Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Art of the Time Out

Yes, I know, it's been more than awhile since I've put fingers to keyboard on my blog site. Thank you to the many who have sent emails and made telephone calls to inquire if I was, well, OK! I doubt I've never been fully OK, but thanks, I'm fine! 

So what's the reason for the no blogs for several months? I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't write just for the sake of writing. If there wasn't something to say, I wasn't going to say it! But now there is and it's time to reach into the electronic mailbag to answer an email sent from someone for whom I have great respect. His name is John Newhook from one of my favourite cities in Canada, Halifax. I had the joy of spending an afternoon with John at the iconic Mayflower CC as he walked me through an example of his passion and calling, the science of our sport, particularly as it applies to one of the hot button topics, brushing!

This time the topic was "time outs", when to call one and indeed if one should be called and, for whatever reason a coach is called upon to chat with the team during an end, what does one say? What I'm about to write certainly is not the definitive word on TO's, it's only my take on the subject so John, buckle that chin strap, let's weigh in.

TO's in the sport of curling are curious animals! From a coaching perspective, we usually only get two of the them, not counting the mid-game break. And, calling a TO is something a player must initiate, not the coach although, according to the rules on the date of publication of this blog, the coach may signify to his/her athletes that he/she wishes to stop the game for a brief chat. These rather sporadic opportunities to speak with one's athletes puts curling into something of a unique position when compared to other team sports. 

If you think of a basketball coach for example, besides the seemingly endless number of TO's available, most used in the last minute or two of regulation time, he/she can substitute players in order to take one aside for some one-on-one counselling, then quickly send the player back into the fray. Not so in curling. In a curling facility setting, where the coach is sitting, ahem, behind a pane in the glass (no low hanging fruit to be picked to advertise a certain coaching manual), that transparent barrier does more than keep the coach warm, it tends to isolate the coach from the "rhythm" of the game, that ebb & flow of momentum and emotions that inevitably take place in any athletic contest. To be blunt, a well-intentioned TO with very valuable advice ready to be delivered can end up being counterproductive, significantly disturbing that rhythm referred to above which brings me to my first suggestion, rehearse TO's to reduce and hopefully avoid the possible distraction factor. 

When your team plays in regular league play or in pre-arranged exhibition games, ask the opposing team if it's OK if you call your two TO's (keep them brief) to help the team deal with your presence on the ice. In most cases, especially if you have a young team playing in an adult league, the opposing team will be more than happy to help by allowing you the TO's.  

My next suggestion is to decide who is going to call the TO. Will they only be called by the members of the team or is it OK if you, as coach, call them as well? Clearly a young team will benefit from the input an experienced, certified coach can provide. Perhaps not so much with an older more experienced team. That type of team may respectfully ask you not to call TO's. 

Mutually decide the nature of your input during the TO. I learned this some time ago in my position as National Development Coach when I was asked by a women's team in my programme who earned the right to play in an event to complete the first Curling Trials field when curling finally achieved full Olympic medal status, to be its coach at the event. During the discussion about my involvement during a TO, I suggested that I would guide them through an examination of all the possible shots which might be played and the reasons for each. To that the team replied, "Bill, if we call a TO we want you to come out, suggest a shot and leave. We've already done what you're suggesting.". In black-and-white on your computer screen, that sounds rather callous but it wasn't meant to be so and it wasn't taken that way by me. Quite to the contrary, that's exactly what I needed to know!

Then there's the whole "time duration" thing. As I write this, it's 90 seconds from the time the TO is called for the coach to get to the ice surface and join the team and discuss whatever needs discussing, another really good reason to rehearse TO's. You need to decide who speaks first and where the discussion goes from there to complete the discourse in the time allotted.

Venue plays a significant role. I've been positioned in the most unusual of places relative to the access point to the ice surface. The path to the playing area can be convoluted to say the least! I'm writing this from my hotel room in St. Catharines, ON, waiting for my four young curlers from Whitehorse to arrive for the 2017 Scotties Tournaments of Hearts. I know I'm going to be positioned right behind the scoreboard, very likely at the home end of the playing area. Not only that, I can speak with members of the team between each end as long as I stay behind the scoreboard (more about that later). Not much of my 90 seconds will be consumed by travel. 

By the way, a note about courtesy before I continue. In our sport, as with most, if a team calls a TO, both teams may meet with their coach. There has been a movement to allow only the team that called the TO to do so. I'm not against that by the way but I digress. If you are the coach of the team that did not call the TO, it's courteous to not access the playing area before the coach who did call the TO and if that TO is at the away end of the ice, you should not begin speaking with your team until the coach of the team that called the TO has reached his/her team.

If you are a coach of a junior team, you are most likely aware of a special TO known as a "Fair Play TO". This affords the coach an opportunity to call a temporary halt to the game so a player can recompose him/herself. That's a polite way of saying it gives the coach the opportunity to settle a player down, no discussion re. strategy &/or tactics or anything technical. I don't know who or which sport governing body came up with that idea but it has proven to be a good one! This TO was the idea of one of my coaching role models, Keith Reilly. 

