Building a balanced, happy individual is just as important as developing a skater competing on any stage. That is the view of Team Canada’s Short Track Speed Skating mental preparation specialist Fabien Abejean, and it is non-negotiable.
From right to left Fabien Abejean, Charles Hamelin (CAN), Francois Hamelin (CAN) ©Speed Skating Canada
Abejean has been at the heart of his nation’s highly successful Short Track program for close to a decade and he is adamant everything must start at the beginning.
“When they arrive we have to understand that they were in their homes, they were with their parents, with their life. So sometimes they arrive at Montreal and for the first time they live in an apartment alone with other skaters, they have to learn how to handle life by themselves, they have to learn how to study by themselves,” Abejean explained.
“They have to learn how to manage all life elements. So, we want to develop first a good life balance for these individuals.”
It is a heartening view but one that ultimately is steeped just as much in performance as it is in personal care. Youngsters arrive at Canada’s National Training Center in Montreal at the age of 15 or 16 and Abejean has, sadly, seen examples where the demands of training and school, combined with the absence of close family, has proved too much to handle.
As a result, Abejean – as he explains on the latest edition of The Ice Skating Podcast, has developed a holistic program intended to look after the mental health demands of every athlete, no matter what stage of their journey they are on.
For those at the beginning of a pyramid that will hopefully peak in Olympic glory, there is a clear correlation between happiness and the potential for growth.
“If a person feels good in his or her social environment then they will want to perform good in training,” Abejean said.
Coaches are clearly key in all of this. Different skaters and their different needs demand guides with different skills.
“At the Olympics we build these athletes as balanced athletes. They know their identity as a person, they know how to balance with school, with family. They know how to build their life alone or with people, to have a social network,” Abejean said.
“So at this step the coach can have a better focus on the performance itself; the technical, the tactical, the recovery, the training. Because the athletes can already take care of their own life and they know what performing at a high level is.
“It’s different for juniors, they don’t know what it is performing at a high level. The jump in a new environment, far from their family, alone in an apartment, (at a) new school sometimes.
“So, I think we need to have coaches who are ready to help people to build themselves, to understand themselves, to be empathetic to the athletes. To build them step by step and at the same time educate them around the performance side.”
A haul of eight medals from the past two Olympic Winter Games and a thriving junior section seems to show that Team Canada has the balance about right. Abejean will certainly strive to ensure this continues to be the case.
“We have all of this to let our athletes perform in a healthy way,” Abejean said simply. “With self-determination in their performance.