Elena Vaytsekhovskaya interviewed Gennady Elfimov, the personal coach of Viktoria Komova, for Sport Express. Elfimov talked about Komova’s comeback, how their training changed and his vision of gymnastics.
The interview was in Russian. Below is the English translation.
Q: How close to the truth is the information that your gymnast [Komova] is seriously considering to participate in the August trials for the World Championships?
A: At the moment, we’re not thinking about it. The only goal for her is to recover. Systematically, calmly, without any kind of commotion. It is unrealistic to take such a long break from competition and training and then to prepare for the Russian Cup in just two months. We’re not setting this goal for ourselves right now.
Q: I know how much Vika dreamed of going to the Games in Rio de Janeiro. Was it her decision to stop training?
A: She just could not continue to withstand the pain. As we say, her tolerance has ended.
Q: What did you feel at that moment as a coach?
A: There is such a good saying: if you want to make God laugh – tell him about your plans.
Q: I’m talking about something else. Professional sport entails constant pain, some minor injuries, training overload. And I, for example, can’t unequivocally answer: is it necessary to force an athlete to train through pain and tolerate this pain? You knew better than anyone else how difficult it was for Komova, what price she paid for her success in gymnastics.
A: Everyone has the right to choose their own way. No one forced Vika to work, she was working towards her own goal. We talked a lot about this and we came to a mutual decision: first, she needs to get healthy. And then we’ll see. That’s all. Vika was recovering from her injury for eight or nine months.
Q: And what did you do at that time?
A: I worked in Voronezh. I took a new little girl, started to train her.
Q: Is she good?
A: We’ll wait and see, she’s too young to tell. It’s just that in terms of training, Vika is now training with her, and she – with Vika.
Q: Were you surprised that Komova wanted to continue her gymnastics career?
A: Not at all. Maybe, it’s because I just know Vika so well. She is a pretty determined girl: if the pain doesn’t bother her, she is quite capable of reaching her goal. My job is just to help her with this. Especially since now she’s not a little baby, but an adult, a 22-year-old.
Q: So, is it easier to train her now? Or is it more difficult?
A: In some things, it’s easier, in some things, it’s more difficult. The coaching itself is more difficult because Komova still has this idea in her head that she knows how to do everything. And when she starts working her body simply does not obey the signals that the brain gives. This creates an internal conflict: “I could do this before!”
My work, at this stage, is not even coaching. Mostly, it is necessary to be a psychologist, to convince her. In terms of gymnastics training, Vika is able to figure everything out herself – she can even determine the training load herself. We just need to find now the step, on which, figuratively speaking, she can stand with two legs, look around and decide where to move next. When a gymnast is 16 years old, you can make them repeat an element 20 times because you know that they will get it on the 21st try for sure. An adult athlete needs understand for herself what, how, and why she is doing.
Q: At which stage of your comeback journey to return are you and Komova now?
A: Well, generally, we’ve assembled preliminary routines on all four apparatuses.
Q: That is, the information about the possible participation in the selection and the Worlds is close to the truth?
A: I don’t think we’ll be able to make it. And, honestly, I do not want to speed things up in any way.
Q: And what is Vika thinking?
A: She’s already pawing the ground; I have to slow her down.
Q: Who invited Komova to the Round Lake, the national team coaches?
A: This was also our mutual decision with Vika. At home, she was training with her dad while I saw her every time I came to Voronezh between the national team camps, and I realized that she had already surpassed the “home” level. So I asked the national coaches whether I can bring Komova to the camp. I was told that it’s not a problem. I personally plan that Vika’s first competition will be the Voronin Cup in December. I do not even want to make any more plans besides that.
Q: There’s an assumption in the sports that require complex body coordination that after turning 20 athletes start training more consciously, but, at the same time, they now have the ability to calculate possible consequences. Which means they might start being afraid of learning new elements. Do you fear this as a coach?
A: There’s no goal to teach Vika new elements: it is impossible to do more difficult elements than those that Vika was already doing. She has a crazy reserve of difficulty in this sense.
Q: And this reserve wasn’t affected even by the new rules?
A: I would say that the new rules actually are in Vika’s favor.
Q: So, there isn’t much to do? Just restore all the difficulty she had?
A: Exactly. And this is absolutely doable.
Q: When you said this, your eyes lit up with enthusiasm. And, frankly, this really doesn’t let me believe that Komova will wait to compete till December. Admit it: you are ready to do everything possible to make the return happen sooner?
