Nathan Small is a Canadian curler who had never coached before. That made him perfect for the job with Team Hong Kong.
The Nelson native, an accomplished curler who competes on the World Curling Tour and will play at the B.C. provincials next year, received an unexpected call in the summer from a team in need of help.
Hong Kong was set to compete at the Pan Continental Curling Championships, which ran Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, in Kelowna. The tournament qualifies teams from the American and Pacific-Asia zones for the world curling championships. The only problem was Hong Kong had no coach.
Their previous coach was Nadine Scotland, who has appeared twice in at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts but was going on leave. Skip Jason Chang had played against Small in Ontario and reached out.
“I did it for the experience,” says Small. “I did it for, one, the notch on the belt. But it was also to find out, can I coach? Am I going to be a good coach? Is this something I could look forward to doing again if I’m good at it?”
Curling is a relatively new sport for Hong Kong. It only joined the World Curling Federation in 2014, and a men’s team competed at its first international competition a year later.
The city has no dedicated curling ice, so when there’s no space at an ice rink the sport is recreationally played on an artificial surface that can be laid down in places such as gymnasiums. Training for international events then has to be held in places with proper facilities like Canada or the United States.
Still, Hong Kong is making progress. Last year it finished third in the Pan Continental’s B division, where teams vie for promotion into the A division and then book berths to the world championships. In taking the job, Small hoped he could provide Hong Kong with a push in the right direction.
“I’m still a fierce competitor on the World Curling Tour, so I can take a lot of the knowledge that I have — from what the latest techniques are, or the latest strategy — all those things that are currently happening at the top level of the game and impress upon these guys some of that knowledge.”
Curling coaches do plenty of work behind the scenes. They lead practices, track shots, advise on strategy and review matches. After taking the job, Small consulted with his own coach Paul Tardi who is provincially renowned and whose own son Tyler currently plays third for former world champion Kevin Koe.
The Hong Kong team of Chang, third Martin Yang, second Ching Nam Cheng, first Cheuk Hei Chung and alternate Chi Lap Ma practised in Toronto and held regular remote meetings with Small before they all met in Kelowna prior to the tournament.
There was no language barrier to overcome — the entire team speaks fluent English — but practice time was typically limited to just 10 minutes. Small said he used that time to provide feedback on each player’s release while also using an app called Curl Coach to track their shots. The players and Small would meet after each game for a debrief.
“If something is identified like a certain player is always sliding a little tight to the target, can you help him address that?” says Small.
“Or someone with their release, they’re kind of dumping it, they’re turning it in, as opposed to doing a clean release. Can you work with that player … to try to figure out why they’re doing a certain thing, and then give them tools and tips in order to integrate into the game so they stopped doing that.”
To his delight, Small immediately noticed the players taking his feedback and applying it to their games.
Hong Kong lost their first game 13-3 to a talented China team that would have been in the A division had it not skipped last year’s competition due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But in the second game, Hong Kong got a lift with an 11-8 win over Saudi Arabia. They finished the round robin with a record of 5-2, good enough for a berth in the semifinals. There Hong Kong fell 9-5 to the Philippines, which features four athletes all born and trained in Switzerland.
Small’s goal from the start was to match the quality of coaching the team had received from Nadine Scotland. That meant securing at least third place in the division. In the bronze medal match, Hong Kong scored four points in the third end and went on to beat Mexico 10-7.
“Winning bronze was huge,” says Small. “It meant that we did as well as we did last year, but against a tougher field, a much tougher field. So the boys are obviously very proud of that. I couldn’t be more proud of them and the way that they played.”
Now that the event is over, Small has returned to his own training. He doesn’t know if he’ll be asked back to coach the team again since he was only filling in for Scotland, but he’d like to.
For now Small has a medal, a uniform and some treasured memories. He hopes he contributed an important step in Hong Kong’s curling development.
“That’s how these things start, and then it builds from there.”