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Monday, 8 May 2017

International Growth

#BetweenTheSheets: Sport Development Takes Centre Sheet
The #WMDCC2017 highlights the importance of the #growthesport theme

The curling season has come and gone once again and for many it was a season of celebration, trophy lifting and making some money.  Canada's Brad Gushue and Rachel Homan hoisted the ultimate prize of the year in claiming world championship victories.  Sweden's Niklas Edin hoisted a few grand slam titles and finished the year with the second-largest money haul in the history of the sport.

But championship wins and giant oversize cheques are not the only keys to success within the sport.  And not all athletes and nations competing will get to wrap themselves in the warm glow of championship victories.  For some, just being able to compete on the big ice is a victory in itself while trying to #growthesport back home to keep curling sustainable and relevant.  The sports development model is a work in progress.

The World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships wrapped up over a week ago in Lethbridge, Alberta.  The #TwineTime blog was fortunate enough to attend the event and have some time to talk to a few of the players competing from the "non-traditional" curling powerhouse nations.  Sure we know about Canada and USA and Sweden and Scotland and Switzerland.  We know how the sport is doing in those nations.  But what about other nations around the globe?  Do you know how the sport is doing in Poland or Latvia?  What about the other #TeamGB nations, Wales and England?  And what about the newest challenger in the America's region, Brazil?

When we look at the sports development pyramid, the foundation of the sport is the first step to growth.  Competing on the European stage can be a bit daunting for some nations.  How can a smaller nation, like Latvia, compete with the traditional powerhouse nations like Sweden and Norway?  The first step for many of the developing nations in the sport is just to find dedicated ice to practice and learn on.

Latvian female skip Santa Blumberga summed it up best, "Back home, we have only 1 dedicated curling rink in Latvia, a two-sheeter.  It is a bit tricky to grow the sport when there is no place to really practice.  We work with the Latvian Curling Association to bring up the juniors in the game.  We go around to the schools and talk about the sport.  We try to do our best."

The catch 22 dilemma all in one small statement.  Blumberga and her partner, Andris Bremanis, have gone around to schools to talk about the sport and get children interested in playing.  But where will they go to play?  One dedicated rink?  Two sheets of ice?  Hardly seems probable right?  Compare to provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada where it seems most small towns have a curling arena and dedicated ice.  And the issue Blumberga mentions is not uncommon for many European nations.

"We are still struggling with some problems in Poland.  We do not have designated ice for curling.  But we practice in other places in Europe and we play some CCT events so we are developing.  We could certainly have better conditions to <compete> for sure.  We have a lot of juniors.  Me and my partner here in mixed doubles are both junior coaches.  We are seeing more and more kids coming.  We also have seniors playing.  It is quite a new experience for Poland.  We are very happy to see new players come out and play curling every season in Poland."  - Poland female skip Karolina Florek

"Maybe some more games and chances for children to play curling <will help grow the sport>.  I think children have the free time to maybe spend with the sport and if we can get more children out curling that could be the way to help the sport.  We don't have as much history as other countries yet." - Slovakia female skip Silvia Sykorova

"It is more of a hobby right now.  It is not a popular sport.  We are just trying to get kids on the ice to throw the stones and get kids used to being on the ice.  After 13 years old, the kids can go on to junior curling and start representing the national team.  In Slovakia the popular sport is hockey and football.  Curling is not so popular especially at being 16 years old.  This year me and my team moved up to the A group at Europeans.  Hopefully those results will help make the sport more popular because we saw a bit more coverage in newspapers.  I was able to go out more and talk about curling to people who were interested.  We have 2 clubs." - Slovakia male skip David Misun

Dedicated ice and facilities seem to be a barrier right now for many nations to grow the sport and compete on a high-level with the stronger nations in the world.  But would the old adage "If you build it, they will come" really work for these European nations?  Austrian female skip Claudia Fischer certainly thinks so:

"We could be doing better <to grow the sport back home> *laughing*  We were thinking maybe our bronze medal in 2012 would change that a bit but honestly I think the biggest problem we have is broadcasting.  People do not get to see curling.  Sometimes EUROsport will show some of the women's and men's championships but that is about it.  The Austrian media will hopefully catch up on curling.  I think that would help get more young people into curling and help more young people be interested in the sport and maybe help build curling rinks.  We only have 1 curling rink in all of Austria.  If we could have schools curl, similar to Canada, that would help." 

