Matteo Zanni discusses his ice dance teams and coaching philosophy

Matteo Zanni discusses his ice dance teams and coaching philosophy

How long have you been at Young Goose Academy now and are you proud of the coaching team and students that you’ve been able to create so far?

I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved and done so far. It’s been four years. We started after the pandemic, after the first extensive lockdown and we went on continuously and we worked well. I’m happy with the great coaches I’m working with of course: Barbora [Reznickova], Denis [Lodola], Katharina [Müller], and the off-ice trainers. We have been a long way together: I say to them thank you for the dedication and passion. I always take a long time to select anyone to work with until I’m 100% sure that this could be a good match for our group.

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How many teams do you work with now, and has anyone joined you recently from the off-season?

Now we are 13 teams in our group and we have two new entries. We are working a lot.

Who was your first student?

I never got to answer this question. I really don’t remember. I started when I was 22 years old with some singles skaters, but the first ice dancers I’ve been working with, I really don’t remember but it was around that age I started working together with Barbara Fusar-Poli around 2010/11 so that was my first coaching, let’s say experience.

Is there anything that you learned from working with her that you still do now, or how do you think your style has developed as a coach since creating and being in your own team?

I’ve learned from everyone. Barbara included. I’ve been working with many coaches and I’m happy I was able to do that, but I was also able to be in contact with coaches not from figure skating and I have to say I’ve learned more from coaches of other sports than figure skating: ski coaches, tennis coaches, football coaches, all of this experience has given me a lot of things and I’ve learned a lot. I’m grateful for all of them: I discovered new worlds.

What sort of things did you learn? And do you think it’s important to lean on other coaches from other sports as well.

What I learned is that in reality, we are never at the destination in learning things. So, my beliefs, my knowledge are very different than it was before. And I think it will always be like this. It will never be like reaching a stage where you say ‘oh now I feel like I know enough’. At least for me it’s like this.

Looking back at last season, there were some unfortunate injuries with a couple of your teams, but the season altogether ended with promising results at Worlds with a lot of room to grow in the future. How would you describe how last season went for you as a coach and was there anything new that you learned last season?

Last season was in reality a positive season overall considering all of the difficulties. Of course injury can happen, but overall I have to say all the experience of last season gave us an extra boost and confidence that we know that there is a lot of room to improve and we took notes of the things that didn’t work, as usual. We knew it was going to be challenging, so there was no surprise but I’m not talking just about the teams who competed the Worlds, there are also all other teams, so each team had their own struggle, achievement, goals, so everything was taken in consideration. They were not, to say big surprises.

What happened was more or less what we were expecting or predicting. Of course the injury was unfortunate for the Taschlers but I also believe that they have learned a lot from this because they have grown, they can manage themself better and I think this would be something extra for the future to give them some extra awareness during the preparation. I think this is very important, that they are able to look at the injury with the a positive outlook.

They also had a problem with the missed lift in the rhythm dance. So how did you or what did you do to help them refocus so that they could get through their free dance, especially with a free dance that was so important to them?

I am this type of person: I take notes when it’s time to take notes from the past, and then the past is past. It happened. I think again it’s another lesson for them to learn but they were experienced enough on the world stage to be able to say: ‘ok, we trace a line and we move on’. Maybe from outside it looked dramatic, but I really like the way they approach the free dance. They were able to reset the morning after, they did very good practice and we completed the job without getting, let’s say, kicked down by the emotions. They have everything to excel in their league.

For Kateřina [Mrázková] & Daniel [Mrázek], last season was their senior debut following a successful final junior season. What was your advice to them at the start of last season and how do you think their debut went?

Of course, being a Junior World champion is a great achievement and I’m proud of them, sadly that means not that much entering in senior. They knew that. We knew that they entered the senior category, knowing that they will start from scratch almost and they would compete with the couples stronger than them, and so there were no expectations. New elements, longer programs: not easy of course but the mood was good, the approach was great. They have grown up throughout the season: challenges are not intimidating them. They have a unique drive.

Now the next season will technically be the pre-Olympic season with qualifying at the end at Worlds. Do you think that it was a good timing for them to move up this year so they have that first senior experience and don’t have to put so much pressure on themselves heading into next season?

