The sport of figure skating inhabits the narrow space between objective athletic competition and subjective artistic evaluation. But despite the unpredictability that may be expected to come with subjective measures, successful organizations have formed around the mission of consistently producing winning athletes. These organizations have yielded consistent competitive outcomes by developing training philosophies and systems that optimize for some of the most basic operations principles: sourcing, minimizing variability, and managing innovation.
The Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FSFR) is one such organization, with a particularly impressive Olympic medal record in two figure skating disciplines: pairs and ice dance. In both of these disciplines, Russian teams have won 50% of all Olympic gold medals awarded (1). Below, I discuss how the operational backbone of this organization has contributed to its success.
FSFR is the governing body behind the country’s figure skating program. The Federation’s mission – its business strategy, if you will – is to develop figure skaters through talent identification, training, and lifestyle management processes in order to maximize medal counts in world and Olympic competition. To realize this strategy, the organization recruits athletes from an early age, fosters their development through consistent training programs, and retains close control over any aspect of daily life that may influence physical fitness and preparedness.
The first phase in this operation is the selection and early training process. To facilitate this, FSFR operates three schools, or training centers, in Moscow and St. Petersburg: CSKA, Sambo 70, and Dynamo. By concentrating coaching and development programs in few locations, FSFR benefits from constant exchange of best practices, the ability to test and quickly propagate innovation in training techniques, and a high level of consistency in its processes. These schools have thus been able to achieve high levels of precision in identifying promising youngsters and setting them on an early training path that is so important in a sport like figure skating (2).
The next phase is ongoing training as a skater develops and builds up to the peak of his or her career. During this phase, innovation and consistency in the training process remain very important, as the organization invests more and more in the athlete. Even in the artistic elements of the sport, Russian coaches and choreographers follow strict processes that help unlock expressiveness. Marina Zueva, an ice dance coach who has led both Russian and America teams to Olympic gold, even describes how she changes her entire manner of speakig to her athletes, the very colloquial phrases she uses while they are practicing choreographed elements of their competitive programs (3). No detail of the process is too little to optimize. These processes ultimately become a sort of intellectual property, which FSFR fiercely protects. Just as a tech company fears its competitors stealing its innovations, so does FSFR lament its coaches and athletes moving abroad and taking their technique and know-how to competing nations’ programs (4).
In addition to the training itself, young Russian athletes’ entire lives become part of a controlled operation. Their education revolves around the sport, as they attend classes run by CSKA or Dynamo. Their eating habits are carefully managed. Whatever time they have for social lives is typically spent with other athletes. Although this may sound extreme for people who grew up in Western countries where kids participate in sports for enjoyment and personal development, this sort of singular focus is more acceptable, and often glorified in Russian culture. The operational choice to provide for (and thereby control) athletes’ day-to-day lives is a deliberate one. It is perfectly aligned with FSFR’s goal of consistent yield.
To enable its mission of consistently producing winning athletes, the FSFR optimizes for sourcing quality (identifying the right talent to bring into its programs), minimizes variability (consistent training programs, controlled lifestyle variables, only three main training centers), and facilitates innovation (training techniques, best practice sharing, quick and comprehensive adoption of new methodology). Such carefully designed operations and their corresponding high yield would be nearly impossible without a central, tightly managed organization. It is also worth noting that such an organization likely could not operate in the same way outside of its specific cultural context.
(1) List of Olympic Medals in Figure Skating – Wikipedia. Accessed Dcember 6, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Olympic_medalists_in_figure_skating#Pairs
(2) “Raising prodigies on ice: Russia’s figure-skating champion production line” Accessed December 6, 2015. http://rbth.com/sport/2015/03/14/raising_prodigies_on_ice_russias_figure-skating_champion_production_lin_44505.html
(3) Марина Зуева: «Если и дальше так будет идти процесс подготовки, то результат должен расти» Accessed December 6, 2015. http://fsrussia.ru/intervyu/1495-marina-zueva-esli-i-dalshe-tak-budet-idti-protsess-podgotovki-to-rezultat-dolzhen-rasti.html
(4) «Ледовая революция» Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.vkonline.ru/article/19453.html
Image from interaksyon.com