Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Frank Carroll: Good Cop/Bad Cop
Much internet buzz has surrounded the comments made to and about Mirai Nagasu by Frank Carroll. Having coached Mirai for about eighteen months, Frank has been through a trying time with the young skating starlet. He was brought in as her coach in a last ditch effort to right her quest to make the Olympic Team. There were underrotated jumps, an overall juvenile look on the ice, lack of discipline, and focus issues to correct in his time. Given Mirai's immense talent, Frank knew that he had a diamond in the rough on his hands.
Mirai went on to qualify for the Olympics and place fourth in Vancouver, but she did so by having quite a few crumbling long programs along the way. Once again, Mirai had a strong short program at Worlds and followed it up with a sub-par free skate. A stress fracture in her foot kept Mirai off the ice for two months this summer, which Frank felt gave Mirai an opportunity to rest after the Olympic season.
Frank Carroll is one of the top figure skating coaches on the planet, if not the best. He was coached World Champions under systems including figures, without figures and now under the International Judging System. He has worked with an assortment of students, but perhaps never one quite like Mirai. The focus can't just occur right before competitions, it needs to be everyday.
Given her overall 'little girl' nature and attitude, many people use Mirai's age as an excuse. The girl is 17 going on 18. The truth is that at her age, Michelle Kwan had two World Titles and an Olympic Silver Medal, Tara Lipinski was retired after being World and Olympic Champion, and Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim were already dominating the sport. Frequently, we will hear that Mirai often doesn't work as hard as she can in training. Evan Lysacek used to yell at her to get her focused and on task. Leading into Nationals, Frank said that Mirai only got her shit together within the last three weeks. It isn't enough time to perform well at the highest level.
It is true that Mirai was injured this summer. That injury allowed her to admittedly grow "outwards and upwards." That was a major problem this season, as she was visibly out of shape at her Grand Prix events. It also made it more difficult to get her jumps back. When other athletes have missed time, they often swim, do yoga and pilates, and all sorts of exercise to keep their bodies in tip-top shape and ready to meet the challenges of the ice. Mirai went on to compete at two Grand Prix events that she was not prepared for, largely in part due to her lack of effort during her time off the ice. When asked about her time off, Mirai mentioned spending the summer at the beach. More focused champions would mention all of the work they did to stay in shape and even improve aspects of their core strength.
One of Frank Carroll's greatest strengths as a coach is that he has the right blend between a calming influence and a strict disciplinarian. He has a stern side that is rarely shown in public, but it is known by his skaters. Frank encouraged Mirai before her free skate to give her confidence, but he was far from pleased with her effort in the long program at Nationals. After a frustrating year and half, Frank openly told her that "she blew it." Given how many fans adore Mirai, they were shocked that he would say that. Many internet posters argued that she should leave him and find a better coach.
The truth of the matter is that Mirai is an elite athlete who hires her coach to get her to perform to the best of her ability. Coaches are not there to merely be a friend to the skater. Frank teaches Mirai technique, but a great deal of his job is psychologically preparing her. That is a difficult task to due considering the unruly nature of the student. One of the reasons Mirai is so popular is because she is charismatic and cluelessly says whatever she is thinking. It may be entertaining, but it does not reflect the necessary discipline of a champion.
There is a lack of 'internal win' going on that is extremely evident. Michelle Kwan was serious in interviews, but she also trained her ass off. Tim Goebel was fired by Frank by not skating well, but he was still working hard. Linda Fratianne, Evan Lysacek and Tiffany Chin were all talented, but they pushed themselves and worked with discipline and intention. There were never articles with their own coach criticizing their work ethic. When a coach openly criticizes their athlete in the media, it is often a way to get through to them and get them on track. It is likely not the first time the coach has tried to get that message through to the athlete, but they are doing it whichever way will work. Bela Karolyi frequently used this tactic. Suzanne Yoculan declared her team 'underachievers' to get them into a winning mindset.
Frank is known for having strong jump technique. Mirai's jumps have always had technique issues, but it is something that they've worked on. At times, her jumps are much improved. There are also times that she resorts back to bad habits under pressure. Twice this season, we've seen Mirai completely miss spins during her free skates. This is due to a lack of focus and preparation. When one is prepared, the pressure they feel is reduced dramatically. When someone takes center ice, there is the feeling of being revealed and almost naked. One's true preparation is revealed during the course of those four minutes. Mental preparation often develops over the course of repetition and competitive experience when prepared. While Mirai was not prepared for her Grand Prix events, she had two months to get her act together for Nationals. Many other skaters have suffered injuries and delivered. Michelle Kwan was only the ice for mere weeks before the 1998 Nationals, yet she pulled off two legendary performances due to her physical fitness and mental strength. Michelle didn't let herself go (physically or mentally) when off the ice.
One of the lasting quotes of Frank Carroll's from this weekend is his declaration and hope that this is the swift kick in the ass that she needs to finally get on task, get focused and get serious. For all of the talent Mirai has, she has not improved at the rate one would anticipate. Years have gone by where everyone has discussed her potential. Unfortunately, she has periods where she rests on being talented and doesn't push through to the next level. This coming year represents a critical period for Mirai as a skater. If she doesn't come back serious, trained, focused and ready to compete, the powers that have supported her will likely lose faith and move on. Too many talented skaters are coming up for Mirai to give away titles that should be her own. Skaters often become passed without even realizing it. What may be 'just one competition' for one, may be a long-time coming in the minds of others. It generally takes a bit for the changing of the guard to officially take place. Everyone in skating knows how talented Mirai is, but at the end of the day, the focus and drive to be the best needs to come to herself. It is understandable that her coach is exasperated by her inconsistent nature, as he is charged with making her a champion. He'd hug her and be happy with a bronze medal if she was just a girl skating for fun and hoping to make it through Regionals and Sectionals. The time for 'potential' is over. As her youth fades, it is time to put up or shut up. (And in her case, perhaps both.)