Earlier this year I started a new hobby: ringing in a handbell choir. (See what is a bell choir.) It’s not a physical activity per se, but we see health holistically around here and I’ll bring it back to the fitness stuff.
My previous experience with playing music is next to nil. My only musical training was when I was nine: less than two years of organ lessons and I faked sick for the final recital. I even missed mandatory band class later in my youth because we moved school systems.
So, without the ability to read music it’s no exaggeration that I’m a weak ringer. My mistakes are also easy to notice when I play with folks who have been ringing in church choirs for years. I am also the youngest person with the exception of the conductor, who motivates to keep ringing.
How? She is encouraging, and when she is not actively encouraging she still withholds any negativity. She maintains a neutral positive face, the kind you’re supposed to have when you interview someone for a job. Sometimes she asks only some of us to replay certain sections, and she slows us down, but she never draws attention to me when I make mistakes and I never catch disappointed looks.
I know it’s not always easy for more seasoned folks—especially in groups—to exercise patience around novices. On Monday nights at my curling club I see Scott McDonald giving “Learn to Curl” lessons, and I think: how does this high-ranking curler train these totally new curlers and not get frustrated? Perhaps good trainers are experts, but not all experts are good trainers.
Also, perhaps in times of declining numbers in bell choirs and curling clubs, some folks know they must check their impatience because of what will happen if they don’t. When errors are frequent and progress is slow, novices like me can get discouraged and feel like quitting, even in a supportive learning environment.
So here’s my point: My bell choir experience has reminded me that encouragement and praise are important, even when (especially when?) novices make mistakes. If you are good at something, you may notice mistakes that others make, but it may not help to point them out, even in the spirit of helpfulness. Newbies are probably trying even harder than you are to be patient with themselves. Instead, kind words (even if they seem unearned) might help folks stay in activities that need numbers—so you can keep doing them too.
As I was preparing for the Senior Canadian Curling Championships my recurring knee and shoulder injuries were making it hard for me to curl my best. On the ice, I was in constant pain. I needed to get help and to get help fast. A local physiotherapist was recommended to me, but I was skeptical. I’ve been to a dozen physiotherapists, without much luck. Many have made assumptions about my physical ability and age, which ticked me off. At the same time, I was desperate to relieve the pain. Why? It wasn’t so I could get a better sleep or take less Ibuprofen, it was so that I could curl better — full stop. That’s what a lifetime of competing, pushing, and playing does. The academic in me is critical of this. The curler in me is not. The aging woman in me … well the jury is still out because, I can’t lie, it’s getting harder.
I reluctantly made an appointment with my physiotherapist, Nelson, who turned out to be very young and very fit. This could go badly, I thought. As he was collecting information about me, he learned that I was a curler. He very quickly informed me that he is often mistaken for one of Canada’s most famous curlers, Brad Gushue (2022 Canadian Men’s Olympic Skip).
Connection made … check. Rapport built … check.
As Nelson was assessing my injuries, he told me that “the best thing for you to do right now is rest, but I know you are not going to do that so let’s see what we can do”. I liked this for a couple of reasons. First, there was nothing said about being a woman of a certain age and the importance of scaling back at that age; things that I have heard way too often. Second, he respected that I am an athlete who needs to curl, and to curl well.
Five weeks later and we were off to our competition. I felt a lot better. Not perfect, merely better. But then, what is feeling perfect? For me, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t feel physical pain. As I’m writing this post, my hamstrings are sore, different bits in my back are stiff, and my shoulders ache. As a society, our tendency is to attribute the pain I feel to the fact that I am a 56-year-old woman. But this kind of attribution is simplistic, essentialist, and quite frankly, ageist.
Ageist assumptions about pain permeate other domains of life too. Several years ago, my colleague, Kim Shuey, and I wrote a paper on aging and the perception of disability in the workplace. We found that workers who attribute their disability to aging are less likely to ask for workplace accommodations and are less likely to receive them even if they do ask.
