Team Building on the Curling Sheet

In Mental Training, Sports by Brock Bourgase

With the last bonspiel of the curling season upon us, I wanted to discuss the evolution and improvement of Team Gushue over the past two seasons. While they ultimately fell short of their two major goals in 2018 – representing Canada at the Winter Olympics and repeating as World Champions – Brad Gushue’s rink achieved a level of consistency that only one other team (Niklas Edin) can match at the moment. Taking the next step to become two-time Canadian champions and frequent winners on the professional circuit required the Newfoundland curlers to address several areas of improvement off the ice.

Communication: Winning teams engage in more task-oriented communication, such as specific tips, suggestions to improve co-ordination among members and discussions to solve problems. Basketball teams that engage in more physical contact (touches, high fives, huddles) also perform better on the court. An adjustment that the team made in recent years was improved communication. Exchanging more messages during games and making those messages more precise enabled a good team to become great and finally win the Brier.

Before Gushue’s game-winning draw in the 2017 championship, the team exemplified task-oriented communication. They discuss the exact speed of the ice along the path of the shot, comparing it to earlier in the week and earlier in the game. The skip asks his vice Mark Nichols about the in-turn path because he wants to have all of the information. The team discusses precisely what type of shot that they want so that everyone is on the same page. Since first Geoff Walker was injured, Gushue reminds vice Nichols to come out if needed (that prompt action was required to drag the stone into the house). As the shot unfolds, Gushue urges his team to provide maximal effort.

Compromise: As a younger skip, Gushue was incredibly demanding of his teammates and this did not always lead to success in big moments. Gushue was always an excellent shot-maker but he struggled to find three teammates who could complement his skills. For many years, there was a revolving door on the team and a series of middling results at the Brier. Even long-time third Nichols stepped away from Gushue for a few years because he needed “something different” and Ryan Fry described him as a “boss” rather than a consensus builder.

Now, Gushue understands that curling is not the most important thing in the world and has relaxed significantly during major competitions. As he worked with a younger group of curlers, Gushue learned to teach more and become less demanding. Gushue owns his own business and has a family so he has become more flexible with teammates to engender buy in.

Calm: Gushue previously described himself as a “stress bag” so mental training was something he certainly needed to win high pressure games. Throughout his recent Brier victories, he emphasized treating the event like any other game. Although the recent World Championships were hosted in Las Vegas – a city full of distractions – the team maintained its usual routine above all else.

Previously, a narrow defeat such as the one suffered to Edin in the Gold Medal game might have caused Gushue to re-evaluate his rink and make changes. This time, they are keeping a positive outlook and they have recommitted for another four-year Olympic cycle. It was a tough loss but their performance throughout the year was very strong and a foundation that they could build upon.