Monthly Archives: November 2014

Size Matters

I am being continually reminded of one hard truth about the sport we all love so much.  This is the critical nature of team dynamics on in curling.  Certainly, team dynamics are not a unique requirement to our sport but they do seem to have an impact far beyond that of other sports.  I decided to do some research into why this might be the case and what I found seemed to agree with what I had figured on my own.

First, an aside.  For those of you studying teams and the dynamics within teams, I would highly suggest you look into business literature for additional insight.  There seems to be much more of that out there and frankly, the concepts overlap those things that we’re trying to achieve quite nicely.

What did I learn? Well, it’s likely fairly obvious but many of the advantages that small teams enjoy over larger teams also end up being double edged swords.  When those “advantages” don’t work well, they end up damaging the small team.  The first example of this would be clarity within a team.  Each member of a four person team has a pretty direct sight line to each of their team mates.  Any difference in philosophy or commitment will be pretty obvious, pretty quickly and there’s no ignoring it.  On larger teams, players may not have the level of insight into their team mates that they get on small teams.  With that insight is the ability to achieve a level of cohesion that is much more difficult in larger teams.  Of course, the chance of the smaller team being pulled apart by those aforementioned differences is also higher.  Much of this is due to the increased interaction between each team member.  Face it, there’s no “hiding” on a small team, in any respect!

Larger teams can also enjoy (suffer?) the experience of “group think”.  That is, a prevailing attitude or gravitation towards consensus that may or may not be beneficial to the groups success.  In our smaller teams, players are less inclined to go with the flow because the flow is that much smaller!  Again though, the flip side of that is that players who don’t see any support for their opinions can very quickly feel very marginalized within small teams causing discourse and a definite lack of cohesion.

If small teams can get on the same page, they are much better to develop a strong sense of trust in each other.  It’s much more difficult for larger teams to achieve this across the board and that trust brings with it a whole pile of benefits.

That is just scratching the surface of the “small team vs. large team” study.  What does that have to do with us as coaches?  Everything.  It’s our job to build and foster the environment where these considerations go down the “positive” road rather than the negative one.  I’ve said before, a coach cannot force team cohesion, they can only create an environment where it has the best chance to succeed.  I cannot stress enough that in my limited experience, it’s this team formation and nurturing that has the single biggest impact on a team’s success.  We need to constantly be examining how we do business so that we are giving our teams the best chance to bond.

Been There…Now Do That…

Experience…we all want it, we all know it’s power and value. What then, can we do to accelerate the process of getting some? I’m going to approach this from both the perspective of the athlete AND the coach. First, lets talk about the athlete. Every curler has heard that if they want to get better then they have to go out and play, and play, and play, then play some more and maybe more. That’s experience. Even worse, if the experience is going to be truly valuable then they have to go out and lose, and lose and lose again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to learn how to win as well but the “win experience” is has a much narrower lesson than many of the “loss experiences”. Winning means performing under pressure, definitely a critical skill for players and teams who want to succeed. Losing means putting a spotlight on those skills and areas that teams are not so strong in. Of course, the loss experience is worthless unless you realize the lesson and work to improve it. Nice to know that your skip is floating her out turn and losing games for us but unless we’re doing something to fix it…you get the idea.

This is pretty well trodden ground we’re on however. How does an athlete get MORE experience? The truth is, they’re actually pretty smart about it. Those of you who are competitive in the curling world, will have a coach. Why? EXPERIENCE!! That’s right, your coach is a teacher and a fountain of experience from which you can draw on. It’s a built in perk having a coach who will teach skills and share experiences with you. The only catch is, athletes have to be open to absorbing those experiences and integrating them into their own minds. There is another way of accelerating the experience gathering process but I want to flip over to coaches to help introduce that idea.

How do coaches gain experience? Shockingly, it’s no different than it is for athletes. Go coach. Coach some more, make a bunch of silly mistakes, reflect, change what you didn’t do well and start over. Great, nice information right? That’s pretty obvious stuff but I wanted to introduce another way of accelerating that learning curve. That’s the concept of the mentor. Curling coaches are phenomenal about how they interact and share. The best coaches will spend as much time as you want with OTHER COACHES talking curling and coaching. I think that’s a fairly rare thing in sports and we as curling coaches should take full advantage of other, experienced coaches willing to help us out. There is honestly a brother / sister hood in the coaching community. We love it so much that we’re overflowing with the desire to help each other out!

Personally, it took me a very long time to embrace this. I was very nervous about talking to other coaches about what I was doing for fear of being judged or finding out that what I was doing wasn’t right. Eventually, I realized that if I was doing something that wasn’t right, I had to know! My ego finally took the back seat it deserved in this respect. I also would avoid having any other coaches or athletes or anyone really, talk and work with teams. Again, my fear was that my athletes would look to the new source rather than to me. All ego. These days, I use people I know and can coerce into helping my teams as much as I possibly can. I’ve accepted that I’m not an expert in every field and that by bringing in people with other experience, I can more fully enrich my athletes own experiences.

That brings me all the way back to what athletes can do to enhance their own experience. Find a mentor. Find another athlete who has been there that is willing to share. Trust me, they’re out there. The only disclaimer I’ll put on this is that as a coach or athlete, you should not willingly go out there and ask anyone and everyone for their thoughts and experiences. Find someone you respect and who you believe has the knowledge, experience and willingness to help you in in an honest way.

I’ve recently started an informal mentorship program with the team I’m coaching. I have a very successful junior player who is willing to come and share her experiences with my team. She is bringing my girls thoughts and perspective I will literally never have and she’s doing it with enthusiasm. I trust her and am excited to see how this works.

This is not a new idea. This year the Sherry Middaugh team began mentoring the Junior team, Molly Greenwood. I’m very much an outsider looking in on that situation but the whole idea is brilliant. It’s also a very “curling” idea. Curling people, by and large, are good people. I think we should embrace who we are as athletes and coaches and lend a hand to each other whenever we can. It makes the sport stronger, it makes us better coaches and athletes and frankly, it’s just a more enjoyable way of doing business.