’ve read, all the athletes will tell you that they wish their coaches had told them to stick to their plan instead of allowing them to change the plan based on what they felt. That’s what the athletes said based on their Olympics that were studied. So that gives coaches a lot of information, because as the stress piles on the athletes may start to doubt themselves, and they may want to back off. And the timing of a taper is unique to each athlete. They can’t sustain a peak for really more than three weeks, and how long they can sustain a peak within that three-week period, that’s touchy. I would say it takes a good twelve to fourteen elite competitions to figure that out, to know for sure. You can have success along the way, but to really know what’s going to work, that’s years. So as much there’s a science to it, there’s also individuality, and that makes it a little more precarious. But if the athlete’s injured going through an Olympic Games, but they’re not injured enough to withdraw, that’s when you kind of have to tweak the plan for sure. And that mostly involves less repetitions. Things like that are very easy to do.
On his new website: This whole idea came about because last July I had just ventured into social media. I had just talked to Jimmie Santee and he wanted me to do another blog like I did from the Vancouver Olympics, for the Sochi Olympics. So I said, I don’t have an athlete that qualified for that, and I kind of already did that. What I’d really like to do is something leading up to it, which to me is a little more interesting because everyone wants to know what’s going on behind the scenes. So I did this thing on periodization for the month of July, which is a big kickoff month for training, especially for the elite athletes. I have to credit Drew Meekins for really helping me to learn to use the social media, because I was totally ignorant and kind of a social media snob, I have to admit [laughs]. I thought it was a waste of time. But Drew was the one who said, you can use it the way you want, there’s no formula for it. And once he helped me through the initial weeks of learning the mechanics – just a few weeks ago I learned what a screenshot was, that tells you where I’m still at [laughs]. But I kind of like learning new things, and it was interesting enough to me to try it. And I thought, well, it’s only for a month, so it will only torture me for 30 days and then I’ll be done with it [laughs]. And then I saw how you can set up a Facebook page on a business account and track things — I called Drew and said, this can’t be right, and he said, no, you do have followers in 48 countries [laughs]. I didn’t know how social media worked and how things could multiply and be sent out. I have colleagues all around the world, and this became a way to keep in touch with them. And certainly everybody was so supportive with their comments.
And then I was at the Grassroots to Champions camp last summer with Audrey [Weisiger] and her whole gang, and Trevor Laak asked me if he could film my Axel presentation. I said sure, and then a few weeks later he sent me an edited version and asked me if he could post it on his website. I said, okay, and I made a decent amount of money from those videos. But I just thought, well, what’s the biggest criticisms of figure skating coaches? That it’s all about the money. I hear that a lot, and I think maybe even my father said that when I was a younger skater [laughs], when you get your competition bill or your lesson bill and it’s just this outrageous amount of money. That always made me sensitive to how I go about the business of skating, trying to be paid a fair amount without making any one family feel poor. So I suggested to Trevor, I have this Facebook page, what if you put the video free on your website and I promote it on my Facebook page? It was just a way to give back. Well, the response to those videos was even more mind-boggling than what I had done in July. I did have some colleagues say to me, you’re giving away all your secrets. Well, no, I’m not. I had taught double Axels at PSA conferences many times, and there are videos that the PSA sells. But I never thought in those terms, and I know some people did.
And then Merry Neitlich approached me and said, have you ever considered a website? And I said, I have one. And she looked at it, and went, oh gosh, it’s so outdated [laughs]. So the idea was to redesign the website that I had, and make it an educational tool, if there was interest. The idea wasn’t just to make money, although that is a part of it, that’s what Club Z is. It’s the part of the website where you can become a member, but I’ve continued to post tips for free on Facebook and Instagram and I’m going to continue to do that. Club Z popped into my head, because it sounded hip and cool [laughs] and with a last name like Zakrajsek, that’s why the website is Coach Tom Z because that’s what everybody calls me.
