Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Had it! Lost It! How Do I Get It Back?

In most, if not all sports, there's a "critical skill/element" that can't be bottled up, stored, and taken off the shelf when needed. We hear about a gifted pitcher who, for reasons unknown, even though he's applying the same mechanics as always, steps to the pitcher's mound and his pitches don't move the way they should. Great pitchers don't jump off tall buildings when it occurs. Or the elite basketball player whose free throw shooting percentage is in the high 80's or low 90's but on a given night, couldn't throw a table tennis ball into a trash barrel from 3' away.

Frustration soon sets in. "Why can't I do what I know I can do when I need to do it, because I usually can?" Well, one thing's for sure. You're human! How boring it would be to "make everything"! I can hear the laughter from wherever many of you are reading this ("Boring? I'll take that boring!"). Even though that's the knee jerk reaction, I'm suggesting you'd lose a good measure of interest in the sport if that were the case. Why? The challenge is gone! That's what keeps us coming back, the challenge.

I once played a round of golf with my good, long time friend Jim Waite. Jim's an excellent golfer! I started the round playing quite well, at least for me. Then the wheels feel off. Jim exclaimed, "Well, you had it for awhile Bill!" And he was right. I did have it for awhile but it was gone and I didn't know how to get it back.

In curling, the key skill for all curlers, regardless of position played is the feel for draw weight. When you've got it, you feel you really can make everything. When you lose it, yikes, your world comes crashing down around you. How do you get it back?

One's initial reaction to the loss is to concentrate hard on that which is missing. I believe that's the most difficult way to get it back. It can be done, but it's difficult. It's my experience that to recapture that feel for draw weight is better found in using other methods. One is technical in nature and one is based upon awareness. Let's deal with the technical method first and I've written about it on a few previous occasions, in my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") and on this blog site but here goes again.

There are five components to the current, popular delivery (aka no back swing). In order they are; hack position, park, bottom out, slide & release.

I'm not going to make this blog a "curling 101" treatise so I'm going to assume my audience today is comprised of experienced curlers employing this type of delivery but I will explain that "park" means the position of the hips just prior to forward movement and "bottom out" refers to the instant one's hack foot leaves the hack to begin the "slide" phase. Weight control is literally the amount of "time" one consumes from "park-to-bottom out". The less time consumed, the faster one will slide. The more time consumed, the slower one will slide. This is not rocket science! This whole concept is akin to what most curlers will say is "leg drive" but this way of perceiving & expressing it I feel is more descriptive and therefore more useful. So, how does this whole "time from park-to-bottom out" work in a game setting when you've lost that elusive "feel"?

If you have a case of the "heavies", you're adding to much weight to the stone because you are taking too little time from park-to-bottom out and when you enter the slide phase of the delivery, you're sliding too fast, therefore the stone is moving too quickly resulting in a shot that travels too far. If, on the other hand, you're experiencing a case of the "lights", exactly the opposite is true. You are taking too much time from park-to-bottom out. When you enter the slide phase of the delivery, you're sliding too slowly. But, good news on this front! If you read my recent blog entitled, "Don't Even Try To Hit It Straight", you'll know that this is the preferred side of the weight control issue since with an arm extension (added to the power of your teammates with brushes in hand) you can still apply the correct velocity to the stone and make the shot. In the case of sliding too fast, because you've taken too little time from park-to-bottom out, yikes, drop the anchor, not a suggested method for weight control!

When the time taken from park-to-bottom out has been restored, take careful note of what that slide is like and well, feel is now where it belongs, in your back pocket!

But, there is a second method to restore feel. It's awareness! Awareness of what? Actually, it's awareness of many things. As one slides to the release point, without realizing it, there are many cues available to us to indicate the velocity of our slide.

One is "sound". When you're sliding, the delivery device, most likely a brush head turned upside down, will vibrate across the pebbled surface of the ice and create a sound. Slide more slowly or more quickly and the pitch of the sound will change, not much, but the change doesn't have to be dramatic for you to sense it.

Your slider will make a sound, much like your sliding device, but your slider will also send a sensation to the sole of your foot as it vibrates over the pebble. A change is sliding speed will be mimicked by a change in that vibration sensation to your foot.

Even the stone will sound and feel different as it slides more quickly or more slowly across the pebbled ice surface.

