It’s been a little longer than I had initially planned for an update! Would it surprise you to know that once competition season started, I haven’t had much spare time to sit, reflect and report? Better late than never I say, and conveniently, I find time to write this as the ‘Roar of the Rings’ – Canadian Olympic trials airs on TV. I wonder who will be our Canadian competitor in Pyeongchang?
Our schedule from September has included some World Curling Tour and Grand Slam events in Regina, Edmonton, Switzerland, Lloydminster and Portage la Prairie with pit stops in Scotland for training. In terms of results, we did have a positive first half of the season producing quarter, semi, and first place finishes. We just returned from St. Gallen, Switzerland where we won Gold at the European Curling Championships and now a week or so break before we venture to our final event of 2017 – Japan.
Our team set some pretty specific process-orientated goals prior to each competition to ensure that we meet our long term objectives that will lead us in to the Olympics. For example, trialling some technical changes to our deliveries, working on touch shots, testing new game plans, alternating players, sweeping, communication and a whole lot more. It is difficult as a player and a team not to instinctively focus on the result of a game and to default to old habits when things don’t happen immediately, but we were held to account and supported by our coaching team and psychologist, so that we stayed on track. We always had something new to work on and our little brains and bodies were exhausted after each tournament. Pretty soon though, each new component becomes learned behaviour and we slowly but surely smash our ‘to do’ list. Winning is hard and to consistently produce results you need to look for the little things that will make a difference to your game. We made good use of our training time to fine tune lots of these areas.
Preparing to Play
We had agreed that as the alternate player I should be playing some competitive games to ensure that in the event of illness or injury, we were all comfortable with the roles and responsibilities that each of us would adopt. All players took a game or two off while I alternated positions during a couple of the tournaments.
There was a moment at the World Championships in China last year where I was almost called on to play in the playoff stages due to illness. I had been playing for the first half of the season, and practically, there wouldn’t have been an issue with stepping in, but there is something about that last minute call up that makes you want to throw up. I hadn’t planned to play, so I wasn’t ready to play – I was panicking that I would miss all of my shots and I would let my team down. Knowing how I felt in this moment, I made a clear goal for myself this season that I would have a sound mental plan in place to ensure that I was prepared to play in any circumstance.
I spent a lot of time in my own training sessions and during competition figuring out what that looks like for me and am comfortable with the plan. Interestingly, my plan has to vary depending on where I have to slot in to the team as well as preparation for a ‘mid game’ call in. Each player position is so unique that it isn’t a case of jumping on the ice and throwing stones up at the house. When observing the girls play, I focus on what information I can gather related to ice conditions, strategy, and opposition that may inform me better should I have to step in.
Another factor to account for when alternating positions is ‘Sweeping’. All players need to coordinate and accommodate each others’ technique and become flawless in their role as a sweeper, so it was important that we could trial this with a 5th player as well. I really enjoyed playing and challenging myself outside of my comfort zone.
This is what separates the top teams from the rest of the pack.
Variables such as the speed of the stone, the turn/handle being thrown, the deceleration rate of the stone, the amount of rotations on a stone, ice conditions, the equipment being used, and so on will all affect what technique works best.
Without getting too technical, there is a general consensus amongst most of the elite teams now of what sweeping technique is most effective to manipulate the stone depending on the shot being played.
It is essential to master the most effective brushing technique individually and how this fits with your partner. Not only is the physical component of sweeping important to get right, but how you communicate with your partner and your skip about the stone just played, makes a difference to the outcome, which essentially could mean the difference between winning and losing. You have to practice how you communicate, what you communicate, who makes the call, who sweeps when, how you sweep, how you alternate positions mid sweep. It takes quite the coordination to safely escort the played stone to its final destination. Sweepers need to be aware of 1st, 2nd and 3rd options and be ready to react.
I think players take great pride in sweeping in this era – we have seen a big push from both men and women’s team to be physically strong and efficient in their technique and to have the capability to be able to sweep the last stone of the week with the same vigour and attention as the first – which for front end players, could be over 700 stones.
Time at Home
It was pretty lucky that most of the events we compete in are in Canada, so it never feels like I am too far from home and don’t have to worry about jet lag like the rest of the team. Darby and Jerrod came to support the team in Regina and the girls had a European tournament in Basel mid October when I was able to stay at home and train instead. I managed to get in some quality family time and even a few SC Broncos games. A quick check in with the team at STRIDE to ensure Nutrition, Conditioning, and Physio areas were all on track and some quality ice time of my own at the Swift Current Curling Club. I feel pretty privileged to have such fantastic conditions to practice on. To blurb some curling lingo – the ice makers prep a sheet for me that is a consistent 14-14.5 seconds hog to hog and edge of 12ft to draw the button – you seriously can’t get any better than that. Crisp, clean surface that indeed replicates championship ice and I am not even exaggerating.