Feeling “perfect” for me is living with some degree of pain, regardless of my age. It is difficult for me to know how much of my pain I should blame on aging or the spinal fusion surgery I had when I was 11 years old to improve a major case of scoliosis. My back is fused from top to bottom, and as a result, other body parts get stretched to their limits. I don’t think that I have lived a day since my surgery where I haven’t experienced pain. I’m used to it and I’m telling you this because it shows that we need to interrogate our assumptions about the relationship between aging and pain.
Interrogating, however, does not mean ignoring. Competing, pushing, and playing is getting harder. Particularly over the last 5 years, recovery time is longer, more body parts hurt at once, and injury is more prevalent. All of this makes the motivation to train more challenging; especially with a pandemic making it unclear whether my team will have an opportunity to play. Why continue? Because I love curling, the curling community, the exercise, and competing.
So, what says the aging woman jury? — Rest!
But I think not. I guess my identity as a curler is stronger than my identity as an older woman, at least for today.
I am a curler, and I’ve been curling since I was 12 years old. Some of you may know my sport. Others may be wondering about what it is or have a vague idea that it is an Olympic sport played on ice. In our household, when we ask Alexa what its favourite sport is, the reply is this; “Curling is my kind of game, it’s like chess on ice, if chess was played with tiny brooms”. As scary as it is that Alexa responds to us this way, we have often referred to the strategy involved in curling as, ‘chess on ice’. Good curlers think three to four moves in advance as they plan their play. Curling brooms aren’t that tiny though. They are about four feet-long, they are made of a light durable material with a fabric bottom that is used to brush the ice surface. Curling is a difficult game to explain, and I can’t do it justice here. If you want to learn more, check out the World Curling Federation’s 2-minute guide to curling.
One member of the team directs the play, a second throws the curling stone, and the remaining two members of the team sweep.Photo credit: Robert Davies
Since 1988, when curling was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Olympics, it has been the brunt of jokes. Late-night television hosts and comedians seem to get a big kick out of it (see Ellen Degeneres, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, and Rick Mercer to name a few). It has made appearances on The Simpsons, The Little Mosque on the Prairie, and in several movies (e.g., Help) and songs (e.g., The Weakerthans’ Tournament of Hearts). In the best-case scenario, my sport is depicted as a novelty, but in most cases, it’s seen as a bit of a joke. Just last week, Saturday Night Live made fun of curling after NBC pulled their broadcasting of the International Olympic Qualifying tournament because it had a sex toy company as one of its leading sponsors. This is a story so interesting that it deserves its own post!
Am I offended by these jokes? Not really. Whenever curling gets mentioned or when I see images related to curling, I get excited because it means that my sport is no longer ignored. But it is odd to be an athlete who plays a sport that most folks either don’t know about or don’t take very seriously. Yet, the fitness, agility, strength, precision, and mental resilience required to curl should not be discounted. My family and I have taught a lot of athletes from other sports how to curl, and without exception they say “this is harder than it looks”. A few former NFL players decided to get a team together so that they could represent the United States at the Olympics in curling. That didn’t go so well.
Images of curling rocks used to identify physical distancing in Vancouver.
My Nova Scotian curling team recently competed at the Canadian Senior (aged 50 and over) Women’s Curling Championships. As an aside, the title sponsor for this event is a funeral concierge service, which makes most of us laugh. We played 12 games (each game lasts about 2 hours) over 6 days and finished with a bronze medal. Bronze medal games are tough but I’m proud that my team hung in there. On our way home, we arrived at the Toronto Airport and of all days, the escalator to get to our gate was broken. Ouch!, is all I have to say about that.
Team Nova Scotia after winning bronze at the Canadian Senior Women’s curling championship. Four very happy women!Photo Credit: Curling Canada
I am an old (er), competitive curler, and I love my sport. My relationship with curling has changed over the years but my identity as a curler has not. I’m becoming very interested in how athletes age within a sport and how this relates to their identity. But more on that another time.