In Club Z I try to select one question a month that’s submitted to me, on the website or email or in person — I tend to keep track of those things to find out what coaches are really interested in. So I do one question a month for the Gold members, and then I do one skating-specific exercise that I think might be useful to them. If you pay $10 a month you get access to that, and I’ve occasionally offered discounts and will continue to do that. If I gave a private lesson it would be $35 for 20 minutes, and I’m going to do this once a month, so I figured that was a fair price. But I have no idea. I felt like, I don’t want to gouge people, but I also don’t want to give everything away for free.
And then the Platinum membership is $25 a month, and in addition to those two things they also get a 10-minute technical video on something specific. In the first month it was Brandon and I talking about the lutz, giving away the technique of how to do it. Brandon talks about his quadruple lutz and what he thinks about and how he aligns himself, and then I talk about the key points of teaching a triple or quadruple lutz. And then we do some fun exercises. The video is really designed to show the coach-student interaction and how learning can be fun and casual, and the atmosphere of how I coach and how skaters learn. It’s 10 minutes of succinct information and examples, and it’s what I envisioned this kind of video to be. And then the Platinum members get training tips. I get a lot of questions about that.
I thought, if I really want to give away something useful in the Club, it’s going to be that kind of information. I had to work so hard to figure that out, but then I’m thinking, why do I hang onto that? For what purpose? All the coaches that I know well, and even the coaches that I don’t know personally as well like Richard Callaghan and Tamara Moskvina and John Nicks, that have been so giving in my career with helpful hints, giving me ideas, pulling me aside from time to time and making suggestions. I think, gosh, I wouldn’t even be successful without these people helping me. I’m in the over-50 club now, I’m 24 years into my career, I think it’s a natural progression now for me to look back and start to think, well, what am I grateful for? And if I can give back that way, and that’s going to help a younger generation of coaches, that’s what I’m going to do. And that was part of the decision to share the training tips, I will open up my training plans. The first training tip was my presentation at the PSA website, because so many coaches at the PSA conference wanted a copy of that. It’s in the Platinum section and it basically lays out the first four weeks of a summer skating school in detail. I really wanted to give something substantial, and if people were going to pay money they should feel like when they watched the video and looked at the training tip, they should feel like, yeah, that was $25 worth. And that’s still less than a 20-minute lesson from me, and they can watch it together. And then I’m putting together four e-books, on periodization, competition planning, goal setting, and basic jump technique. When they’re published, if you’re a member you get a discount on those books. Plus, if you want to consult with me, or you come to the World Arena and take a lesson with me, if you’re a member you get 15% off your lesson.
On working with Ryan Bradley: Ryan’s mother was a referee who had refereed my regional events when I skated. I had interviewed for a job in Omaha, and I went there and it just wasn’t the right fit. But when I turned it down, the president of the club was friends with Barbara Bradley, and Shane Douglas was going to be leaving the club in St. Joseph. So the president called Barb and said, we just interviewed Tom and he turned down the job, you should try to get him to your club. And Barb called me, and I don’t remember if it was really early, I had just come back from a Disney tour in Asia and I was really jetlagged, and I answered the phone and I had no idea who she is, and I said, I’ll send you my resume, give me your address. And I wrote the address wrong. So I sent my resume to the incorrect street name. And she called me a few weeks later, and said, did you blow me off? And I said, no, I sent my resume, did you not get it? And she said, no. And I said, what was the street address? And she gave it again, and she said Woodfield and I heard it as Whitfield, and I said, that’s the address I sent it to. So she said, look, we’re going to pay you to come out to St. Joseph for the weekend. You can say no, you can say it’s too small, you can say whatever, but are you going to turn out this amount of money just to come out? Do you have a job? Could you use some money? That was how she convinced me to do the interview. And just before I came there, the envelope with my resume came back marked ‘return to sender, no such address’. So I took it to her and showed it to her, and she said, no wonder it came back, you got the street name wrong [laughs]. It was so weird how it worked out and how I got the job there. And I look back on that now and how I fell in love with the Bode Ice Arena there, it’s in the middle of this cute little park, and St. Joseph is actually a nice little small town. I knew within an hour of working there, I can do this. I stayed there for seven years.
