Monday, October 13, 2014

A Coach's Questions

It's time to open the 2014-15 mail bag with two questions that were sent to me by a coach who has become a good friend. He's a think-outside-the-box type coach who constantly looks for ways to empower the athletes with whom he/she works. Here were the questions that I felt deserved answers on my blog site.

My lead is right handed & left eye dominant. The rest of the team is right handed/right eye dominant. Should I have him: a) bring the rock in the hack to his left eye unlike all he has ever been told (this is certainly more natural but he would be off-line with the rest of the team ) OR b) have him line up the rock like the rest of his teammates by shifting his body in the hack/delivery OR c) some other trick of yours!

Let's deal with part c) first. I have no tricks for this one, in fact, thanks to an ophthalmologist who taught a group of us national coaches how to check for eye dominance and deal with the results, there is no trick. I have an article in my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") on the subject of eye dominance entitled "Eye Dominance: Fact or Fiction" (p.77) and there's a followup blog on this site as well ('The "Eyes" Have It' [Feb. 16, 2014]). So as not to re-invent the wheel on the subject, if this is your first exposure to "eye dominance" I strongly suggest that you read one or both of the articles before proceeding. 

The key word in the coach's question is "natural"! If I've learned anything in my years working with athletes in many sports it's this. The body is an amazing machine and as such, performs many motor skills in such a way as to employ systems in the body which already know how to work together. As an instructor/coach, don't mess with what the body does "naturally" and nothing is more natural than the way a curler positions his/her body relative to the stone in executing a curling shot. 

With your lead, the right/left player, when you view his delivery from the front, you should not see his sliding foot behind the stone. His body will want to do that, ahem, naturally because it knows which eye is dominant and with his right hand on the stone, his body position in the slide portion of the delivery will position him so his dominant eye will see the target appropriately. Your other three players, the right/right individuals, will slide so that when viewed from the front, you will see a portion of their sliding foot to the side of the stone. Don't be mislead by my use of the word "side". It's still behind the stone when viewed from the side but beside the stone when viewed from the front. All players need to slide with the body/stone relationship as described above. But, your question was a "team" question so here's my answer to your question. When all the players, regardless of hand/eye dominance reach their respective release points, they will be remarkably close to the same spot so not to worry. Just respect the body's ability to position the players' bodies relative to the stone in the slide, appropriately. 

But before I leave the topic of eye dominance, allow me a closing comment from my own experiences with curlers. This past Saturday I had the pleasure of working with one of the most skilled women curlers here in British Columbia. She had some technical concerns and the first thing I did was check her hand/eye dominance because her primary concern was knowing if she was off line. There have been times when she thought she was on line but wasn't and off line when she was. That's troubling to a curler as you should be the first one to know if you're wide or narrow. I suspected a misalignment of her body relative to the stone. I always do an eye dominance check (it's explained in the APITG:ACC article) so what I see when the athlete delivers stones, confirms that the athlete's body is responding to its natural instincts. If I see an opposite side dominant curler with his/her sliding foot to the side, something's wrong. Conversely, if I were to see a same side dominant curler with the sliding foot behind the stone, then again, something's wrong. Invariably some well-intentioned instructor/coach, not knowing or understanding eye dominance and its role with curlers, has mispositioned the athlete. No athlete will misposition* him/herself unless directed to do so.

In this athlete's case, my suspicions were confirmed. She was opposite side dominant but her body position relative to the stone was if she was same side dominant. My "suggestion" was that she "follow the stone", thus putting her sliding foot and dominant eye into a more "natural" (there's that word again) position.

Let's have a look at the coach's second question.

We have lost some games in the past where opponents' rocks are curling despite weak/lazy handles and ours are not with 3-4 rotations. Should we be practising delivering stones with less rotation (1 to 1 1/2) or would this just create more problems?

Yes, it would create more problems, especially since I know your athletes are junior aged athletes. Please allow me to explain and to do that I will once again refer to an article in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" entitled "The Technical Double Cross" (p.53)! It's all about the importance of rotation, the one aspect of delivering a curling stone that doesn't receive nearly as much attention that it should.

Without going into a lot of detail, know this. When a curling stone is manufactured, the "running surface" that ring of granite that actually touches the ice, is milled at 4-5 mm. in width.The manufacturers have asked me to tell you, the curler, that if you don't rotate the stone, from release to stop, 2 1/2 - 3 times, you're asking their product to do something for which it was not designed. That doesn't mean you can't make a curling shot with more or less rotation but if that's the way you play game in and game out, you're tickling the dragon's tail in my opinion. I call it the "screw driver syndrome"! You can open a can of paint with a screw driver but that's not what it was designed to do. In similar fashion, as stated above, you can make a curling shot with more or less than the 2 1/2 - 3 rotations but you won't do that consistently.

If a stone is rotated in the 1 1/2  or less range, it has entered the unpredictable category. It may do exactly what you want it to do, but it may not and when it doesn't, you might blame line or weight (which might have been fine) so you make adjustments to line and/or weight. What you've now might have done is created line and/or weight issues and you still have the rotation issue, the "technical double cross"!

