Famous Last Words

Many have asked me what I say to teams about to play for a major curling prize like the recently concluded World Senior Curling Championships in Fredericton, NB. It’s certainly a legitimate question and I do have a meeting with the teams prior to the “big game” to offer last words (the jury’s out on just how “famous” they may or may not be). But before I reveal what I said to Teams Canada in Fredericton the night before the playoffs, let’s examine the concept of coaches’ words to athletes in general.

If you speak with any of the athletes who have been on teams I have coached, I hope they would tell you that I’m a “training and preparation” coach much more than a “game” coach. We won our two gold medals in the 12 months between the time Team King and Team Armitage won their respective national senior titles in Abbotsford, BC in March of 2012 and those playoff games on April 19 in the New Brunswick capital. They presented them on that date. We didn’t win them on that date!

Some coaches are famous for their locker room speeches. Knute Rockne, football coach at Notre Dame is among the more well known in this category and I believe every elite coach has at one time or another inspired his/her team to greatness by words spoken just prior to the defining game. As my daughter Susan (the professional speaker) has told me on more than one occasion, “Dad, you can’t motivate anyone. Motivation comes from within. You can only inspire people and you can do so in a variety of ways.” With Susan as my guide, my brand of inspiration comes from example as much as anything. I can deliver the inspirational locker room speech, but I feel it’s window dressing. A window through which elite athletes can easily see. No, I’m much more wanting to have the athletes so well prepared, any inspirational or motivational speeches are simply not necessary. My way of putting an exclamation point on this is to ask following a game, “Heh, how did you do?”

I mentioned to the teams along the way in Fredericton that in playoffs, teams sink to the level of their preparation. If there’s a shred of truth to that, and I believe there’s much more than just a shred, the more and better the training, the more likely the team will perform to its self-imposed expectations. A team that attempts to perform to external expectations, does so at its own peril!

When we landed in Fredericton, the players wanted to go to the Grant Harvey Centre to see the venue. When we arrived at the GHC, all the stories we had heard about the building were true. It was amazing! The two ice surfaces were spectacular with the WSCC on the larger ice surface but with fewer seats and the WMDCC on the smaller surface but with many more seats. I took a page out of the movie “Hoosiers” and mentioned to the teams that it appeared that the circles, especially the largest one was 12′ in diameter with the others at 8′, 4′ and a button that looked very familiar. We knew all about the stones to be used so they seemed familiar as well. Then I added, “The stones and ice do not know this is the World Senior Curling Championships!

I told both teams the first time I met them that I would play a diminishing role with them as the 2013 World Senior Curling Championships approached, to the point that when we actually arrived in Fredericton, their need of me was very small. In my mind had I not been able to attend at all due to some last minute unforeseen reason, the teams would know exactly what to do and how to do it. That’s the utopia of coaching. It’s unlikely to ever happen and it didn’t in this case.

Despite our detailed preparation, there was something that happened with one of the teams during the event that had a coach not been there to act upon it, the result might have been very different. And I credit the team’s fifth player for alerting me to the situation in the first place. Without that team member’s keen sense of the team’s dynamics, I would never have known about it. But when I learned of it, I knew exactly what to do!

I know I’m being vague here. I’m doing so to remain true to the trust the teams I’ve coached have in me that whatever I learn from the experience of working with them will be passed on generically. My role as coach is simple. It’s to empower the athletes and ultimately the team. This is a good time to reveal one of the things I said to the teams at the hotel the night before the playoff day, “Tomorrow is your day. It’s why you did all those things in the past 12 months. You don’t need me any longer. You know what to do so just do what you know!”

Athletes try hard to perform. It’s one of the best parts of the world of sports. It’s why I like working with elite athletes in particular. They are goal driven people who will do whatever it takes to be the best they can be when it matters most. In society, people with this philosophy drive the world forward. They are part of the world’s solutions, not the world’s problems in most cases. But the desire to excel in crucial situations can be as much a liability as an asset.

The sport of curling is one in which you can try too hard. To perform well, one has to “stay within him/herself”! A linebacker in North American-style football cannot try too hard. Asking a curler to deliver a stone to an exact location over 100′ away requires a calmness that football linebacker would not recognize. Which leads to the second of three points I made with the teams in that Delta Hotel room the night before the playoff games, “There’s always the tendency to feel you have to do more to help the team be successful tomorrow. Don’t fall for that trap. Actually, do less, but do it better than you’ve ever done it before! You have a job to do on the team that’s different from each of your teammates. Just do your job and the team will be greater than the sum of its parts!”

Then there’s that “maple leaf” emblazoned on the uniform. What an honour it is to wear the country’s colours at an international event! For virtually all Canadian curlers it’s a dream come true. I know for many of the athletes I have the honour of accompanying to the WSCC, a Canada shirt will go to a grandchild, for some within a day or two of the athlete’s arrival home. And that leads to the last thing I said to the teams, “The only people who will matter tomorrow are your teammates. The over one million Canadians who curl don’t matter. The Canadians in the stands watching you play don’t matter. Your clubmates back in Edmonton and Red Deer don’t matter. Your friends and family don’t matter and most of all, I don’t matter. The only ones who do, are your teammates. Do everything you can tomorrow to be the best teammate possible”!

It’s been said that sports is one thing in life about which one can be truly passionate that doesn’t make a hill of beans difference in the world. It’s just a game.

On my flight home to Vancouver Island I had the good fortune of a 3+ hour layover in Toronto. My son Mark, his wife Emily and grandson Lucas met me for dinner at a restaurant near Pearson Airport. I had my two gold medals with me. I never took them out of my pocket. They weren’t important. What was important was the time spent with them. And the most important words spoken by me were, “I love you (especially that little blonde kid)!