And here's the one that we seldom recognize. When you slide through that ocean of cold air, a subtle wind chill is applied to the nerve endings in your cheeks, no not those cheeks, the ones on your face silly! Slide more quickly or more slowly and that wind chill changes, enough to be sensed.

If you have a consistent release point, when you get to it too soon, guess what, you're sliding too fast and conversely if you get to it too late, you're sliding too slowly. This sensation of time consumed to release point is sharpened for those curlers who employ the split/interval timing system.

What does this have to do with the recapturing of feel? You have either shut down or suspended these cues, not intentionally of course. But the key point is to return to a more heightened awareness of them. They in turn will help you recapture "feel".

It's really difficult to "teach" weight control. I've found it most useful to make the athlete aware of the variety of ways it can be attained, which is what this blog is all about. When the athlete has that buffet of information, he/she will select the elements from the buffet table that work for him/her.

Your task as coach/instructor is to set the table and be available to assist when the athlete has made his/her selection. You've done your job. You have empowered the athlete!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Don't Even Try To Hit It Straight

I don't feel you have to be a golfer to appreciate how incredibly talented the professionals (and some amateurs) you see play on TV are. And, should you ever have the inclination or invitation to actually attend a professional tournament, don't even hesitate. Go! It's the best live spectator sport, especially if you attend one of the practice rounds as the players generally don't mind a quick chat as they walk from green to next tee and the taking of photographs is allowed. During the tournament, you can select a spot and watch the groups pass by or you can follow a group or, well, I think you get the picture. It's the just the best!

And, to see them strike the ball, well, it will take your breath away at the distance and accuracy. But, if you're not a golfer, and even if you are, you will be surprised at one aspect of that striking of the ball. Those supremely talented athletes don't even try to hit the ball straight. Wow! Really? They don't try to hit straight? No they don't!

You see, hitting a golf ball is not exactly the easiest motor skill known to mankind even though the ball is stationary and you have all the time required to set up and swing. There are so many variables at play in the striking of a golf ball that it's a game that one can learn relatively quickly and spend a lifetime attempting to master, even within one's physical limitations. One of the biggest problems facing the recreational golfer is this whole business of trying to hit the ball straight. Assuming one is a right-handed golfer, usually as the ball leaves the club head, it will begin to travel a curved path either from right-to-left (hook) or left-to-right (slice). Unless things have changed since I started to play, most beginning golfers slice the ball left-to-right and that is exasperating to say the least.

So, what does the slicer or hooker of the ball try to do? They try to hit it straight and therein lies the problem. The professionals don't. Why would you? Allow me to explain the basic physics involved.

To swing a golf club in such a way so that for the millisecond the face of the club is in contact with the ball, it's exactly perpendicular to the intended trajectory of the ball, straight in this case, is asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. It's very unlikely that's going to happen and, when one tries to hit the ball straight, they're a fraction from either slicing or hooking the ball. Usually, and the recreational golfer knows not when, the right-to-left or left-to-right trajectories rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times (left-to-right when right-to-left would have been OK and right-to-left when left-to-right would have sufficed). Grrrrr!!!!!

What does the low handicap (golf parlance for "really good golfer") do? He/she "shapes" the ball. He/she decides, given the natural tendencies of his/her swing, to hit it right-to-left or left-to-right but under control. The curved trajectory is not great. In fact, the recreational golfer's "slice", in the hands of a really good golfer is now called a "fade" and that duck "hook" becomes a "draw". And, through practice with an instructor, the elite golfers can "work the ball" either way. But, the point here is that for all intents and purposes, he/she does not try to hit it straight, for the reason stated above.

Think of it this way. You're on the tee for a par 4 or 5. You have that pesky driver in your hand. The fairway is, oh let's say, 40 yards wide and, of course, you're trying to hit the ball straight down the middle of the fairway. But, most of the time, in attempting that, you will either slice or hook the ball and let's say that's exactly what occurs. How much of the fairway do you have left if you're trying to hit it down the middle? Right, only half of it (i.e. 20 yards). Even if it lands on the fairway, it's headed for the rough, trees, or out-of bounds. Yuk! Sound familiar?

Now, let's return to the tee but with a difference. You don't try to hit the ball straight down the middle. You have developed a right-to-left trajectory (a draw for that right handed golfer) so you set up somewhat toward the right portion of the fairway. You can do that because you know for sure, you're not going to hit the ball left-to-right (slice). You might hit it fairly straight but you're anticipating that nice draw (right-to-left). How much of the fairway do you have to land the ball? Right, more than 20 yards, much more, likely most of the width of the fairway. Now do you see that you shouldn't try to hit the ball straight?

