Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Much Is Your Brain Worth?

There is no bigger topic in sports in recent times than concussion prevention. In fact, there's a movie currently in theatres starring Will Smith of the same name, one I fully intend to see! Let's do our homework first.

The brain is housed in the skull, surrounded by "cerebrospinal fluid" which essentially acts as a shock absorber, protecting the brain from mild head trauma. But when the skull is moving at high velocity in a particular direction and comes to a sudden stop, the conditions are ripe for a concussion as the brain doesn't get the stop message as quickly as the skull and continues moving at a velocity exceeding the protection of the cerebrospinal fluid and bumps into the inside of the skull. When brain cells undergo that kind of collision, there is damage. The amount of damage varies greatly of course. The brain will usually recover with few or no side effects but occasionally those effects can be significant.

Another syndrome associated with repeated concussions is CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). CTE is sub-concussive. It's what can happen over time as a result of repeated head trauma that may not fall under the concussion category. The symptoms of CTE can be life altering to the point that some people have committed suicide. A football player was once described as a person involved in five automobile collisions for each game when the player is playing a  contact position (eliminate the place kicker for example). Little wonder that the average career in professional football is three years!

Bob Weeks, in an article recently published (Jan. 15) on the TSN web site (TSN.ca), put light back onto Brad Gushue's unfortunate meeting with the ice surface during a Grand Slam event about 7 weeks ago. If you're a curling fan and like to watch every curling event either TSN or Sports Net broadcasts, I'm sure you were front and centre to see Brad fall to the ice surface or saw a replay of it, with his head making the first contact. Even though Brad returned to complete the game, to no one's surprise, he did suffer a concussion and according to Bob's article, is still experiencing some effects.

We're hearing a lot about concussions in sports, many sports, especially those of the collision variety (i.e. hockey, football etc.) as stated at the outset of this blog but rarely do we associate concussions with curling.

Brad's fall, as Bob pointed out in his article, has positioned the spotlight on the notion that perhaps we should start to at least explore the idea that curlers should wear suitable head protection so let me weigh in on that topic as it's one that is near and dear to my, no, not my heart although that is true, it's nearer and dearer to my head!

I'm a stick curler who conducts stick curling clinics. Stick curlers are more susceptible to falls for a variety of reasons not the least of which is due to the fact that the stick curler's head is a considerable  distance from the ice surface. By the very nature of using a stick to deliver a curling stone, the stick curler is much more erect than a curler with a traditional slide delivery. If a curler with that traditional slide delivery were to lose balance, it's much more of a "tumble" than a "fall" and the height from which that tumble begins is only a few feet. The body parts do not strike the ice very hard and do so in more of a rolling motion. It's unlikely, although not impossible, that one's head would come into contact with the ice surface. Even if a curler were to fall while brushing, it's still unlikely that one's head would strike the ice. A fall when brushing is almost always broken by the hands and knees.

The problem with falling from an erect position comes from the fact that the vast majority of those falls are "backward", not forward. When one falls forward, in most cases, the hands will break the fall with the head, as suggested above, not likely coming into contact with the ice. But, when one falls backward, even though one's backside is most likely to be the body part to first hit the ice, the head will soon follow! Have you ever heard the sound a skull makes when it comes into contact with the ice? I'm sure many of you have and it's a sound few can forget!

As I indicated, due to a left knee issue, when I play, which I do every Monday morning at the Glen Harper Curling Centre in Duncan, BC, the last piece of equipment I position before heading to the ice surface is my snowboard helmet onto my head. There are only two of us in the league that wear a helmet although there are a few others that have purchased a made-for-curling headband device that has a hard shell material at the back of the head. I still believe an actual helmet is better!

Stick curlers have another thing in common. Most of us have our junior curling careers well positioned in our rear view mirrors. Falls at our age are not fun and can have significant negative consequences. Besides a helmet, I encourage all curlers, not just stick curlers, to wear grippers on both feet. Obviously for a curler with a traditional slide delivery, the gripper on the slider comes off when delivering the stone but it should go back on when doing everything else for five solid reasons (see below).

I cringe when I see a stick curler delivering a stone with a slider! Yikes! It's not a case of "if" that stick curler will fall, it's only a matter of "when"! Again, regarding that age factor, many stick curlers are grandparents. I'm in Orangeville, ON as I write this, visiting my grandsons, Lucas & Jacob. I put my helmet on for them as much as for me! The same stick curler who does not wear a helmet would admonish his/her grandchildren if they did not follow safety protocols but then put themselves in harm's way but ignoring one themselves. Hmmmm?

All that said, anyone, regardless of one's actual curling delivery can fall from an erect position so I don't want to suggest that only stick curlers consider head protection!

Are helmets cool? No! But how much IS your brain worth?


1) You can brush from either side of the stone as it moves down the ice.

2) You will have more downward pressure on the brush head than if you are in a gripper/slider configuration.

3) You take the pressure off the knee of the slide leg when you walk on the ice as opposed to push/slide as one must do in the gripper/slider scenario.