If on the other hand, the stone is rotated so that the handle is a blur, we all know that the stone will track somewhat straighter. There are times when a skilled and experienced curler will deliver a "spinner" in a unique circumstance but that's something to put into your arsenal of weapons just in case it's required. And, spinners take practice, a lot of practice!

So, to that coach who asked the question, stick with that positive 2 1/2 - 3 rotations. It will serve you and your athletes well over a lifetime of games!

* Once again, I believe I have coined a new word, misposition, but I like it!

Copies of APTIG:ACC may be obtained by going to the Balance Plus web site's E-Pro Shop (under accessories). All proceeds go to "The Sandra Schmirler Foundation"!

Author's Note: Going into the final game of the "2014 Curlers' Corner Autumn Gold Classic" in Calgary, there were 32 ends blanked in the four ends of all games played. In only 9 cases did the team that blanked the end, the next time they scored, score 2 or more points. Once again, if you blank the end for the sole purpose of scoring a multiple end, you only have a 25% chance of success (28% in the case of the 2014 event). Hmmmm?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Embrace v. Negate

It certainly didn't take long for curlers to "get it on"! My inbox has received a few queries about strategy, something with which I always assumed was a topic about which I'd write once curlers' "sea legs" were re-engaged but clearly there are inquisitive minds out there so allow me to jump right in.

This is not the first time I've dealt with the "last rock dilemma" and, I suspect, it won't be the last! Who would have guessed that playing with last rock and having a lead would be problematic? Experience has shown that it is and there's a very good reason. You can thank those who devised the "four rock free guard zone rule", for this.

And that's where we'll begin, understanding that the rule is firmly ensconced in the rule book to assist teams that don't have last rock advantage AND might be in a deficit position on the scoreboard. If you're on the other side of that equation (have have last rock and perhaps the lead), you must make a critical strategic decision. You must commit to either "embracing" the rule or attempting to "negate" the rule! I'll weigh in later with my personal feelings on this but it's a decision that has to be made. It's really not practical to sit on the fence with this. Let's walk through the start of an end whereby you have last rock and the lead and your opponent is attempting to climb back into the game.

In all likelihood, the opposition will place a relatively tight centre line (CL) guard and here's where the decision must be made. If you decide to go around the guard, make no mistake, you're embracing the rule because your opponent placed that rock there hoping you'll go around. Your opponent needs something you've just provided with your decision to go around. That something is "protection"! The CL guard protects the centre of the ice (i.e. 4' stripe) and you, by that come around, will provide a different form of protection (i.e. backing) because after you've come around, they'll certainly freeze to your rock. Game on!!!

But, if you want to negate the advantage the rule affords to your opponent, you don't have to play ball with them. So how might you do that?

You do that by remembering that with last rock advantage, you should be wanting to play to the sides of the sheet. You will want to do that to open up the scoring area. Your opponent, knowing that, played the tight CL guard to promote the opposite scenario. Your opponent wants to shrink the scoring area. With that in mind, you can choose to ignore the CL guard for the moment and simply draw to the side of the house but please make sure your lead's first shot comes to rest "behind the tee line" so that a hit-&-roll by your opponent does not result in a roll into the 4'! By drawing to either of the back quadrants of the house, you've forced your opponent into a critical decision. If they ignore your rock in the house, it just may be the start of a multiple score for you. How good is that!!! Drawing to either of the back quadrants of the house can be a really "annoying" shot to play. Curling is the one game where being "annoying" is a good thing!

The other tactic is to play a shot with tee line weight as though you're going to come around the CL guard, but your skip doesn't give you quite enough ice and you wreck on the side of the guard, sending it to a corner guard position or into the house and your shooter rolling the other way, hopefully to come to rest as a corner guard. The shot really is just that simple! I can make a case that if you play the so-called "bump tick", you've achieved three very positive goals. First, your opponent no longer controls that critical area in front of the house on the CL known commonly as the "control zone". Second, if you've raised that opponent's CL guard into the house, you may choose to remove it on the next shot. Third, you have a corner guard which allows to you play a come around draw, tah dah, to the side of the sheet.

When the four rock rule was first instituted, I could not fathom why teams didn't employ the "bump tick" tactic. It's not a difficult shot in my view, never has been! Of course it took Team Homan to make it popular and we've all seen the success that team has enjoyed.

Yet another way to negate the rule is to simply ask your head to play a straight forward corner guard.

In all cases, when you ignore the opponent's CL guard by not drawing around it, if your opponent does play a come around, it's without backing. By taking a little less ice and a little more weight on the following shot, you stand a good chance of moving that opponent rock to the side of the house, or right out-of-play, all the while having your shooter roll to the side of the house, hopefully to now join the rock you played to the back quadrant of the house to now lie "two". Wow, doesn't that put pressure on your opponent! If they play around that CL guard yet again, you're out of the free guard zone restriction and can run their CL guard back, attempting a raise take-out or you can play the "peel" or, well, whatever your heart desires.

I encourage all teams to give all these tactics an airing early in the season, Find out what works best for you. When the games begin to have a little more significance, you'll know which tactic will afford your team the best chance of success.

