Alexander Uspenski as a coach at Russian Nationals 2019
Alexander Uspenski at the Junior Grand Prix in Zagreb 2005, which he won.
Alexander Uspenski:
„When taking on something it is always hard, but you have to push through“


Alexander Uspenski was a promising figure skater, but he ended his career in 2010 when he was only 23 years old and turned to coaching right away. He is now working in CSKA Moscow and is one of the coaches of Maxim Kovtun, who won his fourth National title in December 2018.

(The Russian version of this interview has been published on the website of the Russian Figure Skating Federation)


Q: You retired from competing when you were 23 years old. Was it because of injuries?

A: I don’t think that the injuries that bothered me at the time were determinative in my decision to leave the sport. Yes, I had some surgeries, but their consequences were not a serious obstacle to continue my skating career. Now I am 32 years old and I am completely healthy and full of power and maybe even better prepared than I was in the time when I skated. The reason was elsewhere. At this time I did not understand through what I could progress further and achieve results. Even though my coaches supported me and were ready to work with me.


Q: Did you ever regret that you ended your career so early?

A: That would not make sense. With this understanding and in relation to the situation overall I left on time. Probably, in the condition I was in, I would not have been able to get any higher. Maybe I didn’t have enough motivation, not enough drive. Probably, at that time there was not a person next to me that would have taught me, shown me the way how to achieve goals, to fight and not to stop in front of barriers. As I understand now, I would have needed that. But I’m not saying this to blame someone, on the contrary, I am grateful to all coaches, all people that life had led me to. It is just that after a certain time you start to understand that it is one thing to learn to be a good athlete, well trained and a completely different thing to be a champion and strive for being one. This is the same in any sphere of life, if business or politics. There are professionals and there are champions and winners. And that’s a completely different story.

However, my life is continuing, I am developing further. And I learned from the mistakes that I made as an athlete. At the time when I retired I can absolutely say that I was a completely different person in my consciousness, reflection on life, in some qualities. Now I became much stronger inside. But I needed time for that. Life brought me together with people that I learned from, I got experience and I was watching what happened around me. And now I can clearly say that when I was an athlete, I was not able to leave my comfort zone. And this is what I wish everyone – not to be afraid of that that, because it is important to understand, that if you set big goals for yourself, then you will meet big difficulties that you have to learn to overcome. When taking on something it is always hard, but you have to push through.


Q: How did you get into figure skating?

A: Figure skating popped into my life completely accidentally. We lived not far from the stadium “Lokomotiv” and on the territory was an untouched park where everyone was taking a walk. So once my mother, brother and I saw on a field kids that did sports with a coach. My mother asked, whether I wanted to do sports. For some reason I said ‘yes’ right away. I don’t remember much from my childhood, but this moment for some reason is engraved in my memory. We waited until the practice was over and my mother spoke to the coach, who said that they are figure skating group. They asked me again ‘do you want to skate?’. I nodded and soon I got skates and was registered in the skating club.


Q: Do you remember your first coach?

A: Tatiana Vladimirovna Kapitanova. Since I continued to skate she apparently gave me good basics. After two years I switched to Tatiana Vladimirovna Nemtsova and trained with her until I started school. Together with the parents we decided right away that school has priority and it was hard to balance school with training. On May 31 they closed the rink for maintenance and we went to the summerhouse for the whole summer. In those years the skaters didn’t have two weeks summer vacation like they have now, but they had three months off. And when I returned and started school, I didn’t even remember figure skating anymore. But after half a year accidentally we met Nemtsova when standing in a line. She asked my mother, why I stopped. She added that she liked me a lot, I tried hard, I was the leader in the group, and she suggested that I should go to the ice ballet if I had the desire to do so. Their training starts at seven in the evening. I remember this talk very well. While we were standing in that long line, we were talking about everything.

So I started to go to the ice ballet. Boys were in demand. The ballet was going on tour quite often and I had to learn some elements. And Nemtsova suggested to take additional lessons with Sergei Dobroskokov. Meeting him played an important role in my life.

Sergei Vladimirovitch taught me to do the Axel, we learned all double jumps. To train with him was interesting, because he talked to me like to a grown up, like a man, and I liked that. Sergei Vladimirovitch taught me to jump and brought me to the next level. From this moment my understanding of figure skating, what I am doing became more cognitive.

However, soon Dobroskov and Nemtsova went abroad for work. I returned to the school at “Lokomotiv” and started training under Natalia Petrovna Dubinskaia. We worked together for ten years. We went through different periods – good ones and not to good ones. I remember Natalia Petrovna as a very strong woman, as a coach who invests a lot into her students, she can energize you with her energy, push, direct. Now I understand how much she gave me. My ascent in the sport started with Natalia Petrovna. When I switched to her, I did well at the Moscow Childrens’ Championship and took second place. I qualified for Nationals where I came fifth. The coach was pleased, she said that next year we’ll win. And indeed, a year later I won and this was the starting point for the following results.

Dubinskaia first worked as the head coach at “Lokomotiv”, but then she went to “Moskvitch”, taking some athletes with her. I was one of them. From 2000 and to the end of my career as an athlete I skated in “Moskvitch”. I think I was very lucky with my coaches. After Natalia Petrovna I trained with Marina Grigorievna Kudriavtseva. Viktor Nikolaevitch (Kudriavtsev) was the head coach at “Moskvitch” at the time. Lena Sokolova skated with him and he dedicated a lot of time to her. But Viktor Nikolaevitch knew about all our problems, the situation in school, he helped, took us to training camps, seminars, where I learned. Until now his technical and non technical advice that he gave me, is helping me a lot in my work. For me the contact with these people was very important.


Q: What period of your career do you remember most of all?