4) When you walk back into position after brushing a curling stone from coast-to-coast you will recover more quickly than if you were to push/glide.

5) It's safer!!!!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Better Than The Right Answers

The questions I get asked more and more are about coaching (what a revelation that is) but not the way you might think. The questions are not about what to do with the athletes, there is much print material available to assist with that. I call that the "science" of coaching. What aspiring coaches are more interested in is the "how" of coaching, not the "what" and good on them for recognizing the difference.

I know coaches who have the "x's" and "o's" of coaching, well, down to a science, but to be honest, I wouldn't want them anywhere near a curling team. Because a coach doesn't coach a sport. A coach coaches athletes. People! The more I coach, the more I realize that the "art" of coaching really is more important than the "science". Some coaches have "it" and some don't! If a coach doesn't have "it", it's hard to develop "it", not impossible but it's a challenge and thankfully, I know of many who have become artful coaches who didn't start out that way.

What is "it"? Well, the best way I can describe "it" is rapport. It's that relationship between athlete(s) and coach from the very first meeting. Clearly, one's basic personality plays a major role in the rapport that so important. Some people are just fun to be around and even though their knowledge might be limited, the "culture" they create is inspirational and when an athlete is inspired to greater performance, the first step to achievement has been taken.

What remains for the coach is to now "empower" that inspired athlete! Empowerment means removing the coach as the fount of knowledge and positioning the more important person, the athlete, into a place whereby the lessons needed to excel come from him/her, not from the coach. The key to that step, in my view the most important step, is by forcing the athlete to come up with answers he/she perceives to be paramount on the journey toward peak performance. The key to that is for the coach to know what questions to ask.

When I work with athletes, I'm right up front with this position. I flat out tell them that I'm not the "Answer Man", mostly because I don't have all the answers, but I have something much better, I believe I do have most of the right questions. The answers are not universal anyway. What might be the right solution to a challenge for one athlete might be totally different for another. It's why I try to encourage coaches and instructors to say the same thing in as many was as possible. What has real meaning for one athlete in the way it's expressed might be ancient Greek to another.

Unfortunately I still see too many coaches who feel that they must be in total control! They are sometimes what I refer to as the "Puppet Master Coach". That coach sees him/herself as pulling on all the strings, expecting his "puppets" to respond appropriately. It's the coach who is usually highly visible and in some cases easily heard by anyone within earshot (and sometimes that proximity can be measured in several meters, perhaps even tens of meters). It's easy to spot this type of coach. On the upside, his/her athletes will generally play well. The problem with this type of coach is the legacy he/she leaves with the athletes. Without the coach telling them what to do and how to do it, they sooner of later stop thinking for themselves and when the "marching orders" from the coach don't quite match the situation, confusion can and usually does ensue.

A coach's task should be to work his/herself out of a job, to have the athletes so prepared to know, think and respond to changing challenges within the context of the athletic conference to the point that they really don't need the coach to succeed. That's an unachievable goal of course to strive for it in my view is what makes a good coach better and a great coach, well, a great!

An effective coach creates an atmosphere in which he/she is a partner in the development of the athlete and the team! Coaches, like athletes, make mistakes. The type of coach referred to two paragraphs above will often rationalize his/her errors so not to be seen as fallible. When coaches operate under that philosophy, they are eventually seen by the athletes for exactly who they are. The athletes will begin to stop listening and distance themselves from the coach! That is sometimes characterized by the phrase, "He/she has lost the room!".

Now, make no mistake, as I feel Tom Coughlin, the recently resigned coach of the NY Giants of the National Football League might acknowledge, at some point, a coach reaches the end of his/her shelf life. They have the resume to demonstrate that they have been successful and are universally respected by the athletes but it's just time to let those same athletes hear someone else's voice.

Not always, but usually in my view, great coaches are calm, especially in the face of great adversity! A very animated coach, who's "on the edge" most of the time, runs the risk of trivializing key stages of a season and a game. When everything in the coach's mind is a crisis, causing great rages and rants by the coach, when a real crisis emerges when some animation is a good thing, the athletes can't tell the difference.

Athletes frequently reflect the personality of the coach. Athletes under the tutelage of that "Puppet Master Coach" feel they have to live up to the coach's expectations. Every coach will have expectations and occasionally, to get the best out of an athlete a coach might come down pretty hard. Every athlete is different and no good coach ever treats his/her athletes the same, except in the category of "fairness". When the athletes start playing for one another, the chances of the team becoming greater than the sum of its parts is greatly enhanced. That doesn't mean that sometimes, due to the very special relationship a team might have with the coach, the team wants to "win for their coach". After all, the coach IS part of the team but that role is in preparation, not in the athletic contest itself in terms of inspiration. The game is not the place to feel you must inspire one's athletes. It's too late for that! Athletes need to arrive at the venue inspired and therefore motivated to achieve a high degree of performance.

