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Interview with Dean Gemmell

Dean Gemmell knows about curling.

From co-authoring a book on curling fitness, to hosting the popular 'The Curling Show' podcast, he has more than enough experience to know what he's talking about. Dean has also competed in many high-level curling tournaments throughout his career, including the prestigious Canadian Brier.

In a few days, he and his team (assembled from various clubs in the US) will head out to Fargo, North Dakota to vie for the US Curling National Championship. Before he left, he agreed to share with me some of the invaluable curling wisdom he's acquired over the years.

R: First of all, congratulations on earning a berth to Nationals. You must be very excited.

D: Thanks, Richard. At the risk of sounding immodest, we would have been disappointed if we didn’t get the berth at the East playdowns. I think every team should go into an event believing they can win and, after three of the members of our team finished in the top four at Nationals last year, we were intent on returning and improving on what we did last season. But the East had tough teams battling for one direct berth and we knew it wouldn’t be easy.

R: You guys seemed to be the best team there by a wide margin. A few teams gave you some good games, but I just have a feeling that, overall, teams from the East aren't respected as much as teams from the Midwest. Is there any truth behind this? Or am I way off base here?

D: First, when you curl for a while, you realize that any team that’s on the ice against you is capable of winning. It’s not like tennis or basketball where you can just overpower an opponent. You can’t affect what they do — you just have to keep making your own shots.

As to the East versus the Midwest, it’s true that our talent pool isn’t nearly as deep in this part of the country. We’re a generation away from having all kinds of great players and teams. Our participation numbers are up but it’s going to take a while to develop a culture of competitive excellence. Right now, the Midwest has more quality teams, just like Ontario and other parts of Canada have deeper talent pools than we do in the United States.

R: What are some things your team did in preparation to help you earn that spot at nationals?

D: We like to think we’re building on what we did last season, when we made it to the playoffs at Nationals. But this year, we also had a new skip, Heath McCormick, so there were some adjustments to make. We did play more events, including some in Ontario. The OCT and WCT events with tough fields was great for us — we gelled with Heath pretty quickly and while we would have liked just a couple more wins in those spiels, we beat some of Ontario’s best teams and felt good about our ability to win games at that level. Finally, while distance means we can’t practice with Heath on a regular basis, Bill, Martin and I have practiced together a lot this year. We all try to throw by ourselves since we can’t get together every day — each of us is probably on the ice 5-6 times a week. Unless you’re blessed with ridiculous natural talent — and I’m definitely not — I think you absolutely need to practice a great deal. I also trained harder this off-season than ever before — strength training, cardio work, flexibility exercises — so I felt good on the ice from the very first rock of the year.

R: Got it. Practice as much as you can, play against tough competition, and get yourself physically fit. That's good advice for any curling team.

Check out Dean and his team throwing rocks before they head out to Nationals.

R: Let's talk a little bit about the training you mentioned. You co-authored Fit to Curl, so obviously you value physical fitness in the sport. I still see a large number of unfit curlers out there. At what point, if ever, does physical fitness become paramount to curling success?

D: You don’t have to be fit to win a curling game or make a particular shot — just ask Randy Ferbey. But if you’re in a long event or you’re playing front end on ice that demands a lot out of the brushers, it’s foolish to believe that your physical fitness won’t make a difference. Again, it’s a game of inches and if you’re struggling to get a rock that extra distance at the end of a game, you’re going to lose more than you win. Eventually, especially during something like a week-long championship event, a lack of fitness will catch up with any player.

R: I saw your skip smoking cigarettes outside the Rochester Curling Club. What's that all about?

D: Oh, sure, you had to bring that up. I should let you know that Heater also works out a lot — and doesn’t smoke when he does. It’s true that he does have the occasional cigarette during an event. I’d suggest that it’s related to something I haven’t even discussed yet — the mental challenge that is curling. And when you skip, the game preys on your mind even more. If I could skip well at the highest level, I might wind up smoking, too. Probably not, but I understand what drives a guy to do it.

R: That almost sounds like an endorsement for smoking from Team Fit-to-Curl. I'm just kidding, mate. Let's shift gears a little. A lot of my readers are still relatively new to the sport. They have less than 5 years experience, or have recently aged out of the ‘5 & Under’ events and are looking to jump to the next level. What should they be doing to ensure they’re on the right path?

D: I think the most important thing you can do when you’re a relatively new curler is to work on developing really sound mechanics. There are individual nuances when it comes to deliveries but there are fundamentals that don’t change. I’d suggest not worrying too much about wins and losses and keep the focus on technique instead. It’s easy, when you first start to get a bit of experience, to have a flawed delivery that allows you to make enough shots to beat lesser opponents. But when you want to get to the next level, you’re going to have to make more shots, make more shots perfectly and make increasingly difficult shots. If you grind poor mechanics into your muscle memory when you first start, they can be hard to change later and it’s difficult to be a consistent player. So work on a sound delivery and finding a powerful sweeping position — even if it feels awkward for a while and seems to make it harder to make shots. Eventually, the effort will pay off. Then you can begin to get your head around other parts of the game.

