Category Archives: Team Dynamics

Friends and Enemies

If you’re a curler in Ontario, okay Canada,  and follow the top level men’s play, you’ll know who Glenn Howard is.  You’ll also know who Craig Savill, Brent Laing, Wayne Middaugh, Richard Hart and Jon Mead are.  Of course you don’t really need to be from Ontario to recognize those names but if you’re from Ontario you’ve likely heard a bit more about the inner workings of this team than if you’re from somewhere else.  Last season a really interesting program about this team was broadcast on TSN, the Team Howard Rockumentary. If you haven’t seen it, it’s very much worth a look (try YouTube). In the program we see how this team functions from a behind the scenes view.  Granted it’s not really hard hitting journalism but as a curler and coach, I found it fascinating to see how these guys get along off the ice.

Truly, this group of guys are friends.  They hang around together, have similar interests (other than curling…) and generally get along well off the ice.  A personal story to add to this; Christmas of 2011 I was at the Tam Heather curling club watching a team I had coached that season play in the TCA Junior bonspiel.  Glenn Howard happened to also be there with his wife and some other friends watching their daughter Carly play.  After the game, in the very crowded lounge, I heard Glenn say that they “should go back to Richie’s, he only lives about 5 minutes from here.”  So what you say?  Glenn was talking about Richard Hart.  They were going to go visit Rich that evening to literally just hang out together.  What is the big deal you might still be asking?  Well at that point in time, Glenn and Rich were no longer playing together. Wayne Middaugh had replaced Rich after Rich retired.  The fact that Glenn and Rich were still close enough to simply get together one night speaks volumes about their personal relationship and about how close they had become while playing together.  These guys are friends!

If you’ve watched this team for long enough, you’ll realize that’s the way they roll.  They are friends.  Wayne was an easy addition to that team because Glenn and Wayne have been friends for years going way back to when Wayne played front end with Russ and Glenn.  The recent change on that team saw Rich come back to the fold, Wayne depart and Jon Mead come in at second.  How does that happen?  Well, as any of you know, when you’re out at competition, once the games are over there tends to be some…socializing.  Somewhere along the way, Glenn et al got to know Jon well enough that when teams started to readjust for the next Olympic cycle, a natural fit came to light.  Glenn, Rich and Craig know Jon well enough to want to play competitively with him, NOT just because he’s a good thrower.   So, I now ask you, from a curling team perspective, do you have to be friends with your team mates in order to be successful.  Lets look at both sides of that one.

Let’s start by asking why you are playing the game in the first place.  Are you a club team just out for a good time?  Are you a semi competitive team out to try to build into something more?  Are you a very competitive team trying to win something big?  The answer will help us because as we move up that competitive ladder, the game more and more resembles a professional sport.  I think that we can all agree that no one really gives a sploosh if all the members of the Toronto Maple Leafs are good buddies off the ice.  They’re paid an obscene amount of money to perform and any player using the excuse that “they don’t like their team mates” would be shipped off to another team fairly quickly.  Professionals have a job to do and their motivations are different than those of us in the amateur ranks.

Top level curlers aren’t strictly professionals (yet) but the notoriety and demands of the game at the highest levels means that there needs to be some semblance of professionalism in order to be successful.  Back at our level, in the clubs, why are we playing?  It sure isn’t for the money, it’s for the pure enjoyment of the game so it sure does help to play with people you like!  This is one of the major reasons that “Open Leagues” are finding some success in clubs.  They allow for people to simply play with people they like!

Back up the competition chain however, the question remains, do you have to be friends in order to be successful?  My cold hearted opinion is that no, you do not have to be friends to be successful.  HOWEVER as in every aspect of life, there are trade offs.  Friendship and camaraderie in a team, particularly a small team such as a curling team can help smooth the path when issues arise.  Teams that have that bonding in place have particular mechanisms built into their friendship that help them deal with issues.  If those “friend” mechanisms aren’t in place then other effective mechanisms are required.  Teams need to be more professional with respect to how they run themselves.  They need to have more strict mechanisms in place than the “friend” team.  All that being said, at some level, even players on the non “friend” teams need enjoy what they are doing at some level.