For my whole life I knew nothing about the sport beyond that it resembled the shuffleboard table in my grandparents’ basement and it was a Winter Olympics sport (again). I hadn’t even seen the Canadian romantic comedy, Men with Brooms (2002), with Leslie Nielson.
Then, in 2020—pandemic year 1–I joined a curling club. I am not amazing at curling, but thanks to many supportive players I picked it up faster than I picked up soccer as an adult.
Now in my second season of curling, I’ve discovered that this sport is growing its inclusivity and fitness focus, yet remains rooted in etiquette and community. Let me tell you a little about what I’ve learned about curling!
Curling is for Many People
Curling is an olympic and paralympic sport, with medals for four-person women and men’s teams. Men and women can play and compete together in mixed leagues and on mixed doubles teams (two people instead of four), since finesse matters as much as strength.
Curling is also a recreational sport for youths, seniors, and everyone in between. Learn to curl clinics are put on annually by curling clubs, and online information for new curlers is widely available.
There are various support tools for all types of curlers. These “sticks” and “crutches” aid the release of the curling rock that travels down the 146 to 150 feet of ice, providing stability and balance for players. The supports also alleviate pressure on the knees and body, giving all kinds of bodies a chance to curl.
Curling associations, such as Curling Canada, encourage the sport’s accessibility. The Ontario Curling Council explains that wheelchair curling leagues and curling competitions are available for those who are non-ambulant or can only walk short distances. Canada boasts talented, award-winning visually impaired and wheelchair teams.
In terms of gender inclusivity, my teammate tells me that some larger clubs have open and LGBTQ+ leagues. More clubs are also drafting inclusion policies, showing that this once traditional and gender-siloed sport is striving to grow and change with the times.
Curling is in Many Places
Curling clubs have existed in Canada since 1807, with the first curling club located in Montreal. Today, you can find curling clubs throughout Canada, but more than half of these clubs are still located in small towns.
Sports and recreation foster not only healthy activity but also local community. Studies have shown that curling supports the health and wellness of rural women and older adults. I hear that many people grew up with curling in the family (so kids learn to play whether they want to or not).
In the country and the city, curling has a reputation for courtesy. League games are non-refereed. Curlers are supportive and unpretentious. (When you throw a rock really well, you celebrate by complimenting your sweepers.) It is customary for the winning team to buy the first round of drinks for the losing team after the game. (This tradition of sitting together post-game was temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Fitness of Curling
Curling has a reputation as a sport for being more recreational than rigorous. However, the author of this article from The Cut describes how throwing and sweeping rocks over two hours led her to conclude curling is a good interval workout. One study that measured participant heart rates after sweeping suggests that fitness training can help avoid fatigue during curling. At the competitive level, where athletes curl 10 ends a game and play multiple games in a tournament, mental and physical training is now standard.
The media is increasingly hyping the athleticism of the curling, and paying more attention to the bodies of players. An NPR article from 2014 describes the need for curlers to be extremely fit, not just for the sport but for the tight uniforms. The fitness element of curling also got press when “Superwoman” curler Rachael Homan won curling titles while 8-months pregnant and then again just 3 weeks after delivery.
My Oura fitness tracker ring tells me I don’t yet get a high intensity workout from curling, but I only play one 8-end game once a week. Watching others, I’m pretty sure that I would be a stronger sweeper and have more controlled throws if I were in better shape. So I might pick up one of the books available on curling training and strategy, such as Fit to Curl (2016) or Curl to Win (2010).
Still Learning about Curling
Curling was going to be my “retirement sport”—in another 15 or 20 years. But without other regular indoor winter sports to keep me active during the COVID-19 pandemic, I advanced my timeline (not the retirement part, sadly). I’m glad I did. It’s been a physical and social activity that has had many benefits for me.
Thanks to my teammates and my league, I am eager to continue to learn more about this sport, which is in fact way more complex than grandparents’ basement shuffleboard. I am grateful to the St. Thomas Curling Club, which has gone to great lengths to adjust the rules and maintain the safety of its members during the pandemic.
If you curl, what brought you to the sport? If you don’t, would you like to try?