By Hiro Yoshida
After finishing with competitive skating in 2014, Brian Joubert embarked on a career of coaching the next generation of skaters, fulfilling a long-held dream. As he prepares his students for the French national championships later this month, he talks about his past on the ice and his new life behind the boards.
It is the beginning of November and Joubert is at the Internationaux de France de Patinage in Grenoble with his student Léa Serna. In the short programme, Serna has set a new personal best of 62.43 points. However, during the follow morning’s official practice for the free skating, things have not gone her way. It is up to Joubert to dispense some timely advice.
“I think she just puts too much pressure on herself,” Joubert said. “She wants to do a clean programme. She wants to be perfect. You just have to skate, do what you do and if you do some mistakes that doesn’t matter.
“I just remind her what she did yesterday, what she did in the practice and just to make her more confident, to be positive because she always sees the negative things. Even the competition is just a practice. She’s here to improve, to see what we have to work on, what we have to do for the next competition for the future. She improved a lot. Yesterday she did an amazing short programme. I was so happy for her. She was happy too.”
While the free contained a number of errors, Serna managed to score another personal best of 103.59 which gave her a total of 166.02 for eighth place overall at the Internationaux de France.
Serna and Joubert began working with each other in January 2019 when she moved from Annecy to Joubert’s hometown and base in Poitiers. What started out initially as a temporary arrangement turned into something permanent.
“She had some difficulties, some problems with her previous coach,” Joubert said. “We had a talk with the coach that she (Serna) wants to come to Poitiers just for a few weeks to do something else, to see something else. After three weeks, she should have gone back to her place, but she decided to stay.”
The relationship between coach and skater has continued to progress nicely as evidenced by her results in Grenoble.
“She is very happy because she feels that she improves and she likes how we practice in Poitiers,” Joubert said. “I have some other students with a nice level so there is a good dynamic and good atmosphere.”
For Joubert, becoming a coach has been the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition. While he continued to appear in shows in the years following his retirement from competition, these days he has cut back on those appearances as well to devote himself to coaching. His last major tour was with Holiday On Ice across France in 2018.
“I always wanted to be a coach” Joubert said. “When I was 15 years old I said I want to be a champion and I want to be a coach. I really like it. Since I became a coach, I don’t want to skate anymore.
“It was a good time of my life,” he said. “I loved to travel all around the world to do shows, to enjoy without judges, but I’m so happy to be a coach that I don’t feel I miss something.
“I do some shows, but very small. I don’t want to. I really want to spend one hundred percent with my students and to give them everything.”
Joubert skated in the senior ranks for thirteen consecutive seasons and amassed six World medals (one gold in 2007) and ten European medals (three gold). However, his best memories are from his breakthrough year at the beginning of his career.
“It was the 2002 European Championships in Lausanne (Switzerland) when I finished third,” Joubert said when asked about his competitive highlights. “I was qualified for the (Salt Lake City) Olympic Games so it was so important for me. Then my first Skate America – the one I won. It was also 2002. I was competing with Alexei (Yagudin). He was first after the short programme (Yagudin subsequently withdrew) and I was second, but it was so close. It was one of my best memories.”
In subsequent years, Yagudin became something of a mentor to Joubert.
“In 2004, we worked together, and he gave me a lot,” Joubert said. “Small advice, but it was so important.”
The 2006-2007 season was the pinnacle of his career as he finished unbeaten with World and European titles and even managed to win the Grand Prix event in France (Trophée Éric Bompard at the time), his only occasion to do so. It was a competition he always found challenging.
“I was so consistent, but it was so good to win the French Grand Prix. I was first. Alban Préaubert was second, so it was another French guy.
“Every time it was difficult to do the French Grand Prix. I never liked it. It was stupid because when I won it, it was amazing.
“You want to do your best for the French audience, for the French journalists and that’s why I think you put too much pressure on yourself. You are not one hundred percent focused on your performance. You think too much about the extra things that you don’t need to think about. That’s the main problem.”
Joubert also carried the burden of being constantly in the spotlight and the top draw for French figure skating with the public and the media during his career.