If I may speak from personal experience, during TO's including the mid-game break, I prefer to hear the athletes speak as opposed to me launching into some diatribe which may be inappropriate (see earlier paragraph re. distraction). My best TO advice has come from something I've picked up from what an athlete said first. If the team knows that you are waiting for them to speak, that's what will occur (don't forget those 90 seconds). 

As a TV viewer, and this may just be my sensitivity as a coach, when I see a team call a TO only to totally ignore the mere presence of the coach, well, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard! Therefore, I tell my teams that if they call a TO and just want time to talk among themselves, I'm more than OK with that. I suggest that when the TO comes from the ice, if they want me involved, just give me the wave and I'll come a runnin', oops, no, you can't run to meet your team. Officials frown on that!

I said I'd refer to that rule at Scotties & Briers (for example) that affords me the opportunity to speak with my team between ends. There are those who would argue that calling the right shot and playing it the right way (strategy & tactics) is in integral part of the game (not much argument there I suspect) and therefore (now here's where views begin to differ) it's a skill that should be developed by the team, and a coach should not become a participant in those critical decision making junctures. Hmm, good point I guess but what about precedent? TO's in other sports allow the coach to become involved in decisions that regularly affect the performance of the team and therefore the outcome of the contest. The extreme example is North American football, especially at the more elite levels where just about everything that happens on the field is choreographed by the coaching staff. Well, I have always held to the belief that just because sport X does or does not do something, that does not mean that curling should or should not. That said, I have to be honest when I say that I work very hard to "empower" my athletes in all phases of the skill sets required to perform including calling the right shot and playing it the right (most appropriate) way. When an opposing coach calls a TO when he/she senses that his/her team is about to make a strategic &/or tactical error and calls a TO to prevent that mistake, I get a little frustrated. 

Here's my take on this matter. I feel it's appropriate for me to meet with my team to ensure that the end plan for the upcoming end is sound. I don't feel I should be able to influence my team's performance during the playing of that end. Just my take and I welcome opposing or supporting views.

And oh, by the way, not every TO is about strategy and tactics, sometimes it is to remind the players of something technical or about team dynamics or ...

There is one more TO and it’s an “official’s TO”. If you feel you need to draw something, anything, to the attention of an official, you cross your forearms in such a manner to be clearly seen. Clocks will stop (if applicable) and an official will come to you to hear your concern.

John, thanks for your email and yes, it does feel good to put fingers onto keyboard once again!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

From Behind That Pane In The Glass

As you can see by the title, what follows is my two cents on what arguably is the hotest topic in the curling world, brushing! And, once again borrowing a line from one of my favourite movies, "The Sound of Music", let's "start at the very beginning"!

But even before returning to yesteryear, I want to put on my "Conan the Grammarian" hat in stating that for the purpose of this blog, I'm drawing the distinction between sweeping & brushing as well as broom versus brush. Note to sport governing bodies, we no longer sweep with a broom (and have not done so for quite some time). We brush with, ahem, a brush! To use the terms "sweep" and "broom" is embarrassing! We should know better! With that off my chest, let's return to those windswept lochs of Scotland where this great game was incubated if not born.

Curling really was more shuffleboard on ice than the game we enjoy today. We've all seen those dusty photos in curling club lounges of Scots, complete with kilts and other regalia, sliding what can only be described as "boulders" down an expanse of a frozen body of water to a target which in the photos was almost imperceptible. I didn't look like much fun to me but everyone seemed to be having a great time so who am I to judge (perhaps like their golfing brethren, a little Scotch whisky from time-to-tome during the match was more responsible for the smiles than the game itself).

Brushing was as much an afterthought at that time as was dribbling at the very onset of the game of basketball. I'm guessing that it seemed only natural to use some sort of implement to remove natural debris (snow, twigs, dirt etc.) from the path of the stone as it made its way down the ice. Besides, it gave members of the team not engaged in the regal art of stone delivery, something to do. The implement of choice seemed obvious, a broom, and the essence of the game had been established.

Curling became more fun as the skill of stone delivery was more the determining factor to the outcome of the contest, than which pile of snow one's stone may or may not encounter on its way to the target. The entire experience was more enjoyable. What a concept and one to keep in mind as I proceed!

As the game moved indoors, and those boulders were replaced by either "irons" or granite "stones", that very unpredictable playing surface too became more consistent. Air temperature and humidity could be controlled. The pebble applied could be regulated. The ambient air temperature could be adjusted so participants could enjoy the game more, without freezing their (insert body part[s] here) off! And those brooms that were borrowed from kitchens & barns also morphed into an implement designed for the purpose of affecting the distance a stone travelled and the trajectory it took to arrive at its destination.

I'm gong to go out on a limb here to suggest that at least some of those hardy Scots who braved the aforementioned natural elements on those outdoor surfaces collectively shook their heads in dismay as younger devotees of the game with their "sweeping" could make a poorly delivered stone still result in a shot that would at least improve the current situation. I can hear the echoes, " Ah, that's nae curling!". Well, it may not have been acceptable to them but it was to a new generation and as a result the game enjoyed unprecedented popularity!