I said at the outset that I'd weigh in with a personal view. I think you can read between the lines to realize that I like the "bump tick" tactic. It's an easy shot for your lead to practise. I took a team to a Brier that had a lead with two year's experience. When this team qualified for the Canadian Men's Curling Championship. I asked him to practise this one shot. Which he did. Our last game was against not just one of the top teams in the event, but one of the best teams in the curling world. We were never in any danger of winning the game but this world class team didn't put up one CL guard when we had last rock. When asked why after the game, the skip said, "Why would we do that? You were just going to tap it out of position, into the house at the side!" Obviously that team had watched us play and knew our lead, that third year curler, was shooting about 85% on the "bump tick". So for anyone reading this who still thinks it's a difficult shot, well, I beg to differ and I think I have the proof!

I'm a huge believer in not being predictable in the way your team plays the game. Imagine the consternation on the part of your opponent when they're not sure what you're going to do when it places that CL guard. Keep 'em guessing!

Before I leave you today, a number of teams have contacted me regarding last season's inaugural "Virtual Coach" project. Yes, I'm going to do it again! If your team would like to participate, send me a summary of your team's composition, hopes & aspirations for the season, current location in the curling world (last season the men's team resided in Europe and the women't team in Ontario). In short, send me anything you feel will enhance your team's chances of being "my team" albeit from long distance. Let's make the end of this month of October the deadline for applications. My email address for this will be

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Are You Thinking?

The golf of world was treated to a wonderful performance at the recent "British Open Championship" played at Royal Liverpool G&CC at Hoylake. The wire-to-wire winner was Northern Ireland's 25 year old Rory McIlroy who established, what turned out to be, an insurmountable six shot lead going into the fourth and final round at the the links course, about 15 km. from that cavern in downtown Liverpool were four floppy haired lads turned the popular music world upside down in the 1960's. Although he was challenged by Spain's Sergio Carcia who climbed to within two shots at one point in the final round, the result was really never in doubt. It was, to say the least, a remarkable performance! It puts him a Masters "green jacket" away from the career "Grand Slam", with wins already posted at the U.S. Open and the P.G.A.

In a media scrum early in the week, Rory confided to the attending reporters that he used two "secret" words as he played. The reporters, as they love to do, especially in the land were betting is a national pastime, decided to wager on what those words might be. Well, now we know, they were "process" and "spot".

"Process" was a collection of key swing thoughts that ensured that Rory stayed "in the moment" and kept his focus on what it took to make the golf shot, not the outcome or result of the shot whereas "spot" referred to a, well, a spot on the green near his ball, that was on line with the path he felt the ball needed to take to get close or into the hole. He knew that if he rolled his ball over that "spot", his chance of making the putt were pretty good.

The more I work with curlers, of all skill levels and experience, the more I move away from "mechanics" and into the athlete's "head space". In other words, I care just as much about what the athlete is "thinking", if not more, than what I'm seeing mechanically in the delivery. And, I can apply this to my summer sport of lawn bowling as well, as the delivery of a bowl and a curling stone are extremely similar (but oh do I wish I had brushers on some of my lawn bowling shots!).

As the subject of this blog asks, what are you thinking about as you prepare to set in motion the mechanics of delivery (curling stone or lawn bowl)? Have you even given any serious consideration to the thought process? I'm guessing for many curlers and lawn bowlers, the answer is a resounding "No", no one ever challenged me to examine that. Well, I'm challenging you now! And, as to Rory's second secret word, "spot", what do you actually look at as you deliver stone or bowl, not what you "think" you're looking at, what do you really look at?

One way to know is to grab a smart phone or tablet and get a friend to visually record what you actually do and look at in the delivery process, which is more complex in curling as there's a slide component that's not part of the delivery of a lawn bowl. Those of you who have read my scribblings know how much a proponent I am of visually recording your action, regardless of the sport. How can you improve technique if you "think" you're doing A, B, C but it's actually X, Y, Z? The only way to make "perception" and "reality" come together is to have someone record your delivery, serve, swing etc.!

I believe most athletes understand the importance of a "pre-shot routine", as opposed to "pre-shot rituals". The difference between routine and ritual is planning. As humans, it just seems to be our nature to repeat movements, usually for no particular reason. They comfort us and seem to afford a sense of the familiar, not a bad thing. Routine on the other hand, is a carefully choreographed set of actions, each with a purpose. Again, enter that smartphone or tablet. When you see yourself prepare to make the shot, notice what you do.

Get a sheet of paper and draw a line down the centre. At the top of the left column, print the word "ACTION" and the word "PURPOSE" at the top of the other. Using what you saw on video, or what you're certain you do, list the various components of the actions that take place just before you begin delivery. In the "purpose" column, briefly explain why you take the action. If you can't think of a reason, that's OK for now, leave it blank. When you have listed the pre-shot actions and their purposes, hopefully each pre-shot action has a corresponding purpose. If there are "blanks" on the "purpose" side of the sheet, then that action is a "ritual". You'll discover that skilled athletes are that way for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that each has a pre-shot routine which, can change over time, but for every action in the routine, the athlete can tell you why it's part of the choreography. Can you?

