Hear more about this subject and other curling topics from Jonathan Havercroft on Rocks Across the Pond: A Curling Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and TuneIn
At the start of January I’ll be heading to Finland to coach the England Junior Men’s team in the World Junior B Curling Championship. For most curling fans they only know the bench coach as person who makes a very brief appearance during a team’s time out. On TV the coach usually makes a brief suggestion about what shot to play and then walks back to the bench.
On some of the more famous elite teams (e.g. team Koe) the bench coach never even bothers to leave the bench during the timeout. So for the casual curling fan, it may look like the bench coach actually does not do much. That actually could not be further from the truth. Let’s look at what a bench coach does from before a game right through until afterwards.
I see my primary job as bench coach as supporting the team so that they can perform at their absolute best. In practice this means that I try to ensure that the team sticks to its agreed upon routines before, during, and after each game.
Basic sports psychology teaches us that the in order for individuals and teams performing at their best is the ability to consistently execute their skills when called upon to do so. The key to avoiding performance failure under pressure (i.e. choking) is for the athlete to develop consist mental and physical skills that they can repeat on demand regardless of the context. Making everything as routine as possible is the key ensuring consistent performance which in turn leads to success (i.e. winning).
What kind of routines am I talking about? For every match we have a pre-game meeting at an agreed upon time before the match, and usually away from the competition venue. Here we set our individual and team goals for the game, discuss how we will adopt our strategy given the ice conditions, our opponents, and other factors (perhaps we want to try a new tactic in a game situation, perhaps we want to avoid a tactic that has not been working lately).
We then aim to arrive at the venue an hour to forty-five minutes before the match. For a club curler this probably seem really early, but there is a lot that a team needs to do in a major event that the club team doesn’t need to do. In addition to getting changed and warmed up, both teams have a nine-minute practice session. Two players from each team must throw the last stone draw (LSD) to determine who has hammer.
As a coach I also need to set up my space on the bench – I work with an iPad and a notepad and paper, but many coaches bring laptops, cameras, and other gadgets to collect as much match data as they can. The coaches are also responsible for setting the team lineup and giving the names of the LSD throwers to the umpires.
Once the pre-game practice and LSD are complete I have one last chance to chat with the team before the game begins. I use those few moments to check in on how they are feeling and to reiterate key points from the pre-game meeting. Then I walk back to the coaching bench and the game is on.
During the game I have very little interaction with the team. Most of my job is to watch the match closely to come up with pointers for how the team can improve for the next match and to identify and underscore the things the team is doing well.
Under WCF rules coaches only get two interactions with a team during the game – during the five-minute break at “halftime” and during the one-minute time out. The half time break normally consists of a snack, a bit of positive feedback, and maybe one or two suggestions of what to do differently in the second half.
The Art of the Time Out
The time out normally happens at a crucial juncture late in the match where the team calls on me for tactical advice. We only get one minute, but I try to impart three things during each timeout.
First I answer any questions they might have about the particular situation. Second I try to focus the team on what the ideal and acceptable outcomes are for the end. Is it acceptable to concede a point or even two points in this situation if it still puts us in an advantageous situation to win? What outcome do we want to avoid at all cost?
Third we try to briefly discuss the options for the next end. The goal is to help the team see how the specific strategic decision that led to the time-out fits into the larger goal of winning the game.
My best opportunity to discuss the game as a coach happens during our post-game meeting. Like the pre-game meeting we normally hold this away from the venue in a quiet space. In addition to discussing any issues that came up during the game, we always review our pre-game goals and then agree on things we want to work on for the next game.
A key part of these routines is to get the players to focus on the small steps that are within their control from game to game so that they can maximize performance throughout the week. Normally the goals are very simple ones that focus on things like team communication and ice reading, rather than vague general goals like “make all my shots” or “shoot better than the other team”.
Over the years I’ve found that the teams that focus on doing as many of the small things that are within their control well tend to perform the best over the course of the week. The bench coach’s job is to help the team control the “control-ables” and then block everything else out so that the team can maximize its performance.