R: Should a '5 & under' player try to get a competitive team together as soon as possible? Or should a player be more focused on his/her individual goals?

D: I’d say individual goals and I’d keep those to what I outlined previously. It’s hard to find four players who have the right mix of talent and compatibility — even more difficult if you’re all developing at different rates. As you improve, look to find a spot on the best team that will have you in the lineup.

R: When players/teams ‘age out’ of the 5 & Under events, they’ll often run into some very competitive teams at more difficult events (national playdowns, etc.) Aside from curling ability, what separates the less experienced teams from the more professional teams?

D: Well, the reality is that there are very few truly professional curlers in the world — most have to juggle jobs, family and their sport — but better teams do bring more professionalism to the ice. I think you covered it well in your recap of your own playdown experience. The top teams tend to avoid getting too up or down during an event — they have intense competitive desire but they manage their emotions on the ice. They also know how to miss shots — something that can be described as tolerance. In other words, they think about whether it’s better to be a bit light or a bit heavy or whether a nose hit is almost as good as the perfect hit-and-roll. Finally, they work together to manage the process of a game or a competition — checking rocks to see if some react differently, communicating the speed of the ice to each other in a way that is valuable, remembering what each path on the sheet might do. At the highest levels, curling is a game of inches. Details matter.

R: Is having a coach important? If so, at what point should a team consider looking for one?

D: I think having a good coach is valuable. But a not-so-good coach can actually set you back. Since coaching is relatively new in our sport, quality coaches are still rare. If you can get one, great. But don’t bring someone on board unless you’re positive they can help. One thing that I think any curler can benefit from is having someone who can really break down a delivery and help a player readjust when things have gone awry. The most effective coaches in the sport — think Jules Owchar of Team Martin - seem to be the ones who do this really well.

R: Speaking of Team Martin, as the host of ’The Curling Show’ podcast, you’ve interviewed some of curling’s most popular players over the years. Discuss some things you’ve learned from any particular player(s) that directly improved your game.

D: I have learned a few things from my many hours of conversations with great curlers. I’d start with Olympic Gold Medalist John Morris - I wrote Fit to Curl with him and we developed a good friendship along the way. I’ve learned a great deal about preparation from John but the biggest takeaway is individual accountability. A lot of people like to wax on about team dynamics and chemistry but I think the approach of John and his teammates really works. Their feeling is that you show up and play well — how you do that is up to you. It’s not about hanging out together and being best friends — it’s about supporting your teammates by putting your best effort on the ice.

R: You know, this is a great topic, because I do hear a lot about team dynamics and chemistry these days. I mean, it is a team sport after all. But I've always felt that if I show up prepared, do my job well, and just try to be the best player I can be, then the team success will come.

D: I think that’s all you can do. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t be a great teammate. It is important to learn how to communicate with the others on your team so you can help them when they’re struggling or give them information that they can use. It’s always different — some players just need to be left alone, others need positive reinforcement. And I think part of being a good front-end player is making your skip feel as confident as possible.

R: Where do you draw the line between personal accountability and team chemsitry? If one player on a coach-less team is performing poorly, who's job is it to bring that up? How should a team address performance issues with a particular player?

D: Tough one. I’m not sure if there is a good way to bring it up. I guess I’d suggest that you only play with people who don’t need to be told. On good teams, all four players are their own toughest critics. It should be pretty obvious to the individual when they’re not playing well. If there is no commitment to trying to improve, that’s when I think you have to consider a different team.

R: What else have you learned from doing the podcast interviews?

D: World Seniors Champ Eugene Hritzuk was one of my all-time favorites. What he reminded me of was how many losses even the best curler has to endure. You have to savor successes and learn to get over the defeats. Russ Howard, for instance, won two world titles and has an Olympic gold medal. But he reminded me that he also lost four Brier finals (Canadian Championship) and six provincial finals.

Bob Labonte is famous for kicking a rock that eventually cost him a world championship. He reminded me that everything happens for a reason and that the right attitude about anything that happens on the ice goes a long way. Today, he’s far more famous in curling circles than he would have been if he didn’t kick that rock all those years ago.

Ed Werenich reminded me that you don’t have to be the purest thrower to be two-time world champion. Few guys have ever been as smart on the ice as the Wrench. I need to have him on the show again — the knowledge he has is incredible.

Cheryl Bernard taught me that you have to work hard to improve your mental approach to curling. We all have personalities and, if you have one that gets in the way of playing well, you really have to work on finding better head space when you’re on the ice. I’d like to say I always remember this but I don’t. Yet.

R: I can see how chatting with some of the best curlers in the world would benefit you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts today. I know my readers and I will benefit from it. And good luck in Fargo!

D: Thanks Richard. Good curling!

To follow along with Dean's team at Nationals, click the link below:

2011 USA Curling Nationals

-Richard lives in Schenectady and is a member of the Schenectady Curling Club.-

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