Now to the actual delivery, swing, throw etc. For many years, there was the notion that to successfully complete an athletic action, your mind had to be like a clean chalkboard, blank. Thankfully, sports science has moved those yardsticks. Your brain, everyone's brain, even mine (no comments please from the cheap seats) needs information. But the speed and amount of that information can vary noticeably from athlete to athlete. But, here's the kicker, and I've written about this before, when your brain has all the information required, it wants to pull the trigger on the motor functions of the body to produce the athletic movement. If you wait too long, you can actually cause a self-induced distraction, public enemy #1 to poor performance!

The more practised you are (practice, what novel idea), the more those thoughts become so automatic, you many not even be "aware" that you're thinking them and you may feel that you're not thinking about anything, but that's never the case for a trained athlete, never, despite what you might hear from one in a post-performance interview.

Sports psychology recognizes that the two hemispheres of the brain operate very differently from one another (a topic about which I have written extensively on this blog site and in my coaching manual). In summary the left side of the brain is "in charge" with a very domineering attitude. It wants a job! The right side is the just-do-it side of the brain. It's where the real action is initiated and completed. But, its personality couldn't be more different from the left side. It waits for the opportunity to do what it knows the body is capable of doing and if you don't give that left side the job to which I referred, it's going to take one that may or may not be very appropriate (usually it's the latter I'm afraid) and the confident, just-do-it right side is never engaged. It leaves the athlete scratching his/her head as to why performance was so poor in the face of good skills.

The antidote is, as Rory McIlroy learned, key words that have meaning just for you. That's how you give that troublesome left side of the brain the job it so desperately seeks so that those delivery skills you possess and worked so hard to attain, can work for you! But you need the discipline to say them to yourself every time you get ready to perform the skills for your sport. You may not be blessed with great skill but you do have the ability to create a pre-shot routine (see that paper and pen activity above) and follow it. The results will be nothing short of amazing!

Rory's second secret word, "spot", again provided discipline for his putting stoke (or curling stone delivery or lawn bowl delivery). He knew exactly what to physically look at. The "picture" of the putt's final destination (the hole) was in his "mind's eye" but his physical eye was focussed on the spot on the green close to the ball (i.e. in his peripheral vision). His well rehearsed putting stoke then took over (guided by the right side of his brain) to roll the ball over the spot towards its final destination.

Curling and bowls are two sports that are much too "technocentric" (don't even think about using spell check on that one). It's a word I've coined to describe our obsession with technique and there's nothing wrong with that as long as the "thought process" gets equal time, but sad to say, it's my experience that doesn't happen. And I could apply that term to many other sports as well (i.e. golf). There's no sense developing a sound motor skill without the cerebral support mechanism. Sooner or later that excellent technique breaks down and when it does you're like a man overboard without a life jacket! Understanding your motor skill and knowing exactly what you do and why you do it and having the left and right side of your brain in balance are the keys to consistent performance.

Very skilled athletes suffer from inconsistent performance but they've never been taught how to support the on field/court/ice/pitch... skills they've worked so hard to develop! And you don't have to be a competitive athlete in your sport to take advantage of knowing what you're thinking about and what you're actually looking at.

I want to make one more point and it's about the power of "visualization". When young Jack Nicklaus stood behind his teed up golf ball, seemingly staring down the fairway, he drove TV directors mad wondering what the delay was all about. We now know that Jack was "visualizing" the shot he was about to play and understood its importance. When he stood up to the ball (and perhaps had a key swing thought to give his left brain hemisphere the job it so desperately needed) all his brain "saw" was the successful shot Jack had left with it and his brain activated the muscles in sequence to execute the shot. The great thing about visualization is that we can all do it. Again, it's a matter of discipline, doing it not just ever once in awhile, or frequently or almost always but every time!

Don't be that man (or woman) overboard without a life jacket. To obtain one go to a certified instructor who will ensure you have the whole package of skill support systems, not just good technique and oh yes, get your action visually recorded. You may be surprised at what you see!

Before I close, I want to deal with one more "intangible" in executing a skill. You will not be surprised when I tell you it's "attitude". If you "hope" to make the shot as opposed to "expecting" to make the shot, you'll recognize the difference in attitude. If I can select between two equally skilled athletes, one hoping and the other expecting to make the shot, I'll take the latter every time!

Author's Note: When Rory McIlroy was 15 years old, his father and three friends placed a legal wager that his son would win the British Open Golf Championship by the time he reached his 26th birthday. The odds were 500-1 on the 100 pound bet by each of the four. Rory is 25 and in two months will reach his 26th birthday. The 2014 British Open was the last opportunity for McIlroy senior and his friends to cash in and cash in they did!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Happy Birthday Derek

Perhaps the most recognizable Major League Baseball player celebrated (although I'm not sure if that's the right word) an anniversary of his birth last week, June 26. You see, it was the big 4-0! What does the 0 mean? It's means Oh my, where did those years go?

