Wednesday, November 19, 2014

It's About The Spirit As Much As the Letter

I have a left knee that is long past its "best before date" and I've begun the process to have it replaced. Thankfully I live in an age and a location in Canada where "knee replacement surgery" is about as smooth an operation (pun intended) as it could possibly be. The surgery (and its rehabilitation) has improved significantly over the last few years to say nothing of the advances over the last decade or two.

I saw my late father get talked out of this type of surgery when he was about my age resulting in his spending his last years confined to a wheelchair. Unfortunately I had no knowledge of this until it was much too late for Dad to do anything about it. Had I known that he was even contemplating the surgery, I would have been his biggest supporter and certainly would have tried my best to offset the recommendation he had received to not have the surgery. 

My left knee has had two surgeries already, one shortly after I began my curling career (complete meniscectomy) and arthroscopy about 15 years later. During that time, mostly due to too many candles on the birthday cake, arthritis has shown up (can you say, "three strikes"?). Before I left my hometown of Kitchener in 1999 to begin my role as National Development Coach in Calgary for the CCA, my surgeon advised me to wait until my 65th birthday to begin the process of knee replacement. Well, I'm a few years past that, so now IS the time.

Victoria, BC is a location for a "Rebalance Medical" site. Apparently all the surgeons who perform this type of sports medicine surgery are under one roof. My x-rays have been sent there. Now I await a call from "Rebalance" to meet with the surgeon who will exchange a well worn knee with a new one. I can't wait for two reasons. First, I'll be able to resume my full jogging regime and I can once again curl with a slide delivery, something I've not been able to do for many years.

But, this post is not about me, my knee issue or what I cannot do. It's about what I can do and for curling it means using the "delivery stick" to stay in the game! Although for a variety or reasons, mostly due to my coaching commitments, I do not curl in a regular league, I use the delivery stick as often as I'm able. Is it the same as using the traditional slide delivery? Of course not. Is it better than not curling at all? You bet it is!!!

It also led me to examine what using a delivery stick was all about from a technical point of view so I took it upon myself to take the lead on this and have written about it in my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" pp. 55-57) and on this site ("For the Stick Curler in Your Life01/26/13). My goal was two fold. First, to encourage and inspire curlers who find themselves in a physical situation where they, like me, cannot curl in the traditional/hand way, to learn to use the delivery stick. Second, to help them make the transition, from a technical perspective, as seamlessly as possible. What I didn't realize was the number of "stick curlers" who would attempt to use the rule changes in place to allow them to continue to participate in a sport that has afforded them hours upon hours of enjoyment, to gain an advantage. That to me was most disheartening and due to a recent email sent to me by a stick curler, I'm going to shout out to ALL stick curlers on this issue. Some of you are going to be offended and quite frankly in my view, need to be offended because you're offending a game that has ethics as page #1 in its rule book, so batten the hatches!

What you see below is a copy of the email referred to above. Nothing has been altered . My response follows.

Just a rule clarification on stick curling.  More and more seniors are using them now.
The rules say:

Section 18. Stick curling
(4)  If delivery begins from the hack, then players using the delivery stick must adhere to delivery rule 8(1); and stones must be delivered along a straight line from the hack to the intended target broom.  (or brush)
Section 8. Delivery
 (1) Only right handed deliveries shall be initiated from the hack located to the left of the centre line (right foot in left hack) and only left- handed deliveries shall be initiated  from the hack located to the right of the hack.

a) I have seen guys using both feet in both hacks, to give a straight line to the broom. (or brush)
b) I have seen some using the space between the hacks and starting from there.
c) I have seen using the left hack for out turns and the right hack for in turns.
 The problem is, using the stick,  to line up you need to bring the stick to the centre of your body or else you will be off the target.
Would you be able to clear this up?  I favour  c)

When it comes to rules, regardless of the sport, the printed words in that sport's rule book are shadowed by a spirit in which the rule is written. Make no mistake re. the rules for stick curling. From a delivery perspective, all the delivery rules and their spirit to which a curler adhered when he/she used a traditional slide delivery, are still in place.* Since the individual can no longer employ a slide delivery, or chooses not to, he/she is able to walk toward the target, on a line to it, and since it's difficult to walk and still put one's hand the handle of the stone, the delivery stick was introduced to connect the curler with the stone. Full stop! All other aspects of the delivery of the stone still apply both in letter AND spirit, including the one that asks the curler to release the stone clearly before the stone's leading edge reaches the inside of the near hog line!

