Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Great Escape" - The Rest of the Story

There's a saying in sports that "sports doesn't build character as much as it reveals it". Sometimes after great athletic performances under gruelling conditions or in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we label the participants as "heroes". Hmm, really? Heroes? It's a game! In the course of human events the outcome is of little or no consequence. Let me tell you about some real heroes, one of whom I've actually met and perhaps some of you have too but that's, the rest of the story.

As you can see by the title, this is about one of the most truly incredible feats of initiative, intelligence, perseverance, courage and down right hard physical labour in modern history. For those of you out there who have never heard of "The Great Escape", don't run to the local DVD store to watch the movie of the same name. Hollywood took much licence with the real situation at the officers only camp during the second world war known as Luft III (aka Stalag Camp Oflag III). This was not a concentration camp. It was a prisoner of war camp mostly for Allied airmen shot down by the Nazis in the second world war.

There were three "compounds" in the camp. The first constructed was the East Compound and was for British RAF and Fleet Air officers. The Centre Compound was initially built to house British sergeants but was eventually filled by American prisoners exclusively. The North Compound (where the great escape occurred) was for British airmen and the West Compound for U.S. officers. Each of the compounds was comprised of 15 single storey huts. Each huts housed 15 prisoners in five triple deck bunks in a bunk room and there were many such rooms in each hut..

The camp was designed to be "tunnel proof", or so the Nazis thought. First, each barracks was built 60 cm. off the ground to make any tunnels easily visible. Second, the camp was purposely built on very sandy, yellow soil. The sand would make tunnelling treacherous as the sand would collapse on itself as a tunnel would be dug and even if one was attempted, the sand removed to be scattered would be quite visible due to its colour. Lastly, seismographic microphones were embedded around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.

The first successful escape was from the East Compound. That occurred in October of 1943 when prisoners constructed a wooden vaulting "horse" which was placed in the same place in the compound each day for exercise and recreation. The real purpose was to conceal two prisoners who opened a wooden trap door to continue to dig an escape tunnel. At the end of the day's vaulting over the horse, the two diggers and the sand they removed were carried back into the barracks. The physical activity around the horse shielded the digging from the seismographic microphones. Eventually a tunnel was dug of over 30 m and three prisoners escaped to freedom on the night of Oct. 19, 1943. You can read about this amazing feat in the book, "The Wooden Horse" by Eric Williams.

In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF conceived a plan for a major escape which  was planned for the nights of March, 23-25, 1944. This escape, to be known as "The Great Escape" was from the North Compound. To improve the likelihood that a tunnel would be successfully completed, it was decided to build three, "Tom, Dick & Harry". And, although most escape tunnels were built hoping to free 10 - 20 prisoners, the plan for Tom, Dick and/or Harry was to allow for the escape of over 200 prisoners. Dick's entrance was carefully hidden in a drain sump in one of the washrooms. The entrance to Harry was hidden under a stove and Tom's entrance was in the dark corner of a hall in one of the buildings.

The depth of the tunnels was 9 m below the surface and only 0.6 m square, just enough room for a prisoner to be "dollied" along its length. Chambers along the way were dug to house air pumps, a workshop and staging posts. Since the sandy soil was so unstable, the walls of the tunnels needed to be "shored up". This was accomplished using boards from the bunks. Normally, each bunk had about 20 boards but by the time the tunnels were completed, each bunk was down to 7 or 8.

Another valuable resource were the "klim" cans ("milk" spelled backwards) which arrived for the prisoners from the Red Cross. These metal containers provided many different tools for digging as well as for other purposes. Fresh air was supplied by "air pumps" made from knapsacks and hockey stick shafts.

Once Tom, Dick & Harry were started, the next challenge was to dispose of the sand. The normal method was to have various prisoners place the yellow sand into pouches made from old socks. As they walked around the compound with the sand-laden socks under their trousers, made easier by the inevitable weight loss, the sand would scatter. Sometimes larger quantities of sand were placed into gardens the prisoners were allowed to tend. In all about 200 prisoners were involved in the sand distribution project making an estimated 25,000 trips into the compound for that purpose.

The Germans sensed that something was "up" but numerous attempts to find the entrance to tunnels failed! In a "shotgun" approach to break up the possible leaders of any escape via tunnels, without notice, 19 of the top "tunnel suspects" were transferred to Stalag VIIC but of the 19, only 6 were heavily involved in tunnel construction.

