Sometimes getting there can be half the fun, but for skip Rachel Homan and her Ottawa Curling Club team, the trip to the World Women’s Curling Championship in Riga, Latvia this March was actually the first challenge of the tournament. They were grounded at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany for more than a day due to snow, and arrived at the championships jetlagged and peeved…not the best frame of mind to start throwing rocks against the world’s best. With the team hoping to make the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, their inner game was quickly put to the test.
This required mental discipline is Natalie Durand-Bush’s responsibility. A professor of sport psychology in the School of Human Kinetics at the Faculty of Health Sciences, she has worked with uOttawa graduates Homan (24), Lisa Weagle (27) and Alison Krevaziuk (23), and Carleton graduate Emma Miskew (24) for six years, since their junior curling days. She was in Riga with the team, and says fatigue and getting used to new surroundings meant the team began the competition tentatively. “There’s always going to be distractions. The quicker you adapt, the better,” she says. In the early going, Durand-Bush says the team was fighting the unfamiliar ice, “and they would get frustrated. We told them, ‘Relax. Even if it’s not a perfect shot, just appreciate it, because it’s hard to make a perfect shot.’” Smiling, she says coach Earle Morris put it to the girls like this: “You’re aiming for perfection, but excellence is tolerated.”
For Durand-Bush, getting the team back into its groove was about communication, above all. “We talk about verbal versus non-verbal communication. How are you communicating to your team members, and how is that being perceived? Those are things we openly talk about—we give examples and we’ve used video in the past. We always have a pre-game and a post-game meeting.” She and the coach plan what to say, to whom, and when. “We think about the potential consequences: Are we ready to open this can of worms, or should we wait because tonight’s game is going to be critical? It’s all these minute details that can make a huge difference.” Rachel Homan agrees, saying, “If we’re not communicating well, it can cost us the game. Natalie is there to keep us in check and doing the things she has taught us.”
The question most weekend curlers and armchair shot-callers want answered is how to deal with nerves when the winning rock is in hand. Durand-Bush says, “Every player has her pre-shot routine. We’ll talk about how each player wants to be in the heat of the moment. Yes, it’s the winning shot, but that’s just the outcome. There is pressure, but technically you’re not going to change anything. The skip always has the hardest shots. As the week progresses we talk about her getting ready to throw that last rock to the button and just loving the pressure. And in tight games in the round robin, we’ll actually celebrate those moments, which is good practice for the final game.” Homan says, “I like playing when the pressure is on. It’s my job to make sure I can make those shots under pressure…I just make sure I believe in my ability, and make sure my emotions don’t get the better of me.”
Durand-Bush points out that the first time a team goes to a world championship, it rarely gets a medal. Homan’s team defied those odds, adapted, and won the bronze. Homan says, “I think we had some adversity, and it was good for our team. I think we learned a lot. We battled hard together as a team right to the end. I was proud we fought back to make the playoffs.” They were one shot away—a difficult two-rock takeout—from getting into the final game. “They’re very young,” says Durand-Bush, “and have had a lot of success. I see a lot of medals in their future. I really admire their work ethic and commitment. With any elite athlete, it’s just amazing the sacrifices you have to make.”
Team Homan made a shorter trip to the Player’s Championships in Toronto in April. They will head to the Olympic trials in Winnipeg in December. Preparing for Winnipeg, Durand-Bush says, “We’re going to be working on strategy, team dynamics, communication, and leadership. Managing emotions is a big one. The ultimate goal is to go to the Olympics and get a medal. For the girls, what’s good is they’ve had this experience to go to the worlds. They learned some valuable lessons. These girls have been phenomenal over the years. Every year we see transformations, just for the better. ”