I could not believe that any curler would use the delivery stick accommodation provided by the Canadian Curling Association, to gain an advantage by kicking the (expletive deleted) out of the spirit of the rules! 

Some stick curlers actually walked to a point near where the hog line touches the sideline/board, stopped and completely changed the angle of delivery (thus the recent addition to rule 8(1) requiring stick curlers to walk in a "straight" line to the release point). Others, as you see by the observations of the sender of the email, have taken other liberties with the rules to similarly gain a competitive advantage. If you even thought about any of this, you need to get a rule book and reread its first page, "The Code of Ethics"(especially the "Fair Play" section where it clearly states "Fair Play begins with the strict observance of the written rule; however, in most cases, Fair Play involves something more than even unfailing observance of the written rule. The observance of the spirit of the written rule, whether written or unwritten, is important".) because what you're contemplating is unethical and the worst part, you know it is, so do the right thing and remind yourself what the CCA has provided you with, an opportunity to remain in the game and play it they way you played it and enjoyed it for many years!

It's really simple, if you hold the stick in your right hand, you place your right foot into the hack positioned to the left of the centre line to begin the delivery process and if you hold the delivery stick in your left hand, you place your left foot into the hack positioned to the right of the centre line to begin the delivery process. Exactly which part of that do some stick curlers not understand? I'm feeling my CBC Rick Mercer "Rant" in high gear on this!

If you're still somewhat caught in the middle of all of this, there's a simple yardstick to apply if you're not sure if you should take advantage of what the rule doesn't say, and that's what I hear from time to time by those who would try to take advantage or the stick rules. "Well Bill, it doesn't say you can't do ...!" Well, actually it does and here's that yardstick by which to measure your "rule creativity". If you want to take advantage of what you see as a "loophole" in the stick curling rules, simply ask yourself, "Is this something that I did when I used the traditional/hand method of delivering the stone OR is it in common practice by those who are currently delivering the stone in the traditional/hand method?" If the answer is "No", then it isn't OK, loophole or no loophole. Allow me an illustration. 

I've seen stick curlers who hold the stick with both hands and some will hold it in one hand until they leave the hack, then place their second hand on the stick, thinking they're abiding by the rule which clearly indicates that the stick be held in one hand. So, let's apply Bill's measuring device. Is it something that is in common practice by those using the traditional/hand delivery. Answer, "No"! Then it does not comply with the spirit of the rule regardless of what you think the rule does not "say"! The intention of the use of the delivery stick is that the curler will use one hand, the same hand, throughout the game, so no moving from hack to hack by switching hands from one shot to the next! To do anything else fundamentally changes the game and that was never the intention of allowing the use of a delivery stick!

As to the individual who sent the email, I have a question for you. Why would you support any of the options listed in your message? You say you prefer option "c"! There are no options! All three violate both the letter and more importantly the spirit of the delivery rule. That said, I'm going to cut this individual some slack on this because he/she may be confusing the rules of stick curling with the rules of a misguided discipline of stick curling known as "Sturling" (www.sturling.net) #. On the other hand, if I'm going to call out the purveyors of "sturling", full credit to the aforementioned two person stick discipline as described at www.canadianstickcurling.ca which advocates the delivery that adheres to the spirit of the delivery rule that has been in place since the game began.

I never thought I'd want anyone to stop curling but if you're a stick curler who looks at the rules governing the delivery of the stone, and attempt to gain an advantage by trying to circumvent them, you've lost sight of the integrity of the game so make it official and pursue some other winter sport.

To those of you out there who are still adamant about stretching the rules to accommodate your own needs, I say in summary, "Stop embarrassing yourself and the game of curling! Play by the rules both in letter and spirit!"

