Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sometimes The Best Performance Isn't On The Ice

At the recently concluded Canadian Junior Curling Championships presented by the Egg Farmers of Ontario in Stratford, ON something happened in "The Players' Lounge" that once again, confirmed my belief that the sport of curling just brings out the best in its participants, especially those who have the bulk of their career in front of the them.

By now most of you know that one of the real joys of my season is to be the "Curling Canada Mentor Coach" at the national junior event. This was something that Curling Canada started following the 2009 competition in Salmon Arm, BC. At those championships, I had the honour of coaching the BC Junior Men's team. At the coaches' meeting that followed the games, the sentiment was put forth by the coaches that since many of them coached at a national event for the first time (and with a highly interested group of stakeholders [i.e. parents & friends] in tow), it would be beneficial if the then CCA could provide someone who has "been there, done that" with a level of coaching experience and certification to be available for the coaches and players to simply sit down and chat. The eyes in the room cast their stare towards me and in less than a minute I was asked to consider that role.

That was eight junior championships ago and I'm pleased to report that the idea not only had merit at the time but has continued to prove itself. I'm sure any one of my national coaching colleagues would have made the idea a success. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time!

At the "Players's Meeting" the day before play begins, after the speeches have concluded from the Curling Canada personnel, the head umpire, the sponsors and the local organizing committee, all the adults clear the room and I'm left with the athletes. It's the only time I can put on my coaching hat and for a few brief minutes address them all as though they were my team. I remind them about three things. First, the ice and the stones have no idea who you are, what you've done in the past and that this event is for a national championship. Second, the only people in the room who really matter are sitting with you wearing the same uniform. Third, if you want to be the best that you can be during the event, do everything you're able to ensure that your teammates have a great championship.

To make the experience fulfilling for the coaches, each evening I open "The Coaches" Lounge". This is a room at the host hotel were only the coaches can congregate to share stories of the day and generally put their very tired feet up and relax. Often this is where coaches will set up meetings with me to discuss anything "outside the boards"! Each year I conduct about 20 of those meetings during the course of the competition. That's about 160 since the Coach Mentor programme at junior nationals began. Not one time did I have to tell a coach that I could not discuss his/her concern as it was an "inside the boards" topic.

At the conclusion of the week long event, I conduct, on behalf of Curling Canada's Director of Championship Services, Danny Lamoureux, a meeting of the coaches to evaluate the experience. Many of the improvements to the junior national competition have come about as a result of suggestions the coaches have put forward at that meeting.

During the day at the event, I get to watch the future of curling in Canada and marvel at the expertise of the young athletes. The Stratford event was no exception. The shot making was, well, off the charts and I had the best seat in the house to witness it (actually, I have to find a seat just like everyone else).

But it's "The Player's Lounge" that gives me my greatest pleasure. As the name implies, it's for players only. This is when I'm able to talk with the players and find out where they live, what they like to do outside of the sport, what's happening at school or with jobs plus any other topic we find mutually interesting. I'm never Mr. Tschirhart, just "Bill" even though the difference in our age is considerable (and getting wider it seems). But for one week, I'm much closer to their generation than mine. It's a difficult feeling to explain but it's very real.

On one of my visits to the PL in Stratford, in the middle of the room, two athletes were playing "crokinole hockey" (tough to explain in words, you had to be there). What made it of particular interest to me was the relative ages and curling experience of the two young men. One was from Canada's newest entry into the national event and the other was from the only province where curling is the official provincial sport. The young athlete from Nunavut was barely a teenager while the young man from Saskatchewan was in his last year of junior eligibility. For as interesting as the hockey game they were playing was, it's the conversation that took place that caused me to pause.

The athlete from SK might very easily have wanted to spend his down time in the PL with athletes more his age and experience, as opposed to someone much younger and clearly not in his league and no, I don't know who asked who to play the game. It really didn't matter. What mattered was the interest & respect the older curler demonstrated toward the younger. The athlete from SK asked all sorts of questions about life in Rankin Inlet (I could have answered some of those). The Nunavut athlete took great pride in providing the answers. It was clearly obvious that he very much appreciated the time and effort the SK curler took to express interest in his life in Canada's far north.

I only stayed a few minutes as the dialogue continued but the glow I felt has stayed with me and will continue to do so. Once again, as I stated in my speech at the awards banquet as I presented the Asham Coaches' Awards, if anyone ever feels that the future of our country is headed down the wrong path, simply attend any junior curling event and your faith in the future will be restored!

Even though I expressed my personal gratitude to the coaches of the teams at the national event, to coaches across the curling world who give or their time, effort & resources to provided the guidance to young athletes, allow me do it more publicly. Thank you for what you do!!!