Curling, university, and the student-athlete

Come September many active U18 curlers will make their way to Universities and Colleges across Ontario to begin their university careers as student-athletes. The majority of these student-athletes are already experienced players, many with several seasons of competitive play behind them and looking forward to continuing their pursuit of high-performance play by trying out for their respective school teams. And that is the subject of this post: what to expect from your school’s curling program when you arrive on campus as a freshman student on Labour Day.

University curling in Canada is very competitive, and the calibre of play is high. At the university level, teams must consistently shoot in the 80-85% range in order to be successful. This past season, the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks men’s curling team (pictured above, from left to right: skip, Aaron Squires; third, Richard Krell; second, Spencer Nuttall; lead, Fraser Reid; alternate, Russell Cuddie; and myself as coach) earned the right to represent Canada at the 2017 World University Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan by winning the 2016 CIS University Curling Championship held in Kelowna, BC this past March, defeating CIS defending champion skip Thomas Scoffin and his Alberta Golden Bears rink 7-4 in the championship final:

For the game, it was the Hawks backend of Squires and Krell who were the difference makers as Krell curled a very impressive 93 percent while Squires shot 89 percent to outperform their counterparts, Scoffin and Karsten Sturmay, who each shot 71 percent.

“Rich is a fantastic shooter,” said Squires of his vice. “He’s certainly one of the best shooters out there. I know he always has the potential to curl in the nineties and it makes it a lot easier for me. Today, he was phenomenal and you can’t ask for more than that. With our sweepers, they make shots for us as well and it’s a real team effort.”

The win puts the finishing touches on what has been an incredible season for the Golden Hawks. As a rink, Laurier posted a 20-2 record in the three competitions they competed in and outscored their opponents 169-65, scoring an average of 7.6 points per game while allowing less than three points per game.

This was the WLU men’s third consecutive CIS finals. A bronze medal in 2014 was followed by a silver in 2015, where the men as a team shot 84% in the championship game – and lost, to the same Alberta Golden Bears.

Some things to expect at university

As a freshman student-athlete, one of the first things that you’ll notice at university is the selection of the coach. While there are exceptions, for the most part in this country U18 players are coached by one of the parents of the players on the team. Often the selection of a coach is an after-thought; only after the team is formed is any thought given to finding a coach. At university, in contrast, the coach has already been hired by the Athletics department, and it’s the players who have to be selected at tryouts each year.

That leads to the next significant difference – your teammates. The job of the school’s coaching staff is to select the best team of players amongst those available, and so it should be no surprise that the calibre of university curling is higher than that in U18 or U21 play. While the pool of players is slightly smaller, there are many quality players who, simply because of the number of available positions, cannot be selected to the team. At Laurier, we have, unfortunately, had to cut former provincial champions from the team’s final roster simply because there were too many qualified athletes.

It should also not be a surprise that a substantial number of the players selected for a university’s curling roster are skips. As an example, for the 2015-2016 season when I was head coach at Wilfrid Laurier, 13 of our 20 players had skip experience at the provincial level (bantam, junior, women’s, men’s, or mixed) in at least one age category. Consequently, the reader should realize that while your playing experience at U18 is invaluable, making the team at university is often based on your ability – and willingness – to be able to play a different position than the one to which you are accustomed. To the point, your sweeping ability may well determine whether or not you make the roster, even if you’ve been a skip throughout your years in high school.

In Ontario, university varsity athletics within Canadian Inter-University Sport (CIS) is governed by Ontario University Athletics, or the OUA. In addition to regulating inter-university varsity sport competition, the OUA also regulates things such as athlete eligibility, which can be made more strict, depending on the institution. Student funding, for example, is one of these. At some universities, such as Wilfrid Laurier or Brock, curling is a full-fledged varsity sport and enjoys the status and funding of other varsity sports within their respective university. At other schools, curling is a non-funded “club” sport where the athletes themselves are responsible for finding monies for uniforms, practice ice, membership fees, equipment, coaching expenses, competition fees and travel expenses, and these fees can be substantial in any given year. Some schools offer athletic scholarships to help defray these costs, and assist in recruiting, but in Canada athletic scholarship amounts are restricted: OUA athletes can hold at most $4,000.00 in athletic scholarships in any one year, and student-athletes must meet specific academic thresholds in order to be eligible for them. For example, at Wilfird Laurier, an incoming freshman student must have a Grade 12 average of at least 80% in order to qualify for any athletic scholarships in their first year. This $4,000.00 is a maximum; by and large, varsity athletes receive substantially more in athletic scholarship dollars than players on the “junior varsity” development squad.