An increase in media coverage certainly has helped #growthesport south of the equator.  New Zealand is a great example of a nation seeing an increase in sport awareness and curling interest due to simple broadcasting of international events, even though they also have a lack of dedicated curling space:

"There is still a lot to be done.  The sport does have a fantastic following though, especially when it can be viewed on TV.  People love it!  There are a lot of older players and now we are wanting to get more of those junior curlers coming through, that is what we are trying to really push for.  We do a good job of it but once they hit 21 years old they kind of phase out of it a bit.  The other thing is we have only 1 dedicated curling ice.  We have 2 rinks but only 1 is full-time curling dedicated.  The majority of actual curlers don't actually have any real curling ice.  They are playing on ice hockey ice...chasing the zamboni *laughing*  The fact we can get to a world championship and play at this level is really good.  We just need to make sure we can carry on and get the competition standard up to the level we need it to be." - New Zealand female skip Bridget Becker

It is not all doom and gloom though across the European continent.  Some nations are also finding great success in the sport recently.  What is the second level on the sports development pyramid?  Participation of course!  An increase in participation and junior interest is sparking what will hopefully produce a new wave of competition in many nations.

"We have a lot of teams.  The sport is really growing, which is quite surprising.  We have 16 teams competing at our nationals while some other countries may only have just a few.  The teams are getting better.  I am really happy the sport is growing." - Spain female skip Irantzu Garcia

"Yeah I think the sport is growing from year to year.  We are seeing more junior curlers coming from Hungary and hopefully we will see them compete every year and continue to play at European Championships.  If we could qualify for the Olympics it would help grow the sport for sure." - Hungary female skip Dorottya Palancsa

The Olympics seems to be the strongest avenue to #growthesport, any sport, for all nations.  Having dedicated media attention focused on a sport can help raise the awareness and interest back home.  Palancsa said it best in noting qualifying Hungary for the Olympics would have been a huge help.  But what about the Team Great Britain debate?  As we all know #TeamGB is comprised of the nations occupying the ninth-largest island in the world but how can England and Wales compete with the home of curling, Scotland?  The Olympic berth has historically been awarded to Scottish players, and for good reason of course being they compete on the world curling tour and grand slam level consistently year after year.  But if you are a curling athlete in Wales, for instance, could this not get a bit defeating?  It's like the David vs Goliath story or the younger brother always trying to catch up to his older brother.

Welsh male skip Adrian Meikle had a positive outlook on the future of the sport back home, "What we are trying to do is establish a dedicated curling rink because we don't even have a dedicated curling rink in Wales.  We have to struggle to make curling ice once a week on a Monday from hockey ice.  The quality of ice for curling is never that great.  We are restricted to how many people can even get on the ice.  We need to get that dedicated curling ice up and running so we can start cashing in on the Olympic success and getting more curlers playing in Wales."

Meikle knows the Olympics can be a huge success for his nation in growing the sport, even if #TeamGB is represented by rival Scotland.  The Great Britain success on the world level, the Olympic level, can be a benefit to all the nations, bringing forward the next level of sport development: Performance!  But again, the common theme turns its handle once again, where would these players go to play?

England sees a similar situation in their nation.  "We have 2 new rinks being built right now.  We have 1 for the moment.  1 should be open just in time for the Olympics.  We are starting out slowly but it is growing," said English male skip Ben Fowler.  Sister Anna Fowler added, "Once those new rinks open I think we will start seeing more competition between the different rinks.  Right now, with 1, it is in the South East of England which is not the most accessible for the rest of the country.  But I think we will see growth through the Olympics in 2018."

A step in the right direction....or a slide out of the hack to start I suppose.  Two new rinks sounds like a huge advantage for England and could really help bolster their chances going forward on the international stage.  We are already seeing England compete at the World Mixed Doubles and World Senior Championships.  And the sport seems to be taking off with the next generation as well:

"It kind of depends on what schools get involved.  We have one school that is really involved.  They have 8 teams and that makes up most of the junior teams in England." - Ben Fowler

Fowler raises the importance of getting the sport matched up with the education system and have more schools take on the sport from an educational perspective.  Sure it is great to play football/soccer and volleyball, but why not also teach students about curling?  When asked about how the junior program is going in Ireland, Irish male skip Neil Fyfe had a brief laugh:

"My daughter. *laughing*  She is just out of junior age.  The problem we have is no curling rinks means we rely primarily on any junior curlers we have are Irish heritage but living in Scotland.  We really need that curling rink so we can start with the grassroots programs and start with the 11, 12, 13 year age group and then they are off and running.  We have seen this happen and be successful in many of the smaller countries in Europe.  They get funding and, as we see with some of the Eastern European countries, they are progressing.  These countries have been playing the past 10 or 15 years at European championship levels and it's been a massive progress for them because they have the curling rinks.  It is as simple as that!"

