Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Push Comes To Shove

During the lead up to the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, where curling was a demonstration sport, there was much ado about exactly how Canada should select its representatives. It was decided that an evaluation camp was to be held in Calgary some months prior to the event as part of the process. To say that decision caused quite a stir was akin to comparing hurricane Sandy to a bad weather day.

I won't go into the details of the acrimony caused by both the inclusion and exclusion of particular Canadian curlers but the media had a field day (or weeks) publishing and commenting on the continuous flow of sound bites emanating from various athletes. Those of "a certain age" I'm sure will vividly recall many of them. Most of the more memorable quotes originated with an Ontario curler whose curling nickname identified a common workshop tool.

But despite the rancor caused by the evaluation camp, there were some very interesting data which surfaced from the testing of the athletes. One had an immediate impact on instructors whose responsibility it was to establish curricula for the way delivering the curling stone was taught.

Clearly the male subjects tested better on down weight shots (i.e. draws) than their female counterparts and as I recall, the difference in the test scores was striking. No sweeping/brushing accounted for the difference as the shots were not aided in any way.

Visual evidence showed that female curlers were delivering the stone pretty much the way we taught it at that time, with a relatively straight arm, while most of the men clearly had a delivery arm that was "bent". As much as could be determined, that was the only visual difference. Male curlers, as they reached the release point appeared to monitor the velocity of their slide and add whatever was required through a smooth, unhurried arm extension. To allow that arm extension to fine tune the weight of the stone the athlete had to be sliding "slower" than the required velocity which seemed a relatively easy task. The majority of the female athletes relied on their speed-from-the-hack as the sole determining factor for weight control, a relatively difficult task.

While I was National Development Coach for the CCA at the National Training Centre in Calgary, I recall a study conducted by a physics professor from Queen's University (Kingston, ON) who was charged with the responsibility of determining if a skilled athlete could drive from the hack repeatedly with the same velocity. I'll spare the details of his methodology and tell you that he concluded the athlete could not control his velocity from the hack using leg drive alone! When his empirical data was released I recall conversing with him suggesting that in my mind, the test subject may not have been able to drive from the hack with the same velocity time-after-time but when one took into account the assistance of his brushers/sweepers, the differences according to the professor's rather strict standards were negated. In other words, the athlete could control his speed out of the hack well within the power of his brushing/sweeping teammates.

But the point was made. Drive from the hack uses the largest muscle group in the human body, the quadriceps (thigh). They are the muscles least designed for fine motor control. The arm, with biceps and triceps, is an aid to weight control that we were ignoring.

As instructors, we got the message. We changed our instructional material to encourage curlers to slide with a "soft elbow" so that as they slide (slower than draw weight would dictate) there was a "fine tuning mechanism" (arm extension) available to add the necessary velocity. And that's the way curlers control the speed of the stone to this very day. But there's a problem as I see it and its why I've entitled this post "When Push Comes To Shove".

In a nutshell, in my view, we've gone a little overboard with what was supposed to be a "fine tuning mechanism" (FTM) and I see way too many curlers trying to emulate the elite athletes they see on TV who by talent and much, much practice, literally push the stone forward, under control and still rotate the stone. That's not easy to do! It does require talent and practice, a lot of practice. Many elite curlers tend to slide forward with a consistent velocity with the FTM (I'm sticking with that term) as the primary source of weight control. Again, they get away with it for the reasons cited above.

For the rest of us, who play for a very different reason than those you see on TV, relying on the FTM is dangerous to say the least. You should, in my view, practise propelling your body forward from the hack at differing velocities so that you can adjust your slide speed to just under the requirement for draw weight, monitor your body speed and then apply the FTM as required. To acquire that skill, practise sliding to predetermined distances (perhaps marked by paper/plastic cups) at various intervals down the ice "without a stone" (the corollary benefit is a check on balance). And this applies to takeouts as well! Again, I see too many curlers getting most of the weight of the stone, even on takeouts with what has now become a "push". Whoa, good luck with that! Delivering a takeout is no different than delivering a draw. You still slide out of the hack with slightly less velocity than required and add the FTM.

I'm going to show a bias here but if you want to emulate someone's delivery in terms of the release of the stone, someone you see on TV frequently, emulate Glenn Howard! You won't see the violent push forward from him and that release, silky smooth.

If you have a million dollar slide and a two cent release, you've got a two cent delivery!

As a parting note, I asked the good professor from Queen's if the inability (again based upon his standards which I still feel were too strict) for a curler to push from the hack with consistent velocity applied to everyone. He said there will be some, a very small minority, who can adjust the speed of their slide and stay inside the power of the brushers/sweepers. Not that it matters to the premise of this post but I was one of those. In my competitive playing days in the 1700's, although I never had a "ram rod straight delivery arm", I did not employ an FTM so coaches, don't feel that all your athletes must use one, but clearly most should!

For more about velocity from the hack, turn to p.45 in your copy of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" and read the article "You Have the Power"

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