In my view, coaches who are overtly animated are often that way because as the game looms large on the horizon, they feel a sense of a lack of preparation. The calm coach is frequently that way because he/she, and the athletes, know they've done everything they can to be as prepared to play as possible.

The best in game coaching performance I have ever witnessed was in the 1999 World Women's Ice Hockey gold medal game. Once again the combatants were Canada and the USA. The Canadian coach was Daniele Sauvageau. The final score was 3-1 for Canada but that score does not do justice to the way in which Team Canada emerged as gold medalists. The referee, very early on in the contest, became overwhelmed by the fact she was officiating in a world championship game between arguably the two best women's hockey teams on the planet and the rivalry was fierce. For some reason, the referee took it out on Team Canada. I've tried to actually obtain the game summary to back up what I'm about to say but I've not been successful so I'm going to forge ahead based upon my recollection. If anyone out there can verify my memory, or refute it, have at it.

As I recall, the ratio of unwarranted penalties between Canada and the American squad was about 5-1. The Canadians played short-handed it seemed for about 1/3 of the game. Using the term "unwarranted" in the previous sentence was being kind. Some of the calls were outrageous! The players were mystified and could very easily have lost complete emotional control, but not Coach Sauvageau. She knew that if she reacted to the referee's calls, and she would have be totally justified in doing so, she would have a team doing the same thing and in the process lose site of the task at hand which was to play at peak performance levels.  I sat before my television in complete admiration for Coach Sauvageau! The team immediately picked up on their coach's attitude, put their heads down and just played. I had the opportunity at a coaching conference to meet Coach Sauvageau and tell her how I felt about her coaching performance in that game.

In one week I'm going to have the pleasure of being around 28 coaches of junior teams in Stratford, ON at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships. We'll share stories and in some cases perhaps I'll be able to help them as the competition proceeds. One think I know for sure, I'll leave Stratford a better coach for having been with them! If I'm asked to weigh in with a team to help them better deal with the challenges of a national competition, I won't have the answers they might seek but I will have something better. I'll have all the right questions!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Message Are You Sending?

Last Sunday (12/27/16), those members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the National Football League so inclined, for the 43nd consecutive year, popped open champagne bottles, as the previously undefeated Carolina Panthers suffered their first loss of the current season. You see, for those of you out there who were not around in 1972, & suspect that's many of you, the '72 Dolphins were the last NFL team to assemble an unblemished won/lost record for the regular season through to the Super Bowl. The 2007 New England Patriots came within one game, unfortunately it was the "big one", of matching that remarkable feat. And I'm not kidding about the champagne thing. Apparently some of the members of that '72 Dolphin team actually do that.

The loss did very little to deflect the Panthers march toward a possible Super Bowl Campionship. The team has already clinched its division and unless there's a second before the regular season ends, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Charlotte, NC as it will have secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But there's more to the loss than might first meet one's eye.

The victorious team was the Atlanta Falcons, a team in the Panthers division. Not only that, only a few weeks earlier, the Panthers defeated the Falcons 38-0! But it's what happened immediately after that lopsided victory, to which I want to draw your attention.

The entire Panthers offensive unit, led but its MVP-bound quarterback, Cam Newton, gathered on the sideline for a celebratory group photograph. The defeated, and I'm guessing humiliated, Atlanta Flacons, upon leaving the field took note of this. I suspect that extra incentive might just have been what the Falcons needed to put an end to the Panthers' undefeated season. Certainly, without bragging on their part in the sound bites I've heard, the victorious Falcons made mention of the Panthers' group photo.

It's hard enough to win a game at an elite level in any sport! Why would one provide any "bulletin board material" for those teams in one's competitive environment? To my way of thinking, it's just not smart! But, I know, I'm in a shrinking minority so save your dissenting comments. I'm "old school" on this. I know that. But I'd rather error on the side of caution and I'll explain why beyond the example cited above.

In every athletic contest, there are two battles to be won. One is obvious, it's the battle on the scoreboard. Many would argue that it's really the only battle. That's naive to believe, as the scoreboard battle often hinges on another, albeit more subtle but nonetheless significant struggle. It's  the psychological tussle for mental superiority. If you don't believe it exists you haven't competed at a high level. I don't mean that as a shot across your competitive bow, it's simply a statement that in your career development, you're currently at some other stage. When you get there, you'll better understand the premise of this blog but trust me, you'll be better prepared when that day arrives and it will arrive!

From the moment the two competitors arrive at the venue, before the contest begins, the process of "sizing up" will be in full forward gear. The way you talk, react, carry yourself/selves, your pre-game actions etc., all make a statement about who you are and what you are about. Allow me a real time, personal example.

When I take our national senior champions to the world championships, we conduct all our team meetings at our hotel. The other countries never see Canada huddled together in some last minute discussion, planning some sort of strategy going forward. And the same is true following the game. We socialize with our opponent as soon as possible, often waiting for them to "debrief" while we enjoy the company of one another, our supporters and/or spectators, curious about who we are and what life is like "back home". We want to be seen as so confident, so prepared, that on site conferences just aren't  necessary. Don't misunderstand, we'll debrief and plan for our next game, but as state above, it will be in an environment we control! And in the process, we want the message we send in that psychological engagement to also be carefully controlled as well, as we understand that winning that battle often give us a better chance to win the one we want!