I will always maintain that an individual will never do their best if they don’t enjoy what they are doing.  If being on a particular team becomes too much of a chore then eventually that team will break and perhaps in a spectacular ( not the good kind of spectacular either) way.


Bottom line is, there are good examples of teams that perform because of the friendships within the team.  There are good examples of teams that perform because they build themselves into a “professional” model and put aside personal preferences.  Which style you as a player choose to pursue will depend on what you’re looking for.  What style you choose to be involved in as a coach will depend on the same thing.  Good luck.

Big Lesson 1 and 2

I spent this past weekend in a curling club.  I admit it, I’m addicted.  The good thing is that my team, well the team I coach, did exceptionally well.  No we didn’t win the spiel but we grew as a team beyond the coach’s expectations and I count that as “doing exceptionally well”.

This was my team’s first event of the year and I wanted to share with you, what I felt were some of the most important lessons that I personally learned from the event.  My team had one, on ice practice prior to this event mostly due to logistical reasons.  For some of the team, that practice had been their first time out on the ice this season.  That practice went pretty much as expected with a number of delivery issues coming to light.  We worked as hard as we could and I was satisfied with the overall effort and results.

Entering this past weekend therefore was, what I felt a lightly prepared team and we approached the spiel with that in mind.  Our goals for the weekend were around team development and the discovering the specific issues that might arise with a new team early in the season.  It was then with some surprise that I watched my players making shots in situations that I had never seen before.  Clutch draws, timely take outs and exceptional adjustments.  They played like champs and I was frankly forced to consider what was going on here.  This was not the team that left off last year and while yes, we had a line up change, we were 3/4 the same team as last year.

Here is part of what I discovered or more accurately, re-learned.

Big Lesson #1.

Teams need time off.  Anyone learning a skill needs time to process what they have learned. It’s a similar concept to walking away from a problem that might be giving you issues.  How many of us have heard the phrase “sleep on it”?  That’s a break that you need in order to let your brain fully process and integrate the information that it’s taken in.  With technology today, we are very proud of our ability to gather great amounts of information extremely quickly.  What we may lose sight of, is that processing this information, the integration of it, takes time and there are NO shortcuts for that process.   We often forget how complex and wonderful our brains are.  They work even when we don’t know they’re working.  They process information, they put things together, they build pathways that are needed to retrieve and use that information all while we aren’t consciously thinking about it.  This is one reason that sufficient sleep is critical.  That literal unconscious break in activity gives your brain the time to put it all together.

Coaches need to very critically assess how much practice is appropriate for their own team and when it might be more appropriate NOT to practice.  My girls needed the summer to fully process the previous season.  I pushed them last year on a number of levels and it’s possible I (who me?? nahhh) overloaded them with all that instruction.  Did I make a mistake?  It depends on what my goals were.  Our team’s primary goals are long term.  Sure we had season goals for last year but the longer term goals are a higher priority so, I felt as a coach that I could spend a season cramming them with information, then give them the summer to process knowing that when they came back this fall things would make more sense.  Thankfully, it actually worked out that way.  So, is every team like that?  Of course not.  Every single team is different and that coach, is where you come in.  We want to give them as much as we possibly can but we have to be very aware of the amount of information and instruction that actually GETS THROUGH!

This concept of taking a break features in the theory of periodisation in season planning.  Periodisation is the concept of breaking the season into chunks or “periods” so that peak performance is achieved at the appropriate time.  This includes having appropriate breaks within and between periods to allow for both physical recovery and mental processing.

The lesson summary?  Teams need time to process what you’re teaching them.  The amount of time needed depends on the team, the coach, the amount and type of information you want to get through to your athletes.  Just one more difficult thing to consider as part of your coaching duties.

Big Lesson #2.

Team dynamics can be fostered but never forced.  This was my team’s first event together and while they had spent a fair amount of time together, it had been all social time.  Hanging out with good people isn’t the same as working with them towards a common goal.  The pressure of performance shows a different side of how people interact.  As a coach, all you can do is create an atmosphere within your team that will allow your athletes to perform together but at the end of it all, if they can’t work together, there is nothing you can do to make it happen.  Sometimes you just have to let it go.  On the flip (and positive) side, if you do create conditions that allow teams to come together, then magic can happen.

What are those conditions? Well, again, sorry but this is team dependent!  It’s a critical task of the coach to evaluate what your team needs in order to be allowed to come together.  One example of something I believe is always needed is the idea of creating an honest and open environment in the team.  I’ll explain.  I made a mistake this weekend on a time out and struggled (for a millisecond…) about whether to tell the team about it.  In a nutshell, I had the team call a shot with a certain goal in mind that wasn’t necessarily the goal we HAD to pursue. In the end, I explained my mistake, what it was and why I believe I made it.  I feel that being honest with them about that and modeling open, honest behaviour is a KEY element in creating an atmosphere where good team dynamics can flourish.

For coaches, sometimes  building a good atmosphere for team dynamics means standing back.  Almost always it means giving the teams and players responsibility for their own team.   It means being the boundary keeper rather than the director.  It can hit us in the ego a bit but if we are to be truly effective as coaches we have to remember what we’re really doing here.  It’s not about us.

As usual, none of this is ever easy.  Coaching isn’t an easy job, just a worthwhile one.

Love to coach.

The Art of the Timeout

I spent this weekend coaching a junior mixed team in the zone playdown (we won B side) instead of traveling to Kingston to watch the Scotties and my favourite womens team, Jennifer Jones (no hate mail please…).  Still, I was able to watch a number of Scotties round robin games on TV and was particularly interested in how teams managed their time outs.  You see, I’m very curious to see what role other coaches play on their teams mostly so that I can see what improvements I personally can make.   What I observed is very interesting because there are so many different coaching styles, more so than playing styles.

On one hand you have Earle Morris, coach of Team Ontario (Homan).  Earle is worth listening to anytime he opens his mouth and has a very determined way about managing the time out.  He comes out to the ice with purpose and imparts a definite preference to his team when he talks to them.  If you watch a Team Ontario time out, it’s…interesting.  I personally find them uncomfortable because there seems to be so much push back from Rachel Homan.  Regardless, the team finds that effective and it obviously works well for them.  On the flip side, I watched a Newfoundland time out where the coach came out, mumbled a few words, was ignored then walked back to his seat.  Again, this might be what works for that team, I don’t know and I’m not passing judgement.

What I will say is that in curling, the time out is such an oddity that it bears a little reflection.  Competitive teams must discuss how the time outs should proceed.  Things such as, who talks first, what information should the team be looking for from the coach, should the coach call the time out or leave it up to the team etc.  Teams should have conversations about this stuff and figure out how they are going to make the most of their meagre in game time with the coach. Personalities figure into this in a big way.  With the Ontario (now Team Canada!) team, Rachel needs to hear some definite and assured opinions from Earle.  She will make up her own mind in the end however, she doesn’t want another soft suggestion.

For my junior / bantam teams I typically tell them that I want them to get the issue down to 2 shots.  I only have a minute and it goes fast so I can’t teach them strategy out there.  From there I typically ask the questions they likely should have already answered.  1. What are you trying to accomplish?  2. Which shot gives you the best chance of doing that? 3. Is the risk of missing that shot worth the reward? 4. How do you want to miss?  I make sure they answer these questions quickly then try to gauge where they are leaning in their shot preference.  Unless their choice is really poor, I’ll support their decision and confirm to them that I believe they can make the shot.  I ALWAYS leave a time out on a positive note, showing support to the team.  Rare is the case where I have to go out and tell them what to do.  It’s far better for younger curlers to work through the decision making process on their own and simply get guidance from the coach as opposed to simply being directed to an answer.

For club teams, how does this factor in?  You might not ever have had a time out!  Well, think about those mini team meetings you have to discuss shots.  When the four players all gather to talk about what to call perhaps at the hog line.  This is very much like an in team time out.  Aspiring club teams should talk about how they want this to go down.  If you watch the pros, you’ll hear the phrase “I’m okay with whatever you like” a LOT.  This usually comes at the end of the conversation and is NOT a matter of the team throwing up their hands and walking away.  It’s their way of letting the skip know she has control and their support on her decision.  Teams should feel they can voice their opinions but once the decision is made they should get on board whether they like it or not.  After the game, if there is still dissention about the shot then you can have another discussion.  Mid game is not the time for that.