If the ratio of influence between delivery and sweeping was 10:1 on the frozen lochs, indoors with real curling brooms changed he ratio dramatically, arguably to 10:2/3.

Thanks to European curlers, brooms in North America gave way to more efficient brushes. Corn straw and the iconic sound of two powerful sweepers faded into the rear view mirror. Brushing was here to stay. Was it more enjoyable than sweeping? Not in my books! Did brushing produce better shot making results? Absolutely!

And as brushing technique, knowledge, fitness and equipment evolved, that delivery-to-brushing ratio moved as well. The importance of brushing kept closing in on delivery to the point where we find ourselves today, at something of a crossroads in this conundrum.

The sport covering bodies charged with dealing with what has become a front burner issue are somewhat up against it in terms of time. Fans, curlers and of course equipment manufacturers want to know where this is all headed. Let's deal with each of these groups of stakeholders.

FANS

This group in my mind has two subsets. On one hand we have those who have never darkened the door of a curling facility but would not miss a televised event if their life depended upon it. On the other side you have another group of fans (remembering that "fan" is an abbreviated form of "fanatic" and all that the term implies) who also would never miss a televised game but who make use of their PVR in case they happen to be at their local curling facility when that TV game is scheduled.

I'm guessing that the members of the first mentioned subset couldn't care less about the hullabaloo around brushing. They want to see shots "made" not "missed" and if it takes revolutionary equipment to do so, bring it on! These are the same fans who watched Mark McGuire & Sammy Sousa knock baseballs out of baseball stadia at unprecedented rates all the while knowing full well that Messrs. McGuire & Sousa were "juiced". They didn't care! They wanted to see great performances and if it took some PED'S to do so, well, that's fine with them. Oh, by the way, that group of fans is still out there and not shrinking despite the best efforts of the World Anti Doping Agency. The second subset I'm also guessing see the matter somewhat differently given their on ice experiences. And, to make matters in this fan category even more complicated, there are recreational curlers, serious curlers and competitive curlers, so let's deal with the players.

CURLERS

Recreational curlers just want to curl (what a concept)! If somehow equipment can help them make more shots despite their lack of expertise, great! Where do I go to buy this new brush? This is the same group of golfers who are now enjoying that game more because the equipment, especially the clubs, are much more forgiving. Missing that elusive "sweet spot" on the club face no longer results in the horrific shots they might have experienced twenty years ago. Whereas back then some might have given up the sport, they now play regularly knowing they can keep the golf ball on the short grass. The same will be true in curling! To that end, I would have been very interested if in that dramatic video produced by Team Gushue, some recreational curlers would have been recorded as well as Brad's world class brushers. There's a project for you Brad! :)

When that recreational curler starts to have thoughts of more competition (joining the "serious" and "competitive" groups), his/her view might change to some degree on this brushing thing. Now they're spending more time practising (another novel idea). Perhaps they might not be so forgiving knowing that a competitor who has not put in that same amount of training time is, due to directional brushing with equipment that can really manipulate the path and perhaps even the velocity of the stone, might not be so enthusiastic about his/her competitors making up for that same dedicated training by an equipment innovation.

You'll notice that I've left out a fourth group of curlers, the truly elite, those who attract what can only be described as legions of fans who consume this product, and it has become a significant, marketable product, via various platforms (TV, computers, smart phones, tablets etc.). I'll make one comment about the athletes in this group at the risk of offending some of them. In the fall of 2015, in chorus this group rose in righteous indignation over the new brushing equipment, vowing to deal with it as a group, not needing to wait for any sport governing body to issue decrees. What window dressing that turned out to be! When push came to shove as the season progressed, it seemed as though those same athletes had no problem using whatever equipment was available to enhance the likelihood of victory!

For those of you out there shocked at this view on my part, consider this. Why do you think there were bushing moratoria issued during the past season? If the players had stuck to their lofty prognostications, those moratoria would not have been necessary. I generally don't worry about this elite group of stakeholders. They tend to find a water level that ultimately floats their boat and all others in their competitive environment! I care much more about the first three groups of curlers mentioned above and the jury is out on their feelings.*

EQUIPMENT MANUFACTURERS

I'm somewhat jaded as I write the section of the blog. Why? One of them, the innovator in all of this, had to know during the research and development phases of the manufacturing process that they had a tempest in a teapot! From what I know, this company went ahead and manufactured a brush which it had to know was going to cause exactly what we've witnessed during the season. Therefore, as I read their lament about the "brushing summit" which will be convened in Ottawa, in regard to the manufacturing of equipment for the 2016-17 campaign, I say this, "Too bad! You started this, now deal with its consequences, one of which is this manufacturing dilemma in which you find yourself"! You'll notice I did not use the plural form of the pronoun in the last sentence. I do feel for the equipment manufacturers who have been dragged into this. That said, I'm all for private enterprise and if a company can produce a better mouse trap and reap the rewards, great!

There are those out there who feel I'm being somewhat harsh on this matter. I can hear the comments now about the manufacturer whose idea this was, "Well, he/she was completely within the rules." True! But was there no concern for ethics? Hmmm.