I think it was the right time to move for sure. I don’t see the point in staying junior forever. We considered heading into Junior Worlds also this year for a while, we actually had a junior rhythm dance in construction, but in the end, we decided it was not worth it and it was not really necessary for them to do this step and I am glad we have chosen to stay in senior to focus more on the development rather than fulfilling ego.

Angelina [Kudryavtseva] had an unfortunate injury in the first Junior Grand Prix outing. What was that moment like with the injury in practice and then to come back to compete and finish the season at Junior Worlds?

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It was a very unfortunate accident that happened in the practice and it was too late when they noticed that they were about to crash, so of course we lost a lot this season. They were heading into this season pretty well. They were ready. We really put in so much work for the programs.

On the other side, I think Angelina and Ilia are in the best shape of their careers at the moment. The injury was, in the end, we can say very helpful for both of them: they have grown mentally and this is number one thing.

We’re doing excellent work together, they are special students and I believe in their great potential. Junior Worlds was coming after a very short preparation, just four weeks, so we tried.

We knew that maybe we couldn’t make it, but we said guys we tried it and without expectations. It was a nice competition overall and they did very well.
We are putting on new programs and of course, we very much look forward to perform and to start the season again.

With both of the injuries for Filip [Taschler] and Angelina, what was it like for you to navigate training Natalie [Taschlerová] and Ilia [Karankevich] without their partners? And how do you keep their motivation up as well as the injured partners?

I train them to be flexible. Flexibility is the key and of course motivation can be hard at some points in those situations, because you don’t see where you’re going ahead. But in the moment you bring the focus again on yourself, what you can develop, what you can improve you, you can still find the reason why you want to push and I think they did pretty well in this period. They wanted to change, they wanted to prove that they can get much better than before in any direction, and it was a good teamwork. It worked and I’m happy about that.

And now a former team but one that trained with you for a few years was Maria [Kazakova] and Giorgi [Revia]. He was unlucky with some injuries in recent years and they unfortunately announced their split a few months ago. Did you know in advance that they had split and how do you navigate supporting both people in that situation?

First of all the split was not planned in advance. Rumours are rumours. Masha & Gosha are two very dear students to me and results are not the most important part of our relationship. Of course they went through a very difficult time. We all gave much energy into this project. There were difficulties, health problems and for the best of each other’s future, in the end this decision was taken. They are very talented guys, both of them and we needed to find a way to readdress their talent in a way that they can feel fulfilled and happy with their life and future. The conversation was always open and transparent from the very start, we always communicated with both of them, so there was not drama in taking this decision. We’re still in touch. There is still figure skating in their future.

So it’s been almost three months since Worlds. So what has happened in that time? Have you gotten to take a vacation at all? How soon after Worlds do you have to start thinking about new music and choreography?

I took some time off. I spent time also a bit out of skating, we all needed that. But on the other [side there’s] the excitement for new programs, new ideas, new challenges is high and I am like a baby discovering the world. Every spring is a new start and this makes me very happy. We gave a lot of effort this spring, we worked much and we look forward to the summer preparation and joint work with many teams and other colleagues. The excitement is high, but that’s always in our work.

Because it is going to be a pre-Olympic season will how you coach your students change at all? How do you balance or how do you tell them to balance the pressure of getting the Olympic spots at Worlds compared to the normal season?

It doesn’t really change the challenge. The competition is always with their own self. Each of them as a project, each of them have their own fear and weaknesses to overcome. Each of them has a lot of points of strength that they have to learn to use. I don’t think it’s making a difference thinking that we are going into the Olympic season. They want to do their best, they don’t have to do their best. So we work for that, to support them. If things will work well at home, good things will happen. If things work less well, good things will not happen. Very simple.

How also do you manage your time with so many students? Do you have sessions with multiple students in one go? Do you do one-on-one coaching?

I work with everyone, every coach of our group works with everyone. We share tasks, we share assignments and of course I want to make sure that every team in our group is growing and is able to express their full potential so we plan the work according to each team’s needs.

Did you take a while to refine and figure out the best way that works for you? Or was it something that you just did once and it stuck.

Of course, when you see a team, you can judge very fast and think ‘ok, they need this and that’, but getting to know them, entering in their psychology is a different thing. It takes time, so it’s normal that with some teams it takes a while– with the new teams it takes a while before you find the right adjustment and the right way to work efficiently.

A couple of things were also announced at Worlds, one being the timing extension on the lifts. So how do you think this is going to impact lifts and ice dance altogether? Will lifts become any easier for couples to do, or will it allow for more creativity?

