Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Role of the Coach

The coaching profession, as it is practised in the sport of curling, took a direct blow a number of times at the recent Canada Cup in Camrose, AB! Television viewers were left with the distinct impression that curlers at the highest level are moving away from a "coach". Actually, in many cases they are but they're not moving away from "coaching". Allow me to explain.

I wish I had my proverbial nickel for every time a team asked me how to find a coach. My answer is, "Don't look for one person. Tap into a variety of individuals whose knowledge, experience and pedagogy you respect in areas where you feel you and your team need to improve."

I go on to make the point that for athletes at the highest level, their needs are very different from most curlers. They need "experts" in team dynamics, mental preparation, strategy & tactics, skill development and maintenance, nutrition, physical preparation and yearly planning. It would be difficult indeed, if not downright impossible to find one person who is expert in all of those areas. So, don't even look for one but that said, if you can find someone who perhaps is expert and experienced enough in some of the areas identified above and will facilitate the securing of experts in those areas where he/she is not cognisant, then you have a modern day "coach"!

And, that's exactly what the elite teams have done, each in its own way. The time each team spends away from the bright lights and cameras is spent under the watchful, knowledgeable and experienced eyes of many people who are prepared to help the team move its yardsticks down the field. In the setting where we see them (i.e. on TV at various events) there could be any one of those individuals sitting on the coaches' bench. That person might be the team's sport psychologist, the fifth player, the coach or perhaps no one at all. But make no mistake, coaching has never been more a part of the sport of curling than it is right now. It just looks different.

When interviewed by a member of the media while I was the National Development Coach for the CCA at the National Training Centre about the role of a curling coach, I listed over 20 separate roles a "coach" might play from "transportation co-ordinator" to "sport psychologist". Clearly the roles a "coach" will play will depend on a variety of factors not the least of which is the age and experience of the athletes.

Competitive teams who feel they can go it alone are like the defendant who thinks he/she can defend him/herself at trial, they have a fool for a client! No seriously competitive team, in the modern curling environment can "go it alone". At the recent Canada Cup, there was a misleading comment made several times that a particularly high profile elite men's teams had indeed decided to do just that. Well, that's not really accurate.

If a coach has done his/her job particularly well, that is to completely empower the team and its members, the last person they need in competition is the coach! And that's what we see sometimes on TV, no one at the coaches' bench. All that means is that all those who have helped the team prepare, have done so to the point that the team needs to be able to learn if it has been completely empowered.

Professional golfers are a good analogy here. When you see them play a tournament on TV, the only person present is the player's caddie, who certainly can be a key factor in the degree of success of the athlete but in no way can provide everything he/she needs to play at the highest level in a sport where the differences in performance are miniscule. What we don't see are the hours spent on the range with the swing coach, the sport psychologist, the personal trainer, the agent, the business manager, to name but a few.

Canada is blessed with what arguably is the best coach/instructor training system on the planet, the National Coaching Certification Programme (NCCP). One of the NCCP's early sponsors was the 3M Company and its slogan was, "Every athlete deserves a certified coach!". That was true then and is even more so today. We now have athletes playing at the highest levels who grew up in the NCCP environment. They have always had a certified coach. In my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") I penned an article entitled "Coaching Certification: Why Bother?" pp.14-16.

To be a certified coach, one will have spent as many hours learning skills unique to coaching as a player playing at the highest levels will to be the best he/she can be on the ice. Attending countless symposia, conferences, camps dialoguing with a variety of teams, athletes and coaches is what makes a certified coach, well, certified, to say nothing of the burgeoning plethora of sport science data that's now available. A certified coach has demonstrated that he/she not only has acquired a body of knowledge but has the pedagogy to get that message across to the athletes. This takes time, a lot of time, time a player playing a rigorous schedule for several years will find exceedingly difficult to  replace when his/her playing career comes to an end.

As one recently retired, elite player, now coaching his son's bantam team said to me, "Wow, I didn't realize how different it is to be coach. There really are coaching skills and playing skills!"

Emerging curling countries, eager to get on the world stage, frequently look to a recently retired player to be its "National Coach", suffering from the delusion that an elite player must be an elite coach. Well, to those countries I say this, "Maybe, over time, but you likely can't afford that much time. What you have is a player who knows much about a very narrow body of work. He/she has likely played in the same competitive environment most, if not for all of his/her competitive career. He/she will be able to tell you what his/her team did to prepare but that's about as deep as it gets. Is that really who you want at the  controls of your national team programme. If it is, let me know how that goes!"

I can't believe in today's so-called "enlightened environment" we still have people in sport who feel that to be a great coach, you must have been a great player. Rasmus Ankersen, in his ground-breaking book "The Gold Mine Effect"* wanted to know why the best middle distance runners come from the same Ethiopian village, why 137 of the top 200 female golfers come from S. Korea, why the world's best sprinters not only come from the island nation of Jamaica but why they train at the same track club in Kingston (which by the way doesn't even have a running track), why the world's best soccer players come from areas of Brazil with no soccer pitches and why most of the world's best female tennis players come from Russia. To say it's a fascinating read would be putting it mildly (a wonderful item for your letter to Santa?). But here's the thing, in each of these pockets (gold mines) of athletic excellence, there is a "coach" (Ankersen refers to them as "gurus") who has never played the sport! Saying that a coach must have had a distinguished playing career is like saying that a cardiologist must have had a heart attack.

Now, make no mistake, I don't want to paint all retired, elite players with the same brush. There indeed have been players of this ilk who have made the transition but did so devoting much time, once their playing career concluded, to attending at least some of those conferences, symposia, camps etc. referred to earlier. To those who have done so, welcome to the company of elite coaches! We're happy to have you on board.

To those emerging curling countries, I will leave you with a word of caution the ancient Romans uttered thousands of years ago, caveat emptor (get googling)!

Before I leave you today, I want to suggest to curling's broadcast partners and promoters that it's disingenuous to not recognize the team's coach and 5th player when the team is acknowledged either in person on pre-recording. If you're going to recognize the team, recognize the whole team!

* The Gold Mine Effect - Rasmus Ankersen (Harper Collins) ISBN 10: 1443420573

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