Coaching Association of Canada

Janet Arnott, ChPC - Curling

Change Management:
Building Relationships & Encouraging Technical Improvement

Janet Arnott, former coach of the Jennifer Jones team and a 2015 Petro-Canada Sport Leadership sportif conference panelist, sheds light on the intricacies of change management as it pertains to the coaching role.

In 2011, at the beginning of a new Olympic quadrennial, the Jennifer Jones team made a significant change in bringing in Kaitlyn Lawes as Third. “This is the biggest change a team can make, says Arnott, from there we chipped away at the plan and in the last year leading up to Sochi, the plan was perfect.” The change management plan worked with big steps taken early on, and smaller adjustments taking place as the Games approached.

“If you misunderstand the plan – if changes aren’t timely – fatigue sets in. If things are well-timed, we eliminate stress and reduce the risk of fatigue.”

With constant feedback from the girls, the team was able to make the necessary changes that led to a gold medal in Sochi. Managing that change, particularly in the team’s infancy was essential. “Curling is an intimate sport because there are four athletes, not 17 or 20,” claims Arnott, whose priority as a coach was managing the team dynamics. It started with the acquisition of Kaitlyn Lawes, a process that resembled an interview: “You start with what you know they can bring to the team technically, and then you talk about goals, aspirations, commitment,” says Arnott. A process like this prepares the team for the change and the risk of negative impact is reduced.

Managing the impact following a change is equally as important as making a timely and successful change in the first place. Arnott’s priority has always been positive team dynamics: “After Kaitlyn’s introduction, I needed to know that everyone was in their “happy place.” The Jennifer Jones team committed that they would always be open and honest about their issues and discussions would be positive and productive. With the right talent and the right people to win, it was up to the team to nurture the relationship.

Giving athletes the opportunity to discuss things in a formal setting is important for coaches. It’s equally important to provide opportunity for informal feedback. Arnott suggests ensuring an open-door policy when it comes to voicing issues but that if the interpersonal relationships on the team are good, athletes can usually figure it out between themselves.

“What allows the athletes to be so open is that they all know what part they play in the team’s success. They can’t all be Type-A personalities and they need to be happy being masters of their roles on and off the ice.”

Arnott suggests that each player’s desire to be the best at their job, for the benefit of the team, is the common thread that binds the 4 distinct personalities.

When it comes to technical changes to a player’s game, personalities play a factor. When a player presents their laundry-list of changes and continuously demands change, it’s important for the coach to identify what will provide the athlete with the greatest benefit and start with that. Each athlete will learn in a slightly different way and some might be more receptive to working with video to identify major gaps in play, while others might need to engage with a guest expert to be convinced of a need for change. For the “know-it-all” players who believe they have no improvements to make, introducing someone who is perceived as more credible can have a big impact.

“Bringing in a player like Jon Mead or Jeff Stoughton goes a long way in encouraging ‘stubborn’ athletes to make changes.”

When good teams know they constantly need to improve to stay at the top of the game, they’ll look to make changes and the coach’s job is more about facilitating the experiment. With developmental athletes, it’s more about making sure that changes reflect a need to master the basics before adding layers of difficulty. “Some might want to throw more weight, but encouraging them to work on the mechanics – keeping their hips low in the delivery for example – will yield significant improvements,” says Arnott.

Sometimes a little “tough-love” is required to elicit change. “Developmental athletes who are averse to making changes or who think changes won’t yield results might need to be told ‘as it stands, I’ve taken you as far as I can and it’s up to you to be open to making technical changes to keep progressing,’” states Arnott. Framing this discussion with a reference to the performance demands of provincial, national, or international competition can make the prospect of change more appealing.

The type of change management strategy you choose as a coach will likely depend on the level of the athletes with whom you work and the length of your relationship with them.

“I came into Jenn’s team because I was a credible coach and they were looking for someone with experience to support them. Over time, our relationship and my role as a coach developed and they formed the basis of my strategy and contribution.”

Similarly, when an athlete seeks a coaching change, it’s not necessarily because the coaching lacks quality. It’s most often because the athlete is ready to adopt a different direction and a change in skill set is required. “It might be a need to change direction, a need for organizational strength, or a need for particular technical & strategic skills improvement,” says Arnott. Ultimately change is what drives the progression of sport at both the elite and development level, and it’s the change management process that determines whether a mid-field finish or a podium performance is on the horizon.