To state it simply, it was irresponsible on the part of the innovating company to simply flood the market with a device that it had to know would fundamentally alter the sport. You may wish to remember the bold face, italicized words in the last sentence, as that seems to be the line in the sand for all sports when innovation rears its head, regardless of the category be it rules, equipment or anything else. It's why elite golfers can no longer employ the "belly putter". It was decreed by its sport governing body to fundamentally alter the sport (even though it took that same sport governing body what seemed like an eternity to do so).

One of the decisions that may come out of the summit is equipment certification/approval. When a manufacturer wishes to offer a product to the curling world, it has two choices, get it certified by the sport governing body before distribution to retail outlets so customers know it's a device approved for play or go ahead and produce a device that may or may not be used for play at one's curling facility. Curling has never been in a position to have to consider equipment approval but it sure is there now!

OFFICIALS

Historically, curling officials, a most dedicated and greatly under appreciated group of people, have assumed a role that was seen by most as supporting the athletes (i.e. stepping into a situation to help the athletes clarify rule application). It was an "invitation" to participate. Curling officials could not be more unlike their brethren and sisters in virtually any other sport! And for decades upon decades, that somewhat passive role worked, and worked well. Well, as much as I hate to say it, I believe we're on the cusp of a change. Given current circumstances around brushing technique, officials are going to perhaps for the first time, remove stones that have been illegally brushed (if afforded the authority to do so by rule [see Brenda Rogers comment below]). With the new equipment brought "directional brushing" (full credit here to Brad Gushue & Co.). It was in my view a brilliant idea! Good for you Brad but for me, not a surprising one. Brad took what the then Canadian Curling Association learned from a trend setting brushing study conducted prior to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and married it with the new equipment. The result was "one brusher directional brushing'!

On that note, directional brushing has been alive and well for many, many years. Brushing only a portion of the path of the running stone has been a skill used by most serious, competitive & elite teams, perfectly consistent with the rules (and in my mind the ethics) of the game. In fact, to read the World Curling Federation rule re. brushing, the wording literally instructs an effective brusher to only brush a portion of the path of the running stone when attempting to influence the amount of curl. It has always been my view that if you're allowed to the brush the ice surface at all, you should be able to brush a portion of it if you so choose. Polishing a portion of the path of the running stone does not place an "debris" (for me defined as something other than ice) in the path of the running stone.

The problem this past season came with the one brusher, who in an attempt to augment the amount of curl near the end of the stone's journey, with the stone now "carving" (I dislike that term but it works here) significantly, finds him/herself now brushing so that the brush stroke is virtually parallel with the path of the stone. That's a rule violation and the officials should removed the stone. That would only have happened once! The curlers would have gotten the message and that would have been the end! Are you listening officials and sport governing bodies? You would only have had to do what I'm sure you regard as totally distasteful, only ONCE! The 2016 AB Scotties was the most egregious, in your face display of complete disregard for the rules of brushing as I've witnessed, especially in the final game. I was jumping off my couch calling for the officials to remove a stone as a way of telling the players to stop the rule violation.

It's going to come down to our level of tolerance with that delivery/brushing ratio. At this year's World Senior Curling Championship (Karlstad, Sweden) I felt the balance between delivery & brushing was more than acceptable. Did delivery and brushing get closer together in importance? Absolutely! Did the ratio as exhibited in Karlstad fundamentally alter the sport? No, not in my opinion, not at all! It moved the needle but only as a way of involving the brushers more but not to the point that the curler charged with delivering the stone, the fundamental skill, could dismiss his/her challenge, allowing the brushers skill, athleticism, knowledge & equipment make the shot for him/her. When we cross that line, "We're not in Kansas anymore Toto!"

But clearly making a decision on whether an innovation fundamentally alters a sport is a subjective determination. One way or another, some faction is going to be miffed at the decision! That's just the nature of the beast and it's going to be so for curling this summer! I don't envy the task but hopefully this blog will in some small way make a splash with this august body.

To those charged with the unenviable task in Ottawa to wade through what I'm sure will be mounds of data and opinions to ensure that the fundamental skill of the game remains in tact but not to the point that it stops the evolutionary process which on balance has the innate ability to make the game more enjoyable for all stakeholders (not just the ones we see on TV) I say good luck and thank you for the time and effort to safeguard this great sport.

* You can have your say by clicking on  www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/3PP266to complete a short survey. I encourage everyone to do so!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Options

In last night's (04/29/16) Champions Cup Grand Slam game (Simmons v. Laycock) curling showed why it is in a very different category from most sports and why those who play it at the highest levels, with significant rewards on the line, demonstrate strength of character and adherence to the culture of curling. Here's what happened.

On skip Simmons' last shot of the game, with the outcome very much on the line, his attempted draw was touched by one of his brushers as it was about to come to rest in the 8' circle. It was meant to guard the Team Simmons shot stone. By rule it was a "touched running (i.e. moving) stone". And, full credit to brusher Tom Sallows, he immediately indicated that he had indeed touched the stone. Team Simmons' role in the matter ceased at that point.