By the way, I agree with the sender of the email from a technical perspective. It is better in my view to hold the stick somewhat near the midline of the body. And here's my best technical advice for the actual delivery of the stone with the stick. When you release the stone, keep walking for a few steps. Don't release the stone while coming to a stop. You didn't stop your slide when you released the stone so don't stop walking with the delivery stick!

And to those stick curlers out there who still deliver with a slider, let me know where to send the get well card!

If you're on Vancouver Island or the Lower Mainland of BC and would like a "stick curlers clinic", let me know, I'd be happy to provide one!

* Some of you might have noticed in rule #18 that a stick curler does not have to begin the delivery process from that hack. That provision is in place for wheelchair athletes who deliver from a position just behind the hog line nearer the delivery end of the ice. It is not intended for anyone else using a delivery stick (there's that spirit thing again)!

"Sturling" is a two person game with some players using the delivery stick. In general, the rules of "sturling" make very good sense and if you're a stick curler, I encourage you to go to the web site named above and check it out. I have played in "Canadian Stick Curling rules events" and quite enjoy the game but I strongly feel that the "sturling" rule regarding the actual delivery of the stone is doing the game of curling a disservice. 
"Sturling" rules allow the participant to use either hack with either foot in the selected hack. The rationale is that the CCA/Canadian Stick Curling rule is "overly restrictive". "Sturling" stick curlers have fundamentally changed the game and as a result have created much confusion when stick curlers play with athletes who use the traditional/hand delivery. "Sturling" curlers must realize that it's disingenuous to use the "sturling" delivery rule when playing with curlers who use the traditional delivery rule. 
If "sturling" curlers want to maintain their delivery rule in "sturling" sanctioned events, I doubt this scribe is doing to change their minds but to insist on using the "sturling" delivery rule in games with those who use the CCA/Canadian Stick Curling rule is to give the "sturling" rule curlers an unfair advantage. 
I don't want to be too harsh with the well-intentioned "sturling" advocates but I will call upon them to rethink what they've done. The CCA/Canadian Stick Curling rule is not overly restrictive! The CCA/Canadian Stick Curling rule complies with the spirit of the game at its most fundamental level, the delivery. "Sturling" curlers may like their rule but it has put the use of the delivery stick on a very slippery slope and as a result, as stated above, have fundamentally changed the game. That's unacceptable!


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Most Poorly Played Shot

I've seen it too many times. "If only we could have placed that guard we would have won the game!" Well, I bring good news and bad news. The good news is, you're right! If only... The bad news is, that's the answer to the title of this blog. Placing a guard, in my opinion, is the one shot that's most poorly played and it need not be so!

To begin, let's make one thing perfectly clear. When you place a guard, you do it for one of two reasons. It's either placed to provide potential cover for a shot to be played later OR you're attempting to guard the path to a stone already in place. Notice the words in italics, that's one of the reasons why a relatively simple shot is not played very well across the board. You don't guard the stone from view, you guard the path TO the stone! Never forget that!

Of the two types of guards the one about which I would like to dwell is the second, guarding a stone already in place. Now here's the scenario that exists a very high percentage of the time. The stone to be protected is already protected on either of the two rotations. In other words, guards placed to protect an existing stone are almost always placed in concert with stationary stones. Your task is guard the path to that stone, taking away the other rotation.

When this shot is missed, it's usually missed because it ends up, and this is the key point here, joining the other stationary stones and leaving the path the the stone completely open on one of the rotations, allowing your opponent to choose from a number of weights to remove the stone you wanted to protect. There's nothing that's more infuriating than to waste a shot in that manner and it's so avoidable assuming of course that the player delivering the stone delivered the stone with a weight inside "execution tolerance" and "on line to the brush".

Well, you might be asking yourself, if the stone was delivered with the correct weight and on line, what more can one do? There's a lot more one can do! What we're really dealing with here is the difference between "strategy" and "tactics". The strategy is to guard a stone but the tactic employed to accomplish that is flawed and here's why.