Our team is enrolled in the Whereabouts program implemented by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). We must provide weekly information about our location for training, travel, and competition to the World Curling Federation. This program is important for clean sport and because ‘out-of-competition’ doping controls can be conducted without notice to athletes, WADA believes this to be the most powerful means of deterrence and detection. Drugs in Curling? I know it seems a little ridiculous, but it is becoming more prevalent as athletes are looking for any extra enhancement that may improve their performance or recovery.
I’m sure many of us can’t function without a coffee in the morning or swing by the Starbucks for a cheeky double espresso afternoon ‘pick me up’. Well, the concept is similar in that athletes will continue to push the boundaries with the use of drugs to help them train harder, recover faster, sharpen their focus, slow their heart rate, manipulate their blood and bodies looking for any performance gain. WADA has identified a prohibited list of drugs that is reviewed annually to ensure that each sport has guidelines around what their athletes can and cannot take.
A person has to review this list regularly as what is legal in 2017 may not be legal in 2018. Now, I am not saying that Curling is like the more endurance based sports and that you will find front end players reaching for their dose of EPO, but things like beta-blockers, steroids, and testosterone could absolutely provide enhancements to your game.
A recent doping scandal in Curling for one country has definitely brought more attention to the topic, but for the most part, I believe that Curling athletes continue to respect the ethics of ‘clean sport’.
We were told that a vast majority of failed drug tests are a result of consumption of medicines or products containing banned substances unknown to the athlete. Cold and Flu medicine is a typical culprit – where the ingredient pseudoephedrine is banned, for example. Some topical lotions or lip balms contain steroids, as well as, supplements like protein powders. Some brands vary across countries, so you can’t guarantee that Beechams cold medicine in Canada contains the same ingredients as the UK or USA. It is your responsibility to check the labels and to be mindful of what you consume.
I was sick on one of the trips in Canada and went to pick up some cold medicine – I was convinced it was legal as I had checked it in the summer but wanted to make sure – I am glad I did my due diligence as it was actually a prohibited substance during competition. It gave me a real fright and acted as a sharp reminder that it is better not to take any chances. Any supplements that you want to take like vitamins, protein powder, creatine etc. need to be batch tested if you want to ensure it isn’t contaminated. It really does beg the question – do we, as consumers really know what we are being sold?
During one of our final days of training in Scotland prior to European Championships, the UKAD team turned up unannounced and tested all of our team. Something daunting about peeing in a cup with your pants around your ankles while someone looks on. In that moment your brain works overtime to reassure yourself that you have followed protocol with everything. Can you imagine being responsible for your team being disqualified from competition because you made an error? Some sports have doping programs in place and I remember our doctor telling us one day that a cyclist had gone out of his way to hide someone else’s urine sample in a catheter so he could avoid a positive test – when the results came through the doctors congratulated him on a negative drug sample but congratulated him on his pregnancy!
I wanted to mention this tournament in particular, as it is the highlight of our season to date. An opportunity to benchmark ourselves against a few of the European nations that will also be at the Olympics and to test how well we have implemented our processes. We finished the round robin with a record of 7 wins and 2 losses, but emerged victorious after beating Switzerland in the semi finals and Sweden in the Final – a shiny gold medal and a 10lb wedge of Gruyere cheese for our efforts. A proud moment to stand on the podium and sing Flower of Scotland as your national flag is raised. Beyond the medal however, this is no time to become complacent; rather it’s time to set new goals for the next part of the season. I am proud of our teams’ work ethic and commitment to change over the last few months.
This week we fly to Karuizawa to compete in our final tournament of the year. We are travelling with a full entourage of support staff and our men’s team, as this is also the venue for our holding camp pre Olympic games, so we will use it as a recce for February.
I will be ready for some Christmas celebrations and a quiet time at home before the last leg of the Olympic journey in early January. Darby has written his Santa letter and all the Christmas presents are ready to wrap.
Pre Olympics, I think it would be fitting to share exactly what the role of the alternate player is all about.
For now, I want to wish all of my friends, family, and our supporters a Merry, Happy and Healthy Christmas and New Year.