By rule, skip Laycoack had three choices, a) allow the play to stand as though the rule infraction had not occurred b) reposition all stones including the stone touched by the brusher where he thought they would have come to rest c) remove the touched running stone (repositioning any stones affected). Skip Laycock never hesitated in his selection of option "b" (he replaced the touched running stone to where in his estimation, it would have come to rest) and by doing so, made his last shot more difficult.

He missed that shot! And the handshake following demonstrated class on the part of both teams. There was no elation on the part of Team Simmons, just a nod of the head acknowledging the sportsmanship and a congratulatory (good luck in your next game) handshake on the part of Team Laycock.

For his part, skip Steve Laycock expected no accolades for the option he chose. He was certain had the situation been reversed, Pat would have done the same. End of story! Except, it isn't the end from my perspective.

Anyone watching who felt skip Laycock's actions were somewhat out of the norm, doesn't know nor understand the culture of this sport. I've written about this topic previously in a blog of the same name ("The Culture of Sport" [03/04/15]).

Lost in the annals of time, especially with sports like curling and golf, are the origins of the culture. I can't find any definitive reasons why a curler would chose the option Steve Laycock chose or why a golfer, with no one watching, would impose a penalty on him/herself for grounding his/her club in a hazard and yet we see this regularly. In fact, if you were to read the new book by arguably the most recognizable caddie in golf, Steve Williams, you may be surprised to learn of his disdain for a well known professional golfer who did not live up to the sport's culture.*

I'm not intending to wave the curling flag exclusively here as there are other sports that foster a culture of respect for rules, teammates, opponents, coaches etc. Sadly, there are some sports whose culture is something else. Parents would do well to consider the culture of the sport they are contemplating as an extra-curricular activity for their children. It can make a lasting impression on the values that child will take into the rest of his/her life including those all important friends and the influences they bring to bear.

Before I leave you today, one more point about the incident described above with Steve Laycock. He knew the rules, including the options available to him and knew exactly what had occurred. If you're a third/mate or skip and you're charged with the attendant responsibilities in and around the house, it's hard to make the ethical decision of you're not fully aware of what happened. There were some comments following the game on social media criticizing the official for not asserting his/her authority (i.e. removing the touched running stone). That's simply not the official's role. It was Steve's role. He knew it and immediately knew what to do (and he didn't see any need to confer with his teammates)!

But then I know Steve Laycock personally. I could have told you what he would do before he actually did it!

* Out Of The Rough: Inside The Ropes With The World's Greatest Golfers (Penguin Canada)
   ISBN - 10:0735232776

Sunday, March 6, 2016

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

Does this title ring a bell with those of  you who have follow my scribblings? If it does, you're right. Published on Nov. 5, 2013 I penned a blog of the same title to encourage curlers to learn how to practise on their own. That blog was written as an inspiration. Now, at the request of a young, very talented curler from Seattle (Ben Richardson [silver medalist at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games]), I'm going to put some meat on that bone, suggesting in more detail, how you can practise when your team and your coach are not present. The activities I will suggest are certainly not the only activities that will be useful to you. It's merely a sample but ones in which I believe.

As I like to say, let's start at the very beginning with weight control, in my opinion, the most important skill in a host of important skills.

When curlers hear that I suggest weight control as the key ingredient to making a curling shot, one reply I field frequently hear refers to the quality of the ice at their curling facility. In short, it goes like this, "How can I practise weight control with an eye on improvement when our ice is less than ideal?". Good question and one of the answers involves "laser timers". There are a number of them on the market. The one I have purchased most recently (no connection with the company and no endorsement revenue) is Chrono Curl (www.chronocurl.com). In essence it's a laser activated timer that records the velocity of a curling stone as it passes through the laser. Interestingly enough, it does so not by measuring the time taken for the stone to pass through, what I call the "speed trap", it measures velocity in one of three ways (miles per hour, kilometres per hour or feet per second). I like "feet per second"! The unit is easy to set up and requires an android tablet to record & display data.

When I use my Chrono Curl, I ask the athlete to deliver shots in pairs, working so hard on the "feel" for the weight of the first shot so it can be duplicated. I set up the Chrono Curl device (laser on one side of the ice and the receiver on the other) just beyond the athlete's point of release so the ice factor is reduced as much as possible. Since the diameter of the stone in use should be constant, it's always better science to use the same stone for both shots. Clearly a teammate or friend who can stop and return the stones is desirable. That friend can also hold the android tablet and therefore provide quick, verbal feedback.

After the second stone has been delivered, the athlete will compare the "feel for the weight" by comparing it to the first stone delivered. It doesn't matter that the athlete delivered both shots with the same weight, knowing that the second is a little lighter, a little heavier, a lot lighter or a lot heavier is just as good. It's about "awareness"! What amazes me about this activity is in the fact that heightened awareness which enables the athlete do know that the second stone has been delivered with the same velocity as the first, or a little lighter or, well, you ge the picture I'm sure, will, almost by default, improve weight control.