One of the scenarios I use in high performance camps around the country is to ask teams how they might react to an unfortunate bit of adversity, such as a pick on a particularly important shot. I point out that the opposition is watching the reaction very carefully. I suggest that it's really a choice as to how your team will visually respond. It can look like someone just shot their dog or they can deal with it like so much water of a duck's back. It's their choice but consider the two reactions. Imagine the extra "lift" the opposition gets to not only benefit from your misfortune but also from your very negative reaction. You can't do anything to change what happened to your shot but you have complete control over your reaction to it.

But I don't stop there. I also ask how the team will react to an unearned bit of good fortune. Perhaps missing the line on a shot so badly that the shooter ricochets off a stone, and perhaps raises another and, well, I think you've got the picture. Your opponent is also watching that reaction as well.

The sports world has changed. I get that! Spectators of sport seem to first want to be entertained. It's not good enough it seems to just make great plays on the field, court, ice etc. Now it's expected that when you do excel, to please the fans, your teammates and perhaps your own ego, you need to create a unique celebration to cap it off. I smile that major league baseball players, adults mind you, who have a "secret handshake" to congratulate a teammate for excellence. I recall one rookie who's first task, first task, was to learn the secret handshakes (and there were many) even before the third base coach's signals to the player when he was at bat. I kid you not!

I've cited this coach before but I'm going to do it once again. His name is Bud Grant and he instructed his players that when they scored a touchdown, they had two choices (there's that word again). They could hand the ball to the nearest official and jog to the bench or they could drop the ball and jog to the bench. Why? Send the message that you've been there before and you're coming back real soon!

There's a very fine line between the camaraderie that comes with recognizing the accomplishments of a teammate and the type of celebration that provides that extra incentive to your opponent.

I have, on a DVD, ten very famous shots that have been made by Canadian teams over the years. Each shot is spectacular in its own way. The reason for showing the shots is because of what happens before or after the shot, out of camera range. One of those shots is by a very well known team whose skip who is now on the SportsNet broadcast crew. It's a wonderful shot! Make no mistake! It was called and made! It was no fluke! The fans and the team went wild. To be fair, the skip to whom I referred, to his credit, was, by comparison to his teammates, quite matter-of-fact about it. But the damage had been done and what the viewers don't see is the other team who got together and said, "Look at them! They think they've won the game!". Well, they didn't and one of the reason why was because their celebration sent the wrong message.

I understand that sports, like society in  general, has different cultures. What's acceptable behaviour in one sport's culture might be way over the line in another. Those who play different sports are well aware, or should be well aware of the differences from one sport culture to the next. So my admonition about one's reaction is to be seen within the culture of the sport in which one is engaged. But what concerns me most about excessive celebrations is the fact that in my opinion it subordinates the athletic accomplishment that led to the celebration as we're left with it in our mind rather than the great play!

I referred to my age earlier in this piece. I'm still of the mindset that it's what happens within the context of the athletic contest that causes me to be "entertained". I don't need the entertainment value of the celebration that follows. When and why did that change?

Now that I've descended from my soap box, let me remind you that the reason I've put fingers to keyboard is not to try to change the sports world (despite what one of my loyal readers might think), I know that's not going to happen, but rather to caution you to think before you act and react.

Before you set foot into the venue, perhaps might want to give some thought to the message you wish to send! It's too important to send the wrong one!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Be the Most Dangerous Team

It's that time of year which all competitive teams seek. It's play down time! Depending upon your age, your competitive team may be near the start of its play down trail or at the doorstep of the provincial level (i.e. juniors).

All the effort, time and resources you've invested will come into stark evaluation. This is where the rubber meets the road (or as one of my coaching colleagues from SK states it, "It's where the toboggan meets the Tarmac." [although why anyone from SK would know anything about toboggans is beyond me]). :)

Depending upon your team's yearly training plan, the end of the play down road might be the end of the road for this season, at least for your team as presently constituted. I always feel badly for Canadian junior teams as this age category is the first to declare participants at every step of the way along that play down trail. If a junior team resides in a populous province like Ontario, it may have to play its way out of its home club before moving on to zone, regional, provincial and hopefully national competition. This year, in Stratford, ON, in late January, one male & one female team will be crowned national champions. That leaves a lot of the curling season remaining for many, many teams. Some of the members of the team may be aging out leaving one or two teammates behind to look for new team members with whom to train in preparation for the following season. But, I'm a little ahead of myself. For the sake of this blog I'm going to assume you're reading this with your team firmly entrenched on that play down trail.