The birthday boy, as most of you can guess from the subject line is Derek Jeter, of the Yankees, yes those same hated Yankees, unless of course you actually reside in NYC or are part of "Yankee Nation". When I meet someone who "roots" for the team with by far the most money in a sport without a salary cap (don't even bring up the "luxury tax", what a joke) I ask that same Yankee fan if they also "root" for the Apple Corporation or MicroSoft. If the Yankees need a player, the team simply go out and buy one, but I digress.

Even though I fall into the Yankee hater category, it's hard not to "like" the team's perennial shortstop who in this his 40th year, is playing in his 20th and last season. It will be strange in the 2015 campaign to see someone else play the key defensive position for the team that has won more World Series titles than any other, more than twice as many. It's a gross understatement to say that Derek is and has been a "classy athlete". In an era where athletes move from team-to-team on a regular basis, it's worth noting that Derek has been a Yankee his entire career. And, also in an era, sad to say, when many, not all by any means, have had their off-the-field challenges in various situations, Derek has been nothing but exemplary!

Here's a quick summary of Derek's amazing career.

  • five time World Series champion
  • all-time Yankee leader in hits, games played, stolen bases and at-bats
  • thirteen All-Star selections
  • five Gold Glove awards
  • five Silver Slugger awards
  • two Hank Aaron awards
  • Roberto Clemente Award recipient
  • only the 28th player in MLB history to get 3,000 hits

But here's something you might not know about Derek (besides the fact he's been the most eligible bachelor in NYC for quite some time and dates, well, let's just say, some pretty notable women [you do the Googling on that one]).

Drafted directly out of high school in 1992, he made his Yankee debut in the 1995 season and became the Yankee's everyday shortstop the following year, winning the "Rookie of the Year Award" and helping his team win the first of his 5 "Commissioner's Trophies" emblematic of MLB's championship, more commonly known by term "World Series". What the record books don't indicate are the struggles Derek had fielding his position in the early going. In plain terms, he committed an unusually high number of errors in his first couple of seasons and then, in dramatic fashion, turned that statistic completely around where it has remained for virtually his entire career.

In a TV interview on CBS's "Sixty Minutes" with the late Ed Bradley, when asked about the aforementioned dramatic turnaround in his defensive statistics, Bradley suggested that experience likely played the major role. Derek's response is something we can all take away. He explained simply, "I stopped being afraid to fail!".

What he was really saying is that what changed was not his skill set, it was his "attitude" toward the task at hand. He might just as easily have said that he stopped trying to be perfect, a topic about which I've written in the past in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" largely thanks to what I learned about "the pursuit of perfection" from Kevin Koe's sport psychologist, Dr. John Dunn (he's the guy you see on the Coaches' Bench wearing Koe colours).

It's really dangerous this "pursuit of perfection". There's nothing wrong with the pursuit per se, once again it's your attitude toward it that matters.

I've stated many times with curling teams that although the team tries to make as many shots as it possibly can, the final outcome of the game is tied much more to how the team deals with the shots it misses than the number of shots made. Think about the games your team has played when the number of shots made between your team and your opponent is similar. I'll wager the "w" or "l" was more about the recovery, or lack of recovery, from shots that didn't get the 4/4 on the stats sheet.

Happy Birthday Derek! Thanks for the great role model! That was a "gift" you gave to all of us who care about sports!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It Was A Very Good Year

The title of this post is the title of a song made popular by Frank Sinatra. It's very moving with lyrics that tug at the heart strings. If you've never heard it, it's worth the on-line search! Go to YouTube and enjoy one of Frank's classic renditions.

For me, this past curling season was a very busy one! It didn't start out that way. In fact, now that I have my cabin on Lake Cowichan here on Vancouver Island, I was quite prepared to spend most of the winter here, with the cool, rainy days spent in my workshop, turning (pun intended) out pepper mills, pens, bowls, bottle stoppers, honey dippers etc. and writing more posts for this blog site. Well, that was the plan but that's not exactly the way the 2013-14 curling season unfolded, not by a long shot. In fact, after doing this sort of thing for 25+ years, I was quite prepared to "begin my descent" towards "Retirement International Airport" but the 2013-14 season completely changed my mind.

There are really only two items on my annual agenda for the Canadian Curling Association. As most of you who read my ramblings on a more or less regular basis know, I attend our junior national event as a "mentor coach" to all the teams. And, I take our two national senior teams to the Senior World Curling Championships. This year those two events took me to Nova Scotia's famous "south shore" (Liverpool, NS) and to the home of "Robbie Burns" (Dumfries-Galloway, Scotland) respectively.

As the season approached, my telephone started to ring and the emails began appearing in my inbox. For various reasons, based upon requests teams and individuals, I made my way to Victoria International Airport four times en route to Whitehorse, YK, twice to Yellowknife, NT, Halifax, NS (for a 2 week tour of 3 of the Atlantic provinces), Charlottetown, PEI, Toronto, ON and Rankin Inlet, NU. Those destinations allowed me to experience some unique events in my career.