As the sand dispersal became more challenging, a perceived setback actually proved beneficial when Dick's entrance was covered by a camp expansion. They used that tunnel to hide sand taken from the construction of Tom and Harry. Dick was also used as a storage place for maps, postage stamps, forged travel documents, compasses and both German military & civilian clothing. Above the entrance to Dick, a theatre was constructed and by various means, seat 13 was "hinged" directly over Dick's entrance. Problem solved!

As work on Tom and Harry proceeded, eventually the Germans discovered Tom, the 98th tunnel to be discovered in the camp. Work on Harry stopped for a cooling off period but was resumed in January, 1944. Harry was finally ready in March of that year but many of the American prisoners, many of whom had worked on Harry were relocated to a camp about 7 miles away. As a result, despite the Hollywood film of the same name, no Americans escaped via Harry. The Germans redoubled their efforts to make sure no tunnels would be constructed for possible escape. Bushell therefore ordered the escape attempt to happen as soon as Harry was ready!

Of the 600 prisoners who worked on the tunnel, only 200 were slated to escape. That group of 200 was subdivided into two groups of 100. The first group was known as "the serial offenders" and included those who spoke German, had a history of attempted escapes plus 70 who had done the most work on tunnel construction. The second 100, called the "hard arsers" drew lots to gain their inclusion and knew they would have to travel by night with minimal fake papers and equipment. They knew their chances of a successful return home were slim but slim was better than nothing!

The first moonless night came on March 24. Those allocated to escape first gathered in Hut 104 but the weather was very cold and the entrance to Harry was frozen, adding an additional one and one-half hours to the start of the escape. But the real setback came when the first escapee emerged about 15' short of the forest near a guard tower and with snow on the ground it would be easy to spot someone moving toward the trees.

Tunnel Harry.jpg

Instead of the one-man-per-minute plan, fewer than 10 could escape each hour via the dolly system that pulled a man in the prone position along the tunnel shaft. During the night there was a brief power outage and a partial tunnel collapse but despite these challenges, 76 prisoners escaped before the 77th was spotted by a guard.

The Germans began a frantic search for Harry's entrance and thankfully, Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, giving sufficient time for forged documents to be burned. One German guard volunteered to crawl through Harry to its entrance but became trapped near the entrance, only to be freed by some prisoners who revealed Harry's entrance.

For the 76 successful escapees, those hoping to catch nighttime trains were unable to find the railway station entrance in the dark and had to wait until morning to learn that it was in a recess in a pedestrian tunnel. The weather that March was the coldest and snowiest in 30 years making travel through the cover of the forest all but impossible so road travel had to be risked. Of the 76 who escaped, all but three were captured and returned to the camp.

When the Germans took an inventory of the camp they discovered that among the missing "items" were; 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 20-man tables, 10 singles tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,121 bed bolsters, 1.370 beading battens, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 300 m of electric wire, 180 m of rope, 3,424 towels, 1,700 blankets and more than 1,400 klim cans.

As you might imagine, Hitler was enraged at this bold escape attempt and initially wanted all 73 escapees to be shot. In the end 50 were, including Roger Bushell. The three successful escapees were Per Bergsland & Jens Muller from Norway and Bram van der Stock from Holland.

And now for the rest of the story!

Perhaps the last remaining Great Escape survivor resides in Edmonton, AB, Canada. He is Gordon (Gordie) King. The 92 year old King reports that he was number 141 on the list of escapees and operated the pump that sent fresh air into the tunnel. What a fitting task for a Canadian given that the air pumps were made of knapsacks and hockey stick shafts! He considers himself honoured to be counted among a group of men who, under the greatest of obstacles, through will, determination, courage and initiative, showed the world what they were made of.

Most of you reading this will know that the surname "King" is well known in the curling world and belongs to Cathy King, the current skip of the national women's senior team who will wear the Maple Leaf next April in Fredericton. You see, Gordie King is Cathy's father!

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. King at last season's national senior championships in Abbotsford, BC. The meeting was very brief and at the time I did not know his connection with "The Great Escape". I plan to be in Edmonton at some point this curling season to train with Cathy's team as we prepare to defend the gold medal at the World Senior Curling Championship and I hope to have a longer chat with this "hero" to learn more about the great escape.

For now Mr. King, on behalf of myself and I'm sure millions of Canadians in this eleventh month when we set aside a time to remember what courage and sacrifice is really all about, thank you! It's a debt we'll never be able to fully repay.

Monday, November 26, 2012

I Had It, Lost it, