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.