As Ryan was rising in the ranks, we talked about Chris [Bowman] who I competed against, and Scott Hamilton who was quite the showman too and had great crowd appeal. In terms of marketability, as an artist you have to be able to reach the audience if you produce any kind of art, and skating has that in it. Figure skating is first and foremost a sport. However, there’s an artistic component to it that is really strong and it has to have that audience appeal. So certainly that was always part of the discussions with Ryan from the get-go. He was quite the personality.
My very first lesson in St. Joseph was with his sister Becky, the third figure test, forward outside double threes, and I’m trying to concentrate on helping her. And there is this commotion — noise, scratching of a scribe, chicken jumping- and I look over and there’s this little boy trying to use a scribe, he doesn’t know how, but he’s trying. And the patch, which is pristine, is now a mess because it has skids and scratches all over it. Part of the scribe came undone and flew into the boards. Then he gets so bored with not able to draw a circle with the scribe that he puts it against the wall and tries doing Axels over it, in his patch skates. And I remember being so distracted, and I came off the ice and then had a lesson with another skater, and during her lesson he was just as noisy. And I got off the ice and Barb was sitting at one of the tables in the lobby, and she said, what do you think? And I said, well, there’s this little boy out there. And she’s like, oh no, what happened? And I said, well, he didn’t know how to patch, and he was making so much noise. And she goes, oh. Well, should we take him off the ice? And I said, no! I want to teach him! And she said, well, he doesn’t know how to skate. And I said, well, that’s obvious [laughs]. And I asked her why he was there. And she said that they wanted to make the sessions look as busy as possible while I was there, so they stuck everybody they had in the club on the ice [laughs]. And I was like, oh, no, he has exactly what he needs to be a figure skater, he’s fearless, and if he didn’t know what to do, he acted pretty confident for not knowing. Those are two great qualities. And she said, well, everybody in the club says he has no talent. And I said, I don’t know how much skating talent he has, but he certainly has a couple of really good qualities that stood out to me. And the very next session I gave him a lesson. For a long time he had white skates with black paint on them, and the paint would chip off, and I remember him being really embarrassed about them.
Ryan has always had ideas about music selection, and his mom has always had ideas, and sometimes I’ve contributed to those ideas. And there was a point in Ryan’s career where I cautioned him about putting together programs that might be too show-oriented and not really fitting in with what the judges prefer. But that’s always been a huge part of Ryan, and I’ve always supported that and supported his originality, and as a coach tried to give him confidence to be his own person, to be his own type of skater and athlete, and to do it to the best of his ability. If he sees me as having been that to him, then I will feel as if I have succeeded in helping him be the artist that he is. I don’t know if I ever strongly rejected an idea that he had. I did raise my eyebrow when he told me he was going to do Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy [laughs]. But then when I actually saw the program coming together, I thought, wow, this is just going to bring the house down.
On working with Rachael Flatt: She was just totally a joy. She’s back in Colorado this summer studying for the MCATs. We certainly are still talking and reflecting back on certain things. And my feeling on Rachael is, what a joy she was to work with. Over the course of almost 11 years, I go, when was there ever a major conflict, when were there major problems, when was she ever off track and underperforming. In that amount of time, I think, maybe twice? And not even in a substantial way.