A: I had a very successful competition at a Junior Grand Prix in 2004. This competition was the result of a summer preparation that was very well done by the coaches. I remember this whole time, from June to September, as being very happy. I remember how I did the whole training program, I was very focused, everything went well in life. The result of all that was the victory in the competition. A clear victory. But then I started to let go this condition and I was not able to finish the season the same way I started it. But I remember this condition until this day, my feeling, concentration, focus. My head was absolutely clear which led to this result at the Grand Prix.


Q: Now all this experience to you got you can use to teach your students.

A: I’m trying. Now I understand what I did wrong, what was not enough and when I see a similar mood (in the student), hear the same justifications and phrases, then I understand that the mindset of the athletes needs to be changed.


Q: Was it difficult to start coaching right away?

A: I can’t say that I really wanted it. To go coaching right away was just the easiest and most rational decision. At first I wanted to try myself in shows, but since I didn’t have big titles, I didn’t get interesting offers. And then my friend, who was already coaching, asked me to help him with a girl and I started to go to their practices. After a some time, a fellow student suggested me to mount a program for a boy from her group. I tried it and they liked the program. For one and a half years I did choreography. I worked not only with skaters from CSKA, but I also went to the school No. 37 to Anna Vladimirovna Tsareva. I did a program for her daughter, I also worked with Anna Pogorilaya on her programs. In 2014 I got a call from the deputy head of CSKA, where I was working for three years at the time and she told me that Tatiana Anatolievna Tarasova suggests me to work with her. Artur Gachinski had switched to her at this time and for me this was a chance to test myself in a completely different function.


Q: Why different?

A: Because it is something completely different to put a child on to the ice, teach him the first steps or to take an already accomplished athlete to competition. There are different periods of teaching, different goals, tasks, another level of responsibility. I am grateful to Tatiana Anatolievna that she allowed me to learn from her. I got into a completely different sphere, that I didn’t know at the time and I didn’t understand, how things are done and what depends on what. I had only a rough idea about everything, but when you get into that work then you start to realize that you don’t know anything. And I got the chance to get into all that.

When I was working with kids, I felt in my subconscious that a lot, if not everything, depends on the coach. And if something didn’t work, then I thought that it is my fault. Tatiana Anatolievna strengthened this feeling and this is the right position. Tarasova taught me to take the responsibility in any situation, not to be afraid, but to strive for that. The contact with her changed my character a lot and I am very grateful to her.

Not everything worked out right away, but I tried to learn and I’m learning. I can accept criticism that comes up in any job. And when I’m travelling to competitions, I’m always watching the other coaches, because it is not always necessary to chat. You can just watch, how people act, how they carry themselves before the competition, during practices, warm ups and you can pick up something and note something useful for yourself. So when I started to work with Artur Gachinski, it wasn’t very easy, because the demands towards me as a coach became bigger, the responsibility grew and everything was basically different than working with beginners. But it gave me a huge experience and knowledge.


Q: You even were skating at the same time as Artur, and then you had to change your relationships from fellow competitor to coach and student. Can a coach be the comrade of his student?

A: I believe it is a big mistake when the coach becomes a comrade. This is my opinion. There should be a subordination.


Q: Are you a strict coach?

A: I think, yes. And I am becoming stricter and stricter. But that depends on many moments. With time, you gain authority, you step by step have influence on the athlete and you have to put everything in a way that the athletes don’t regard you as an equal, but as someone, who ranks higher. Therefore, it comes to different situations where you have to demonstrate willpower, in order to motivate the student, force him to do this or another element, deal with himself.


Q: Maxim Kovtun, with whom you are working, is probably not the most compliant student.

A: If we speak about the working process, yes, like everywhere, there are difficult moments. But now I really enjoy what we’re doing as a team. Maxim’s arrival was not a challenge. At first it was difficult to accept, realize and get to work. Yes, it is not easy, but it is interesting.


Q: Did you believe that Maxim this year wins Russian Nationals? Did you believe in him?

A: I will say it like that: In the work with Maxim everything went by stages and correctly by stages. Elena Germanovna (Vodorezova Buianova) put the relationship from the beginning into the right place. First she established that Maxim has to get his body into working shape within a certain amount of time, by losing weight and he got into shape. Then we had the stage of mounting the programs. And so step by step other tasks followed. Nobody said that we had to achieve certain placements at certain competitions. Elena Germanovna started from the easiest, but step by step we all moved forward.

In my work I stick to the opinion that I should do the maximum what I’ve been trusted to do. Therefore, we just worked, searched for approaches, ways how to achieve that. And we managed the first stage.


Q: You have been working in CSKA since 2011. Who else are working with now except for Maxim Kovtun?

A: Maxim is the priority. But I am also working with other skaters if necessary. I’m working on skating skills, do programs, but I am happy to be involved in this work. Like it all comes together and within the team I think this is comprehensive. We are all aiming at the same thing. I like this kind of teamwork.


Q: When you stand at the boards while your skater is competing, you are very emotional, you jump up and down. But you seem to be a very calm person in life.

A: This is also a part of the task on the shoulders of a coach. Before going out you cannot show the athlete your nervousness, but when you sent him out on to the ice, all your emotions, nervousness that you were holding back, is coming out. The coach is always involved into that process. He cannot be indifferent to what happens out on the ice. The coach is always close and feels the athlete strongly.

Obviously, in different situations coaches act in a different way, but under no circumstances he should lose control over himself. The coach always has to be confident in himself, because this confidence transfers to the athlete. The coach certainly has to be a champion – in his character, focus. He cannot have a different focus than on victory. All this I need to understand and to really feel, to undergo. Only after you underwent all this, it is working. Yes, that takes strength, nerves, but this makes you stronger.


Q: Thank you very much.


Interview by Olga Ermolina and Tatjana Flade for and