At whatever stage that journey you happen to be, you go into the competition wanting to know how you stack up against the opposition. That's only natural and for all the sport psych. talk about focusing on your team, your skill set, your preparation, your agenda, your supporters etc., it's really hard not to wonder about your place in the pecking order.

Well, advice #1 is this. The ice and the stones when you and your teammates step onto the playing surface and ultimately place your hands on the handles of the stones, have no idea who you are, what you've done in the past, they have not read your press clippings (or more accurately for juniors, your social media entries), what your skill set is, who's coaching you etc.

Advice #2 - Your value as a teammate is going to be equal to if not more important to the success you (sing. & pl.) enjoy than your value as a curler.

Advice #3 - You can never leave your skills at home but the right attitude (and that's always a choice) can be AWOL.

Advice #4 - The only people that really matter when you step onto the ice are your teammates.

Advice #5 - If you want to focus on something at the event, do everything you're able to ensure that your teammates have a great competition.

Advice #6 - You will not be nervous if you're convinced you've done everything possible to prepare. Athletes get nervous when they know deep down they have not done everything possible to prepare.

Advice #7 - Look after your "real self" (your everyday personal life issues) and your "performer self" will look after itself.

Advice #8 - As a team, only discuss and deal with issues over which you have almost complete control (food, sleep, travel etc.) and don't even entertain a second of concern and talk about those aspects of the competition for which you have almost no control (officials, format, rules etc.)

Advice #9 - Know all the rules that govern your participation in the event!

Advice #10 - Be the most dangerous team at the event! The most dangerous team is not the team that enters the competition with a sterling won/lost record. The most dangerous team is not the team with the great pedigree (i.e. the most talented athletes). The most dangerous team by default is not the team coming from a large metropolitan area with lots of resources at hand. The most dangerous team is not the team with the largest entourage of stakeholders. The most dangerous team in the competition is the team with the highest degree of trust in its skill set (individual & team) and the lowest degree of expectation. Don't misunderstand that previous sentence. It does not refer to confidence and trust. It refers to focus. Focus on the processes than lead to performance, not the outcome!

As you can see, I saved the best piece of advice for last. Be that most dangerous team!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

But Can It Work For Anyone?

I've started this blog on a number of occasions as "brushing" continues to evolve as a dominant factor in the performance of a curling team. Each time I was prepared to hit "publish" something new seemed to pop up. This time I'm forging ahead, mostly because recreational curlers/teams have asked me to weigh in. But, as Julie Andrews proclaimed in her role of Maria in "The Sound of Music", let's start at the very beginning!

First let me take a walk down memory lane for just a moment. Most of my competitive playing days occurred in the "sweeping" era, not the "brushing" era. And, I wouldn't have scripted it any other way. Sure, the physical playing environment wasn't nearly as consistent. The rocks were homogenous (no blue hone inserts with the occasional "enhancement" of the running surface) and the ice, well, let's just say it was "eau municipale" (i.e. tap water) full of impurities which percolated to the surface.

Brooms were just that, corn straw implements that deteriorated rather quickly (I purchased them by the box of twelve from the factory in Port Elgin, ON). Later the straw brooms gave way to a synthetic version which created a sound that would cause eardrums to rise in protest. On takeouts, my front end partner (Bob Serviss) and I could literally make the ice vibrate as our brooms struck the ice surface in near perfect synchronization.

Although to the neophyte and spectator, the thunder of a pair of brooms seemed to be the result of a tremendous application of force & power, interestingly enough, almost the exact opposite was true. Once you mastered the basic technique, the broom seemed to move itself in a very satisfying rhythm. You just got it started and the reflex action of the broom's straw created a perpetual motion. Very unlike the push/pull action of today's brushing.

As much as I enjoyed sweeping, it became clear towards the end of my career that brushing was here to stay! It wasn't nearly as satisfying, but it was obvious that it was much more efficient!

Like brooms, the first brushes were hair (of the equine variety). Then, as with brooms, synthetic brush heads became available, giving rise to a debate still very much alive (hair vs. synthetic).

Then there's the rules issue! In the sweeping era, outside actually striking the stone, sweeping rules were not really necessary. With the action of the brooms, so-called "snowplowing" was impossible. Making one's last sweeping stroke "away" from the path of the stone was irrelevant, of course it was away from the path of the rock!

Since the brush head was always in contact with the ice, rules had to be written to ensure that brushers did not unduly influence the natural movement of the running stone to the point that the skill of the athlete was subordinated (where have we recently heard that sentiment expressed?).

Brushing a curling stone, although a respected part of the game, for most was as much curiosity as anything else. Then Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympic Games! That changed everything in terms of what we knew was true for brushing a curling stone. The then Canadian Curling Association (now Curling Canada) commissioned two groundbreaking studies, one was an exhaustive examination of the mechanics of the delivery (Saville Spirts Centre in Edmonton, AB) and the other was the first-of-a-kind study of brushing (University of Western Ontario in London, ON).