When you set the brush and choose the weight to make the shot, knowing that for the shot to be successful, everything has to be right, it usually isn't. By that I mean, if when the stone is delivered, the team hopes and prays it stops in the right spot, many times it will curl past that ideal location, thus joining that group of stationary stones referred to above. To maximize the likelihood of successful completion of the shot, a few things need to happen. First, the skip needs to have selected a line of delivery that's very generous (i.e. a little wider than normal). Second, the shooter needs to "get right out to the brush" (line in this case is the "execution tolerance", not weight) and third, the brushers need to know that due to the first two components, they will very likely have to "brush the stone into its final position". And that's the key to successful execution of a guard, it needs to be brushed into its final position, not praying that it does!

I can hear some of the naysayers now. "What if we don't brush the stone far enough into position and leave an opening?". If you leave an agonizingly small port, even though it's large enough for a stone to pass through, you've restricted the weight options available to your opponent and for club level curlers, let's be honest, how often will an opponent make that shot? Leaving that agonizingly small port is much better than leaving your opponent with a completely open side! We're playing the percentages here folks!

This is also the key point in placing a guard for a purpose later in the end, notably that centre line guard, most frequently delivered by the team without last stone advantage on its first shot of the end. That stone absolutely, positively MUST come to rest on the centre line! In many cases it's the most important shot of the end for that team! If that shot comes to rest not touching the centre line, I can make the case that your team is now playing the end with 7 stones while your opponent, who by the way also delivers the last stone of the end, is playing with nine! Yikes!

Begin to take note how you play guards. Do you play them hoping they stop in the right spot, or do you play them in such as way that they must be brushed into position? I believe if you play them in the second manner, you'll be much more successful.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

You Have the Floor

The most recent edition of the biennial golf matchup pitting golfers from the PGA of America against their counterparts from Europe proved once again that professional golfers from European countries at this point are better than those from America! That's the bottom line. The competition at Gleneagles, Scotland and the solid victory by the European side proved that notion to be true but, the Americans in my view missed an opportunity to make it least close by not viewing the matches as simply golfer versus golfer but rather as side versus side.

You'll notice that I have used the word "side" as opposed to "team" to describe the "Ryder Cup Matches". That's because part of the format is a two man "team" competition but more about that later.

That was not the case in 2008 when the Americans were led by Captain Paul Azinger. I wrote about Azinger's approach to the event whereby he looked at his 12 players and saw them as a group, not just a collection of skilled golfers. Actually, he saw them as three, four player groups. He divided the Americans into three groups according to commonalities (geographical background, personality etc.). For Captain Azinger, this was a side v. side event, first & foremost and as such, he knew and understood the importance of the support each player in the "pod" could provide for his teammates.

The Ryder Cup is a very different type of golf event for professional golfers. I adhere to the premise that unless a pro misses the cut in a tournament, he/she can't lose. It's just a matter of how much he/she can win. Professional golfers play for someone else's money. Not so with Samuel Ryder's hardware. The 12 professional golfers on each side stare defeat squarely in the face when they punch their ticket to the event. Nine of the twelve qualify by virtue of their play in tournaments by amassing Ryder Cup points. Then, within a few weeks of the competition, the captains select three additional players to round out the squad.

Any who have played in the matches will tell you that the pressure to perform in the Ryder Cup is enormous. Why? Because you're not playing for yourself which is what touring pros do virtually all the time. Now you have the weight of the nation/continent on your shoulders plus that of your teammates.

Actually, the Americcans should have this figured out by now as they play this four ball, foursomes plus singles scenario every year because the "Presidents' Cup" matches take place in the non-Ryder Cup years.  The President's Cup matches see the Americans get it on with a side from the rest of the world (excluding Europe of course) but the format is the same as the Ryder Cup.

The 2014 American squad was led by Tom Watson who filled that prestigious role for the second time. Worthy of note is the fact that Watson was the captain the last time America captured the Ryder Cup away from home soil. Also noteworthy is the preceding Ryder Cup held in the U.S. (referred to by the Europeans as "The Miracle at Medinah"). The event moves back-and-forth from the U.S. to Europe on an alternating basis.

