Interview with Kiira Korpi (part 2)

Photo credit: Kiira Korpi

Part 2 of my interview with Kiira Korpi. You can read part 1 here:

C. Let’s go back to one of the previous points you mentioned: you said that during your competitive career, you did not feel very happy when you won the medals and when you did well competitively. Can you maybe describe your feelings during those moments in more detail, and how do you define success for yourself now – both in sports and in life?

K. Of course, there’s always a big rush of extreme happiness right after a victory, but it fades away very quickly. I remember one moment that I cover in my book: in 2012, I had won the Moscow Grand Prix and was the first Finnish skater to ever go to the Grand Prix Final. After the competition, we were having dinner with my coach, my family and the rest of my team. I was really conscious of how my thinking system had become because I knew that I should be happy, this was one of the best achievements of my career. But all I could do was to think about one of my mistakes –  I had fallen on a jump in my long program so I just kept blaming myself for that. Even though I scored a personal best, all I could think was that I didn’t even achieve it the way I wanted it, how it was only 3 points above my previous personal best, etc. At some point, I thought this was messed up, if I cannot be satisfied after this kind of victory then this cannot be what success truly is…

 When I won a European medal, I could be happy for a few days or weeks but then there’s always the next big thing to look work on. You can never stop and relax – I knew I had to get better and better, so this vicious cycle of achievements became an obsession. It is just like drugs, happiness from achievement is very temporary and you need higher doses to keep going. I am sure that if we start investigating the human brain, we would find a biological “hook effect” in this situation similar to drug addiction.

 I also heard Sasha Cohen express similar thoughts in the Peter Attia podcast. She admits that without extreme highs and lows, life just feels very flat and you don’t know how to measure success anymore; you don’t understand how you are doing as a human being because all you have learned was how to be valued by others for your athletic success. 

 C. How has your mindset changed now?

 The way I view success in life now could hold true in any sport or in any other profession. The first measure for me is how well I’m able to live life by my values. This is something I really needed to practice after I stopped with my sporting career and I know many athletes have similar struggles because for years they have always had somebody tell them what to do –  either the coaches, or the Federation, or the parents. The big challenge for me was to realize how to coach myself now and how to know if I’m living a happy successful life. First of all, I did a lot of self-reflection (and therapy to deal with my cumulative trauma history from skating and childhood) and thinking about what are my major values in life. Then I made a scale of the 7 most important ones. After each semester at university, I didn’t value my success based on my grades but on how well I managed to stick to my values. I do not use this scale anymore but back then, it really helped me to get in touch with my core self and remember that there is something more important in life than just external results.

C. This type of happiness from sporting achievements sounds a bit like the temporary happiness an addict would describe. It takes a lot of time and emotional maturity and self-awareness to be able to put things in perspective. For someone who has dedicated over 20 years of their life to doing one thing at a very intensive level, the transition might be even more challenging.

K. Yeah, it feels almost like death: of course, you are not physically dead but it feels like a big part of you is gone. This is one topic that I would like to explore academically in more detail: how does the skater form his sense of self, and how can we plan a future coaching and training program that can ensure they not only become a great athlete for a few years but that they are prepared to handle the challenges of the real world.

Unfortunately, I hear so many tragic stories about professional athletes that feel completely lost; some of them even commit suicide after they have stopped competing because they had no idea how to start their life over and it would have been perceived as a weakness to ask for help or share that they have problems with mental health. On the other hand, those problems are more discussed now and athletes seem much more open. For example, Michael Phelps has been very open about his struggles with depression. And he is the most decorated Olympian of all time, he should be very happy because of that, right? He has admitted how little the medals meant in comparison to the joy fatherhood brought him.

Kiira Korpi competing at the 2008 World Figure Skating championship. Photo credit: Brett Barden/Skate Today.

C. What do you think needs to change in the current figure skating system in order to reach this equilibrium where athletes can be the happiest and healthiest they could while simultaneously achieving their potential? And of course, where they can make a smooth transition to another field where they can find further fulfillment once their sporting career is over.