And, the same is true for curling (you knew I get a round to the curling tie-in at some point) but it's not about trajectory, it's about "weight control", the most important skill of the game!

Did you watch the recent "Continental Cup"? Did you notice the shooting percentages of players who participated in the "mixed doubles"? Athletes who were accustomed to shooting in the high 80's and low 90's were shooting in the high 50's and low 60's. What's with that? I hope the answer was obvious. Those wonderful curlers didn't have their support system in place (i.e. their brushing teammates). They had to try to deliver the down weight shots with exactly the right weight. And the result frequently was a stone that was either light or heavy. In golfing terms, they were trying to hit the ball straight.

What they do most all the time, for a down weight shot (i.e. any shot that's intended to remain in play [draws & guards]) is slide from the hack somewhat more slowly than required and if they have the weight of their body evenly distributed on their slider, thus reducing the rate of deceleration, they will monitor the velocity of the slide and with a "soft elbow" (i.e. slightly bent) extend the delivery arm to add the weight required so that the brushers can take it the rest of the way to its intended destination.

But that's generally not what recreational (& some more competitive) curlers even attempt to do. They try as hard as they can to slide from the hack at exactly the right velocity. When you do that you're asking the largest muscle group in the body, the quadriceps (in the thigh) to execute a fine motor skill and it's the muscle group least prepared, physiologically, to do that. I was party to a study, when I was the National Development Coach, that proved this fact. The curler that was used for the study, at the time, had two world championships to his credit. This elite athlete could not drive from the hack at a consistent velocity. But, in competition, this athlete had superb weight control.

In other words, the sport science simply doesn't support the notion that even an experienced and talented curler can slide from the hack at exactly the right speed. So, "don't even try to hit it straight"!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Code Red Or Code Blue?

In a recent blog I identified what in my experience is the most poorly played shot across the curling spectrum, the guard. Well, this shot is in second spot on that list in my opinion. It's the time-hounoured "come around" shot!

In a free guard zone era, this is the shot that's played often, very often and to play this shot well is usually critical to the outcome of the game. We've heard all the cliches regarding a less than stellar execution of the come around with, "We're just on the wrong side of the inch/millimetre" the likely leader in the excuse category! Translation, "Doesn't matter where we place the target brush, and even if we hit that brush with the right weight, we're going to 'tick' the guard!" Here's my take on why this shot is a close second to the guard on the list of most poorly played shots and like playing a guard, it's the way the shot is attempted that's the problem.

We all can identify with a scenario in which, after a tough loss, we lament about "ticking" so many guards and almost for sure, someone on the team will utter the phrase, "Yah, and in the 6th end all we had to do was get past the guard, why did we play it so close?". Right, why did you? It was more a mental error than an execution error and there's a simple way to make sure you don't commit those "unforced errors" that so often sink the ship.

When contemplating a come around, ask yourself whether you really need to "bury" the stone about to be played or is it more than good enough to just make sure you get "past the guard". When you make that determination, you need to convey that message to the team. You need to let the team know if this is a code red come around (i.e. we have to come close the guard as we need to bury the shooter) or a code blue (i.e. let's not tick the guard which right now is in a favourable position, let's just get past it, then worry about the curl to get around it).

You can create your own system of communication but if I may, when I skipped, a code red come around was indicated by tapping the final destination location with my brush and then with a clinched fist in front of my chest, indicating that I was giving just enough ice to miss the guard. If it was a code blue then no clinched fist which indicated that I was giving a liberal amount of ice so the shooter ended up going past the guard.

Make no mistake, in both cases we're attempting to, well, come around the guard, thus the name. The difference is "execution tolerance". For a code red, we've decided that the risk of ticking the guard is worth it but in a code blue situation, it isn't.

It's really important to ensure that the entire team is aware of the "code". If it's a code red, the shooter knows that you as the skip, have already accounted for the tight target and conversely, in a code blue, you've done the same. There's no need for the shooter to do likewise.