For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the Ryder Cup Matches allow me to describe the event. It's a three day competition. On each of the first two days, each side delegates eight of its 12 players to play in one of four matches (four ball in the morning & foursomes in the afternoon). Each match is worth one point so after the first two days, 16 points will have been divided and it's "match play". When your team of two players has the better score on a hole, it wins the hole. If your team wins more holes in the 18 hole round than your opponent, your team wins the point for the match. If after eighteen holes neither team has won more holes than the other, the match is halved and each side wins 1/2 a point.

On the final day, each member of each side is matched with a player from the other side. Twelve singles matches take place on day #3 to round out the total of 28 possible points. Interestingly enough, if the points are tied at 14, the side that is the current holder of the Cup retains possession. In the case of the matches at Gleneagles, that "Miracle at Medinah" whereby the Euorpeans, on the final day of the matches, overcame a 10-6 deficit to win, put them in a position where the 14/14 tie would see them retain the Cup. The Americans needed that extra 1/2 point.

Ironically, after the first two days, it was the Europeans who held the lead at 10-6 so I'm sure it was not lost on the Americans that to win down 10-6 would go a long way to erase the loss at Medinah. But, such was not the case. The singles matches on the final did not see the Americans exact a measure of revenge with the final tally, after all matches were completed, 16 1/2 -11 1/2 for the Euros! It was a solid victory, the 7th in the last 9 matches.

Well, the story could end here with the Americans hoping to turn the tide at Hazeltine G&CC in 2016 but then the lesson the loss at Gleneagles offered would be lost and that's the premise of this blog.

In the days following the matches, much has been said about the leadership style of Captain Tom Watson and it was the most experienced American Ryder Cup participant, Phil Mickelson, who was the most vocal. Unlike Paul Azinger who constantly dialogued with his 12 players to win the Ryder Cup Matches, Captain Watson made virtually all the decisions unilaterally. To hear Mickelson, the pairings for the team matches of the first two days were made by Watson, with no interaction with the American team. And, since four players sit out for each of the four team matches on days #1&2, again, no discussion with the players was had on that decision either.

For the life of me, I have absolutely no idea why Captain Watson would have adopted that management style. I don't feel that's a very empowering tactic on the part of the leader of the side. Certainly it was in stark contrast to Captain Azinger. To his credit, Watson didn't try to deflect any criticism. He was accountable and took full responsibility!

By this time you're likely wondering why I choose at the title for this blog, "You Have the Floor". This was a lesson taught to me by one of the players on the first senior women's team that I had the honour of taking to the World Senior Curling Championships in 2008 in Dunedin, NZ. The team consisted of skip Pat Sanders (CCA Hall of Fame member), third Cheryl Noble, second Roz Craig and lead Chris Jurgenson. During team meetings, skip Sanders was very quiet but her eyes told me that eventually she was likely to have something to say and that's what prompted me to institute a meeting ending protocol I called "You have the floor". When all was said and done and I felt the meeting should end, I began pointing to each team member in turn and saying, "You have the floor!". That person could say anything she wished and it didn't have to particularly pertain to anything about which we had spoken during the team meeting. She didn't have to raise any issues or ask any questions. You have the floor meant exactly that. We will listen to "anything" you have to say and unless you wish, no response from us will be forthcoming AND if you have nothing to say/add, you could "pass". Well, Pat never passed and in most cases tied a red ribbon around the issues which were discussed and occasionally gave us all pause to consider another angle none of us had considered in the body of the meeting. But the important part is that Pat knew, she would "have the floor".

Not all members of a team will be predisposed to open up in a forum like a team meeting. "You have the floor" is a great way to ensure that everyone at least has the undivided attention of those in attendance. I'm sure it's not the only way to go about it but it certainly has worked for me. I have never not ended a meeting that way! It wasn't my idea, it came to me through Pat and I will be ever so grateful to her for that. Perhaps Captain Watson might have ended his meetings with "You have the floor!"

