I never stressed winning. I wanted the score to be an end result of practice.
After several years of emphasizing process-oriented thinking as opposed to result-oriented competition I realized that it was time to determine what is the process. What are the components that helped take our varsity women’s curling team to two OUA and two CIS championships as well as gold at the Karuizawa International Championships? Well, last spring I assigned myself the task of identifying and analyzing the parts to the process of success. Little did I know the sleepless nights that would result from this journey.
It all started after reading a Toronto Star article on Team Howard at the World Championships. The reporter asked Glenn to explain the process he goes through when attempting a crucial, game-winning shot. Glenn responded with “You just divorce yourself from the outcome.” Obviously, I was relieved to hear the eventual World champion expound on the virtues of process in this succinct message. To further enlighten my search, I had received an e-mail from my friend, Wendy Morgan, wishing our team luck at the upcoming CIS championships. I confided that I was a little anxious for our chances as the girls had gone at a breakneck pace since January with Japan and the OUA’s and we had big targets on our backs. Wendy had replied, “Don’t worry – they know how to WIN!”.
After cringing at the sound of the “W” word (see the John Wooden quote above), I realized this was a much different message and did have a lot to do with the process for success. I also recognized that if our opponents were focusing on the targets on our backs, they were not fully aware of the 12-foot targets at the other end of rink. Advantage us!!!
The process always begins with the four Pillars of Performance: Technical, Tactical, Mental and Physical. The challenge is to identify and refine the parts within the whole. From the technical aspect, I started with the premise that Talent = Natural Skill + Practice. But what was essential in that equation? Well, the talent part is easy; you need it to be great! The difficult part is how to refine it? We know that practice is important and I follow two schools of thought regarding my approach to practice. Aristotle said many years ago, “We are what we repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit”. As coaches, we beat ourselves up to make things fresh and unique and lively. However, an important component of sound practice material and composition must be repetition. Certain drills must be staples of our programs: those activities that our athletes readily identify and know are a must for their progress. The second part deals with discipline. Once the athlete learns the new skill or behaviour they need to create an environment and an expectation that demands discipline. In the words of famous basketball coach Bobby Knight, discipline is essential to success and the athlete must “do what has to be done, when it has to be done, as well as it has to be done” and, most importantly, “do it that way all of the time.” This way we develop kinetic memory: travelling the journey from no training to class training to skill practice and mental rehearsal to integration. We learn to do this through the development of routines: deep breathing before shots helps with composure, consistent pre-shot habits ensure that we put ourselves into an environment of familiarity and comfort that will not unsettle the intricate systems that we put in place to make our experience successful. Mechanics must be sound and simple; extraneous movement spells trouble and discipline plays an essential role in the development of a successful athlete. In addition, equipment requires consideration in the equation as it must not only be the right equipment in size and quality, but also must be maintained at a high level to be effective and suitable for the player.
An area that we have touched on briefly, but needs to be re-visited, is the Mental Pillar of Performance. Volumes have been written regarding the importance of the mental side of sport for athletes, but many still shun the benefits for the successful competitor. Areas such as focus, concentration, and developing practice routines and time need to be addressed. Dealing with pressure: are you an athlete that allows pressure to burst your pipes or create a diamond hard finish to your performance? Do distractions get the best of you or are they an annoyance that is easily cast aside as irrelevant to performance? One of the most difficult distractions to deal with are expectations, both our own and those of others.
I often relate the old proverb of the man, the son and the donkey to help illustrate the obstacle of expectations on our lives and on performance standards. One day, a man and his son took their donkey to a far-off village to attend an important market. When they set off the father said to his young son “Please, son, ride atop the donkey to save your energy for the long journey.” The boy hopped on the back of the donkey and rode to the nearest town. As they entered the town, people along the path jeered the boy for laziness and making his poor old father walk. Embarrassed, he jumped down and insisted that his father ride the beast. The father rode to the second town on the journey and met the same derision as the son upon arrival. The crowd scolded the man for his calloused selfishness making his poor son walk the long and arduous trail. As you may have already guessed, he climbed down and both father and son decided to walk. As they entered village three, the crowds muttered “what stupid people to walk while a perfectly strong donkey was wasted.” Of course, they then both climbed on the donkey and proceeded to the penultimate village, where the crowds mocked their cruelty for abusing the beast of burden. After disembarking the back of the donkey, the two decided that the only way towards satisfying the needs of others on the final leg of the journey was to carry the animal. While the son held the head, and the father lifted the back end, they reached a perilous bridge, where father and son both lost their balance and the sojourn ended when the poor donkey plunged into river. This last part is a modern addition to the old tale and provides the prophetic moral to the story. If you spend all your time worrying about what other people think, you might as well kiss your ass goodbye.