The tryout process

In general, universities support an open tryout process for varsity sports. While “walk-ons” are supported, prospective student-athletes should have proactively filled out a “recruiting form” for each school to which they have applied so that the head coach at each institution can contact them concerning tryout-dates and other particulars.

Each university has its own particular tryout process, which is influenced by the number of athletes in the program, the status of the program within the university, and the availability of ice. Complications inevitably arise due to academic conflicts, as programs may have between 30 and 50 athletes at tryouts, and the freshman and returning student-athletes’ academic schedules will prevent 100% attendance at any tryout practice or meeting.

At Wilfrid Laurier, our tryout process last season included four on-ice evaluations during the evenings over two successive weeks, in addition to off-ice meetings and multiple sessions of fitness assessment at two different gymnasiums. Similarly with other universities, at Laurier several factors are taken into consideration when selecting the men’s and women’s varsity and junior varsity teams. Factors considered by the Laurier coaching staff in team selection include, but are not limited to:

  • Experience: Proven records of success carry considerable weight in the team selection process. Throwing well in practice, and being technically sound, does not necessarily equate to performing under pressure in games and winning. This is especially true at the elite levels of performance where the pressure can be overwhelming.
  • Commitment: You must be willing to be on the ice on a near-daily basis either in team practice, individual practice, or in a game (league or spiel).
  • Fitness: To compete at the highest levels in the sport, your level of fitness must be able to match what the sport demands. Participating in a monitored fitness program, and in other sport activities, are recommended and expected of all athletes. Fitness tests performed at tryouts include the plank, standing long jump, pushups (in one minute), and the “standard” 20-metre beep test. Prospective athletes can look online for normative data for all of these exercises – for example, normative data for the beep test can be found here. An 18-year-old male athlete should certainly achieve a beep test score higher than 8.6 – anything lower is simply dreadful.
  • Team Dynamics: Team chemistry is a key factor – a successful team must add up to being greater than the sum of its individual parts.
  • Skill: Players must have the ability to perform all on-ice aspects of the game at a high level.
  • Eye to the Future: Consideration is given to the future of the Wilfrid Laurier team by keeping a balance of younger and veteran players. At Wilfrid Laurier, our goal is not only to win a championship this year; it is to win a championship every year.

Athletes not selected to their varsity program should not take this personally. Some extremely talented curlers will not be selected to the squad simply because of the small size of the team and the high number of talented, experienced and proven players in the pool. In other cases, the number of years remaining until graduation, rather than merely ability, may be the deciding factor in a decision as an eye to the future is also critical.

Balancing athletics and academics

It takes a significant amount of time and commitment to be a student-athlete. At Laurier, our expectations for athletes in the curling program would be a minimum of five on-ice sessions per week: two team practices with a coach, two individual practices with (or without) a coach, and a weekly league game with the athlete’s university team. In addition we would expect student-athletes to attend off-ice team meetings as necessary, and to undertake a sport-specific athletic program that would involve regular sign-in at the University’s Athletic Centre. Keep in mind that this is in addition to the student-athlete’s practices and games with their own U21 or men’s/women’s teams, which are very frequent – virtually every weekend – during the fall semester. Weekend play becomes more difficult mid-semester because many universities, strapped for adequate physical space, now routinely schedule both mid-term and final examinations on weekends.