A here's an example of this phenomenon from a different sport. A relatively inexperienced and not very skilled tennis player sought instruction from a certified instructor. The instructor began exchanging ground strokes with the "student". Every time the student hit the ball out-of-bounds, the instructor asked how far out-of-bounds the ball had landed. Initially the student's awareness of this was not very good but as time progressed, the student's awareness if the magnitude of the error improved (the instructor always ensured that the student was given the actual distance after the student's guess was provided). But something else improved in parallel. What do you think that might have been? Right! The frequency of the errors decreased as well. In other words, whereas the student would hit the ball out-of-bounds after every second or third exchange of strokes at first, it began to happen after every five or six exchange of strokes then after every 10 or 12 exchange of strokes.

The challenge of knowing how far out-of -bounds the student struck the ball was not the goal for the instructor. His/her goal was really to improve the student's technical skill but he/she did it by allowing the student to focus on awareness as opposed to providing a myriad of technical advice about footwork, grip, stroke, eye contact etc.! All those aspects of striking a tennis ball improved along with the awareness of the magnitude of errors. Getting the curler to assess the degree to which he/she has delivered the second stone compared to the first is in the same vein.

I know I've digressed from the stated premise of this blog but it's clear that I much prefer this method of "empowering the athlete" to figure out challenges as opposed to me telling the athlete how he/she might do it. When the athlete figures it out, he/she makes an investment in the skill, a much more meaningful one than any I can provide. Make no mistake, when I feel that sense of partnership between us has been established and I see brows furrowed on the forehead of the athlete indicated a measure of frustration, I may offer a suggestion or two but it will always be just that, a suggestion, never a command.

OK, back to my friend Ben Richardson who has been delivering paris of stones, attempting to deliver the velocity of the second stone so that it is the same as the that of the first. As Ben begins to better become aware of the differences in velocities of those second shots compared to the first, he will begin to increase his overall weight control as well. I love to see this unfold each time I use my Chrono Curl laser timer!*

For line of delivery, there are a number of "self regulating" activities one can employ, most of which you might have learned very early in your career! Let's have a look at a few.

Place an paper cup on a selected line of delivery just beyond your release point and I mean only a short distance from your release point. When you release the stone, the paper cup should be bumped straight forward. When that happens, it means your release has been "clean" as anything other than a clean release will cause the paper cup to move to the left or the right. I know instructors/coaches who use a stone in place of a paper cup. I don't like that for two reasons. First, I believe there's a safety issue as the delivered stone comes to a sudden stop when it comes into contact with the stationary stone and second, since that stationary stone is positioned just beyond the release point, you must commit one of the cardinal sins in stone delivery which is jumping out of your slide immediately after the release! Not good!!!!

To practise the accuracy and precision of your slide, position pairs of paper cups (no, I don't have shares in any paper cup manufacturing enterprise) so that you form a channel, width to be determined by you. Slide through the channel so that you don't strike any cups. Then with stone in hand, deliver through the channel and release the stone so that it strikes that paper cup referred to above. In case you feel this type of practise modality is beneath your experience and skill dignity, I'm writing this from the nation's capital, site of the 2016 Tom Hortons Brier were the day before the event began, Team Canada, at the Ottawa CC did an activity very similar to this!

There are many different activities that you can use to know that your slide is straight and true but when you select those you're going to employ when practising alone, choose those that are "self regulating" in that you receive instant feedback re. the degree to which you are successful. The ones I've just described are of that type. If you strikes paper cups as you slide through the channel you're either drifting or are sliding on some other line. When you release the stone and watch the direction that the cup travels, you know if your release was clean.

I've seen this slide activity accomplished using stones to form the channel. As you might guess, I don't like using stones, again, from a safety perspective. It's not good to misalign one's slide causing granite curling stones to move about during the slide. It's just not a good idea! Go with the paper cups!

To test and or confirm balance, slide without your delivery device (i.e. brush, stabilizer etc.) even if you're actually releasing stones. You'll know instantly if your balance is perfect or near perfect. What confidence you will take into actual games knowing that!

Hopefully you will have a coach or instructor who can provide you with more self regulating activities. Choose the ones that help you become both a more proficient curler and also those that will make you a more proficient teammate. Don't practise skills you don't need or use!

Record your achievements for activities were success can be incrementally measured. Have an achievement goal in mind (i.e try to exceed your average score).

All these activities are hard work. They sometimes are no fun. But the rewards are off the chart!
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* When I use Chrono Curl, I set it to meters per second. I might get a readout of 2.65.  The stone passed through the laser speed trap traveling at 2.65 meters per second. I "see" that data, not as a two digit numeral but rather as a three digit numeral (i.e. 265). My degree of accuracy to reply to the athlete that he/she has delivered the second shot within an acceptable range to be considered the "same weight" is five digits in the units column on either side of the velocity of the first stone delivered. In this case if the velocity readout for the second stone was anywhere between 260 & 270, the second stone delivered was delivered with approximately the same weight. If the readout was greater than 270, then the second stone was delivered with greater velocity than the first and noticeably so. If the second stone was delivered with a readout of less than 260, then its velocity was noticeably slower than that of the first. One of the features I really like about Chrono Curl is that the data is saved on the screen of the tablet, in sequence, so if you're practising alone, you can go to the tablet and see the data (but then you'd have to chase down that just delivered stone so trust me, bring a friend who call out the data to you following paris of delivered stones). As the skill and experience of the athlete improves, the degree of accuracy should be altered. Instead of allowing for "five" digits on either of the established time, it might be changed to three or even two digits!