Expectations can be overwhelming and lead to poor performance if given too much credence.
Athletes should be taught to stay in the here and now, and deal only with the present, leaving past events where they belong: in the past! Do you fully commit to the shot without any ambivalence? Does your pre-shot routine allow for re-sets and proper preparation for success? Do you stay positive during the process or do negative thoughts and attitudes impede your progress? Talent itself is just not good enough to assure success, it must be combined with experience and knowledge to create potential.
Performance consultant Kyle Paquette has developed a wonderful tool to allow the athlete to see clearly the two worlds of the competitive athlete. The first, the Think Box, is where learning new skills dwells. Here the athlete must focus on all that is new. Process is deliberate, sometimes complicated, and often frustrating. However, after hours of practice, both technical and mental, the new skill enters the Play Box where integration and kinetic memory live and where thinking is minimalized. In the Play Box, the system becomes complete. Here we learn what Success feels like! This the area where elite curlers find their built-in stopwatch, where you know what board-weight feels like, or 14.5 seconds feels like, or what heavy or short feels like. You need to know what is your reference system: what makes sense to you and your team?
In past articles, I have referred to the importance of attention to details to building championship teams. We all know that attention to the small things can make a big difference to the outcome. And yes, this is part of the process. Things like attitude: one of my favourite quotes of all time hung in my classroom for years and went like this. “If you can change I CAN’T, to I’ll TRY, to I CAN; then I CAN becomes more important than IQ.” This is the attitude you must have to be a good teammate and one that can see all the details with an open mind.
Team dynamics, of course plays a significant role in the success of any team sport athlete. Knowing how to move from one stage in Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s scale to another is essential to progress. What button to push is always the great equalizer to forward movement. Coach K of the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball program and Team USA dream team fame has a wonderful descriptor of how team success can be fulfilled. His model is known as the Fist of Team Spirit. The baby finger represents Trust, the ring finger Caring – a must for any team, the middle finger ironically is Communication (all forms), the index digit is Pride – numero uno, and the thumb represents mutual commitment, which combats fear of failure – faith in your team to overcome the odds. Together they make the fist which is stronger than any single digit or teammate working alone.
The team must also arrive at a mutual decision on how to play. What tactical approach does your team favour and more importantly, what strategy best fits your team’s DNA? Do you play the Perfect Game for your team and not pander to the fads and fancies of the day? What makes sense for your team? Do you follow the TOP formula- Team Performance, Opposition Tendencies and Playing Conditions, to decide what is best for your team? That is the strategy that will lead to success when your execution is sound.
How does your team handle the goal-setting challenge? It can be a dangerous road if neglected or mishandled. Goals need to be like the pylons in any drill. When you reach the end, take a moment to pause, reflect and rest. Then start over and try and improve on the previous effort. Follow your process goals after setting outcome and performance goals. Then constantly review your process goals and make sure you have someone to trust and monitor the progress of these goals; otherwise they become overwhelming or sometimes ignored.
Finally, experience is a must. There is no substitute for experience. Learn from your losses as well as your wins. Even world-class curlers such as Glenn Howard and Kevin Martin have lost more big matches then won them. As Canadian curling technical director, Gerry Peckham, says, “failure is fertilizer if you’re paying attention.” Trust in your teammates will overcome a fear of failure. Develop your purpose and work hard to achieve it. This will become a necessity!
This, for now, is the process as I see it. And yes, I am fully aware that by tomorrow there will probably be new things to add and subtract. The road to success is like that, so I conclude with this thought: your purpose is your process, and in the words of Rand MacIvor, “as we grow, let us realize that motivation lies in neither the carrot nor the stick, but in the simple process of moving forward, which in itself is its own reward”.
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