I think both. I think it will become sometimes a bit safer, sometimes it will allow more creativity and I think extra room to play but it’s not going to change much in reality in the overall balance of the programme. I think it’s good.

The other thing that was announced was the rhythm dance theme which is social dances from the 50s, 60s and 70s. What was your first reaction to the theme? And then how do you go from there to creating a program or coming up with music suggestions?

I simply have to listen to music, look for concepts, think about that and from there we start away. Every season we have something different, and every spring you need to be open-minded. I just wish the rules could be maybe a bit clearer in advance before the start of the season, without waiting too long. Last year this was pretty challenging because I don’t think it’s normal that many coaches, many people didn’t understand the rules when the season already started. I think this year we are in a bit better situation.

So do you find it better now that they’ve announced the Olympic Seasons theme already, so you can sort of have it in the back of your mind as well when you’re listening to music?

Of course it’s helping, but what makes the difference are the technical rules, to understand the technical rules in advance, this is more important in the end.

We’ve heard from a music editor already that a lot of teams are going for disco for the rhythm dance. So how do you go about making sure that all of your teams have different identities? And how do you choreograph a program around them and their strengths?

Communication. We talk, we brainstorm, it’s not a one hour meeting to make a decision. It’s a conversation that we carry on, we put up some options, we think about this and over time we see what is working the best. It’s not that the season is decided in one moment, so of course we try different concepts, we do the things that are working better, for each individuality. Also maybe they don’t even know themselves so well in terms of interpretation: they need to explore, need to try different things before understanding what they feel better with.

In July you’re hosting an ice dance camp along with Maurizio Margaglio, Luca Lanotte, Massimo Scali and a few other coaches. When did you all decide to create this and what’s the process like for making a camp happen?

We want to give a possibility to train in a different environment for a while, that’s why we came up with the camp, but also it’s important that we cooperate with the people that we want to work with.

We have been already working together for a long time, so we are all in a group already. In the camp, we will keep working together and try to give of course the best to all the skaters, to give them an exciting atmosphere and to create some good memories as well. There will be many teams. 

Do you find it sort of gives other coaches an opportunity to maybe help out with your teams for example, and other teams just to get to know each other and make new friends as well?

The baseline is very simple. Everyone can learn something from everyone. That’s it. Me, first I want to be in touch with different realities constantly. I like to absorb different points of view. I don’t want to become static in one position and keep that position. This is the thing that has always been scaring me. So I invite everyone to try different things, to absorb different things. Maurizio’s coming with his teams, we join with our teams, Luca joins too, but we all agree on sharing and trying different approaches.

Is there anything that you would want to introduce to ice dance now or bring back to ice dance that it currently doesn’t have?

In every decade you watch ice dance, the styles are changing, but there’s been outstanding jobs done in ice dance for the past 40 years. You can find excellent ice dance work in the past 40 years. So despite the change of rule, the change of elements, the change of style or trends, great things are great regardless of the decade. Regardless if it’s old or new. For me, old or new doesn’t exist. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s not good, it’s not good. For me, this is still alive in our work. I would like to bring this in our work, something that can be good at any time. Doesn’t matter if it’s old style, new style, because I hear a lot of these conversations among colleagues.

Is there a program that drew you to ice dance in the first place?

I have to choose among many. I like Grishuk & Platov’s ‘97 free dance, The Duchesnays Missing program, Torvill & Dean’s Mack and Mabel, Bestemianova & Bukin’s Carmen or Rachmaninov in 1986 or Valse Triste from Tessa and Scott. Just to mention a few. 

In the last few seasons there’s been opportunities for different federations and countries to host Grand Prix events. Do you think the hosts should be a little bit more varied, like the Junior Grand Prix, or do you think that it’s good that they have their places?

I think the club of the Six Nation doesn’t make sense in the Senior Grand Prix. It’s a special league where everyone is doing their own interest. If you’re not part of this league, you are simply not having the same opportunity of the club of the Six Nation. So, this I think is not making the sport fair, Junior Grand Prix are more fair. This is simply how I think the Senior Grand Prix should be: open. I mean: you can do a private series. But I don’t see why this private series has to score points for the ranking, giving advantage to the competitors of the Six Nations: this is clear in every discipline and I think needs to be changed to make the sport more credible.

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