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Howie stands on solid ground after making way off the ice

THE competitive spirit does not cool with distance from the ice.

Rhona Howie has learned to define her role as a coach since retiring from playing in 2006. Picture: Getty Images
Rhona Howie has learned to define her role as a coach since retiring from playing in 2006. Picture: Getty Images

Rhona Howie has made her mark in Olympic history, having won curling gold at Salt Lake City. "I never play now," she says briskly, 12 years after her last stone in the final defeated Switzerland.

The fire still burns, though. "The joy of coaching is athlete success," says Howie, head coach for women's curling at the sportscotland institute of sport.

"I had success as a player but that drive is still there as a coach. I look at my coaching as athlete-centred. That motivates me to get up every day when you see them develop in their sport and as people," she says. "That gives me immense satisfaction. We are constantly trying to make them better so when they do become better, when they do win medals, then the feeling of accomplishment is marvellous."

Howie's motivation is to educate and inspire. It is why she took her gold medal around schools. "I believed that it was part of Scotland, not just mine," she says. "I thought that all the visits to schools would be worthwhile if it inspired one child to try to make a dream come true. And now that is the one thing I do not have."

Howie's gold medal was stolen from a museum in Dumfries in April. The curling coach has made a Crimewatch appeal but there has been no breakthrough in the case. "I am devastated," she says. "It was hand-finished, irreplaceable. The children loved wearing it, got a huge thrill from it."

One of the major thrills of Howie's spell as a coach was to watch Eve Muirhead's rink rebound from a semi-final defeat at the Sochi Winter Olympics to win bronze.

Howie was the first on the ice to hug every member of the team. "I was very proud of how they came out and fought for the bronze medal. That is never an easy game," she says. "It was not an easy time after the semi-final defeat. They were gutted, devastated after the semi- final. We had to let them grieve about that and then we had to refocus. A bronze medal was at stake."

And a bronze medal was won. Howie is awaiting the details of funding and other matters before she can say with certainty that she will be head coach at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, though she wants to continue.

She believe that Muirhead and her team have a bright future: "They have the capability, they have the talent. They are still young. Mentally it is a tough sport but they now have the experience of the roller-coaster of emotions that are so much a part of the Olympics."

Howie entered coaching immediately after she stopped playing in 2006 and embarked on a three-year UK sport elite coach programme. She learned quickly but some of the lessons were difficult.

She admits that the experience of the Olympics has helped her but says she has had to develop different skills as a coach. "I have had to learn," she says. "As a coach you just want to tell them what to do and them to take it on board, but it doesn't work like that. You need a skill set."

She adds: "The biggest thing I learned about myself is that I used to hate courageous conversations. If there were any issue I would back away and the one thing I have learned is that you must have these conversations. You must let the athlete know what you think even when it is difficult."

Howie is driven to improve as a coach. She is a speaker at the 2014 UK Coaching Summit, hosted by sports coach UK and sportscotland, that starts today in Glasgow.

The theme of this year's event is: inspiring the next generation through excellent coaching.

While Howie is delighted to recount her experience, she knows there is always a place for private thought. "Self-awareness is important. There are coaches who have been in sports for years and they have always done it one way and they won't change," she says.

"I have learned you have to be open. Constant reflection is very important. You need the feedback from colleagues and support staff to see how you can improve. There has to be personal development as a coach."

She has learned to define the areas between being a coach/confidante and a friend. "The athletes are putting everything into their sport and we are helping them but ultimately it is down to them. You spend a huge amount of time with them and that relationship with them has to be professional. There has to be that line between what my role is that and their role is," she says.

There is an element to curling that is almost uncoachable. It is a game where skips need vision and the spirit to see it through. Howie emphasises the foundations of the Scottish template are: technical, tactical, and team dynamic.

"Skips have to know what they are doing," she says. "You are calling shots while thinking about the end of the end. You have to have that ability to see ahead but you are constantly learning. As coaches, we are helping them to see other options. A lot of time it is about identifying the shot with the highest percentage of success."

She adds: "It is all about whether it was the right call." This applies to both player and coach. Howie has a record of succeeding in both roles.

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