A: On the one hand, I would very much like that. But… Want to make God laugh – tell him about your plans. It’s not my first day in gymnastics, I’ve been burned many times. So, I do not want to rush anything and I don’t make plans. We have a goal with Vika and we are working towards this goal.
Q: If Komova does not manage to her level on all four apparatuses, will you consider for her to become an event specialist?
A: The rules allow it. It’s just that in my nature I don’t event specialists as gymnasts. For me, gymnastics is, first of all, an all-around performance. Apparently, it’s the old school talking in me.
Q: I see. But you cannot help but realize that the more difficult the gymnastics becomes, the less chance a person has to perform equally well on all four apparatuses?
A: Well, we are not looking for easy ways. All the same, I think that a gymnast should be an all-arounder. And besides, remember how it was before, in the Soviet times. When athletes returned from the World Championships or the Olympic Games, people cared only about one title – the all-around champion. All those who won event medals were just an addition.
Q: That means that for you only winning a medal has value? Or does the all-around give the gymnast some qualities that even the best performance on one event can’t give?
A: I’m not sure I can explain. For me, gymnastics is not a set of highly specialized qualities, but a complex concept. The beauty of movement. Absolute control of your body. Only the all-around is capable of giving all that. A narrow specialization limits and impoverishes the athlete. The track and field athletes can afford to specialize in one event. Running a hundred-meter, for example. Or pole-jumping. In gymnastics there should be beam, there should be bars. We do not ask the artist who paints the picture, why does he use so many brush strokes? That’s his vision. So, my vision of gymnastics is the all-around.
Q: I agree: becoming an event specialist is always a “budget” option. Not for the elite. Although not all, perhaps, share this view.
A: No matter what they say, we have come to this again. Now, in gymnastics, we, first of all, need all-arounders – these are the rules. Just a trivial arithmetical calculation: in the team championship at the Olympic Games, four people can compete, no alternates. Naturally, any head coach will try to ensure that their team has a maximum safety margin. Which means that the first thing they do is to remove the event specialists from the team. Or it must be a “nuclear bomb” of an event specialist, capable of guaranteeing the gold medal. There aren’t many of those in the gymnastics world and with the current competition – there are none.
Q: Are you following the current situation on the national team?
A: Frankly? I don’t even visit the gym where the main team trains.
Q: Do you not want to present your gymnast to the public before her time comes?
A: It’s much more simple: I can’t be in two gyms at once. I have two girls on the junior team and Vika is training there as well. I also have some little gymnasts and from time to time I’m asking Komova to help with them. So that’s why I can’t even tell what’s the situation on the main team, what the gymnasts are doing, who’s in what state.
Q: But there should be something to motivate you as a coach?
A: I’m motivated by the fact that the routines that Vika had in 2012 are still up to the international level. We just need to restore these routines.
Q: So, it’s just the thrill of doing the sport?
A: Yes, just that.
Q: We will come back and show everyone?
A: No, I don’t feel this way. It’s just a really interesting experience for me, too. I’ve never worked with a 22-year old woman before.
Q: Coaches who deal with athletes during the puberty usually complain about the purely technical side of the matter: the center of gravity is shifting, the “levers” are being extended… For Komova, this period seems to be over. Or does something still create problems?
A: It is more about the pedagogy, the psychology of working with the athlete, not the technique. You can bribe a five-year-old with candy and they will tell you everything right away. Meanwhile, an adult won’t tell you anything if they don’t want to. If the coach does not find the right approach to them. Our profession requires constant learning. Including learning how to build a relationship with the gymnast.
Q: When a person does not compete for a long time, they start to have other interests in their life.
A: That’s normal. Right now Vika is fully and completely focused on working. At the same time, I understand that one day, when it becomes very hard, she might come to me and say: “That’s it, I’m finished, I want to get married”. This also happens. I am glad that we can talk about everything, can discuss everything. It doesn’t happen anymore when she’s reacting to some of my words with defiance. We can already laugh during the training, when something does not work, make fun of a particular situation. Adult person – that says it all. If for some personal reasons Vika asks to postpone her training or to take a day off, there is no problem at all.
Q: I’ve never seen you so calm and relaxed.
A: Well, if fate decides so that we get to the Games in Tokyo, then, perhaps, I will have a reason to be nervous and tense. But now, why? We are just working, everything is going fine…