When using this weight control awareness activity, make sure you incorporate many weights, especially for the "upweight" shots. More take outs are missed due to incorrect weight than inaccurate line!

In a team environment, while one team member is delivering pairs of shots, another teammate can be timing (likely back line to hog line), a second judging from back line to hog line and the fourth, about 10 m. from the hog line holding the brush who retrieves the stone. As coach, you will have the android tablet. You will know if the second stone was i) about the same weight ii) a little heavy iii) a little light iv) noticeably heavy or v) noticeably light. Why those five categories? Those are the categories used in the execution of a curling shot! The first teammate to speak will be the one who just delivered the two shots. The teammate who timed, must used the time recorded on the watch and place that data into one of the five categories mentioned above. The teammate who judged will do the same but based solely on his/her observation followed the the fourth teammate on the line of delivery. In this team environment, you will have gathered useful information on three vital aspects of team performance. First, you will have worked on the raison d'ĂȘtre, weight control. Second, you will have tested the accuracy of your internal timing. Third, you will have tested the accuracy of your team's judging skills from two perspectives. All team members were involved productively!

There are other laser timers on the market that employ pairs of emitters and receivers. They record the time consumed from the time the stone breaks the first laser beam (between emitter and receiver) and when the second laser beam is broken. I have two sets of those. One is manufactured by Brower Timing Systems (www.browertiming.com) and the other by TracTronix. (www.tractronix.com). These laser timing devices have the added feature of providing times between any two points on a sheet of curling ice (i.e. hog-to-hog or back line to hog line).

Although I'll not go into detail about this in this blog, an activity I use with teams on the ice employs either my Brower or Trac Tronix timers and my Chromo Curl laser timer. I use it to learn if everyone's interval time will result in the same stone velocity, a key piece of information in my mind. I'll put fingers to keyboard and explain how I do that in an upcoming blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Voice

Growing up (there's much debate on that) as I did in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON there were entire seasons whereby I listened to at least a portion of very game the Detroit Tigers played. You might have noticed the verb "listened" in the previous sentence. Of course the medium was radio (and I still take my radio to games in Seattle to listen to the play-by-play broadcast as the contest unfolds in front of me).

In those days it was the voice of Ernie Harwell and his partner Ray Lane. Curling fans of a certain age at the western terminus of the 401 will recall those excellent broadcasters. Each time a foul ball entered the spectator areas he'd mention that it was caught by someone from East Lansing or Flint (how on earth did he know that the fan lived in those places?). Ernie was that familiar, trusted voice that brought much summer pleasure to me and countless fans of those Tigers of Detroit.

The Toronto Blue Jays from their very inception had the late Tom Cheek and his partner Jerry Howarth there to describe in expert fashion the triumphs and disasters that befell the Lake Ontario twenty-five.

Probably the most well known of the baseball voices belongs to Vin Scully who can describe the play on the field and make his listeners feel as though they are sitting beside him in a way that clearly sets him apart from his colleagues and he's been doing it for 66 straight season for the Dodgers of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Iconic voices have brought many events of significance to us. Those voices become a part of our every day lives and without them, the day just doesn't seem to unfold the way it should.

Curling is no exception. This season marks the 30th campaign that curling's "voice" once again resonates in iconic fashion. Those vocal chords, to the legion of devoted followers of the roaring game know, belong to one Vic Rauter of TSN.

His original partners in the booth were Ray "Moose" Turnbull and Linda Moore. Today he's with people who I'm honoured to call friends, Cheryl Bernard and Russ Howard. They are supported on TSN's multi-platform offering by Cathy Gauthier and Stephanie Ledrew. Brian Mudryk of TSN rounds out the broadcast team.

Vic's voice has been the constant over those thirty years and winter for curling fans just wouldn't be the same without the rises and falls of his colourful and skilful call of the game. He knows most if not all of the answers to the questions he poses to Cheryl and Russ but he asks them on our behalf. Questions he feels the audience might ask, to learn more about the game from the inside.

Over his years Vic has become a trusted friend to Curling Canada, the players, the coaches and his media colleagues. Trust is an on air personality's greatest asset (along with the dulcet tones of his/her voice). Walter Cronkite was so trusted as he brought millions of watchers to CBS News that many felt he was the most trusted on air media personality of his generation. No argument from me on that! In the curling world, Vic is our Walter Cronkite.

At last year's Brier in Calgary, I had the honour of coaching the team from the Yukon. We made it to the play-in game as part of the pre-qualification tournament that now precedes the main Brier draw. We were pitted against a young, skilled and dynamic foursome from Prince Edward Island skipped by one of the really bright lights in curling, Adam Casey. Our game was part of the first draw of the Brier and we were TSN's TV game. The game went to an extra end before the island four proved to be the better team. But it's what happened after the game that I want to share with Vic's fans.