K. First, I believe the power dynamics in athlete-coaching relationships are, generally speaking, very unhealthy right now. We need to empower athletes to stand up for themselves. We also have to educate athletes and parents on what is appropriate coaching, and what is not. Additionally, coaches should realize that this kind of authoritarian philosophy is hurtful – maybe it was relevant in the 80s and 90s but the world and society have changed, our view of humanity is much more holistic, so we also need to adjust coaching to match this. Coaches also need access to health and education tools and also to learn how to empower athletes and themselves. 

 Athletes, and even child-athletes, should be much more engaged in the decision-making process. This way their self-efficacy and self-agency grow strong, and these are huge factors for better mental health. Obviously, the coach helps to plan the training but the athlete will be the center of the process. We should move away from athlete production – the coach’s role shifts from “a producer” to that of “facilitator” for the athletes’ growth, and they are there to ensure a healthy environment.

 Secondly, we have to upgrade the way issues like harassment are handled because protection mechanisms are lacking everywhere. We have the so-called safe sports organizations but in many countries, they are founded and financially supported by the Olympic Committee, who has a very strong interest to keep these things under wraps. We have seen in many countries that even though safe sports organizations should be the ones most interested in athlete safety, they fail to really investigate in an unbiased professional way. This has happened in Finland and in the USA, and I’m sure it is happening elsewhere too.

 I think it’s hard to improve the protection mechanisms because the sports organizations and Olympic Committee are run by a very small group of politically interested people; so I am sure they are not going to wake up one day and say “let’s just give the athletes more voice and power”. They need some kind of outside pressure like the stories in the media coming from athletes who have been victimized. With more visibility, I’m sure the young athletes will rise up as we see in many other areas in society. For instance, the most influential environmental activists are young people and they know that they cannot let older people continue ruining the planet. I hope something similar will happen in sports – the young athletes will say that this is not what they want anymore, this generation has moved on from these abusive methods and the definition of success is now larger.

Kiira Korpi at the opening of Rockefeller Center Rink, 2018. Photo Credit: Kiira Korpi’s facebook page/Brian Ach for Rock Center Rink New York.

 C. Speaking about external pressure, do you have any other medium in mind that could stir things in a positive direction, besides news media?

K. I know in some countries like Canada, they have a non-profit organization only for athletes that tries to support them in many ways. We can try to follow this example and be more organized and unified in action, either through nonprofits or social media platforms where athletes and other people who want to support them will come together. The problem is that many sportspeople, especially children, don’t have any unions like this because it’s not a formal profession, although they train almost full workdays.

We definitely need more organized action – for example, I am aware that when NHL players have problems, they can turn to for help to a hockey union; let’s say, the NHL wants to limit players’ salaries, they can go on strike. 

C. Do you mean something like a labor union?

K. Yes, something similar but not so old-fashioned. I’m not suggesting that we should form a workers’ union for child athletes but rather, a platform that provides defense, support and education for them, their parents and other athletes who are not under any professional union. That was one thing I tried to suggest to the sports minister of Finland but I feel like it didn’t get a very good response; in a way, some organizations might even be afraid initially that the athletes and their voices are getting much stronger. I think social media is also a great tool in getting the athlete’s voice more powerful and heard. 

C. With regards to coaching methods, what kind of changes do you think would be beneficial?

K. I wish to see the focus shift to learning rather than just winning. Winning would be a nice consequence of the learning process. I also wish coaches would try to utilize more qualities for the training process. Emotional intelligence would be so important for them to learn, and I am convinced that for many coaches, it would help if they could get more support in reconnecting with themselves and understanding their own emotions and values better.

This way, they can also serve the athletes. Nowadays I see that many coaches are just coaching their athletes the same way they were once coached, without much chance to question authority, and they keep repeating the same pattern with their own students. We must break this unhealthy cycle. 

If we learn to utilize emotional intelligence in athletic performance, that would take our sport to another level: for example, we can make use of mindfulness training or maybe include some sort of trauma-informed education too, because many child-athletes who come to sports might have had an adverse or difficult childhood experience at home. This way, the coach can serve as a support system. With a more holistic approach,  the coach will be able to help the skater not only as an athlete, but also to grow as a human being.