I think that’s unique for coaches to have that kind of relationship with the athlete, but also with the parents. Jody and Jim Flatt are just fantastic people, very intelligent, very well-educated. The Flatt family, including her extended family, are just such a cohesive unit, with all her relatives supporting everything. I look back at that and go, wow, I was so blessed that they just trusted me for so long. There was an opportunity where they could have gone to a more proven coach, and we had that discussion and they chose to stay with me. I just can’t say enough great things about that. And then Rachael just as a person —the one thing I would say about her is, she would listen in a lesson, and then the lesson would be done, and no matter what it was she’d be working on it. It could be a small detail, it could be a new skill, it could be a section of the program, it could be the facial expression in the footwork section. It could be something totally minute, like how she did the grab in the catchfoot spin. One of the things that Rachael did marvelously was spinning in the other direction, and anybody who’s a skater knows how difficult that is. I remember watching her one year when she was so determined to do it, and just to watch her work day after day until she got it right — that is truly a gift. That is what stands out about her to me.
On working with Max Aaron: It was certainly tough when he just missed the Olympic team. And in hindsight, you know, in our country it boils down to – the way I look at it as a coach is, Max could have skated better in both the short and the long, he could have thrown it down like he did in 2013. He skated two very good programs [at 2014 nationals], but he didn’t skate lights out like he did [in 2013]. On the day of the short program, even with Ricky Dornbush skating such a great short, and Jason [Brown] doing such a great long, and Jeremy, I think they, like Max, had to go lights out. On that level, I think Max understands that and makes sense of it. On another level, having spoken to some former national champions, and knowing what it’s like to be the defending national champion in a year where you’re trying to make the Olympic team, he’s gotten kudos from so many great champions on how he handled that pressure. Because that’s the other thing that so many people don’t realize, it’s easy to be the long shot and just go lights out, but if you’re the defending champion and you have a real shot at the team, that’s a whole different mindset and pressure. So from that standpoint, how Max did at Nationals was incredibly well. And I only know that from having talked to a lot of really top name skaters, and I don’t want to name them here, but some of them shared it privately with Max or myself or both of us, and we certainly appreciated their support and their comments and recognize that he was in a tough position and did very well for that.
On working with Mirai Nagasu: My goals are really Mirai’s goals, and I don’t know if she’s shared them publicly, but that’s her right to do that and she should probably be the first person to do that. I don’t really think I should speak for her, but I will say that probably anybody who realizes that she has relocated to Colorado Springs – that shows a little bit of what she wants to do. And anybody who knows her, and I know her fairly well because she and Rachael traveled together many times, knows what she would like to do this season without her even saying it. Mirai is a determined young woman, she’s a smart young woman, and she just turned 21. Quite frankly we haven’t talked that far, in terms of a quadrennial plan, and that was for a specific reason. We talked about the reasons why she should set one this year, and the reasons why she shouldn’t, but she definitely has well-defined goals and I’m very honored that she would put her trust in me. The one thing I’ll say, and I know that this has been on the social media, is that Adam Rippon choreographed both her programs for the season. I didn’t notice at first because when I saw them, they had actually been done before Worlds when she came to work with me for a month in March, and I asked her who did them. And when she said Adam, I was just blown away. I don’t want to create a lot of hype about it, but I’m really excited. The music choices are really cool and appropriate, and I like everything about the work they did together. So when he was out working with Tom and Catarina, we sat down and talked about the goals for the programs, and what I thought of his work, which is that it’s outstanding. Which shouldn’t surprise everyone, but sometimes the best artistic skaters can’t create for other people. I don’t know if Adam’s choreographed programs for anyone else, but I think the work he’s done for Mirai shows that he will be the choreographer that we all think he will be, based on his skating. And I’m so impressed with Mirai’s work ethic. I think she’s starting fresh, starting anew, and I think that’s a good place for her to be in.
On his gum-chewing habit: Joe Inman, every time he sees me backstage at Nationals, he’s like, Tom, spit your gum out [laughs]. I was a former student of Johnny Johns, and Johnny chews gum too, so I was thinking maybe I got it from him. But for me, it’s kind of a relaxing thing, but maybe now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll have to spit it out. I don’t think of it as a nervous habit, I chew gum because I chew gum a lot. To me, it’s like, if I’m chewing gum every day when I’m coaching, and I’m at Nationals and it’s stressful, I’m just going to keep doing what I normally do.