When I was the National Development Coach at the the National Training Centre in Calgary, I had one of my more interesting telephone calls. It was from one of the top coaches in our country who lamented that his team, one of the top female teams in Canada, was not executing come arounds "worth a darn" (his description was not for family consumption). He had tried everything to remedy the situation and asked for my advice. Yikes, what was a going to say? I said I needed to think on the matter and would get back to him. And that's what led to the whole "code red/blue" idea. The skip wasn't letting the team know "what was acceptable". In other words, it was a matter of communication, not execution. It was the team that came up with "clinched fist for code red" idea. They began to execute the shot much better and I had an idea I could use for my own team.

So, the next time you take to the ice, make sure your team has some method to tell the difference between a come around that's intended to bury the shooter from one for which the shooter needs to get past the guard.

If I may, before I leave you today, I want to resurrect an idea that Linda Moore (we miss you on the TSN broadcasts and wish you good health) put forward. She called it "maximizing every shot". So often when we play guards and come arounds, with a little foresight, we can not only get around a guard or when placing a guard, we can also choke off a potential raise your opponent might attempt. Bottom line, when calling a shot (strategy) then deciding how to play the shot (tactic) get the most out of it. And thank Linda!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Mine Field of Play Downs

The curling world is abuzz this week (especially that part of the curling world known as "the centre of the universe" [aka southern Ontario]) with the demise of one of the elite men's curling teams in the nation at the regional level in its quest to compete for yet another provincial title. It isn't the end of the road in this populous province as those who  qualify for regional play, regardless of the outcome, get a spot in what's known as "The Challenge Round", a last chance attempt to qualify for provincial honours.

The dilemma for this team is one of timing. It has a spot in "The TSN Skins Game" which just happens to coincide with the aforementioned last chance event. What to do? What to do?

I'm here to report that as of this scribbling, the team has decided to fore go fame and fortune (well, at least some potential fortune) and continue on the road to the "Tim Nortons Brier" in Calgary but even though I admire that decision, this is not an editorial on the decision, it's to deal with how an elite curling team with talent coming out of its ears and experience beyond measure, got it into regional play down and lost twice!

For want of a better term, I'm going to refer to this elite team as a "Grand Slam Team" as that's the competitive environment in which it plays. In other words, its opponents are primarily the relatively small group of elite teams in the curling world. They play for large dollars most all the time! They don't go to your local weekend or one day fun spiels. Not that they are nose-in-the-air arrogant about playing with us regular folk, in a manner of speaking, ironically enough, they can't afford the time as those big money events consume a lot of it and they have jobs & families too.

And therein lies one of this team's self inflicted wounds. For a variety of largely understandable reasons, all the teams they play, well, play the same way. And that my friends is why so often a team like this finds the sledding at play downs tougher than it might have expected. The teams it meets there, don't read that "Grand Slam" playbook and don't play the way this team's opponents do! Oh, yes, and by the way, teams that sign on for provincial/territorial play downs are pretty good curlers who for reasons known only to them don't play in the same events as those elite teams. The comfort level of play from a strategical and tactical perspective has been removed for the elite teams (see more about "strategy & tactics" below). On the other hand, those local play down teams watch carefully as the elite teams play in those televised events and as a result, the play down teams pretty much know exactly how the elite teams are going to play, something of an advantage I would suggest, in some cases, a significant advantage.

Then we come to what in my estimation is the second most important reason elite teams struggle in play downs. It's the ice!

Trust me on this, the ice technicians that make the ice for those large money events make ice that the play downs teams will seldom, if ever experience. I call it "pampered ice" and have referred to it many times in my scribblings. It's, well, different from curling club ice and playing on it is why those who aspire to playing in the Grand Slam type events regularly, don't play up to their talent level as they become accustomed to the nuances of such a sheet of curing ice. If play downs leading to provincial play were played on pampered ice, any of the advantages local play down teams might have would be so much pebble water. Now that many provinces and territories use arenas for their final play down stage, and in may cases employ those same ice technicians, any elite teams that do survive the mine field of play downs, do very well and return regularly to the Brier & Scotties.

I can hear the naysayers even before I hit "publish", "Well, if those elite teams are so good, why can't they make the adjustment to local ice conditions?". Good question and here's my answer. In many cases they can & do but in some instances, the differences between pampered and curling club ice are so different, it can play a significant role in levelling the playing field. If you are still skeptical on this ask any local play down bound team if they would choose to play an elite team on regular curling club/facility ice or in an arena on pampered ice and if you get a response that they'd rather play them on pampered ice, let me know so I can hurry to my local convenience store and buy a lottery ticket and then check for that second blue moon in the sky.