My advice to coaches is to put some serious thought into your time outs.  Typically they come at critical points in the game and so deserve some serious planning.

Coach Sean

Skinning Cats

Skinning Cats

Feb. 21, 2013

This first new article isn’t about skinning cats in the literal sense.  I know, shocking…  It’s really about how to get the job of winning a curling game done and whether there is a right or wrong way.  I’m watching the Scotties currently being held in Kingston!  It’s so great to see the level of play from so many women’s teams and I’m very pleased to see that there has been practically no complaining about ice.  It’s been a great event so far!

One of the biggest games so far has been the clash between previously unbeaten Team Manitoba and previously unbeaten Team Canada.  This game was particularly interesting not only because it featured two teams likely to be in the playoffs but also because of the path both teams took to their great 6 – 0 records.  What am I talking about here?

If you’ve ever been in one of my strategy clinics you’ll have heard the term “Team DNA”.  Team DNA is a cute way of describing the make up of your team.  This includes things like favourite shots, team abilities and tolerance for risk.  It is very literally all the things that go into making your team the team it is.  This seems like something that really doesn’t need any explanation.  I mean, obviously your team is made up of four unique individuals and because of that, it’s going to be unique!  Why bother with it and what does it have to do with the Manitoba / Canada game?

Your team DNA bears reflection because if you understand it, then you’ll understand how you like to play the game.  It’s usually in this part of the strategy clinic that I find the most yawns but trust me, having an understanding of this is critical for success.  You’ll understand if you like to gamble or if you prefer a slow and steady approach.  Again, this is something you might think is intuitive EXCEPT that you’re not playing an individual game.   If you’re going to be a competitive team at any level, then everyone on the team should have a similar set of values leading to a similar outlook towards game play.  Two gamblers and two defensive players don’t make an effective team over the long haul simply because they will not agree on many shots and therefore will not commit to all their shots.  Now the nice thing about Team DNA is that it isn’t literal DNA and so individuals can learn to adjust their attitudes and fit into a group if they recognize the need and have the desire.

So we understand that teams have their own personalities and preferences for style of play.  Going back to that fantastic Canada / Manitoba game, how does this factor in?  Team Canada (Nedohin) has a preference for hits.  This team prefers to play the hit and roll versus the tight draw.  They like it a little more clean than most teams and will direct play as much as they can to these sorts of situations.  Looking at their record coming into the game (6 – 0) you might be tempted to say “well, that’s the direction of women’s curling now, everyone should play that way.”  The problem with that thinking is that their opponents, Team Manitoba (Jones) doesn’t play this way.  They like it messier.  They like a more finesse style game and will direct play to these sorts of situations.  Hmm, they can’t both be right so, what’s going on??  Yes, you guessed it, it’s Team DNA.

Both of these teams have figured out where they are comfortable and do their very best to play their games in that style.  They are as successful partly because they are true to their own values and preferences.  One caveat here however.  Just because they have preferences, they do recognize that they can’t always be in control and can’t always direct play to their preferred style so they work hard to make all the shots.  They can play each others game but try not to as much as possible.

So, how does this manifest itself in a game?  We’ve already talked about hits versus draws but from a rock placement point of view it means that Heather Nedohin prefers rocks in the house to rattle around.  She likes being able to come in off things and running stones back into other stones.  Heather is great at reading angles and figuring the precise spot to hit it in order to roll to the perfect place.  Perhaps she doesn’t like as many guards in play.  Jennifer Jones on the other hand likes those front stones to come around.  She likes finessing rocks into position and working them into better places within the house with soft shots.  Again, remember, Heather can draw and draw well.  Also remember, Jennifer can hit and hit well.  The game the other day (Manitoba won 6-5) was classic back and forth and a battle of styles as much as anything else.

Club teams often tell me that this doesn’t apply to them and perhaps it doesn’t if you have no aspirations towards being competitive.  If you want to do well however, you MUST understand your team DNA and how it affects your play even at the club level.  There aren’t any right or wrong answers because the adage is true, there are many ways to skin a cat.

As always, if you have any questions I welcome them and will do my best to answer them.

Coach Sean