Given that time commitment, it is unsurprising that so many student-athletes do not maintain a full course load during their two academic terms during the curling season, though they must be enrolled in at least three courses in each semester in order to maintain their athletic eligibility with their school. Often, students will pick up missed courses during the summer semester in order to not fall too far behind in their program. Even so, many varsity athletes – across all sports – often take longer than four years to complete an undergraduate degree.

Another indicator of the challenges of balancing academics and athletics is the number of Academic All-Canadian honours that are earned by student-athletes across Canada each year. An Academic All-Canadian is a student-athlete in a varsity athletic program who achieves an average grade of 80% or higher over the academic year.

It might surprise the reader to learn just how infrequently this threshold is achieved. Recently, Wilfrid Laurier announced their Academic All-Canadians for the 2015-2016 academic year, and I am very proud that five athletes in the Laurier curling program last season achieved that recognition: Bridget Ribau, Megan Arnold, Brenda Holloway, Richard Krell, and Jeff Wanless. Note that this is five athletes out of 20 in the curling program, and is actually higher than the Laurier average. To draw some examples from other sports at Laurier:

  • Men’s basketball: 1 Academic All-Canadian out of 15
  • Women’s basketball: 2 of 15
  • Football: 6 out of approximately 90 athletes (47 football athletes dress for each game)
  • Men’s soccer: 2 out of approximately 25 athletes
  • Women’s hockey: 7 of 22
  • Women’s soccer: 4 of approximately 25

In aggregate, at Wilfrid Laurier in 2015-2016, only approximately 10% of student athletes – 51 out of approximately 500 – attained Academic All-Canadian status, despite many of these students maintaining less than a full course load each semester. The numbers vary from university to university but not significantly.

Statistics such as these are important to consider before you commit to a university sport program. As a head coach, my advice was always to weigh academic choices more highly than athletics: your studies are critically important for your future as a contributing member of Canadian society. Consequently, prospective student-athletes who are planning to enroll in double-degree programs, or in programs with strict academic performance criteria, should think carefully about becoming a student-athlete at their university. Part-time jobs can be exceedingly problematic, due to the scheduling conflicts they create, as can unavailability due to co-op internships for co-op undergraduate programs. Can a student-athlete achieve high academic performance and be successful as a student-athlete? Of course! But prospective students should be aware of the complexities of balancing their academic commitments with curling before they arrive on Labour Day.

Final thoughts

Being a student-athlete at university is a tremendously rewarding experience. Students become more tightly integrated into the fabric of the university and, more importantly, develop friendships with their teammates that often survive decades into the future. In curling, student-athletes have the opportunity to represent your school at OUA’s, at CIS, and, should you win a CIS championship, compete at the Karuizawa Invitational in Japan, or at the World University Winter Games, as Team Canada. Additionally, you have the opportunity to be exposed to some world-class coaching. Some examples: Rob Krepps at the University of Alberta consistently brings out championship rinks from Edmonton. Former Canadian champion and Olympian Melissa Soligo coached her University of Victoria men’s rink to a bronze medal at CIS in March, and deservedly earned 2016 CIS coach-of-the-year honours. Perry Marshall and Ryan Lafraniere do an outstanding job at Ryerson University and Laurentian University, respectively. And in Atlantic Canada, no one understands the physics and mechanics of brushing better than John Newhook at Dalhousie.

To conclude, a short list of what (and what not) to bring to university on Labour Day:

  1. Come to school in shape.
  2. Bring a positive attitude – and leave your ego at home. Be willing to accept a position on the team that isn’t familiar to you. Read this open letter by Quinnipiac University coach Becky Carlson. Then read it again.
  3. Answer your email. Seriously. Don’t be rude. Nothing will annoy a coach more than the lack of a timely response or acknowledgement to their communication.
  4. Line up your support systems. If your school does not provide athletic services for its curling program, ask about where you can find athletic therapy, massage therapy, nutrition counselling, or other requirements that are close to campus and are affordable.
  5. Be prepared to adjust your timetable, or your course selections, so that you can attend practice and be available for scheduled games. And expect to balance your U21 schedule with the expectations of your university program.

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