The four trips to Whitehorse, YK were to conduct an "Adult Initiative Programme" the Yukon Curling Association requested, to my knowledge, the first of its kind. One of the journeys to the capital of the Northwest Territories was at the request of a coaching colleague & friend of many years who asked if I'd coach his junior team in the YK/NT women's play down for a berth in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts (which was successful and this team is now the youngest "team" to ever compete at the prestigious women's national championship). The second sojourn to Yellowknife was to pinch hit for the CCA's Danny Lamoureux in preparation for the 2014 Canadian Senior Curling Championship (I had no idea there were so many tasks that needed to be completed prior to the staging of a national championship). The tour of the Atlantic Provinces led me to small towns such as Cornwall & Montague on PEI, Truro & Sydney on NS, in addition to three major Atlantic Canada cities (Halifax, NS, St. John's, NL & Moncton, NB). During those two weeks I worked with curlers from high performance teams to novices plus a few coaching seminars. My luggage for the return trip from Scotland was weighed down with a gold & silver medal. All of the events listed above generated memories I will cherish forever! No question! But that said, the Rankin Inlet, NU stop provided one that stood out in my mind.

My five days on the frigid, windswept shore of Hudson Bay came about from my attendance at junior nationals. All of Canada's provinces & territories are represented at this event. The junior men's team is from Rankin Inlet. They have represented NU from its inaugural inclusion in the event. The coach is Kevin Bussey and it was he who asked if I'd come to Rankin Inlet. Since I was going to be there for a full workday week, Kevin and his trusty sidekick Angela Dale, set out a number of activities to keep me out of trouble. But first, some background information about which most readers might not be aware re. our newest territory.

Nunavut as vast! And, in the winter, it's not just cold, it's really cold! Most of the inhabitants are Inuit with a culture of their own with, and I say this with respect, a somewhat different set of values, not better than or worse than those with which I've lived my life, just different. Rankin Inlet, like most of the territory, has few trees (I saw none) so right away, for me, that's something with which I have to learn to deal if ever I should live there. Everything about the community is for practical purposes, the architecture of the buildings, the modes of transportation, the food, etc. It's just not smart to waste time and resources on style (I don't want to be the lawn mower sales representative in Rankin Inlet for example). Most of the life style reflects the environment in which the population lives. There's little choice but to do that! And from a recreational perspective, hockey is king (can you say "Jordan Tootoo"?)!!! The community centre with its hockey arena is the heartbeat of activities, especially in the winter months, which are most of the months as summer makes but a token appearance.

But, in part of that building, there's a curling facility, with two sheets of ice and despite what some of the curlers said, it's not natural ice but as with many shared facilities in Canada, the curling ice comes compliments of the hockey refrigeration system. When I was there it might as well have been "natural ice". The temperate in Celsius degrees "on the ice" was -33! Needless to say that if you're a curler in Rankin Inlet, you will be a dedicated curler with lots of warm clothing.

There's no ice technician at Rankin Inlet. Coach Bussey and his boys are the resident ice techs. My first activity after my arrival was to help with a flood to "try" to level the ice somewhat and at least get it quick enough so that takeout weight at most curling facilities would at least get a stone near the house. At that temperature, we didn't have to wait long before the surface just laid down was frozen. Unfortunately, during the five days I was there, the second hand ice scraper was not operational, despite the arrival of a new "part" and some dedicated repair time by a knowledgeable club member.

As previously stated, the junior men's team under Kevin's tutelage competed at the last two junior nationals in Fort McMurray and Liverpool. Yes, they got their head handed to them most of the time but I'm going to go on record right now to tell the rest of the junior aged athletes that it won't be long before these four young men start putting up their share of "w's" at the national event! Of the hours I spent in -33 C, most of it was with these wonderful young men and their unbelievably dedicated coach. That alone made the trip and the cold all worthwhile!

Sprinkled into the sessions with the junior men's team were clinics for club members and it was at the end of an evening clinic that the memorable event to which I referred earlier happened.

As the session drew to a close, I noticed that four or five Inuit males who I surmised had wandered in front the adjoining hockey area of the building, had their noses pressed against the glass, clearly mesmerized by the goings on. As the club members left the ice I motioned to them to come onto the ice surface. They didn't have to be asked twice! After a quick cleaning of the footwear I showed them how to put their feet (not "foot") into the hack and using all the strength at their disposal, literally fire the stone to the opposite end of the sheet. Some of Kevin's players helped to make sure that the hacks at the playing end were protected as stones flew from the home end. But wait, what about those brushes?  They wanted to brush so when one "delivered" a stone the others would furiously clear its path until the next stone was ready to leave the "launch pad".

By this time, a few more young "hockey fans" filtered into the curling lounge and it was obvious they too wanted to join the fun so another wave of my arm brought five or six more youngsters onto the other sheet. That quick "two-feet-in-the-hack" lesson was all they needed and in short order stones were flying down both sheets.

Word seemed to spread quickly as more young people filed in wanting to emulate their friends. Of course, all were welcome and soon, stones were moving up and down the ice with frantic brushing and loud bursts of laughter. At one point I realized that stones were moving, at considerable velocity, in both directions on both sheets. That's when I filled the cold air with my trademark whistle bringing the proceedings to a sudden halt. A wave of my arm invited the now 40-50 8-12 year olds to gather around. With the translation help of Kevin's athletes I explained that ALL the stones need to be delivered in ONE direction, before they are delivered in the OPPOSITE. Full stop! "Now have fun!"