Local play down teams aren't stupid, they know that curling club ice is the great equalizer not just for the differences referred to above but for another reason. Many of the shots elite teams can play because of the pampered ice upon which they play, they simply can't play on curling club ice and the shots curling club ice does allow them to play, they must play them somewhat differently. In other words, it's the elite team that's taken out of its comfort zone. That team must make the changes. The local play down team does not and again, don't forget, as stated above, they are really good players in their own rite.

Then there's the attitude thing! What's that? What attitude thing? It's this! That local team is playing with "house money". It's the more dangerous team as its expectation of victory is very different from that of the elite team. All the pressure is on the elite team! How embarrassing it would be to lose to the local team! As the local team prepares to play that elite team, it bands together and in many cases plays a very simple style in a let's-stick-together-and-play-for-one-another environment. It realizes its  only chance is to trust the skills the team has, singular and plural. Trust, if you've read my blogs and my coaching manual (A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion) is a powerful weapon, very powerful!

Now, put all these factors together, mix them up and you get the situation the Canadian curling world is buzzing about! I was not surprised at the news about this elite team's struggles in play downs and feel somewhat for them as I consider them friends and know how hard they have worked to become one of curling's elite and much of that work is useless given those ice conditions.

Many provinces & territories have adopted a format whereby the defending champion moves directly to that province or territory's final stage. Make no mistake, when an elite team wins its provincial/territorial championship knowing it does not have to make its way down the play down trail the following year, it's a huge sigh of relief!

So what's the lesson for your team? I feel there's one for sure. Don't be predictable! It's somewhat of an occupational hazard for the elite teams but it doesn't have to be for you. There's a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is your plan, for a game, an end or a shot. But in many cases, there are a variety of ways you can execute that plan. That's tactics. Don't get stuck in a rut and employ the same tactic all the time. Use a variety! Make your opponent uncomfortable when it sees it plays your team next. Leave your opponent in a constant state of wonder (i.e. "I wonder how they're going to play this shot?")!

And to my friends is they enter that Challenge Round, good luck, you may need it!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rachel Was Right!

In yesterday's (12.14.14) final game of the Women's Canadian Open Grand Slam event in Yorkton, SK, in the last end, without last stone advantage, Rachel Homan, on her first shot, with no centre line guards but with two corner guards, one on each side of the sheet (albeit not great corner guards) decided to come around one of them as opposed to placing a centre line guard. Rachel played exactly the right shot, in my humble opinion, and here's why. And before I explain my position on this, club curlers take note, this is something as much for you as those elite teams!

Let's face it, Team Homan was not in a good position to win the game! Make no mistake! What I'm about to share with you is not magic. It's simply a way to make the opposing skip's last shot as difficult as possible.

When you're in a position in the last end and you need to steal and you find, as the end dwindles down to a precious few stones with none even near the centre line, but you have some corner guards (likely peels from your opponent that didn't make it to the side line/board) placing another centre line guard is a wasted shot! (What's that about run-on sentences?)

Thank about it, if there are no centre line guards for you to draw around that late in the end, your opponent is very unlikely to "nose" the centre line guard you're contemplating. That's just not playing the odds! But, let's in our mind, play that out. You place a centre line guard. The opposing skip successfully peels it away (and, perhaps in the process, leaves another corner guard). What shot will you play on your last shot? Right, you'll choose the better/best of the corner guards available and draw around it. What shot does that leave for your opponent to win the game? Right again, an open draw to the 4'!

OK, let's back up the bus to that time when you're getting ready for your first shot. What other shot might you play besides the centre line guard? Well, the shot you know you'll play on your second shot (coming around the better/best corner guard you'll be left with after your opponent peels the centre line guard you're considering). Go around it on your first shot! In fact, if your opponent is that adept at peeling centre line guards, you might even get your third/mate to come around a corner guard on his/her second shot.

So, you do that. You don't even have to fully bury your stone but for the sake of this blog, we'll assume you leave only a small portion of your shot (nicely nestled just above the tee line) visible. What shot does your opponent play? He/she will attempt to remove it making sure to play the shot with "inside" as the execution tolerance to at least, remove the guard. If you recall, Eve Moorhead did exactly that, removing the corner guard. And what shot did Rachel play on her second shot? She placed her stone on the centre line, in the house, in such a position that if Eve hit it on the nose, she would not be shot. It forced Eve to play around the stone Rachel had just played which is higher on the degree of difficulty scale than the open draw to which I referred above! QED!