I'll freely admit that during weekend high performance camps, my colleagues and I only touched on brushing and sad to say that if some topic needed to be scrapped due to time constraints, often that topic was brushing. Now it's close to the head of the agenda and that's primarily due to what we learned from the UWO study.

Until that study, much of what we suggested when the topic of brushing was at hand was through participant observation (i.e. what we learned that the elite teams believed to be true). And it's that phrase "believed to be true" that was key. And to a certain extent, it still is, even in the face of the sport science we now have in the area of brushing.

So that's my first piece of advice for those of you out there who want to move your performance yardsticks down the field by being more effective brushers. Experiment! Then after examining all the styles and theories, believe what you see. Commit to it (not with blinders on to the point that you're never going to be open to new ideas) and go with it!

OK, now here's what we have learned from that brushing study referred to above, not all of it, but the parts that are relevant to the question in the title, can this work for anyone?

It can if a) your equipment (i.e. brush head) is clean and dry, no not clean, pristine and very dry b) you've spent time in the gym working on upper body and core strength (see the "Harden's" for an example) c) your technique is putting maximum pressure on the brush head (your head is directly over the brush head, your lower hand is near the point where the handle meets the brush head, your back is parallel to the ice surface and your feet, as much as possible, are outside the hip line [if someone was to come out and pull the brush out of your hands, you'd fall flat on your face]) d) you understand and make use of the sport science as it applies to brushing (see bullets below).
  • brush at 45 degrees to the path of the stone
  • the angle between your brush head and the handle of the brush is ninety degrees
  • your push stroke is much more powerful than your pull (return) stroke
  • the new fabric on the brush head seems to influence the curl of the stone
Before moving on, let's get this directional fabric issue out of the way. In the fourth bullet above, I'm not referring to the "directional fabric" that recently caused curling jurisdictions to ban certain brush heads due to their overriding effect on the path of the stone to the point that the accuracy of the delivery of the stone was subordinate to the brushing. The approved fabric does seem to create something on the ice so that if brushed according to the parameters listed above in bold and italics, it can influence the path of the stone in a manner that does NOT subordinate the accuracy of the athlete in delivering the stone.

What you're seeing on the ice in events where the very best teams are competing, is a brushing technique whereby, unless the brushing is simply to maintain stone velocity (in that case both brushers are engaged), only one brusher is active. That brusher is brushing to either influence the stone to curl, or to reduce the amount of curl. If his/her brushing partner were to be involved, the thought is that the second brusher, on the opposite side the stone and brushing in the opposite direction, is essentially working at cross purposes to his/her partner, in effect negating or at least reducing his/her effectiveness.

The TV commentators have described it well. The brusher, with his/her brush stroke is pushing the stone in the desired direction.

Let's assume a stone delivered with a counterclockwise rotation at takeout velocity. The only reason for that stone to be brushed is to reduce the amount of curl so it's the brusher on the left side of the stone who would brush, pushing the stone away from the curl path.

Now let's reduce the velocity of that counterclockwise rotating stone to draw weight, and a draw around a stationary stone (i.e. guard). The admonition of the skip is to try to make the stone curl more, so this time the only brusher would be on the right side of the stone, in essence, pushing the stone towards the curl.

That's it in a nutshell. It's not complicated. Can it work for you? Well, once again, see that paragraph above with the four aspects of brushing (equipment, fitness, technique & science) to see where you fit in! And let me know how it goes (billchpc@shaw.ca)!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"The Great Escape"

There's a saying in sports that "sports doesn't build character as much as it reveals it". Sometimes after great athletic performances under gruelling conditions or in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we label the participants as "heroes". Hmm, really? Heroes? It's a game! In the course of human events the outcome is of little or no consequence. Let me tell you about some real heroes, one of whom I've actually met and perhaps some of you have too but that's, the rest of the story.

As you can see by the title, this is about one of the most truly incredible feats of initiative, intelligence, perseverance, courage and down right hard physical labour in modern history. For those of you out there who have never heard of "The Great Escape", don't run to the local DVD store to watch the movie of the same name. Hollywood took much licence with the real situation at the officers only camp during the second world war known as Luft III (aka Stalag Camp Oflag III). This was not a concentration camp. It was a prisoner of war camp mostly for Allied airmen shot down by the Nazis in the second world war.

There were three "compounds" in the camp. The first constructed was the East Compound and was for British RAF and Fleet Air officers. The Centre Compound was initially built to house British sergeants but was eventually filled by American prisoners exclusively. The North Compound (where the great escape occurred) was for British airmen and the West Compound for U.S. officers. Each of the compounds was comprised of 15 single storey huts. Each huts housed 15 prisoners in five triple deck bunks in a bunk room and there were many such rooms in each hut..

The camp was designed to be "tunnel proof", or so the Nazis thought. First, each barracks was built 60 cm. off the ground to make any tunnels easily visible. Second, the camp was purposely built on very sandy, yellow soil. The sand would make tunnelling treacherous as the sand would collapse on itself as a tunnel would be dug and even if one was attempted, the sand removed to be scattered would be quite visible due to its colour. Lastly, seismographic microphones were embedded around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.

