Canadians merging figure skating with the digital app world

Who knew that an elevator ride could have such far-reaching consequences for a figure skating coach?

Brian Orser walked into an elevator in his condo building one day about three years ago, and emerged as a future developer of a skating “app.” Never mind that he’s not on Facebook and has never tweeted in his life. His app is now called Peak Performance Skating, all in aid of helping athletes on blades  get by those rough mental bits, like relaxing enough to fall asleep, or finding the energy and the perfect mental picture for success.

Ben Ferreira, who won the hearts of a country with the skate of his life at the 2004 Canadian championships, when he landed a quad-triple in the short, and seven triples plus a quad in the long to take the silver medal, loves the tech world too, but never saw himself as a developer of an app. Now he, too, has his hands on the latest technology, all in aid of teaching skaters to wrestle that jump, single or triple.

Not to mention former pair skater, now businessman Craig Buntin, also developing a fascinating app from his perch in Quebec. More on that later.

It seems as if Canadian skaters have a grasp of this world of iPhones and iPads and iPods and Androids and getting vital information with the brush of a fingerprint on a digital device. And they all seem to be ahead of the curve, not only trail blazers in the world of figure skating but also in digital contexts.

For Orser, the timing was perfect. The stars were aligned when he stepped into that elevator and met Asad Mecci, a hypnotist/motivational coach who knew who Orser was (but not vice versa.)

Mecci had been involved in mental training, visualization and meditation for more than 10 years and had worked with members of India’s junior national tennis team on mental strength and imagery. He had an idea to develop apps to help athletes in other sports with mental training.

The timing was perfect.  “It was something I was looking for,” Orser said. He knew it was important, from his own experiences. He hadn’t had to worry about it much with Yuna Kim, blessed with all sorts of mental strength, he said. “I’m sure at night she visualized,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t.”

The mental aspect of skating made the difference for Orser. In 1986, he was the red hot favourite to win the world championships – but he admits he “choked.”

“It was devastating for me,” he said.

Immediately afterward, Orser contacted sports psychologist Peter Jensen, who helped him to relax and focus on the competitions, to be in the moment. He won the world title in 1987. “I was so happy and I wanted to tell the world!” he said. He told journalists about the importance of Jensen’s contribution at every single interview for a month afterward, but he didn’t feel they listened. “To this day, the mental side of skating is still not talked about enough and there are zero resources that are easily accessible to the average skater,” he said. “Only the top tiers of athletes today are fortunate enough to have access to the kind of help that I received.”

Ferreria’s journey to technical wizardry began with the seminar company he started alongside wife/choreographer/dancer Jadene, and with the help of performance coach Steffany Hanlen as partner. The idea, he said, was to take seminars to the next level – and they do this by, for example, offering a Master Class in doing one jump, like the Axel, and poking into its every nuance and angle. They call their seminar company “Skating Success.” Jadene offers transitions and choreography. Ferreira knows positions and jump fundamentals.

Ferreira comes armed with Dartfish training, and offers consultations. One of his clients is Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond. Ferreira can determine the proper body angles with Dartfish and even measure the flight time and flight angles of skaters.

“Before Dartfish, I wouldn’t call myself a technical guy,” Ferreira said. “But Dartfish changed everything.”

Dartfish has led him to become a partner in a just-released app called FS Tech Jump 1, which teaches the technique of jumps from singles to triples.  There are very few skating instructional apps out there, really, but Mark Fitzgerald, a former ice dancer married to Naomi Lang, created a series of them for US Figure Skating. “Birds of a feather flock together,” said Ferreira, and the two have become a team, crossing borders to each add to an idea. Fitzgerald’s company is called Rink Tank Interactive.

Fitzgerald handles the monumental task of filming skaters, like Michael Weiss and Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, and his strength is as a computer programmer, kicked into gear when the iPhone came onto the scene. Ferreira adds his Dartfish expertise to the project. Currently, the apps serve as a reference to skaters, coaches and parents on proper technique – and the content can be updated anytime. They warn their clients not to look at their iPhones when trying out the tricks! The app was released on December, 2013.

Ferreira says he’s spoken to Fitzgerald only perhaps eight times on the phone. They  communicate mainly through Facebook messenger. “It’s really getting content to the masses,” Ferreira said. “It’s a continuation of the Skating Success seminars. We have a really big vision for this. We really want to make a difference on a large scale. I think we can.”

At the beginning, Orser wasn’t certain that visualization and hypnotic processes would be effective without an actual instructor to go through sessions. So he kept the app to himself for a while. Instead, he gave it to some of his students to see if it worked. One of them was Yuzuru Hanyu, among the first to use it.

Hanyu wanted to leave all emotional baggage aside when he hit the ice. He wanted pure focus and to be in the moment. The app helped him with that “immensely,” Orser said.

That was the proof Orser needed. “You don’t need to hire an expensive hypnotist to do this for you before and after training sessions and competitions,” Orser says. “You can simply listen to the audio contained in the app anytime you need it!” Orser’s words are on the app, leading a skater to visualize what it feels like to finish an event, satisfied at having done his best. The voice is Mecci’s.  It’s rather hypnotic.

Beverley Smith

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