Friday, November 1, 2013

The Performance Cocktail: The "Quiet Eye Home Assignment" Followup

Well, what did you think about those videos ("On the Ball" & "Brainy Putting)? If you don't have the foggiest idea what I'm talking about, please stop here and return to my post of 22/10/13 and read "Quiet Eye - A Home Assignment"!

Call me easily impressed but I found the two videos revolutionary, both as player & coach! Let's start with "On the Ball". PBS chose wisely in my view, when it selected the well respected actor, Alan Alda (M*A*S*H) to be its host. In the videos you must remember that he was not given one bit of technical advice, zero, and yet you saw him drop putt-after-putt, make several basketball free throws and in one case defeat a professional golfer, by a considerable margin, in a putting contest (albeit with special rules).

You met Dr. Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary who chose to examine what athletes actually look at and postulated about what they should really focus on and for how long, based upon her research. When Alan Alda first started putting, he was terrible to say the least. Dr. Vickers' headgear camera which tracked his stare, showed that his focus was very random. Dr Vickers then made some suggestions. Focus on the target (the hole) to take a picture of it in the "mind's eye". She then suggested that he return his gaze to the back of the ball, strike the ball with the putter, watch the putter strike the ball and remain focused on the spot where putter met ball. In the second video ("Brainy Putting") Dr. Crews added to that by suggesting that he rate his putt soon after contact on a scale of 1-10.  As you saw, when Alda did that his success rate continued to improve (& remember, without any technical advice about grip, putter head movement follow through etc.). From "On the Ball" there were two conclusions that had impact for both golf & curling.

First, you must look at something very specific. For the basketball player it meant focusing on the spot where the front loop of the basketball net met the rim. For curlers, it must be more specific than just the skip's brush. At the National Training Centre, we put a turn of brightly coloured tape around the handle of the target brush, near where the brush handle met the brush head. That became our real/specific target.

Second was the matter of duration of the focus. How long should one stare at that specific target? For the sports mentioned in the video, it seemed to Dr. Vickers that the "stare" was not exceeding about 3 seconds. She felt that the purpose of the stare was to allow the brain to gather as much information as it required. When the brain reached that information saturation point, it was time for the body to take action. Focusing longer on the target could be a distraction. Wow, who knew?

That conclusion sent shivers up my coaching spine when I thought of the legion of curlers who were instructed to never take their eye off the brush. Yikes, that's just wrong! Again, I see just one more instance of respecting the body's natural instincts. The curler will know (because the brain will tell him/her) when to "go"! And if that means taking one's eyes from the target and looking down at the rock, then that's what the athlete should be allowed to do! Please don't ever tell an athlete that he/she must never take his/her eyes from the target! But, if taking eyes from the target does occur, it must never be to the left or right, only up or down!

I have a video of a junior athlete with whom I had the privilege of working at a summer camp a few years ago and who I met recently once again at a high performance camp I conducted. She is my poster person for "Quiet Eye". She focuses on the target even before she settles into the hack (something we should all do as part of the pre-shot routine) and never again looks up until just before she releases the stone. She relies totally on the picture in her mind's eye! I'm the antithesis of that. I do keep my gaze on the target throughout the delivery. When I asked Dr. Vickers about that she returned to her thesis that even though my gaze exceeded that three second mark, obviously my brain needed all the information a duration of 5 or 6 seconds would allow. Those of you who know me best could likely have told Dr. Vickers that my brain does not function at normal speed (stop snickering)! You'll notice that the athlete to whom I refer above, while she's not looking at the brush during the slide, does pick it up visually just prior to release, something with which Dr. Vickers concurs!

When Dr. Vickers tested athletes from our National Training Centre, she was told by those same athletes that they kept their focus on the target. But when they saw the recorded results on Dr. Vickers screen, that was rarely the case. Once again, what one thinks they're doing may not be what's actually happening. Another case for a visual record!