What I haven't told you was that Kevin had to take his leave following the clinic to attend to some club matters off site and the look on his face when he returned was priceless! His grin said it all. For the first time, the "hockey kids" were, ahem, "curling"!

I'm guessing that we were out there for about an hour or so before we had to shut it down. In the quiet of the curling lounge with only Kevin and I present, he asked me what I had "taught" them. I replied that they very likely didn't learn anything except that "curling is fun"!!!

After those 25+ years, it's perhaps the best lesson I ever taught!

It was a very good year!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Virtual Coach Project In Retrospect

At the beginning of this past curling season, I initiated a "Virtual Coach Programme" whereby club level teams were invited to send a resume of the team, its hopes & aspirations and any other details that would indicated that the team was especially positioned to benefit from a "coach", albeit a virtual one. Several very deserving teams sent resumes and all were worthy but two, one male and one female were selected. The female team is from Canada and the male team is from a European nation. Modern technology was employed in my communication with both teams using Skype and on one accession in my travels I actually met with the female team. On a few occasions on this blog site, the teams shared their experiences so that other club level teams might also benefit. What follows is a summary of their seasons beginning with the female team.

As our team competed at both the competitive and club level, we gained a great deal of clarity about what "sandbox" we like playing in and where we can excel. In the competitive arena, (playing in cash bonspiels and zone playdowns) we didn't experience much success. Our strategy and tactics were just as good as our oppositions', but the sheer lack of shot making and challenging on-ice dynamics limited our ability to fulfill our potential. However, at our club, we won the women's league aggregate (most winning team after the round-robin schedule) and our league championship. The winning that we saw happen in our club league was mainly due to the change at one of our positions. Part way through the season, a new player came on to our team. The issues regarding our dynamics no longer existed and because of the positive shift surrounding the "vibe" on the ice, our individual and team performances improved dramatically. 

What we experienced this past season illustrates two things about team success. First, to play well and win games, you need the right four people together - three out of four just doesn't cut it - and great friendships off the ice doesn't necessarily translate into positive dynamics on the ice. Second, to play well and win games, you also need to feel like you're competing at the "right level" and that "right level" contains a balance of challenge and comfort. It is clear to us now that with the tools that we had and the level of commitment we were all willing to take on, we're a very good club curling team.

Our greatest strength (executed consistently at club level) was our on-ice communication. Coach Bill introduced the concept of constantly talking about "what the ice is telling us" and due to that ongoing discussion during games, we beat the good teams in our league. As Bill brought into our awareness, when you spend the first couple ends exchanging information about the ice conditions and then continue to discuss the ice's changing conditions, you are always mindful of those little things (like the right way to miss) that can add up to something much bigger like a win. 

Thanks to Coach Bill for sharing his time, energy, and wise words with our team this past season!  

I would like to give you a feedback and season-ending compilation "focusing on anything we did together which had a positive impact on the team's experience".

To sum it up I would say the experience with you as our virtual coach had impacts on different levels:
  • on the technical level through the team technical check up and the brushing feedback
  • on the tactics and strategy level through getting to know our Strategic &Tactical DNA
  • on communications: using the same language, observing the same aspects of a sliding delivery, excersing the same releases/release points etc.
But let's go a little bit into some details...

Maybe I will surprise you with the first point that addresses even a moment BEFORE we even knew that our team would be honored to take part in this exicting experiment...

First, I would like to start with the application procedure and the document I put together based on our team's input and planning. This was already good experience to focus on our season goals and season planning. Furthermore thanks to this process we learned to appreciate our team history we already lived together (not all the same length of course).

Second, the definite highlights were our three Skype exchanges (end of October 2013 about the team technical check-up; mid December 2013 about brushing technique and end of February 2014 about the Strategy &Tactics Workshop). Each of these exchanges was fully loaded with helpful advice, hints, questions and exercises for us to take back on the ice and to try things out. And of course this technical feature allows to build a personal relationship much faster and easier. It's always a pleasure to hear and see you Bill! These are the moments when the virtual coach becomes real.

Personally, for me as Skip the team technical check-up revealed so many 'new' details I was able to observe afterwards in the sliding delivery of my team mates and our adversaries. This was a real eye-opener to me. For one team member the focus on the number of rotations was an element he will not forget as he repeately reminded us of this during the whole season. For all of us   - the "G-Y-R-language" from the Strategy &Tactics Workshop has a highlight. Our team experimented with this during the last games of this season. It is so helpful and time-saving to have a common ground with three simple code words to discuss and decide between the ends how we want to play the next end. This makes it so much easier that everyone of the team is on the same page.

I found it useful to send you videos and powerpoint documents as materials for the preparation of a Skype. Also the fact that we tried to focus on a specific subject.