The first successful escape was from the East Compound. That occurred in October of 1943 when prisoners constructed a wooden vaulting "horse" which was placed in the same place in the compound each day for exercise and recreation. The real purpose was to conceal two prisoners who opened a wooden trap door to continue to dig an escape tunnel. At the end of the day's vaulting over the horse, the two diggers and the sand they removed were carried back into the barracks. The physical activity around the horse shielded the digging from the seismographic microphones. Eventually a tunnel was dug of over 30 m and three prisoners escaped to freedom on the night of Oct. 19, 1943. You can read about this amazing feat in the book, "The Wooden Horse" by Eric Williams.

In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF conceived a plan for a major escape which  was planned for the nights of March, 23-25, 1944. This escape, to be known as "The Great Escape" was from the North Compound. To improve the likelihood that a tunnel would be successfully completed, it was decided to build three, "Tom, Dick & Harry". And, although most escape tunnels were built hoping to free 10 - 20 prisoners, the plan for Tom, Dick and/or Harry was to allow for the escape of over 200 prisoners. Dick's entrance was carefully hidden in a drain sump in one of the washrooms. The entrance to Harry was hidden under a stove and Tom's entrance was in the dark corner of a hall in one of the buildings.

The depth of the tunnels was 9 m below the surface and only 0.6 m square, just enough room for a prisoner to be "dollied" along its length. Chambers along the way were dug to house air pumps, a workshop and staging posts. Since the sandy soil was so unstable, the walls of the tunnels needed to be "shored up". This was accomplished using boards from the bunks. Normally, each bunk had about 20 boards but by the time the tunnels were completed, each bunk was down to 7 or 8.

Another valuable resource were the "klim" cans ("milk" spelled backwards) which arrived for the prisoners from the Red Cross. These metal containers provided many different tools for digging as well as for other purposes. Fresh air was supplied by "air pumps" made from knapsacks and hockey stick shafts.

Once Tom, Dick & Harry were started, the next challenge was to dispose of the sand. The normal method was to have various prisoners place the yellow sand into pouches made from old socks. As they walked around the compound with the sand-laden socks under their trousers, made easier by the inevitable weight loss, the sand would scatter. Sometimes larger quantities of sand were placed into gardens the prisoners were allowed to tend. In all about 200 prisoners were involved in the sand distribution project making an estimated 25,000 trips into the compound for that purpose.

The Germans sensed that something was "up" but numerous attempts to find the entrance to tunnels failed! In a "shotgun" approach to break up the possible leaders of any escape via tunnels, without notice, 19 of the top "tunnel suspects" were transferred to Stalag VIIC but of the 19, only 6 were heavily involved in tunnel construction.

As the sand dispersal became more challenging, a perceived setback actually proved beneficial when Dick's entrance was covered by a camp expansion. They used that tunnel to hide sand taken from the construction of Tom and Harry. Dick was also used as a storage place for maps, postage stamps, forged travel documents, compasses and both German military & civilian clothing. Above the entrance to Dick, a theatre was constructed and by various means, seat 13 was "hinged" directly over Dick's entrance. Problem solved!

As work on Tom and Harry proceeded, eventually the Germans discovered Tom, the 98th tunnel to be discovered in the camp. Work on Harry stopped for a cooling off period but was resumed in January, 1944. Harry was finally ready in March of that year but many of the American prisoners, many of whom had worked on Harry were relocated to a camp about 7 miles away. As a result, despite the Hollywood film of the same name, no Americans escaped via Harry. The Germans redoubled their efforts to make sure no tunnels would be constructed for possible escape. Bushell therefore ordered the escape attempt to happen as soon as Harry was ready!

Of the 600 prisoners who worked on the tunnel, only 200 were slated to escape. That group of 200 was subdivided into two groups of 100. The first group was known as "the serial offenders" and included those who spoke German, had a history of attempted escapes plus 70 who had done the most work on tunnel construction. The second 100, called the "hard arsers" drew lots to gain their inclusion and knew they would have to travel by night with minimal fake papers and equipment. They knew their chances of a successful return home were slim but slim was better than nothing!

The first moonless night came on March 24. Those allocated to escape first gathered in Hut 104 but the weather was very cold and the entrance to Harry was frozen, adding an additional one and one-half hours to the start of the escape. But the real setback came when the first escapee emerged about 15' short of the forest near a guard tower and with snow on the ground it would be easy to spot someone moving toward the trees.

Tunnel Harry.jpg

Instead of the one-man-per-minute plan, fewer than 10 could escape each hour via the dolly system that pulled a man in the prone position along the tunnel shaft. During the night there was a brief power outage and a partial tunnel collapse but despite these challenges, 76 prisoners escaped before the 77th was spotted by a guard.

The Germans began a frantic search for Harry's entrance and thankfully, Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, giving sufficient time for forged documents to be burned. One German guard volunteered to crawl through Harry to its entrance but became trapped near the entrance, only to be freed by some prisoners who revealed Harry's entrance.

