Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mail Bag

As any "ink-stained wretch" (aka journalist) will tell you, it's not the writing that's the challenge so much as coming up with a topic of interest to readers. Questions from the readers remove that issue and make the writing purposeful and therefore somewhat easier. As you can see by the title, that's the case today.
I recently received some "interesting" questions from a coach who works extensively with "little rockers" and a competitive bantam team. I want to congratulate this coach's efforts, especially with the "little rockers". They are our future. I felt his questions were ones that might have a broader appeal than a simple e-mail response on my part. That said, here are the questions and my responses to them.

#1 What are the biggest mistakes & myths you see in curling training? What are the biggest wastes of time?

I have heard more than one expert refer to our sport as the "technocentric" sport (my spell checker does not recognize "technocentric" but I think you get the idea). As seen by others outside curling, we are obsessed with our curling deliveries, obsessed! Clearly, those outside the sport of curling see us as way over the top regarding the technical aspects of the game. Generally, I agree but I'm quick to add that one's curling delivery is his/her signature skill. It's what defines us in the sport and no, we do not have to all look the same as we deliver the curling stone. I have written about this in a number of articles in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" so I'll be succinct here when I say that your delivery needs to meet three criteria in my view. It must be straight, simple & silent (the title of the very first article every penned by yours truly). But here's the "waste of time" part, it does NOT have to be perfect! I feel very strongly that too many aspiring, high performance athletes spend in inordinate amount of time trying to perfect the curling delivery! Each one of us, given that we got a good start in the game by receiving instruction from a certified instructor so that we do not make obvious mistakes, has a very "serviceable" delivery inside of us. The goal of a good instructor/coach is to help you let that delivery "out" and make you aware of why it's the best way for you to deliver a curling stone, not because anyone else does it that way, but because it's the best way for you to do it! There may be some physical challenges with which the athlete is dealing. Those must not be ignored and many times it will result in an accommodation to those challenges that make the delivery look a little different. Just remember, slide straight, keep the delivery as simple as possible and make the release silent!
There are so many other aspects of your skill set that need attention, mostly on the "warm side of the glass". If you're spending hours upon hours searching for that perfect delivery, you're short changing areas that are just, if not more important that your curling delivery. For example, how much time have you spent developing the skills necessary to preserve and protect that curling delivery you've worked so hard to attain in training so that it will not break down in competition? Hmmm, little or none? I rest my case!
Since this coach works mostly with athletes at an early stage of development, I'll also add what I hope is obvious. Each of those little rockers and bantams are changing physically and for some, in dramatic fashion. Their curling delivery will change regularly and sometimes, in one of those "transition" phases where co-ordination is a little behind physical development, that curling delivery might look pretty ragged. Not to worry, everything will catch up!
I'll touch on another myth in curling, at least in my opinion and I've written about this recently. It's about the selection of a coach. The myth is that any elite player with an enviable track record will make an equally outstanding coach by default. That elite player might indeed become an elite coach but it won't be because of his/her playing career. It will be for other reasons he/she will learn as his/her coaching career flourishes. There are playing skills and there are coaching skills. Full stop! (See "The Anatomy of a Curling Coach" [3/1/13] on this site.)

#2 What are the biggest mistakes novices make in the curling delivery? Even at the elite level, what mistakes are most common?

When I see recreational curlers, either in a clinic setting or in games at their curling facility, I see one aspect of the delivery that causes more missed shots than any other. It's the use of the sliding device! Most curlers use their brush as their sliding device although some use other means (i.e. stabilizer). If a novice uses his/her brush, usually they start with the brush in a reasonably good position (i.e. the head of the brush is approximately opposite the leading edge of the stone). That head-opposite-stone relationship keeps the athlete "square" to the line of delivery, a really good thing when one is starting out and not a bad idea for the remainder of one's curling career I might add! The problem comes as the athlete slides forward, that head-opposite-stone relationship begins to break down to the point that for many novices, at the most critical time in the delivery (the release), the brush head is now well behind the stone resulting in an upper body "bent out of shape" (twisted) to the point that "square-to-the-line-of-delivery" is just a memory. Delivering the stone along its intended line is now a challenge that rarely succeeds.
To compound the problem, many times, in fact most of the time, the curler will not realize that the relationship between brush head and stone as broken down (enter "visual recording"). When the athlete sees it, he/she will believe it!
I'll mention another issue with novice curlers and it's the sliding foot. When the novice slides he/she should be able to feel that the weight of the body is evenly distributed on the slider (side-to-side & front-to-back). When a novice does that, two really good things occur. First, it's virtually impossible to "drift" (another challenge that seems to present itself to novices). Second, the velocity that's generated from the hack will be maintained for a longer period of time thus making weight control easier.
I'll make one statement re. elite curlers. Some elite curlers are that way not because of their curling delivery, but rather in spite of it. No, wild horses will not draw out who I feel falls into that second category so don't even ask but there are several in my view.
Recreational curlers need to understand that what they see on TV is the end product of several years of dedicated training, not always under the watchful eye of a certified coach/instructor and the athlete participates in a very narrow competitive environment. As a result, he/she has customized the delivery, brushing etc. to meets those very specific, narrow needs. What you don't see on TV are the long hours of practising with the basics that were taught to him/her at a very early stage of his/her career.
Listen to the advice of your certified coach and when you watch TV, enjoy it for what it is!

#3 What are the key principles for better, more consistent deliveries? What would the progression of exercises or drills look like?

I like this question for what it "assumes". It assumes the curler will practise, what a novel idea! So let's "assume" that the curler will take some time to work on the consistency that seems so elusive to so many. To be sure, there is a very small minority of athletes in a sporting endeavours who practise infrequently who will, by their standards, achieve acceptable results. In my four categories of curlers (recreational, serious, competitive and elite) only recreational curlers get away with this premise/rationale. I have great respect for recreational curlers but to be honest, they really don't give a "tinker's damn" if they play well or not. They have the time of their life on the ice with people with whom they enjoy curling and the w's & l's also don't enter into the picture. Despite my encouragement to spend some time improving their skills with the goal of enhancement of the experience, it mostly falls on deaf ears. It's simply not high on the priority list so Bill, get over it.
For those in the remaining three groups, practise, meaningful and based upon sound training principles (as taught by a certified instructor so that practise doesn't end up making the curler simply very good at doing the wrong thing) is the key to consistency. There's no short cut! If there was, I think I'd know about it but to date, it doesn't exist!
The second portion of this question refers to exercises and drills. I'll touch on one I like and hope readers who have not already done so, will purchase a copy of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" to learn about others. I feel placing paper cups on varying lines of delivery with the athlete (with or without sliding device 7 without a stone) trying to knock the cup(s) down with the sliding foot is very beneficial!

While I was answering the questions sent to me by the bantam coach, I had another coach ask about "peaking" and whether I had an material on the subject. I said I didn't per se so I'd do some research on that topic and report back. I'm into the research and will report back in my next post. Stay tuned!

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