The Anatomy of a Curling Coach

Under the “old” system of coach/instructor training, if memory serves, it was in Level I Theory that a topic called “The Role of the Coach” existed. Prospective coach/instructors were hit head on with the set of unique challenges facing a “curling” coach. When I took my Level III Theory component, where you were with coaches of a variety of sports, I was the one about whom most of the other coaches were curious because of those unique challenges and the fact in the group, I was the only “curling” coach. The others were coaches of team sports like hockey, basketball, soccer, football etc.

One of the most unique features of being a “curling” coach is chronology. The coach of a curling team is often the last to be chosen. The team has already been assembled then it looks for a coach to fit the team whereas for virtually all the other team sports it’s exactly the other way around, the coach is in place and he/she plays a prominent role in the selection of the team members. In professional sports, interestingly enough, team coaches frequently inherit a team whose coach was “replaced” (aka “fired”) with the new coach also “last chosen”! I feel your angst!

Unlike my coaching colleagues in the sports named above, I must “empower” my team to compete. I have very little contact with them during the actual athletic contest. It’s very likely the one greatest difference between coaches in curling and other sports. I can’t call time outs to take a player aside for an extended period of time for some remedial consultation then but the athlete back into the game. If things head south on a player, he/she will have to rely upon the technical “lifelines” we’ve put in place for just such emergencies.

I was once asked by a journalist to describe my role as coach of a curling team. I had a few days before the interview so I sat down, writing instrument in hand, to list the various roles I played as coach of a curling team. It began with sport psychologist and morphed into roles like team dynamics consultant, travel coordinator, first aid provider, strategist, tactician, sociologist, event planner, transportation provider, agent, scout, publicist, delivery clinician, ice technician, treasurer, secretary, media consultant, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, psychologist, psychiatrist and legal counsel* to get the list started. I recall that there were about 25 definable roles I had played over my years as a curling coach.

My story in coaching started very early. Sports has been my whole life as an athlete and coach. My first coaching role was as a teenager coaching a group of young (10 year olds) playing basketball. When I began my career as a professional educator, I always coached teams in my school both intramurally and varsity in a variety of sports. When I decided to specialize as a Physical Educator, I coached all the varsity teams in various junior high school placements. Thirty years of coaching scholastic athletes tends to broaden one’s views on the challenges you face.

My favourite sport to coach was basketball. Besides coaching the boys varsity team at my school, I also coached our local community college team. I loved coaching basketball! First, it was a winter sport but it was in a “warm” environment. But mostly it was the sport I enjoyed most as an athlete so the visceral connection was there from the start. That was true until I started curling!

That career, unlike today’s young athletes who start with “little rocks” before there’s double digit candles on their birthday cake, began in my early 20’s. I soon discovered I couldn’t get enough of this sport and realized that I could play it at a high level. Only the demands of a young family kept me from playing the “cash circuit” which is why I marvel at the time and resources some athletes in curling are able to spend at a similar life stage today. I don’t know how you manage it but I take my hat off to you for doing it!

As I wound down my teaching career. I felt compelled to transpose my coaching skills to curling. My “break” came when I received a phone call from the Athletic Director at the University of Waterloo, Judy McCrae, who asked if I would be interested in coaching the men’s and women’s varsity teams. I said “yes” and never looked back. I was a “curling coach”!

That decision had more ramifications than might appear on the surface. I knew that if I was going to coach this sport, my competitive playing career would be in the rear view mirror. I felt I had to commit to one or the other. Gone was my “purple heart” dream as a player but one I realized a coach. While my peers who continued to pursue their careers on the cash circuit and play downs, I was attending conferences, symposia and coaching clinics listening to the very best in their field to attain the highest level of certification possible. I’m very proud to say that I’m a “chartered professional coach” in Coaches of Canada, thus the ChPC after my name. It was a long and challenging journey to reach that level of certification so when you see a coach with that “ChPC” after his/her name, you know you’re seeing someone who has “paid the coaching piper”. I frustrates me when I hear some people repeat the phrase, “Those who can do and those who can’t teach or coach.” That’s both ignorant (in the true sense of the word) and unfair! I took a long time and considerable resources and effort to attain those “coaching skills”, just as much as an athlete does to attain elite “playing skills”. And this is not just my story. Any number of chartered professional coaches will have one similar!