“It was good, but it was difficult,” he reflected. “What I felt about it was everybody was focused on me, so it meant if I did a bad performance it was like all the French team was bad. It was not like that, but that’s what I felt sometimes. Especially for the big championships like Europeans, Worlds. If I didn’t get a medal, it was like a disaster.
“Even during my time, we had Isabelle (Delobel) and Olivier (Schoenfelder) who were World champions and European champions, but all the attention of the journalists was on me,” he added. “Now it’s different. There is Morgan (Ciprès) and Vanessa (James), Gabriella (Papadakis) and Guillaume (Cizeron) so they can split the pressure.”
Despite continued success for French figure skating since Joubert’s retirement, the annual French Grand Prix has been scaled back from taking place in a large arena in Paris to the more intimate venue of the Patinoire Polesud in Grenoble. Joubert has mixed feelings about the change.
“It’s difficult because for me I prefer it when it’s in Paris because it’s Paris,” he said. “It’s beautiful. The arena is amazing and also for the sponsors. The sponsors they prefer it when it’s in Paris. But Grenoble is nice because the arena is not so big, but almost sold out every time. There is always a good atmosphere. The audience are close to the skaters. That’s a good point.”
There have been other changes in French skating over the past numbers of years too. The majority of skaters on the French national team now train overseas, predominantly in North America.
“I think the conditions are better,” Joubert said regarding this exodus. “There is more ice time. In France, it is so difficult. We don’t have a lot of ice rinks. When you have an ice rink, you cannot use it all day because there are school and public sessions.”
Even with the situation of training facilities not being ideal for his students, Joubert is firmly committed to Poitiers where he was born and bred. He is grateful for having trained in an environment that kept him grounded and provided few distractions.
“It’s different now, but when I was a skater I had the key to the ice rink,” he recalled. “Sometimes when I had a bad day, I came back on the ice at midnight and practiced until three a.m. It was special because the city supported me, and I was not like a star. I became world champion, but it helped me to stay normal. It’s the same with my students.
“If you are in Poitiers, you know why you are in Poitiers. Just to practice.
“If you go to Paris, you want to start to enjoy life. You want to socialise so it’s not good.”
In addition to Serna, Joubert is also coaching the promising junior skater Adam Siao Him Fa who qualified to compete at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and European Championships last season.
“For Adam, I would love for him to be national champion, but it’s going to be difficult this season because Kévin (Aymoz) is very strong. I just want him to be qualified for Europeans.
“He works a lot. He loves figure skating. He is like me. He comes on the ice and doesn’t lose any seconds. Work, work, work.”
Joubert’s coaching style places emphasis on the technical aspects of skating and he firmly believes in pushing the boundaries of the sport. He also draws on lessons learnt from his own skating career
“For me the most important is the technique. If you are consistent in your technique, you will feel more confident. You won’t have to think about your jumps so you will be able to focus on the skating skills and the choreography. I work a lot on the technique.
“We do a sport. There are no limits. That’s what I try to teach to my students. We have no limits. Adam tried a quad Axel. If he wants, one day we will work on a quad-quad combination.
“I did good things in my career, but I also did so many mistakes. These mistakes help me as a coach now.”
Joubert now frequently finds himself once more on the same side of the boards with familiar faces from his competitive days who have also become coaches.
“It’s funny. We are friends. We can spend good times together, but we are still rivals in a different way with our students.”
Joubert has also been inspired from observing more experienced coaches and their way of organising and preparing skaters.
“For me a good coach is the not the one who says I want to control everything, I want to manage everything, I want to do the choreography, the technique, the off-ice,” he said. “I know that Brian Orser, Eteri (Tutberidze) they manage the team, but they create the team for the skating, the choreography, for the technique. They are my examples and I want to do the same.”
He also encourages his students to work with other coaches who can bring a new perspective to their skating.
“That’s what I did when I was a skater,” Joubert said. “I worked with (Tatiana) Tarasova, with (Nikolai) Morosov, with Kurt Browning. I took from them the best and that’s what I try to do as a coach. My students they will have to do the same.”
Ultimately, Joubert’s aim is for skaters who work with him to succeed whether they remain coached by him or not.
“To bring a student, guy or girl, to the top level in the world. That’s my goal, my dream. I’m still a young coach. For now, if I just can help someone to be world champion even if I’m not here when he’s world champion I will be happy.”