In the video, when the U of C women's basketball team began using "quiet eye" for free throws, the team's free throw shooting percentage rose just as dramatically as Alda's putting. When Alda saw that he stepped to the free throw line, focused on the front loop of the net, saw the ball go into the basket, he dropped free throw after free throw.

The U of C basketball players, just before the act of shooting the free throw had adopted the mantra, "Nothing but net". You should also have a mantra before you deliver a curling stone and it can be technically based. It will aid greatly in getting your brain balanced but more about that later in this post.

Now I'm going go off on something of a tangent here and add a component to all of this that was not mentioned in the videos (although it was alluded to in "Brainy Putting"), attitude (enhanced by "mental rehearsal"). When you feel that you're going to be successful, as opposed to perhaps waiting to witness success, you're chances of realizing success improve (now there's an apple pie statement if there ever was one) but more than that, in your mind's eye as you prepare to make a shot, you should actually "see" yourself succeed. You don't need to stop reading to do this but I'm going to suggest at this point you google (who knew we'd be "googling" to get information?) "Basketball Free Throw Visualization Study". I know I'm using this word a lot but here it is once again, you'll be amazed at what you read!

Visualization is not an acquired skill. We all seem to be able to do it. I've mentioned in previous posts that in a high performance camp setting I ask the participants to rhetorically answer questions I pose about the front door to their home. I ask about the colour, the design, windows, type of door latch etc. I can see by their faces that no one is having any difficulty answering my questions and yet we're in a curling lounge. Clearly everyone is visualizing their front door. But, what about the discipline to do that each and every time you're asked to deliver a curling stone? You have the ability, but do you have the discipline?

So, what did Alan Alda learn from his visit w/Dr. Vickers at U of C? He learned to focus on the target (a very specific one) with his eyes only long enough until his brain has all the information it needs. At that point he begins his execution of the skill all the while still seeing the target in his mind's eye. He also learned to recite a word or phrase that meant something to him (mantra). But very likely the best thing that Alda learned was to trust what Dr. Vickers suggested. All the skill in the world is not much good unless you trust it.

Then Alda moved from Calgary to the Arizona State University to the research lab. of Dr. Debbie Crews. Dr. Crews did not know that he had come from Dr. Vickers lab. in Calgary, an important point to recall when Alda was asked to putt on Dr. Crews' "carpet". Dr. Crews' research was all about "brain balancing".

And that's where the "Brainy Putting" video starts, with Alda wearing more head gear, this time one that recorded his brain waves to know if the left side of the brain and the right side were in "balance", an essential characteristic it appears in performance. As mentioned earlier, the putting this time took place on a carpet which demanded putts of about 10'. Right from the start, Alda's putting was in the very good category (again, recalling that he still had no technical instruction). He attributed his performance to the "quiet eye" training he had received in Calgary with Dr. Vickers. At that point, Dr. Crews showed him some ways to balance his brain so that the left side, the "technical side" was allowed to calm down and balanced with the right side, the "just trust it and do it" side. What was startling was the fact that one of the methods was to be active, very active. You'll recall that Dr. Crews had Alda pedal an exercise bicycle for 60 sec. at a high intensity and then grab his putter to attempt to drop those 10' putts which he did quite well. He also got onto a "balance board" and through some imagery (i.e. "I'm a cloud.") aided his mental balance.

It was then that Dr. Crews added the challenge of "evaluating" the potential success of a putt as soon as putter head met ball and his evaluations were very accurate as well. Alda injected that when he smiled he seemed to perform better as well. He recalled his back stage persona, one of anticipation and excitement to place himself in a "good place" mentally. Hmm, I wonder if that's also something we can all do. I'm guessing that's another "yes"? In curling, the shooter, as the stone is released should be rating the shot on the likelihood of its success. That begins the flow of communication with the brushers and on the teammate in the house.

I talk about "attitude" a lot! When asked about attitude and what might be a good one, I suggest that in my view, the best attitude is "I just can't wait to play!"When that's the feeling you have as you step onto the ice surface, like Alan Alda, you will smile, even though it might be on the inside.

