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The Secret Sauce for Competition Success

As we anticipate moving back towards our “normal” skating world, I wanted to share my contribution to this nationally published and still relevant article. The entire piece can be read here:

Phillip Mills Uses Creative Choreography With His Own Competitive Experiences

As a master rated choreographer, Phillip Mills has been creating programs for World and Olympic competitors for 26 years. He has seen his share of changes in skating but one thing remains constant: his dedication to his skaters, his craft and his process for instilling competition excellence. Phillip has choreographed programs for some of the world’s finest skaters including the 2014 World Silver Medalist Tatsuki Machida, two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, to name a few.

Mills shared, “Ultimately the choreography is for the judges and audience to partake in the experience. It is the job of the choreographer to develop a program which tells a story for the audience to enjoy. It should be one that the skater is comfortable [with] and one in which they can interpret with ease and confidence. Once the program is learned and the details internalized, competition day should just be another experience of expressing that program on the ice for all to see.”

Perhaps unusual in some choreographic situations, Phillip has had the opportunity to put many elite skaters on the ice for major events. His athletes are competition ready when they know their uniquely crafted program fits their individual style, personality and skills. He and the coaches he works with review and practice the intricacies of the program with their skaters running complete run-throughs every day. Over time he makes small positive changes tweaking things to make the skater feel completely comfortable and ready to skate clean and beautifully.

For over ten years, Phillip worked as an integral member of a team based in Colorado Springs with Carlo and Christa Fassi. Among the many successful skaters this team worked with was World Champion Jill Trenary. In 1989 there was a lot of anticipation; many thinking Jill would win the World title. Ultimately she came in third that year winning the bronze medal. In 1990 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jill went again with her team to try her hand at topping the podium. She doubled her triple flip placing her third after the short program.

Carlo Fassi had a firm belief that athletes, in a similar fashion to many animals, could sense tension and nervousness on the part of those around them. In fact, he confided in Phillip telling him that he and Christa were both nervous and didn’t think it best for either of them to lead the 20-minute long program warm-up for event. They asked Phillip to do so.

Because of his many years receiving sports psychology training as a national competitive gymnast combined with the fact that he performed for 13-years as a principal dancer with an international ballet company, Phillip simply does not get nervous at competitions and the Fassi’s knew this to be true. Phillip led the warm-up using his competition game plan for Jill and it went very well.

Afterwards, the team returned to their hotel to get some rest and stay calm. They returned to the venue in plenty of time for a physical off-ice-warm up and for Jill to get ready with costume and make-up. The timing was just right putting the team in the hallway outside the entry to the arena with just enough time to feel the atmosphere and focus on the program at hand. Jill had an amazing performance and became the World Champion in 1990.

In general, on competition day, Phillip turns his focus to each skater honing in on their mood or state of mind with laser-like precision. He is all business, yet at the same time he is light and fun according to successful Olympic pair coach Jim Peterson. Phillip offers sound advice sharing strategies that have and continue to work well to bring out an athlete's best performance. He prides himself on his calm focus throughout the competition which transfers to his skaters. Like many coaches, Phillip starts the pre-event warm-up with some cardio, stretching and running through the various elements in the program. He may select one or two moves that are most challenging for that competitor having them conjure up one word to concentrate on to make that element a success. Next he tells his skaters to point on the ice to the various locations of each spin, jump and footwork sequence. "Once we get to this point I have the skater visually skate the program imaging where they will be on the ice for each element. I always ask how the program went. I remember one time working with a senior man at nationals,” he said. “He told me that as he visualized his program he missed his triple lutz. I had him concentrate on his technique and visually skate it again several times successfully. He nailed it in the event. There is great power in visualization." Once while at the boards at the U.S. National Championship with a pair team, he noticed that they, along with their coach, were getting tense and the tone of everyone's voice was getting tighter. Phillip knew he had to break the mood. He quickly pulled something out of his pocket and turned to the group of three saying, "Chapstick, anyone?" This made them all laugh at the silliness of the question and the mood relaxed instantly. Phillip continues to learn and refine his technique for getting the best out of each skater, especially on competition day. He also preaches the notion of treating every practice like competition so that competition is just another practice. Every lesson he teaches has a plan for each individual skater and their particular goals. To learn more about his skaters and methods you can check out his website at

When asked what Phillip might recommend to young coaches to maximize their effectiveness at competitions he said they should follow their heart and find their own way. He added that they might invest wisely in the many PSA courses available. He suggested that having a subscription to Psychology Today can help advance their ability to keep their athletes in the moment at competitions. Phillip suggests that the teaching is done once you reach the event location. Offering a series of technical commands close to the event can make doubt and fear creep in at a critical time.

What would Phillip do if his skater was close to taking the ice at a competition but all of a sudden the athlete exhibited a huge uptick in their nervousness? He commented that he might say, “Look, a little bit of nervousness is OK, in fact it’s normal. But if you want to be petrified, you’re pretty much finished anyway. Would you prefer not to skate?” He added, “The skaters usually knock it off at that point.”

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