OTTAWA — Some athletes find a way to deliver under pressure. Others crumble when the moment becomes too big.
Adam Kingsbury’s obsession is finding out why some are better than others at making the game-winning shot. For the past two years, he’s been the head coach of Rachel Homan’s curling team — even though he doesn’t have much of a curling background.
“I get a lot of questions about what exactly it is I do,” he says.
Kingsbury, 34, was a competitive golfer during university. During that time he took a serious interest in performance under pressure. He started conducting research to find out what happens to fine motor skills when sporting situations intensify.
“Let’s say you turn on the TV on Sunday and a golfer has a six-foot putt for a $ 1-million first-place prize,” Kingsbury says. “Even though the task itself is quite simple, the expectations, the people around you, the storylines in your head about what would happen if you made that putt or miss it, it’s a lot for most people.”
Kingsbury says we still know very little about what happens to athletes in those moments, especially in curling.
A PhD candidate in sports psychology, Kingsbury is using everything he’s learned in the academic world to help Homan and her teammates Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle. The reigning world champions are in Ottawa this week for the Canadian curling trials, where they hope to earn a spot in the Winter Olympics for the first time.
“I still get challenged about being their coach,” Kingsbury says. “Last year it was, you don’t curl, you don’t know curling, which isn’t true.”
Indeed, Kingsbury now curls three times a week in leagues in Ottawa. But he only starting dabbling with the game in high school, so he lacks the lifelong experience of your typical veteran curling coach.
“The big storyline in curling is that you can only coach this game if you’ve been to a Brier or have won a Scotties before,” he says.
While mental preparation is his specialty, Kingsbury is also busy during games. He sits on the team bench behind the sheet of ice, often with multiple devices on the go, tracking every rock thrown. He inputs the information on his iPad, compiling a list of stats he goes over with the team after every game.
Fears and motivations
It’s been a remarkable year for Homan’s Ottawa-based rink. They won the Scotties title in February and followed it up with an undefeated world championship victory in March.
In the Scotties final, Homan had to make two or three breathtaking shots late in the game to win it. The entire team came through in the clutch. Kingsbury considers that a defining moment for the skip and the team, and he believes the work they’ve put in behind the scenes allows them to rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest.
Courtney credits Kingsbury for his help.
“Being able to embrace the pressures of the big stage and play free in the moments that matter most are keys to this team’s success, and he’s helped us get there in the last few years,” she says.
While the technical aspect of curling is paramount, Kingsbury agrees, the work Homan’s team has done off the ice has allowed them to reach a different level. He’s encouraged them to be vulnerable with one another, to share their fears and motivations.
“The greatest performers in the world are the ones who go to those deep, vulnerable places and figure out what motivates them to be there,” he says.
“If you work with an athlete, you have to understand who this person is, what their competitive background is and what are the narratives and beliefs they have. Then we’re going to unpack all of those and find out what stories they have that are associated with high performance and what ones are debilitating to it.”
It’s a far cry from the old way of thinking when it comes to sports. Kingsbury says it’s about taking a meticulous, calculated and thoughtful approach to every decision Homan’s team makes on the ice.
“I’m an academic. I come with a scientific perspective. One of the things I try to do as my guiding principle is not rely on my gut to make big decisions,” he says.
“We often have emotional responses dictate much of our decisions. Under pressure, much of the emotions we experience are very much automatic and, despite our best intentions, we can often hijack ourselves in big moments.”
Kingsbury’s work is being put on trial at the trials in Ottawa. The pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the four members of Team Homan. They are considered the favourites to win. They’re playing in their hometown. The situation couldn’t be more intense.
When they lost their opening game, Kingsbury says the media and fans pressed the panic button but the team didn’t flinch.
“There wasn’t a sense of, uh oh, now everything is going down the drain,” he says.
Team Homan hasn’t lost since. There have been some tough battles but they’ve come out on the winning side in five straight games.
That run culminated in an intense moment Wednesday night. Down one point with the hammer in the final end, Homan needed to make an incredibly difficult double to win the game against Carey Scheidegger. Talk about a pressure situation.
Homan didn’t blink. She threw it perfectly, made the shot and got the win in dramatic fashion. The place went crazy.
“What we’ve done for the past two years has been getting down to helping these girls master the moment and thrive in competitive environments like this,” Kingsbury says.
“That was a good example of it.”
Homan’s team has made its goal very clear: it’s win the Olympic trials or bust. But for as much expectation as that creates, Kingsbury says it won’t be a disaster if they don’t achieve that goal.
“If that doesn’t happen, does that mean that this whole year was a failure? Not at all. Success is looking back and saying I would not have done anything different.”