Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Some Reflections on the Scottish Curling Championships

Sadly, I was only able to make the Saturday sessions.  See travelling on business?  Nightmare!  Anyhow, up we went to Perth, there to watch things and dream of times past.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always find it very difficult to support one team.  It was easier in olden times when teams represented ice rinks and comprised typically local players.  The Torrance rink was from Hamilton and the Hay rink from Perth; if the skips name was Adam or Horton, chances were that they were from Glasgow and the Hendersons were Aberdeen born and bred.  So, if you went to Dundee or Perth or Kirkcaldy, there to watch the Scottish Championship finals in February, you had “your” team.

Now – it’s a nightmare!  Four of us decided to sit in the bleachers and concentrate on the Ewan MacDonald v David Edwards 3 v 4 page play-off game.  We dutifully walked twixt one end and the other, better to see the head at close quarters.  I will tell you that the other three were Bob Kelly, Bob Cowan and Ken Horton.  Alan Durno, who had taken his customary place close to the bar servery up the stairs, saw this sorrowful, stooped and regular procession and immediately christened us “the four coffin dodgers”; a bit harsh, I thought, but there we were.  Back and forth we went, talking about old times, chewing on various cuds and watching a splendid game of curling. 

So who was I supporting?  Well, I know, like and respect all eight of the players we were watching.  Some I know better than others, but to be honest, I did not want to appear heavily in favour of one team or the other, so I just applauded everyone and everything and thought to myself “may the best team win” on the day. Which really didn’t help the atmosphere too much.  You don’t want a bunch of neutrals in a sports crowd!

Now – do I want to go back to the old days where, believe this or believe it not, entries to the Scottish Championships were controlled by ice rink managers?  Obviously not; it was a ludicrous situation.  But, on the other hand, we have lost something of the “partisan” support that goes so much to defining the atmosphere at the Canadian Brier or Scotties Championships, for example and that used to be such a feature of the Scottish Championships, when crowds of well over a thousand keen curling fans packed the old ice rink arenas and supported their favourites.

I do think that the Scottish is a defining championship for both men and ladies; as I have written before, it sorts out the men from the boys (with apologies to the ladies – but you get what I mean).  That is why it is so distressing to me that the entries were so low this year – especially in the ladies competition.  It seems to me that the high up-front cost of entry stops a lot of teams that might consider throwing their hat into the ring from doing so.  Also to be considered is the amount of time that most competitors need to take as holiday.  The competition has grown arms and legs and (perhaps this is an unfortunate analogy given the subject matter) but it has grown like topsy into a competition on steroids!  A whole week, for goodness sake.

A rethink of the format is required so that teams can dip their toes in the water without risking literally hundreds of pounds.  I know that a number of people have thoughts on this and some ideas will be aired in the near future.  I will not steal their thunder, but change there has to be.

As to the winners of the two competitions, both teams will represent their countries with pride, passion, commitment and no little skill.  Whether they medal or not will depend on all of those facets as well as a liberal dose of lady luck’s gifts.  There are no minnows now at World Championship level and both teams will need to be at the peak of their form to win.  Winning is in both of their pedigrees though, so good luck to them both and safe travels to Halifax (men) and Sapporo (women).

Anyone need some negotiating consultancy help in either venue, by the way?  I’m your man!  Usual fees apply.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pipelines and Things

It is fair to report that our sport has enjoyed great success at recent Olympic, World and European events.  You may well argue that it has never been healthier and that we live in a golden age of success.  If you look at the international achievements of the likes of Anna Sloan, Greg Drummond, Michael Goodfellow, Scott Andrews, Tom Brewster, Claire Hamilton, Vicky Adams, Lauren Gray, Eve Muirhead and David Murdoch – to name but ten, and in no particular order – well, you cannot really argue.  These people have been prepared to commit wholly to their sport; they have given up huge amounts of time and effort and, yes, they are living their dream. But the rest of us should never forget that they didn’t achieve this success by accident: they visit the gym regularly; they put in as much work to their sport as the rest of us do to our jobs and, though the highs are undoubtedly high, they come at a price.

Such is the lot of any top sportsperson in the UK today.  You want to get to the top?  Commit.  End of.  And when there is lottery money available to fund all of the coaches and support staff, then that is fine.  Sorted, in fact.

It is up to the sport’s governing body to do the next bit.  I am going to call it “the pipeline”.  The pipeline is important for two immediate reasons
·       The top chaps need to be kept on their toes; they need to be kept “honest”; they need to know that if they slip – even fall – then there will be someone else in the wings willing and able to leap into their place.
·       There needs to be a succession plan in place; we need to think long-term.  It is all very well thinking of these top players as being long-term solutions, but life is about change, so there needs to be a Sarah Reid willing to step into the shoes of a departing Claire Hamilton, for example.  Oh.  There was; so that’s OK then as well.

To be serious for a second, we actually do have at least a couple of teams in both ladies and men that are serious challengers for the Scottish Championships this year.  I am thinking of the likes of teams MacDonald, Brewster and Edwards in the men and Gray and Fleming in the ladies.  Any one of these teams should have been exposed enough to top-level competition (as well as being serious, regular visitors to the business ends of our national championships) that, if push comes to shove and they find themselves representing their country at World or European level – well, they should be able to make a fist of it. 

Last season, in the controversial absence of the two Olympic teams, teams Barr and MacDonald came out top in their respective Scottish Championships and went to the World Championships.  Unfortunately, neither team threatened the podium, but the experience gained will always be there in the memory banks if the same thing happens again.  

Earlier this season, Teams Edwards and Muirhead won the European play-off in Scotland and therefore took on the far more perilous trip to the European Championships.  For team Muirhead, this was all grist to the mill but for team Edwards, this was their first outing on the serious international stage (with apologies to sundry Junior and European Mixed Championships) and the stakes were high indeed – qualify Scotland for the World Championships.  As the week ground on, the wee Andrex puppy was becoming increasingly agitated, but they came through in the end – as did the ladies with a Bronze medal win over Denmark, their slightly surprising conquerors in the 3v4 play-off game.

So – a story of mixed success then and I think that there are some learning points here for the HHYs.  I’ll bullet-point them as follows
·       The Scottish Championships remain an important calendar event and the stakes in this open competition should remain high.  Bottoms should squeak.  Top teams need to be kept “honest”.
·       Serious competition is important, so ensure that you have at least two “other” teams that can step up to the plate.  This means funneling funds in their direction as well and sending them off to at least three Champions Tour events in the period September to December/ early January.
·       Maintain the age-group championships, but let the youngsters pick their own teams until at least age 18.  Let them enjoy competing with friends; allow them the space to become enthused with the game before you channel them inexorably into teams when they are still too young.

There’s other stuff as well, but that will do for the moment!

Sorry that it has been quiet here for so long and many thanks to those of you whom I have met in my travels and who have encouraged me to take up the fingers again. 

More later.