Originally published by Tim Redpath
Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.
Rachel Homan was skip of the Canadian women’s curling team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Her team is a three-time winner of the national Canadian curling championship – the Scotties Tournament of Hearts – in 2013, 2014 and 2017. She is the only Canadian skip in history to have won three national championships by the age of 27. In 2019, Homan’s team won the Pinty’s Cup, for the second time, which is awarded to the curling team with the most points in the season. In 2019, Homan was named the fourth greatest Canadian curler in history in a TSN poll of broadcasters, reporters and top curlers.
I wanted to be a skip when I was five
I really enjoyed curling from a young age and I wanted to be a skip when I was five. I enjoyed sweeping but I wanted to throw the last rock and feel the control and excitement. My first win as skip was the very first tournament I played as skip. It was the Junior Super Steel Qualifier in Ottawa and I would have been 11 or 12 years old, playing with Emma Miskew. Twenty years later, Emma and I are still great friends and curling together.
Being the skip is not a big leap for me
I have always been an A-type person so being the skip is not a big leap for me. What I have had to learn is how to interact with different personalities and how to build the team as it did not come naturally to me.
As the leader, you have to set an example and know how to get the best out of your teammates. The skip has to decide whether they want to play a silent role or an active role. On our team I think I definitely play an active leadership role – I lead from the front.
A hard work ethic was instilled in me from a young age. That ethic has helped me develop my curling skills and build my leadership muscles.
There are lots of great leadership qualities within our team
Even though a curling team has a skip there are times when each of the players takes a leadership role. As skip, you appreciate the strengths within your team and let others lead in different areas and at different times. Because it is a long, grinding season and it takes a full team to work, all four of us have to contribute. There are lots of great leadership qualities within our team – it is not just me – and it is nice to be able to work back and forth and bounce ideas off each other. Collectively, we evolve and develop and push each other to try and take our performances and our sport to new levels.
Truly understanding my teammates is critical to my success as a leader
It is helpful to understand everyone’s personality and what everyone needs and as long-time teammates we know each other well. You can say some things to certain people you may not be able to say to others. In difficult times, truly understanding my teammates is critical to my success as a leader.
Early in your career you do not realize it is more than one person playing every single shot. The awareness is something you develop and learn as you get better at tactics and strategies inside curling. You understand the ice, the sport, how sweeping works, how ice changes over the course of a game. So much goes into making each shot; no two games are the same.
Everyone’s ideas are valid
You have to accept that everyone’s ideas are valid. No idea is being brought up to sabotage the team – there is some good thought behind everything. The more information I get as skip, the better equipped I am to call the right shot. Just talking through and understanding the risks and rewards of each potential shot is hugely helpful. My team knows, at the end of the day, it is what I feel most comfortable throwing. I can not make the best decision though without everyone’s ideas and without a willingness to listen.
I love seeing athletes perform at the highest level
Growing up, I loved all sports and played many of them. I did not watch just curling. I love seeing athletes perform at the highest level – people like Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods. Recently, I have been inspired watching younger athletes like Penny Oleksiak thrive in her sport of swimming. Curling was the sport my family played. It always piqued my interest, so I gravitated to it, naturally.
With other sports you get your heart rate up and you get your adrenaline pumping. In curling, you feel the same rush but you have to control it. Adrenaline can affect your fine motor skills and your delicate touch and is a big part of the finesse of the game, rather like golf. So, as curlers, we learn to control and channel our emotions during the game.
A little more listening and a little less talking
We feel lucky we might be in the position to inspire young women to get into sports. We take our responsibility very seriously and we want to make sure we are always sending out the right messages. There are highs and lows in sport and you are not going to be successful in every game, every tournament. But, if you remain dedicated to constant improvement and you have great team relationships, it is a journey like no other.
We definitely hear the crowd and we love when they are into the game and loud. We feed off their excitement and energy and it is always fun to play in an energetic arena. Even when the crowd is chanting for the other team, it is still a fun atmosphere. It is all part of playing and the more you play the more you get used to it.
If I was coaching young women who want to skip a curling team, I would encourage them to do a little more listening and a little less talking. Being more empathetic as a leader helps you be successful.
Until you can understand yourself, you can’t lead
As I have matured, I have changed the way I approach the game and the way I play the game. I have always been good at reading a situation or a crowd of people. What has changed is my ability to handle situations better. I have learned to develop those skills. I have a better understanding of my own emotions and feelings and I appreciate the feelings of others a little bit more, so I am better able to help others. Until you can understand yourself, you can’t lead or help others.
You have to work at it and then go through a period of self-discovery and understanding yourself better as a person. What fires you up? What calms you down? How do you handle stressful situations? Everyone reacts differently to different stresses and to different situations.
Confidence is a huge part of leadership
You do not just become a leader one day and think your work is done. All four of us are constantly working on our leadership skills and better understanding each other and better understanding how to lead. We are constantly refining our skills and talking to other people in sport to see how they run and how they do things. There are so many different ways to lead.
Confidence is a huge part of leadership. My confidence in my leadership abilities, on and off the ice, has grown since I started playing. My ability as a leader to think through situations and understand where the team needs to go, has developed.
My self-confidence as a leader helps those around me perform better, and their confidence in themselves helps me as a skip.
There is always fear in sport
There is always fear in sport. I do not want to disappoint others. I do not want to disappoint my teammates. I do not want to disappoint my province or my country.
I can always reflect and look at things that maybe I should have done differently or I should have said differently. It is part of the growing process. You have to learn from the mistakes, from the fear, and keep refining yourself and developing as a player, and as a leader. Sport is a fun opportunity and not something everyone gets to do every day. I appreciate I am very fortunate to participate in a sport that inspires me, even when the pressure can be crazy.
Openness makes it easier to communicate
I discover new things about myself as a person and as a leader every time I talk to someone or work on a skill. I have lots of faults and lots of things that are not perfect. My willingness and openness to improve and change though is something which works well for me as a leader. I am very open about things with my team. Open communication, open dialogue is part of my democratic style as opposed to “this is the way things are”. Openness makes it easier to communicate and easier to get things done as a team.
I will bring my leadership skills to the classroom
As a trainee teacher, I hope I will bring my leadership skills to the classroom. I can see scenarios and can help diffuse situations. For me, it is about creating interpersonal relationships and connecting on whatever level students need within the classroom. You need to build trust as opposed to being autocratic and telling them what to do.
A huge wave of emotion and adrenaline
One of my favourite curling memories is the 2017 Scotties with the national title on the line. We were in the last end and pretty much everything which could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. Some changing ice conditions, some mental lapses and we were missing everything. On my last shot, their rocks were in good positions. I had to make probably the hardest double I have ever had in my life for the most on the line. And, it was not even to win the game – it was to force an extra end. I had to hit a sixteenth of a rock to make two of their rocks go away.
We connected as a team. We were able to see what we needed to do and we all checked into our jobs. I made the thin double and we went to an extra end, which we won, for the national championship.
There was a feeling of utter relief. A huge wave of emotion and adrenaline – the kind that makes you sick to your stomach and makes the hair on your neck stand on end.
It was the most emotionally-charged win I have ever had. But the relief, the rush, the exhilaration is why I play the game