As self critics I would say that the mastering of (oral) English is certainly a weak point on our side among the team. I was able to compensate this deficit by explaining certain details after the Skype meetings. The language was certainly also a reason why the participation on our side was not as lively and diverse as you may have wished.

Nevertheless based on you fantastic manual "A Pane In The Glass: A Coach's Companion" I could give more inputs to my team and also the drill part a the end was and will be in use. Although I read already quite a few articles there is still more material to be discovered. It is really a wealth for a curling fan.

What we/I certainly appreciated a lot is your highly responsiveness. This made our exchange very smoothly.

Above I focused on the process of our virtual coach experience. Now it is time to mention our results for the season 2013/2014:
  • Our team won the final bonspiel last month (see attached doc) - This was the first time our team won a bonspiel!
  • The club championship 2014 is played in a format as individual player on a fix position. Thomas ended up on the second place of all thirds in our club and yourstruely was on the top of the podium (see attached doc)
  • Our season goal was to reach the top four in our club league - that's what we achieved. Unfortunately we couldn't win the last two final games.
As I look out of our window I see snow on the mountains. The Spring waits for another round but it will arrive!

If your club level team would like to send a resume to perhaps be one of the two teams for which I'll be your virtual coach for the 2014-15 season, my email address is!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proceed With Caution

It's not only that time of year, it's that time in the Olympic quadrennial and when it happens with the most high profile teams, it gets played out in the media for all to see. Of course I'm taking about player personnel changes.

But, to be quite frank, I'm not that concerned about the elite teams and what they do re. player changes, they're big boys and girls so I'll defer to their experience in matters like this. No, this is directed at you, the serious recreational curler who might be contemplating a change in team personnel.

What follows are my thoughts on this most important issue but permit me one observation on what's happening literally as I publish this post. I'll not delve into the specifics of the teams who have announced changes although I will say in at least one instance, I'm really shaking my head (don't even ask)! I've looked at this team's decision from as many angles as I can and try as I might, it makes absolutely no sense to me. I hope there's something that we don't know because if that's not the case, yikes!

There are countless reasons for a team to make personnel changes. Family, work, financial situation etc. I'm taking all of those obvious reasons out of the mix for this posting. I want to focus on a change of players when the only reason is to improve team performance. There are three notes of caution. They are in no particular order;

1) You will change the team dynamics* (as one of the most high profile women's teams in Canada will soon discover). That may be indeed the reason for the player change as the player(s) to be changed caused that very commodity to be something less than you had hoped. But, if your team dynamics were rock solid, hmmm...

2) All the playing experience you gained over the time spent together now goes out the window to some degree and for most teams, it's a very large degree. While your competitors are moving forward, you're going to be moving in the opposite direction and then have to catch up just to draw even, hmmm...

3) If you really feel the players being replaced are somehow less skilled than the players coming on board then go ahead and make the change(s). But, and you knew there'd be one, did you consider the other qualities required of the new player(s)? Do they have the same view on how the game is to be played from strategical & tactical perspectives. What are their goals? Do they share a common vision, philosophy and attitude? What about their views on physical preparation, nutrition, mental preparation? Are the significant others (family & friends) in their lives as supportive as the team's experience & plans require? Will they have the same dedication to training and the time to devote to it? What about their skill set as a teammate, not just a curler? If your team has aspirations to play competitively to the point that travel to bonspiels plays a significant role in the team's plan and the team is not sponsored, will the player(s) have the financial resources to contribute to entries, travel, accommodation, equipment & food? Does their technical skill set work with those already on the team? If you feel that the player(s) joining the team ARE more skillful and what about the level of trust they have in those skills? How susceptible is/are the new player(s) to competive breakdown? If your team has a coach, will the new player(s) "listen" to the coach's suggestions?

I could go on for quite some time with #3 but I believe the point has been made. They are many questions that need to be both asked and answered before there's any consideration of a player personnel change.

Curling teams were never meant to stay together forever! Those of you familiar with the "Team Dynamics Wheel" know that there is a 5th stage (after forming, storming, norming & performing), "adjournment"! In high performance camps with rarely if ever talk about that stage but clearly that's the premise of this post so let's deal with "adjournment" from a process perspective.

As is my nature, I'll begin with questions. What is the genesis of the player change? In other words, who takes ownership? Is this one of those so-called skip decisions? What if the three "front end" players decide they want a different skip? What if the skip decides he/she wants a totally different team (that sounds familiar for some reason, let's see, hmm...)? Whatever the dynamic and/or impetus, don't use social media, telephone, smoke signals, pony express, telegram etc. to inform the principals. Do it the old fashioned way, face-to-face and make sure the team is the first to get the news of the final decision. That seems so obvious and common sense but experience has demonstrated that sometimes it's not so obvious and common sense isn't as common as one might think.

When I'm brought into the mix in situations like this, to quote my friend Terry O'Reilly's recent podcast (CBC's "Under the Influence") my "elevator pitch" is simple, "You make player personnel changes at your own peril. Make sure it's worth the risk?"

* It's my experience that the most valuable asset a team has is not its skill set but rather the state of the team's dynamics. It's the last item with which to play around! You want to treat it like so much gold!