The dean of freestyle coaches is Russia’s Alexei Mishin, who works at the Yubileinyi Ice Rink in St. Petersburg. Among Mishin’s pupils are Olympic champions Alexei Urmanov and Alexei Yagudin, World Champion Evgeni Plushenko and several champions of the Soviet Union and Russia.
Mishin literally wrote the book on figure skating that is used in Russia’s Institutes for Physical Culture. As the chair of figure skating in the Russian university system, he developed the primer that all students use when studying the sport. In addition, Mishin has authored several books on the biomechanics of figure skating and jumps which have been published in Russia, Germany, China, Japan and several other countries.
Mishin was a late starter in skating. “My parents brought me to the arena when I was 15,” Mishin said. “I was always moving so they thought I should use the energy somewhere. My father saw a skater in the park and thought this is where my son should be. He came and skated with me to create some interest for me.” Mishin competed in singles within the Soviet Union, then competed internationally in pairs with Tamara Moskvina.
“I started in pairs in 1966 just as an experiment,” he remembered. “I was an experienced singles skater, near the top in the Soviet Union, but I did not participate in any ISU championships because we only had one place and I was third. Tamara was also an experienced singles skater and several times the USSR ladies champion. It was the first time two singles skaters with such skill began in pairs. I was 25 when I started to skate with Tamara and she was my only partner.”
“I had two star light moments in my career. The first was in 1969 when we beat the Protopopovs in the Soviet Union, with Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov third. It was the first time anyone had won over the Protopopovs in the Soviet Union. We expected to be on the podium and we thought that the Protopopovs would be first, but we knew the third place was free. The other was when Russian couples won all the medals at the World Championships at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Rodnina and Ulanov were first, then Tamara and I, then the Protopopovs. We decided to stop at that moment and become coaches. I’m thankful that I stopped skating and started coaching when I was young, only 28 years old.”
“I didn’t go to school to be a coach,” Mishin said. “I graduated from a technical university with a degree in mechanics and started my dissertation on the mechanical base of figure skating technique. I started with jumps and learning the biomechanics of skating movements. Then I modified the toe jumps. I started teaching singles, both men and ladies, and had a group of skaters show that my techniques were good. In the beginning of my career, I was more of a semi-coach, but I started to get success quickly. By 1975, I already had a national champion of the Soviet Union after only five years of training.”
“It was different at that time,” he continued. “There were a lot of skaters and a lot of coaches. The base of my success is that I started to look at jump technique scientifically. I began to create exercise techniques and methods for conditioning, both for on ice and off ice, that made the skaters learn jumps very quickly. It’s a whole system of exercises.” Although Mishin was somewhat reluctant to talk about his system, he noted, “I created the most important and most visible influence on training techniques in the world. It’s very different from the American and Europeans systems. Now many coaches use my methods, including Russian, European and American coaches. I have done many seminars and many coaches copy me.”
“The coaches using my system don’t like to advertise my authorship of it,” he added. “Once I told an American coach I was upset when my rivals used my system, but she said that this is my royalty (legacy). When I think to myself where I have made my mark in figure skating, it is not the champions but the system of jump teaching that I created.”
Although he is best known for coaching Olympic and World champions from Russia, Mishin also advises many other skaters from other countries during his clinics and seminars in the summer. Among those who have benefited from his expertise are Romania’s Georghe Chiper and Swiss skaters Stephane Lambiel and Patrick Meier.
“I’ve worked with Mishin for about five years,” said Chiper. “He’s a bit different from other coaches, but working him was very easy. Perhaps we had sympathy for each other because we come from the same part of the world and understood one another. He made me more aware of myself on the ice. Everyone tries to be so complicated, but what is so special about Mishin is that he goes back to the very simple things that can make a big difference. He told me that you have to know what you are doing and what you have to do to do each movement. He gives you the hints and then you have to work it out for yourself. You have to process what he says and adapt it for your own style. That made me really think about what I was doing.”
“I went to Mishin for the first time in 1998,” Lambiel stated. “There was a camp in Holland and my coach knew some coaches there so he encouraged me to go. He taught me a new way of training. Mishin makes the skaters do lots of little exercises to prepare a jump and make it work. It’s more like a warm-up up to the jump itself, because he doesn’t like the skaters to try a jump many times and fall over and over again.”
“Mishin has a very deep scientific background,” Meier added. “His teaching follows always his philosophy of skating. Everything what he is asking from you has a specific reason. He is not only looking for details on one element. With every exercise he tries to improve your whole skating. I learned a lot from him. Not only for my own skating but also for my idea of skating. For me it was also very important to be in Mishin’s group of skaters. In Switzerland are not so many skaters with a higher level. To be in a group of good skaters was always very motivating and important for me.”
“I always work with my wife Tatiana,” Mishin remarked. “She was the USSR ladies national champion and one of my pupils. We do a lot of coaching together and she has been part of all my achievements. My wife works better with the girls, using my techniques. For me, it’s better to have one average boy than two excellent girls.”
“Once I had five skaters that I could match against anyone in the world,” he continued, “including Urmanov, Yagudin, Plushenko and Tautarov. Three were superstar skaters. All were like diamonds, unique but not the same. Plushenko is the best. He has no weakness in his talent. Evgeni’s coach brought him to me when he was young. He saw that Evgeni had talent. The difference between me and other coaches is that all my skaters start with me as young kids. I worked ten years with Urmanov, eight years with Yagudin and more than ten years with Plushenko. With my system, I create the champions.”
“I never teach a lot of skaters,” he continued. “First of all, I have to discover who is talented and who is not. I cannot spend time on skaters with little talent. God has brought me a lot of talented skaters, including four Junior World champions – three men and one lady. The true champions unite the muscles and brain well. The muscles reflect the mind. The skaters don’t have to be strong or beautiful but when they have this connection, then they are able to conquer the audience.”
That’s a drawback to the new Code of Points judging system in Mishin’s view. “The Russian poet Pushkin has said that it is very hard to measure harmony by means of algebra,” he said. “There is one quality of the athletes that is not measured by the new system. That is the charm, the magic that skaters like Toller Cranston, Yagudin and Plushenko possess. And for dance, how do you measure joy in numbers? The goal of dance is to bring joy.”
“The positive part is that the skaters are striving to perfect each element and to find ways to make each element more difficult,” he continued. “The leading athletes want to do everything cleanly and elegantly and the expressive skaters will be able to collect more points in the program components. But you don’t see the individual judges’ marks and I don’t think that will make skating very poplar.”
Mishin has no plans to retire anytime soon. “I plan to coach until I die,” Mishin remarked. “I’m still feeling young. The years are running, but I don’t feel it in my heart.