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From A to Z: Zakrajsek chronicles Olympic journey

Colorado-based coach attempting to get three skaters to PyeongChang
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Tom Zakrajsek (right) poses with three Olympic hopefuls (L-R): Max Aaron, Mirai Nagasu and Vincent Zhou. -courtesy of Tom Zakrajsek

Tom Zakrajsek coaches former U.S. champions Mirai Nagasu and Max Aaron as well as reigning U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou -- all of whom are contending for spots on the 2018 U.S. Olympic team. He is keeping a season-long blog for icenetwork.

If I asked you if you wanted to attend the best party in the world, would the answer be yes? Would you still say yes if I told you that in order to get an invite you would have to work really hard for about 10 years?

The "party" I'm talking about is the Olympic Games. Yes, that's right! Despite the seriousness that surrounds the actual sporting events shown on NBC, the camaraderie among the participants from nations around the world, coupled with each Olympics' unique setting, is a whole lot of fun and very much like a party to which everyone wants to be invited. So, if you want to know how to get invited, read on…

"Citius, Altius, Fortius," the Olympic motto, translates to "Faster, Higher, Stronger." Notice it doesn't read "Fastest, Highest, Strongest." This is an important distinction for anyone wanting to become an Olympian. Olympians try to become "betterer" or more better every day. This is not accomplished over a year or a couple of seasons but over many years and, sometimes, as much as a decade.

I am fortunate to coach at the Broadmoor World Arena, an official Olympic training site located near the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I am much more fortunate to coach three contenders for PyeongChang: Max Aaron, Mirai Nagasu and Vincent Zhou. You might say I am surrounded by inspiration everywhere I look.

My mindset:

The three most important things I keep in mind as I begin the training process for the upcoming Olympic season are:

1. Keep my athletes healthy.

2. Stay present and refrain from talk about the Olympics.

3. Make sure my athletes are ready to compete.

From a periodization perspective, July is the first official high-intensity training month. Skaters begin doing a lot of sections and full run-throughs of their new programs. They are also monitored, and begin to compete and test their new material. They do all of this work now so that they will be ready later in the season -- particularly in January and February.

The biggest question for my skaters that I want answered in July is: What are their individual obstacles to success?  

Throughout my 27 years of coaching, I have worked with many talented Team USA and international skaters who have prepared themselves to various levels of readiness and success, including at the Vancouver and Sochi Games. But what exactly is the BEST method of preparation to develop the confidence necessary to compete and reach an Olympic goal?

Here are some concrete suggestions (in random order) about what to emphasize during the month of July for developing confidence in figure skaters as they approach the Olympic season:

Prepare: Making sure an athlete is adequately prepared falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach. Whether an athlete "wins" or "medals" isn't as important as acquiring the physical and mental control one needs to produce a desired result in competition or reach a specific goal each time he or she goes out to compete. This is only achieved through many hours of hard work and repetitions.

Accept criticism: Be eager to know the areas in which others think you are weak -- and then be eager to do something about it. I always tell my skaters they can receive the criticism from me now in July while they have time to do something about it or get it from the officials when they are sitting in the kiss and cry and it's too late. The choice is theirs.

Achieve key training goals: Self-efficacy is the most important aspect of building confidence in athletes. This is the feeling of accomplishment they have about themselves because they have worked long hours through the training process to achieve their goals. This personal competency feels "good" and lasts for a long time because the achievement of the goal is REAL. In the book Driven from Within, Michael Jordan's mom said, "I told him not to wait for anybody to give him anything. Work hard so when you get the gifts, they are yours." I don't think there is a better quote about how to produce self-efficacy.

Perform consistently: I am often asked what my last words are to my athletes before their name is announced, at a time when self-doubt can creep in. I often say something to the effect of, "Trust your training." Frank Carroll says skaters should always do their programs like they intend to compete them in competition. I totally agree! Skaters who practice exactly the way they compete are more likely to perform to their full ability when the chips are down and, thus, build confidence.

Model yourself: Max trained alongside three-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan for several years when the latter was based in Colorado Springs, and as I recently began collaborating with Marina Zoueva on several of her skaters, I am working with Patrick on his jump technique and consistency, as well as a quad flip. This experience has been invaluable to Max, who has said, "I watched Patrick train like a beast, so I must, too." Finding role models to imitate is a key to success.

Teamwork: In the words of Hillary Clinton, it takes a village. Parents and skaters are seeking the best specialized coaches, choreographers, experts and facilities to help their child on their journey to becoming the best. Choose your team wisely and then work together to challenge each other's strengths and weaknesses.

I'll check back with you in a few months and let you know how things are going.

Follow Tom on Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates on his skaters' training.