Naturally, the training can and should be challenging, demanding, well planned and organized by the coach. There should also be an open and respectful dialogue between the coach and the athlete in the coaching process. Too often it is still more or less a monologue by the coach.

C. How do you envision your role in contributing to this process?

K. Well, I have many different ideas and I don’t know which route I will take. I think life will show me the way but one thing I would really like to do is academic research on this topic –  I’m planning to explore the long term effects of this kind of abusive training in childhood.

C. This would be very beneficial for figure skating as a sport because most of the available research on mental health and injuries are, firstly, quite outdated and scarce, and secondly, a lot of it has a current focus on its time and covers a very limited period span. It doesn’t seem like we have a study with a broader sample covering many years, including the period after the end of the skating career.

K. This is one topic of interest for me. Another activity I’m planning to start is an educational program with webinars for coaches. It would be aimed at developing a better coaching process based on positive psychology and making use of modern-day science tools. Additionally, I would love to continue writing and speaking as an advocate and activist. And hopefully, in the long term, I can realize my dream of creating a holistic mind-body training center that would provide an integrative model of training.

Nowadays, I notice that young coaches especially really wish to shift the training philosophy around. I think a radical change in our thinking would be much more effective in bringing more safety and health to our system than any protection mechanism alone. 

C. As you know, the current judging system in figure skating overemphasizes and generously rewards complex technical elements. As a result, the sport is constantly evolving. This is especially evident with the ladies singles now but the same goes for the men. How do you think figure skating will develop as a sport from here?

K. It’s very hard to know because especially with the ladies, the high pace at which the sport is developing has been very unexpected.

Honestly, I don’t know what we would need to do – I have nothing against quadruple jumps if I know that the training process has been healthy and ethical and that there are no great long-term effects. I think this is how research and science can come handy. Once, a person from the ISU medical Commission revealed to me that the amount of injuries in figure skating has dramatically increased with the change of the judging system. And I can’t even imagine how dramatically it must be increasing now with these rapid technical advances!

Again, we need a very broad discussion in our community – we would hear different opinions from experts who have studied and know the long-term health effects of, for example, quad attempts starting at the age of 10  and even the long-term psychological effects of abusive coaching methods. I cannot answer specifically but simultaneously, I’m a little scared how far we will have to go before we realize that this is harmful to the athletes in our sport.

I personally would like to see the age limit for the senior-level competition to be raised to 18, so that our athletes would be physically and psychologically more mature when they enter the biggest competitions.

C. I know it’s a very difficult question to answer but I would agree with you. Whether multiple quads in a program make skating better or not, is up for debate. But the type of jumps should not be the main issue of concern. Rather, it would be more helpful to focus on the technique taught, and whether it is healthy and sustainable in the long run. There should be more focus on longevity and health in sports rather than short term gains, in my opinion.

K. Yes, you also need to think about how you would feel after that when you are 40 or 50… I don’t think we will have one single individual come up with a magical formula. Rather, it’s a community effort of arriving at a solution together, and that should happen on many levels, both club-wide, nationally and internationally. 

For instance, if a club can decide that these are the values they wish to stick to and this decides their training process – the results will take a step back in the beginning but then, the children will get so much more out of it than just the results on the paper, if they can go to the rink and really enjoy belonging in a group and learning from each other.

C. This is why we need to hear more from high-profile people like you. We need to give them a platform where they can challenge the status quo and provoke discussion for what can be done better.

K. This trend is already starting and I am incredibly grateful that I have had many platforms in Finland to bring awareness. Now I hope I can inspire other people to discuss these topics. Having important conversations can only help the sport move in a better direction.

Photo Credit: Kiira Korpi’s facebook page/Brian Ach for Rock Center Rink New York.


A list of articles mentioned in the interview:

An Early Survivor of Larry Nassar’s Abuse Speaks Out For the First Time (Times Magazine):

I Was the Fastest Girl in America Until I Joined Nike (New York Times):

Sasha Cohen: The price of achievement, and redefining success (Peter Attia podcast): › sashacohen


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