Simple as that indeed.  Curling rinks + curling grassroots programs = #growthesport curling!  But Fyfe also shared on the struggles to actually having a dedicated curling arena built back home:

"We are doing our best <to grow the sport>.  Right now we do not actually have our own curling rinks in Ireland so we have to curl in Scotland.  Lots of us live in Scotland but have Irish heritage.  A few live and are born in Ireland and will come across to Scotland to curl.  But we are doing our best.  Every couple of years we keep thinking we are going to get a new ice arena in Dublin.  We came very close a couple times but the funding hasn't worked out.  We continue to do our best though and promote the sport in Ireland as best we can.  With us performing well we are hoping to bring more exposure to the sport back home.  We gained an Olympic qualification point last year, we are hoping to get more this year, which will help raise the profile of curling in Ireland and help us get a curling rink in Ireland which is our ultimate game."

Mixed doubles certainly seems to be a hot rock topic for starting the curling growth in many nations.  The great thing about mixed doubles is it only takes one male and one female to form a team and, for some nations, they may have a strong imbalance among the sexes.  If a nation has many strong men's teams but not as many strong women teams or vice versa, the competition for a national championship or European Championship spot may be fierce for one sex while almost a struggle for growth for the other.  Mixed doubles allows a nation to #growthesport through partnering strong players together and making a move up the international rankings.

"We actually have a couple good mixed doubles teams.  We have a little less on the ladies side, we have fewer ladies players.  I wish we had some more recruitment there.  But the mixed doubles is picking up and we have more teams.  It is a fun game *laughing*" - Norway female skip Kristin Skaslien

"I think mixed doubles is really popular in New Zealand because we have a lot of really strong men's teams but we are not quite there with women's teams.  Mixed doubles is something that we can do well because of pairing up.  The juniors and younger players love it.  I am not sure if our silver medal win did anything or if anyone noticed *laughing* but it is popular.  People love mixed doubles!" - New Zealand female skip Bridget Becker

Becker also raises a great point on the format.  The discipline of mixed doubles is fast and often features lots of rocks in play and high scoring ends.  Junior and younger players often will gravitate towards a more dynamic and explosive game...and one where #NoLeadIsSafe and you are always in a game!

It's a package #growthesport deal isn't it?  We in Canada are very fortunate for how the sport grows across the provinces and territories.  We have dedicated facilities and ice to practice on to hone our skills and become more competitive.  We have tremendous media coverage from TSN and SportsNet for broadcasting and numerous print media covering the sport.  Heck, we even have bloggers who cover the sport just because they have a passion for it.

We also have a distinct competitive advantage is one other aspect: Coaching!  In Canada we have a wide range of coaches who have expertise in the sport and help nurture our junior players all the way up the ranks to seniors.  And these coaches have been noticed by many of the other nations in the world.  We just have to look across the pond to Asia where Canadians J.D. Lind (Japan) and Marcel Rocque (China) are making huge strides with those national programs and will be bringing their wealth of knowledge to the 2018 Olympic in Korea.  Add it all together and our sport development pyramid is topped off with Elite status, something Japan and China are starting to enjoy in recent years.

For one European nation, the world mixed doubles event also allowed them more time with their Canadian coach.  "He has brought a lot of experience," said Spanish female skip Irantzu Garcia when asked about Brendan Bottcher.  "He has played mixed doubles as well so he brings knowledge with him.  We were here in the spring for a month with him and he has helped with technique and everything.  He was at our nationals as well and has been very helpful for us to grow.  We are very happy he is here with us and help us."  Another important, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of #growthesport: training!  Coaching can make a huge difference in seeing a sport grow over time and for a nation to go from also-ran to world contender.

At the end of the day though, national pride takes over.  Each athlete competes in their home nation with the dream of one day throwing on a jacket with your nation across the back.  A dream to hear your national anthem played.  A dream to represent your sport and your country on an international stage and have people take notice.  I leave my final #growthesport comments from one of the newest curling nations, Brazil:

"There isn't curling in Brazil.  We live in Vancouver.  I started playing 3 years ago.  We just keep going hard, keep practising, keep playing." - Brazil male skip Marcio Cerquinho

"It is very important to represent Brazil.  I was supposed to come two years ago and didn't make it.  This is my first ever game on the world circuit.  I am really proud of myself.  I have worked hard and I deserve to be here." - Brazil female skip Anne Shibuya

Work hard, play hard.  Have fun.  Be proud.  What more could each of us ask for?  As you read this the 2017 European Curling Championship - Group C competition is underway in Andorra.  Yup, Andorra curling fans....Andorra has a men's national curling team.  9 men's teams (Romania, Belarus, Spain, Bulgaria, France, Croatia, Andorra, Ireland, Serbia) and 8 women's teams (Poland, Spain, Slovenia, Austria, Romania, Ireland, Croatia, Slovakia) will compete with hopes of moving their nation up to the B division for next year.  You can follow along with all the action on the World Curling Federation site.  Many of the players who competed in Lethbridge are skipping their national teams in Andorra this week as well.

#StayTuned...I have a feeling the #growthesport theme is not going away anytime soon!

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