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014 World Series MVP

I'm publishing this blog during the morning of game #6 of the 2014 World Series. As my fingers dance (many would say plod) across my computer's keyboard, the Giants of San Francisco lead the best-of-seven series 3 games to 2 over the surprising Royals of Kansas City. I don't have a horse in the race but unless one has some lifelong affiliation with the Giants, it's difficult not to hope that perhaps the underdog Royals just might complete the ever so rare Cinderella season and win the championship of Major League Baseball.

Those Giants of that west coast cable car city are experienced, talented and well coached. In the experience category, they must might win their third World Series title in the last five years. If they do that they will have gone the distance in each of the last even numbered years (2010, '12 & '14). From a talent point of view, they undoubtedly have the best pitcher on the planet in Madison Bumgarner who in game #6 pitched a "complete game shut out" with the white, orange and black side securing a 5-0 victory. A complete game shut out in the World Series is, well, rare and if this goes to a game seven in the home yard of the Missouri 25, I'm sure we're going to see Mr. Bumgarner once again but this time on "short rest". As for coaching, the mild mannered Bruce Bochy is considered to be among the elite of the managers in MLB. To say the Royals, who as a franchise have not won the Commissioner's Trophy since 1985, had an uphill battle would be putting it mildly.

As with most major league sports, the playoff recognizes a player, not necessarily from the winning team, who sets a standard of performance superior to all the rest. My candidate for the 2014 World Series MVP is the Giant's Hunter Pence. You'll recognize Pence for a variety of reasons.

First, he wears his uniform in a way that I've never seen before. Unlike most baseball players whose pants now go to the shoe tops, Hunter has joined the small, but growing number of players who wear the pants in the throwback manner with the pants stopping below the knee where a long pair of socks start. Some even have the "stirrup socks" with the white "sanitary under socks" showing. But Hunter Pence has his pants stopping above the knee. I'm pretty sure he's the only one in MLB who wears his pants like that. He says it gives him more freedom of movement.

Hunter has a mop of curly, brown hair that makes his baseball cap fit rather awkwardly on his head and that cap is 6' 4" from terra firma. He's not short!

At bat, his swing is, well, to be polite, not classic. It's a rather stilted attempt to propel the baseball which is traveling in excess of 90 mph back toward the direction from whence it came and he does it rather regularly, not with much power but the baseball many times finds a hole in the infield for a base hit and frequently that base hit comes at just the right time, either moving runners along or scoring a much needed run.

That's when you'll notice another defining characteristic, his wide-eyed, genuine enthusiasm for this kid's game for which he and his MLB colleagues get paid exorbitant sums of money (baseball, unlike most professionals sports in North America, does not have a salary cap). But Pence gives the impression that although he's an independent business person, he'd play for nothing. His love for the game is clearly infectious. He's the "straw that stirs the drink" on the team. Every team needs a Hunter Pence!

When he fields a ball in his right field position, his throw back to the infield is the first indication, along with that aforementioned stilted swing of the bat, that all is not as it should be physically as no elite athlete in this sport would throw a baseball like that. Hunter is a professional baseball player with a huge obstacle in his way. He suffers from an ailment know as "Scheuermann's Disease".

To state it simply, it's a condition of the spinal column whereby the vertebrae are misshapen and misaligned. There is no cure and no treatment about which I'm aware. It's not life threatening but it's certainly life altering. So, for someone aspiring to play professional baseball, well, to say it takes a dedicated individual would be perhaps the grossest of understatements.

In the face of these odds, Hunter Pence has excelled on the field and in the club house. By his actions and sometimes his words, he makes the Giants team "greater than the sum of its parts". I doubt there's a player on the team who looks at Pence and decides to just "mail it in". Much of what this team does, and the Giant's, like the Royals, had to play their way into the MLB playoffs through a one game winner-take-all contest, it does on the wings of their right fielder!

So my winner of the 2014 World Series MVP Award is Hunter Pence!

For those young people who might be reading this for whom others have said you'll never reach your life goals because (insert physical condition here), remember the words of Henry Ford;

IF YOU THINK YOU CAN, OR YOU THINK YOU CAN'T. YOU'RE RIGHT!



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 canadiancoach@mail.com.

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!