BRANTFORD, ONT. — With its languid pacing stretched gently into many hours of television airtime, curling can create the kind of perception Colleen Jones has been facing for more than three decades: Even at its highest level, curling can look pretty easy.
“I’ve heard that every day of my life since I was a 20-year-old kid,” the two-time world champion said, a dry note of annoyance in her voice. “And then they go out and try it and they realize, ‘I didn’t make a shot the entire game.’ And you’re going: ‘Nooo . . . and you probably never will.’ ”
At the elite level, there is a growing consensus that part of what makes the game look easy to outsiders — the pace, like an ice-based lava lamp — is also one of the greatest challenges, and opportunities. Most top curlers can make important shots, but not all top curlers can make important shots under pressure.
“People throw the rock nice, you figure out the strategy in a hurry,” Jones said. “The thing that gets in your way is your head.”
Sports psychologists and mental strength coaches are still relatively new to curling, tied perhaps with the sport’s return to the Olympic roster, in 1998. Even then, when Kelley Law led Canada to a bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, in 2002, her team was viewed as an outlier for its use of sports psychology.
Today, Kyle Paquette, a PhD candidate, is a “mental performance specialist” with Curling Canada, the sport’s national governing body. Out of the dozen of so national-level teams — women’s and men’s — he estimated all but one consult regularly with either a psychologist or a mental coach. He said several teams are in contact with him more than once a week.
“I think it’s becoming more commonplace,” Paquette said. “I think there used to be a stigma toward sports psychology, that it was only meant for athletes who had serious problems.”
Eleven men’s teams are competing at the Ontario Tankard this week in Brantford, Ont., for the chance to represent Ontario at the Canadian championship next month in Ottawa. There is prize money on the line, as well federal funding, a trip to the world championships and the promise of national television exposure for sponsors.
Rogers Communications has invested heavily in curling, expanding its own tour. The Olympics offers the chance for stardom, and for more money.
“For these teams, the pressure is pretty high,” Paquette said. “Because they need to make a living. And it’s pretty hard to make a living. You’ve got to play pretty well to make the money necessary to support your family.”
And the conditions in which they work are not favourable: Throwing only two stones in an end that can last for almost a quarter of an hour.
“You’re cold,” Paquette said. “You’re asked to perform randomly, every five to 10 minutes, and execute this fine motor skill that you have to make with extreme precision, otherwise you’re not even competing.”
“There’s a lot of time there to think yourself stupid,” said Ontario skip Ian Dickie.
His rink, which is competing this week in Brantford, has a coach who is also a mental strength specialist, a PhD candidate with a specific research interest in curling. Nicole Westlund is also an elite-level curler, and is married to the team’s vice-skip, Tyler Stewart.
Part of her work includes visualization, not only as it relates to strategy — “Helping you think two or three shots ahead, similar to chess” — but also with repetition. Imagine the shot before you take it.
“It’s certainly not meant to replace actually doing the motion, but it supplements it,” she said. “And then, the idea is that when you’re in the pressure situation, and you have to perform, you’re more likely to be able to rely on that automatic performance.”
Westlund, who also works with junior-aged curlers, tries to get the athletes to focus on the positive aspects of their game, rather than dwelling on the negative. Focusing on a missed shot distracts from what the curler has to do next. The echoes in that idle time between shots, then, can be critical.
“The people who can do that naturally, or through trial and error, are few and far between,” said Gerry Peckham, director, high performance, at Curling Canada.
Jones, 56, is a six-time Canadian champion from Nova Scotia who released a memoir, Throwing Rocks at Houses: My Life in and out of Curling, last fall. At the height of her power, she was one of the most fearsome skips in the sport. In private, after a win, she would grow tense, anxious for the next game, or the next tournament. Sometimes, she would make herself feel ill.
Working with a sports psychologist helped, she said.
“In life, you should carry around a sports psychologist in your back pocket, because how many people are still brooding over a family issue, or a relationship issue or a job issue? How many people carry around that kind of baggage?” she asked. “A lot of people.”