By that point in my career I learned one thing in particular and it’s the premise of this post. I don’t care how talented an athlete might be, or has been, there is very little correlation between the skill set of an athlete and a coach! It’s the mistake so many curling teams make when they are the surprise winners of an event which leads to another for which a “coach” needs to be selected. There’s the knee jerk reaction to take a “former player” thinking that his/her experience in the event is what they need most. Wrong! Yes, the athlete has been there, done that and also has the T-shirt but it was not in a coaching role. The skill sets are different, vastly different! Can a former player relate to the challenges faced by the first-time-at-the-event athletes? Of course he/she can. But it’s a very limited contribution!

The landscape is littered with the corpses of young teams who have made this classic error. Both they and the athlete they selected to “coach” will learn this the hard way. And, it’s a mistake they’re very unlikely to repeat but the downside is that the team may never be back to the event to complete the “do over”. That’s the sad part!

This is especially true at the junior level where so often it’s the parent of a team member that assumes the coaching role and the team wins, not because of the parent/coach, but in spite of the parent/coach. The team then goes on to a level where coaching certification is a requirement and the parent/coach is left wanting and the only way the team can compete is to obtain the services of a certified coach with both the time and inclination to step in an assist. I’ve done that and thankfully the “team coach” had his head screwed on right and saw the value in my role with “his team” as we partnered in assisting the athletes.

Many times there’s some vocalization among supporters of the team that this is somehow “unfair”. Well, there is something that’s unfair but it’s not unfair to the uncertified coach. It’s unfair to the athletes as they participate in a provincial or national event. “Every team deserves a certified coach!” was the slogan of a national sponsor of coaching certification in our sport some years ago. I liked the slogan because it not only advertised coach certification and the sponsor’s role in it, but it also succinctly stated the philosophy of certification in six, well chosen words.

There was a time when the national sport governing body for curling in our country “grandfathered” an uncertified parent/coach to a national event if it was the parent/coach’s first time. The feeling of the national sport governing body was that when the parent/coach was around certified coaches, he/she would see, first hand, that certification really does benefit the athletes as the parent/coach saw the skill set acquired through the coach certification process “up close and personal” in action. Hopefully that parent/coach would go home and get certified.

Certification also demonstrates to all that the individual has “done his/her homework” to be the best he/she can be. Isn’t that what you’d expect of your athletes? What better way to set the example!

I’ve coached for a long time! I’m still learning. In fact when I work with a team I flat out tell them that I’ll be a better coach/instructor because of the time spent with that team, and I’m very sincere when I say that. This coaching thing has a measure of science, and I use that science to back up what I teach as often as possible so the team can make an informed decision. But, it’s mostly an art form. What makes a good coach? I have some ideas on that but I’ll tell you one thing. I know it when I see it and so do athletes!

One of the readers of my posts is a recently “retired” athlete from a men’s team in our country that is at the top of its game. He has started coaching at the bantam level in his province and has dialogued with me. To paraphrase, “I never dreamed that there were so many challenges to coaching for which playing does not prepare you!” This man is going to be a great coach!

It’s a wonderful journey to work with what I consider the best of our society. To that athletic director at the University of Waterloo, “thank you” from a very grateful “curling coach”!

* I was once asked by the team I was coaching in another country to represent the team in a “grievance hearing”. I said I would and prepared the team’s case as best I could. In the hearing, the athlete who had filed the “grievance” was represented by a real attorney, gulp. My thought? “Bill, you’re in over your head this time!” and even though we didn’t win, and I told the team that the “rules” in the matter where not on our side, the attorney complimented me on my presentation. No, I wasn’t about to give up my day job to attend law school!

Articles relating to this topic found in “A Pane in the Glass: A Coach’s Companion“;
Coaching Certification: Why Bother? p.12
Empower the Athlete p.17
Sixteen Life Lessons from the World’s Greatest Coaches p. 34
The Physicist, the Exercise Physiologist and the Coach p. 36 (set aside more than a few minutes for this one)