But enter the big surprise, the appearance of a professional golfer, Tina Tombs. It was obvious right from the get go that Tina's technical expertise was far superior to Alda's but when Dr. Crews suggested a putting contest with some dollars on the line, both were somewhat reluctant to participate, but more so Tombs as she felt she was likely to have an advantage given her profession but the contest proceeded and you know the results, Alda won by a considerable margin. During the contest, as an aside to the camera, Dr. Crews commented that Tina really didn't have a chance to win the contest because she was focused on the outcome rather than the process. Alda was just the opposite. He was playing with "house money", having no anticipation of a successful outcome beyond putting the ball into the hole. He was totally concentrating on process as opposed to outcome. Hmm, where have you heard that before? All he had was "quiet eye, brain balance, mantra and trust" upon which to lean and that's what he did.

In the last scene of the video, when Alda took to the practice area at Arizona State University to actually "swing" the golf club and attempt to hit the ball into a target, his pre-shot routine is what gave rise to the term "performance cocktail". Before attempting the shot, he did a few bounces to balance his brain, mentally rehearsed the shot hitting the target, saw the ball fly to the target in his mind's eye, stepped up to the ball, used his quite eye training and made the shot (with pretty bad technique).  What Alda didn't realize at the time was that he had created a "performance cocktail". He knew the ingredients necessary and then mixed them into a cocktail that suited his skill set, which once again, was almost non-existent. Imagine what a performance cocktail could do for an athlete with an excellent skill set!

Before I close I want you make one other point. Be wary of the athlete who following a performance says something like, "I didn't think of anything. My mind was a blank. I just did it!". The athlete is being totally honest, sort of, as his mind did indeed go through the ingredients of his/her performance cocktail but so automatically that he was not aware that it was happening. Might that come from directed training? Experience has demonstrated to me that the answer is once again,"yes"!

Assembling the ingredients to your "performance cocktail" is a process that's going to take some time but it's time well spent. I almost entitled this post, "If All You Take To The Ice Is A Technically Sound Curling Delivery, You Don't Have Very Much" but that seemed a little long, but I mean that with all my heart. You need know how to support and protect that curling delivery you've worked so hard to acquire. Against what demon should one be protecting a curling delivery? Answer: "competitive breakdown".

All curlers, and for that matter, athletes in all sports sooner or later feel the ravages of "competitive breakdown". It comes in the form of pressure, stress, anxiety, call it what you will but if you don't know how to deal with "competitive breakdown", you'll not be much good when you're needed most by your teammates.

Your best weapon against competitive breakdown is a) knowing exactly what you do and b) knowing how to support and protect those skills! We all do it slightly differently. As a result, each of us has a "performance cocktail" with varying proportions of the ingredients. The critical element is to have a "performance cocktail", train it and ultimately make it work for you!


  1. Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds has "performance cocktails" too.

  2. I wonder jf for a curler the quiet eye is different since we are aiming for the broom, yet the rock's final destination maybe different. For golf and basketball, what we look at is our ultimate goal, but, for a curling shot it isn't. Should we be using the quiet eye on the broom or the shot target?

    1. Reply was sent to the person asking this very good question. If you wish a reply re. anything about which I've written, send an email to and a personal response to your question/comment will be on its way to you.

    2. Apparently my reply did NOT get to the person who asked this very good question so I'll try here and this is more participant observation than sport science to take it for what it's worth.
      Some curlers want to know "everything" about the shot they're going to play. They want to know, if the shot involves stones contacting one another, where all the stones are expected to go. Others, me included, and perhaps you as well, are not all that interested in anything but line of delivery and anticipated weight. In other words, "hit the brush and delivery the correct weight" and in that instance, focus is clearly on the brush, full stop! For those that want all the consequences of the shot, I'm suspecting they have that in their "mind's eye" with vision focused on the brush.

  3. Thanks, Bill for an extremely good and fun afternoon at the St.John's curling club this afternoon. Very pleasant and useful to hear you.