So, the next time you're in the same position in which Rachel found herself yesterday, remember this approach. At the club level, that opposing skip will think twice about making sure his/her shot does not wreck on the stone you've placed in the house on the centre line and more times than not, just that thought, well, "What would you like to drink?" just might be the next thing you find yourself saying!

Before I leave you toady, here's another situation where club level teams make a tactical mistake in my view. It's the classic early-in-the-end miss from the opposition leaving you lying "one" on one side of the house. The instinct of course, is to draw to the other side, "splitting the rings". You envision trading takeouts for an easy two! Whoa, not so easy! If that's your aspiration, here's what your saying. "My team can hit-and-stay and/or draw our way to the conclusion of the end!". Well, if that's in your team's skill set based upon "competitive data", then go for it! But, here's the rest of that story. If you hit and don't stay in the house, or miss the replacing draw, your hope of scoring that easy two will evaporate like a snowflake on hot pavement.

You must make all your shots! Your opponent has 50% wiggle room. If they hit and roll out, no harm done. Now you must precisely replace your stone. If they do hit-and-stay, you must do likewise with no room for error and you have to do that repeatedly!

Let's go back to that early miss by your opponent. What might you do instead of drawing to the opposite side of the house? Right! Guard the stone you already have in the house, and, in the process, leave only the outside of the stone showing. Now what does your opponent do? Right again! It's decision time. Does he/she peel, draw around to get shot or attempt the take out? The takeout will not be very palatable as it will result in the shooter rolling out of the house in all likelihood.

In essence, what you've done is decided to play for three rather than two! And, the shots you play are no more difficult than those you would play to score two, in fact, I can make the case they're actually easier. But let's get back to the decision facing your opponent.

You hope they decide to play the draw to freeze to the inside corner of your stone that's in the house. I know. If they do, then they've taken your possible two away but I feel it's a risk worth taking! My own observation, at the club level, is that the freeze is unlikely to be played well, leaving you with a chance to draw around your corner guard one more time and if it's a second miss by your opponent, then you don't need to "tickle the dragon's tail" any longer. Now you draw to the open side and exchange takeouts and having to do it fewer times. Even if you didn't hit-and-stay, your opponent is left with that same difficult scenario described above.

If this is not a tactic with which you're familiar, try it, it can't hurt and just might be a an early Christmas present for you and your teammates!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Role of the Coach

The coaching profession, as it is practised in the sport of curling, took a direct blow a number of times at the recent Canada Cup in Camrose, AB! Television viewers were left with the distinct impression that curlers at the highest level are moving away from a "coach". Actually, in many cases they are but they're not moving away from "coaching". Allow me to explain.

I wish I had my proverbial nickel for every time a team asked me how to find a coach. My answer is, "Don't look for one person. Tap into a variety of individuals whose knowledge, experience and pedagogy you respect in areas where you feel you and your team need to improve."

I go on to make the point that for athletes at the highest level, their needs are very different from most curlers. They need "experts" in team dynamics, mental preparation, strategy & tactics, skill development and maintenance, nutrition, physical preparation and yearly planning. It would be difficult indeed, if not downright impossible to find one person who is expert in all of those areas. So, don't even look for one but that said, if you can find someone who perhaps is expert and experienced enough in some of the areas identified above and will facilitate the securing of experts in those areas where he/she is not cognisant, then you have a modern day "coach"!

And, that's exactly what the elite teams have done, each in its own way. The time each team spends away from the bright lights and cameras is spent under the watchful, knowledgeable and experienced eyes of many people who are prepared to help the team move its yardsticks down the field. In the setting where we see them (i.e. on TV at various events) there could be any one of those individuals sitting on the coaches' bench. That person might be the team's sport psychologist, the fifth player, the coach or perhaps no one at all. But make no mistake, coaching has never been more a part of the sport of curling than it is right now. It just looks different.

When interviewed by a member of the media while I was the National Development Coach for the CCA at the National Training Centre about the role of a curling coach, I listed over 20 separate roles a "coach" might play from "transportation co-ordinator" to "sport psychologist". Clearly the roles a "coach" will play will depend on a variety of factors not the least of which is the age and experience of the athletes.

