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