For the 76 successful escapees, those hoping to catch nighttime trains were unable to find the railway station entrance in the dark and had to wait until morning to learn that it was in a recess in a pedestrian tunnel. The weather that March was the coldest and snowiest in 30 years making travel through the cover of the forest all but impossible so road travel had to be risked. Of the 76 who escaped, all but three were captured and returned to the camp.

When the Germans took an inventory of the camp they discovered that among the missing "items" were; 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 20-man tables, 10 singles tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,121 bed bolsters, 1.370 beading battens, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 300 m of electric wire, 180 m of rope, 3,424 towels, 1,700 blankets and more than 1,400 klim cans.

As you might imagine, Hitler was enraged at this bold escape attempt and initially wanted all 73 escapees to be shot. In the end 50 were, including Roger Bushell. The three successful escapees were Per Bergsland & Jens Muller from Norway and Bram van der Stock from Holland.

And now for the rest of the story!

Perhaps the last remaining Great Escape survivor resides in Edmonton, AB, Canada. He is Gordon (Gordie) King. The 95 (almost 96) year old King reports that he was number 141 on the list of escapees and operated the pump that sent fresh air into the tunnel. What a fitting task for a Canadian given that the air pumps were made of knapsacks and hockey stick shafts! He considers himself honoured to be counted among a group of men who, under the greatest of obstacles, through will, determination, courage and initiative, showed the world what they were made of.

Most of you reading this will know that the surname "King" is well known in the curling world and belongs to Cathy King, the current skip of the national women's senior team who will wear the Maple Leaf next April in Fredericton.* You see, Gordie King is Cathy's father!

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. King at last season's national senior championships in Abbotsford, BC. The meeting was very brief and at the time I did not know his connection with "The Great Escape". I plan to be in Edmonton at some point this curling season to train with Cathy's team as we prepare to defend the gold medal at the World Senior Curling Championship and I hope to have a longer chat with this "hero" to learn more about the great escape.

For now Mr. King, on behalf of myself and I'm sure millions of Canadians in this eleventh month when we set aside a time to remember what courage and sacrifice is really all about, thank you! It's a debt we'll never be able to fully repay.

* Cathy and her team from Edmonton were successful in Fredericton!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

It's Hard Work. It's No Fun. But The Rewards Are Off The Charts!

Well now, isn't that an attractive title for what I hope will be an inspiring blog!

For those of you who are competing in our sport in hopes of advancing to playdowns and the potential rewards that await (i.e. regional, provincial and perhaps even national participation) it's getting to be crunch time.

If you're a coach, you've achieved a level of certification, you've helped the team prepare a training plan,  you've planned and helped execute on ice and off ice training sessions, you've attended a coaching seminar and, you've lost more than one night's sleep wondering if there's more than you can do to help.

As an athlete you've prepared yourself physically and nutritionally, you've attended the training sessions your coach has prepared (in some cases only those for which your life's responsibilities will allow and that's perfectly understandable), you've worked hard to be the best teammate you can be, you've maintained a daily journal of both your everyday events and those within the confines of competition, you've sacrificed some social time to be with your teammates. In other words, you've done as much as you are able to prepare yourself to contribute to the team's success.

That said, I recently looked the members of a team just like the fictional one to which this blog alludes and said the following, "The success you will enjoy both individually and collectively will depend more on what you do on your own than what you do with your teammates in team training sessions!"

With that team, I have spent a good deal of time demonstrating how to train individually, from on ice sessions with a friend and a hand-held recording device to reading publications on performance to learning how to practise making curling shots in the privacy of the athlete's dwelling place through mental rehearsal.

But, I always added that it's hard work, it's no fun but the rewards are off the chart!

You see, everyone wants to win/perform.
Some even know what it takes to do so.
Few are willing to do what it takes!

When you stand in front of the mirror, you can't fool the person who stares back at you. That person knows if you're in the last group! Knowing what it takes to perform is my responsibility. Being willing to do what it takes to perform is the athlete's responsibility.

Only one men's team and one women's team will win the world championship in each of the categories for which world championships are contested. Does that mean that every other team failed? Of course not! That would make competitive participation meaningless if that were the case and thankfully it's not because, to use an of-cited phrase, "It's not the destination. It's the journey"!

Those rewards to which I referred are not the medals, crests and banners that are the spoils of victory for all to see, it's the person you know you've become as a result of the preparation for competing and the lessons learned by competing.

There's a quote on the title page of my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") that states it better than I ever could (author unknown) and I'll leave you with it as my best advice for performance success.

The duration of an athletic contest may only be a few minutes, while the training for it may take many weeks or months of hard work and continuous exercise of self effort.

The real value of sport is not in the actual game played in the limelight of applause but the hours of dogged determination and self discipline carried out alone, imposed and supervised by and exacting conscience.

The applause soon dies away. The prize is left behind. But the character you build is yours forever!