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!
_________________________________________________________________________________

* 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!!!!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Better Than The Right Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Message Are You Sending?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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