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Curling legend leaving no stone unturned in quest to produce champions

Since Rhona Martin and Jackie Lockhart won Olympic and world curling gold just seven weeks apart in 2002, women's curling has never matched the heady Scottish expectation bred by that double.

Coach Rhona Martin and Eve Muirhead talk tactics. Picture: PA
Coach Rhona Martin and Eve Muirhead talk tactics. Picture: PA

Until last month, when Eve Muirhead led her rink to the world crown in New Brunswick.

We invented the game, so Scotland might be expected to excel, but we know to our cost that sport-invention carries no patents nor confers a legacy of success. Witness the wreckage of our football team and waning golf powers. Curling, however, is a different story.

The Scottish men's rink have been on the world championship podium every year for the past six. The women, though less consistent, finally seem to be realising potential. That 2002 global double was followed by seven lean years at world and European level: just one bronze and silver respectively, both in 2007, from Kelly Wood.

The lean years ended after the arrival of former Olympic champion Martin as head coach for Scottish and British women's curling. Muirhead's rink has since claimed world silver and now gold, plus one European title and two silvers. Olympic aspiration for next year is growing.

It would be crass to suggest this is solely thanks to Martin. Muirhead's father, Gordon, is a leading coach, an Olympian who played in world and European champion rinks. He must take credit for helping Eve win an unprecedented four world junior titles. A prodigiously gifted sportswoman – a scratch golfer who rejected US collegiate scholarships – she is now the youngest senior world champion.

Yet she is not guaranteed the 2014 Olympic place. She merely confirmed GB's place in Sochi. Players from abroad (and England) could technically deny Muirhead, which will certainly deter complacency.

Yet the sport must be doing something right. How? What? We asked Martin, who spent three years being fast-tracked on UK Sport's elite coach programme. Britain's head coach since January 2010, she is based at sportscotland's Institute of Sport, and is responsible for the women's Olympic programme.

Martin has not played since 2007, and says she still misses it, but doesn't have the time. "I have a completely different role – the challenge of producing the next Olympic medallist. That's what I want to do."

Curling has changed radically since she delivered the so-called stone of destiny in Utah 11 years ago. "A lot more time is spent on the ice now, coached and uncoached," she says. Athletes are on the ice twice daily and in the gym every day. "There are more individual and team sessions, and the sport is working with teenagers, as well."

She professes no envy. "All sports move on. When I competed, nobody was full-time. Since curling came into the Olympics, Japan, Korea, China, and Russia have gone full- time. To keep up, we need to keep moving forward.

"The main point for me is consistency. We could always play some very good games, but could not maintain the level again and again and again. At world championships, Canada and Sweden were shooting high 80-90%, every game. That's what we had to go for. So we went for more ice time to improve consistency.

"Our programme focuses mainly on technical work – delivery for consistency – tactical work, and team dynamic. It's a skill-based sport, and weight-control involves a lot of repetitive practice. I never had a coach as such on the ice. Now, every competition has a coach, feeding back on everything. There's far more input and awareness.

"Apart from the Olympic build-up, we were not on the ice twice a day. It's not just the ice time – it's the quality of sessions – not just about throwing stones. Every session has a goal and athletes have to achieve it.

"Supervised strength sessions are all individually tailored because all athletes are different. Eve Muirhead's is a podium team, completely different from the performance teams who are all working full time.

"Athletes are fitter, but the fittest curler is not necessarily going to win. It's the girl playing the shots that's going to win or lose, but you have to be physically and mentally fit, as well as able to throw stones. There are 14 games at a world championships, and players need to be as fresh and able to sweep in the last game as in the first.

"We have concentrated on controlling the weight of the shot. Everybody can play a draw or a hit, but there's the delicate tap-back, which Canada play so well. So we focus on the leg-drive out of the hack being consistent. Gym sessions make legs stronger, but does that affect muscle control out of the hack, and weight-control? It's not luck that you get the weight right on a back-four or back-eight tap-back. You need to know exactly what to do when you come out of the hack, and that's only achieved by repeated practice. You have to be sure you can play the shot time and time again."

Sport scientists measure the speed of stones using split-timers and lasers. A year ago, they measured one rink delivering more than 100 stones in a session which Martin was unhappy with: "Too heavy, or whatever. That's now down to 18 stones. It's such a fine line. We are talking milli-seconds. It's muscle memory, leg drive, line-up, everything. We hammer in technique and delivery over the summer, so that when the season starts, they focus on games, rather than changing anything on delivery."

Extra ice time when rinks traditionally close, between April and September, has been negotiated, and Martin, though focused on her sport, watches what coaches are doing in other sports, "in case there is something out the box that might help us. It's good to look at how other coaches respond to athletes and training – how to challenge athletes in the best way.

"The team dynamic is hugely important. You can put the four best curlers together, but they might not necessarily gel. They must know each other inside out, and know how to deal with one another on the ice. All my athletes are different. That's why individual programmes are different."

Martin is sought out by coaches from other sports and various bodies asking what is happening in curling, yet if there was a common coaching denominator, every sport would follow it. There seems no replacement for the 10,000 hours of perfect practice which it takes to become world-class at sport. The broad principles of coaching: repetition to embed skills, remain constant, like the core skills themselves, yet each athlete is different. Tools and techniques may be refined, but coaching remains an experiment of one, and as much art as science.

* Dumfries will host the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship and World Senior Men's and Women's Curling Championships next year, thanks to funding as part of the Homecoming Scotland 2014 programme, writes Rob Moir.

All three world championships will take place at the Dumfries Ice Bowl between April 22-29, 2014.

More than 30 senior sides from around the world are expected to compete, along with a similar number of mixed doubles teams.

Kate Caithness, the World Curling Federation President said: "We are delighted to be heading to Dumfries. The south-west of Scotland has a long tradition with curling and it is very fitting that these World Curling Federation championship events will be hosted in a region which has produced so many fine curlers."

This marks the first time that Scotland will host the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship, which began in 2008 in Vierumäki, Finland, although Scotland has previously staged the World Seniors – in 2005 at Greenacres.

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