As we were packing our brush bag and other paraphernalia, I heard that "voice" over my shoulder as he expressed his professional and personal congratulations to both teams on a wonderful game that TSN viewers found entertaining. Vic didn't have to do that, but he did! It showed me that he's not only a class act on air, he's a class act off it as well!

Vic, on behalf of curling fans everywhere, keep that voice strong, the curling world needs to hear it for many more years!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sometimes The Best Performance Isn't On The Ice

At the recently concluded Canadian Junior Curling Championships presented by the Egg Farmers of Ontario in Stratford, ON something happened in "The Players' Lounge" that once again, confirmed my belief that the sport of curling just brings out the best in its participants, especially those who have the bulk of their career in front of the them.

By now most of you know that one of the real joys of my season is to be the "Curling Canada Mentor Coach" at the national junior event. This was something that Curling Canada started following the 2009 competition in Salmon Arm, BC. At those championships, I had the honour of coaching the BC Junior Men's team. At the coaches' meeting that followed the games, the sentiment was put forth by the coaches that since many of them coached at a national event for the first time (and with a highly interested group of stakeholders [i.e. parents & friends] in tow), it would be beneficial if the then CCA could provide someone who has "been there, done that" with a level of coaching experience and certification to be available for the coaches and players to simply sit down and chat. The eyes in the room cast their stare towards me and in less than a minute I was asked to consider that role.

That was eight junior championships ago and I'm pleased to report that the idea not only had merit at the time but has continued to prove itself. I'm sure any one of my national coaching colleagues would have made the idea a success. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time!

At the "Players's Meeting" the day before play begins, after the speeches have concluded from the Curling Canada personnel, the head umpire, the sponsors and the local organizing committee, all the adults clear the room and I'm left with the athletes. It's the only time I can put on my coaching hat and for a few brief minutes address them all as though they were my team. I remind them about three things. First, the ice and the stones have no idea who you are, what you've done in the past and that this event is for a national championship. Second, the only people in the room who really matter are sitting with you wearing the same uniform. Third, if you want to be the best that you can be during the event, do everything you're able to ensure that your teammates have a great championship.

To make the experience fulfilling for the coaches, each evening I open "The Coaches" Lounge". This is a room at the host hotel were only the coaches can congregate to share stories of the day and generally put their very tired feet up and relax. Often this is where coaches will set up meetings with me to discuss anything "outside the boards"! Each year I conduct about 20 of those meetings during the course of the competition. That's about 160 since the Coach Mentor programme at junior nationals began. Not one time did I have to tell a coach that I could not discuss his/her concern as it was an "inside the boards" topic.

At the conclusion of the week long event, I conduct, on behalf of Curling Canada's Director of Championship Services, Danny Lamoureux, a meeting of the coaches to evaluate the experience. Many of the improvements to the junior national competition have come about as a result of suggestions the coaches have put forward at that meeting.

During the day at the event, I get to watch the future of curling in Canada and marvel at the expertise of the young athletes. The Stratford event was no exception. The shot making was, well, off the charts and I had the best seat in the house to witness it (actually, I have to find a seat just like everyone else).

But it's "The Player's Lounge" that gives me my greatest pleasure. As the name implies, it's for players only. This is when I'm able to talk with the players and find out where they live, what they like to do outside of the sport, what's happening at school or with jobs plus any other topic we find mutually interesting. I'm never Mr. Tschirhart, just "Bill" even though the difference in our age is considerable (and getting wider it seems). But for one week, I'm much closer to their generation than mine. It's a difficult feeling to explain but it's very real.

On one of my visits to the PL in Stratford, in the middle of the room, two athletes were playing "crokinole hockey" (tough to explain in words, you had to be there). What made it of particular interest to me was the relative ages and curling experience of the two young men. One was from Canada's newest entry into the national event and the other was from the only province where curling is the official provincial sport. The young athlete from Nunavut was barely a teenager while the young man from Saskatchewan was in his last year of junior eligibility. For as interesting as the hockey game they were playing was, it's the conversation that took place that caused me to pause.

The athlete from SK might very easily have wanted to spend his down time in the PL with athletes more his age and experience, as opposed to someone much younger and clearly not in his league and no, I don't know who asked who to play the game. It really didn't matter. What mattered was the interest & respect the older curler demonstrated toward the younger. The athlete from SK asked all sorts of questions about life in Rankin Inlet (I could have answered some of those). The Nunavut athlete took great pride in providing the answers. It was clearly obvious that he very much appreciated the time and effort the SK curler took to express interest in his life in Canada's far north.

I only stayed a few minutes as the dialogue continued but the glow I felt has stayed with me and will continue to do so. Once again, as I stated in my speech at the awards banquet as I presented the Asham Coaches' Awards, if anyone ever feels that the future of our country is headed down the wrong path, simply attend any junior curling event and your faith in the future will be restored!

Even though I expressed my personal gratitude to the coaches of the teams at the national event, to coaches across the curling world who give or their time, effort & resources to provided the guidance to young athletes, allow me do it more publicly. Thank you for what you do!!!

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?

THE CASE FOR GRIPPER/GRIPPER

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!!!!!