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Curlers receive helping hand to win mind games

The nerve-jangling final which saw Rhona Martin clinch Olympic curling gold for Britain with her final stone is a moment forever etched in the minds of those who packed the stands at the Ogden Ice Sheet in Utah and the millions more crowded around televisions back home in Scotland.

Misha Botting working with athlete Laura Bartlett
Misha Botting working with athlete Laura Bartlett

That epic victory against Switzerland at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City earned the Ayrshire-born curler - now known as Howie - and Scots team-mates Debbie Knox, Margaret Morton, Janice Rankin and Fiona MacDonald their place in the history books.

When the curling action begins in Sochi a week tomorrow, should Team GB skip Eve Muirhead and her rink find themselves in a similarly tense position, they will be well placed to maintain focus and keep cool heads having been helped by Misha Botting, a sports psychologist based at sportscotland institute of sport in Glasgow.

He has got to know the British women's team well over the past year, the five selected comprising the same Scottish quintet of Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Claire Hamilton and alternate Lauren Gray, who won the 2013 World Women's Curling Championship in Riga, Latvia last March.

"We have a very specific strategy to cope with expectations of this kind," says Botting, who will join the team in Sochi this week. "That is to put those thoughts to one side and focus on the immediate tasks in front of them which, for the lead, second and third, would be aspects such as sweeping, communication and reading the ice.

"For Eve, it would be keeping her eye on the tactical side of the game, the technical aspects and maintaining communication with her team-mates. These tasks help them focus on the things they can control rather than those issues which are beyond their control. It means they can take it one step at a time. That's how they are able to cope with the big expectations placed on them."

A former dancer with the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet Academy in his native Russia, Botting, 46, has first-hand experience of the pressures that delivering on a world-class stage can bring.

"My role is very much observant," he says. "I will watch the matches and players' reactions, their body language and so forth, then feed this information back to the coach. Afterwards, we will have discussions about how they have performed, not just the outcome of the matches, but the processes the girls have had to cope with."

Botting accompanied the Scottish women's team to the 2013 Le Gruyere European Curling Championships in Stavanger, Norway, last November, where they won silver behind Sweden - a result that Muirhead described as "pretty sore". Yet, Botting says, it provided a useful learning experience, not least in honing their ability to "compartmentalise the particular outcomes of one match" in order to re-group and re-focus.

"How they react as a team upon making errors is absolutely vital," he says. "Body language is important. Are we going to drop our shoulders, the heads go down and the conversation dies away? Or are we going to keep consistent regardless of the outcome of one particular shot? It is very easy to respond positively on positive shots, but curling is a sport where some shots can be unsuccessful. That can be down to a poor release or even uncontrollable factors. The key thing is that the scoreboard doesn't dictate anything to us from a psychological perspective."

Susan Swarbrick

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