Competitive teams who feel they can go it alone are like the defendant who thinks he/she can defend him/herself at trial, they have a fool for a client! No seriously competitive team, in the modern curling environment can "go it alone". At the recent Canada Cup, there was a misleading comment made several times that a particularly high profile elite men's teams had indeed decided to do just that. Well, that's not really accurate.

If a coach has done his/her job particularly well, that is to completely empower the team and its members, the last person they need in competition is the coach! And that's what we see sometimes on TV, no one at the coaches' bench. All that means is that all those who have helped the team prepare, have done so to the point that the team needs to be able to learn if it has been completely empowered.

Professional golfers are a good analogy here. When you see them play a tournament on TV, the only person present is the player's caddie, who certainly can be a key factor in the degree of success of the athlete but in no way can provide everything he/she needs to play at the highest level in a sport where the differences in performance are miniscule. What we don't see are the hours spent on the range with the swing coach, the sport psychologist, the personal trainer, the agent, the business manager, to name but a few.

Canada is blessed with what arguably is the best coach/instructor training system on the planet, the National Coaching Certification Programme (NCCP). One of the NCCP's early sponsors was the 3M Company and its slogan was, "Every athlete deserves a certified coach!". That was true then and is even more so today. We now have athletes playing at the highest levels who grew up in the NCCP environment. They have always had a certified coach. In my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") I penned an article entitled "Coaching Certification: Why Bother?" pp.14-16.

To be a certified coach, one will have spent as many hours learning skills unique to coaching as a player playing at the highest levels will to be the best he/she can be on the ice. Attending countless symposia, conferences, camps dialoguing with a variety of teams, athletes and coaches is what makes a certified coach, well, certified, to say nothing of the burgeoning plethora of sport science data that's now available. A certified coach has demonstrated that he/she not only has acquired a body of knowledge but has the pedagogy to get that message across to the athletes. This takes time, a lot of time, time a player playing a rigorous schedule for several years will find exceedingly difficult to  replace when his/her playing career comes to an end.

As one recently retired, elite player, now coaching his son's bantam team said to me, "Wow, I didn't realize how different it is to be coach. There really are coaching skills and playing skills!"

Emerging curling countries, eager to get on the world stage, frequently look to a recently retired player to be its "National Coach", suffering from the delusion that an elite player must be an elite coach. Well, to those countries I say this, "Maybe, over time, but you likely can't afford that much time. What you have is a player who knows much about a very narrow body of work. He/she has likely played in the same competitive environment most, if not for all of his/her competitive career. He/she will be able to tell you what his/her team did to prepare but that's about as deep as it gets. Is that really who you want at the  controls of your national team programme. If it is, let me know how that goes!"

I can't believe in today's so-called "enlightened environment" we still have people in sport who feel that to be a great coach, you must have been a great player. Rasmus Ankersen, in his ground-breaking book "The Gold Mine Effect"* wanted to know why the best middle distance runners come from the same Ethiopian village, why 137 of the top 200 female golfers come from S. Korea, why the world's best sprinters not only come from the island nation of Jamaica but why they train at the same track club in Kingston (which by the way doesn't even have a running track), why the world's best soccer players come from areas of Brazil with no soccer pitches and why most of the world's best female tennis players come from Russia. To say it's a fascinating read would be putting it mildly (a wonderful item for your letter to Santa?). But here's the thing, in each of these pockets (gold mines) of athletic excellence, there is a "coach" (Ankersen refers to them as "gurus") who has never played the sport! Saying that a coach must have had a distinguished playing career is like saying that a cardiologist must have had a heart attack.

Now, make no mistake, I don't want to paint all retired, elite players with the same brush. There indeed have been players of this ilk who have made the transition but did so devoting much time, once their playing career concluded, to attending at least some of those conferences, symposia, camps etc. referred to earlier. To those who have done so, welcome to the company of elite coaches! We're happy to have you on board.

To those emerging curling countries, I will leave you with a word of caution the ancient Romans uttered thousands of years ago, caveat emptor (get googling)!

Before I leave you today, I want to suggest to curling's broadcast partners and promoters that it's disingenuous to not recognize the team's coach and 5th player when the team is acknowledged either in person on pre-recording. If you're going to recognize the team, recognize the whole team!

* The Gold Mine Effect - Rasmus Ankersen (Harper Collins) ISBN 10: 1443420573

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!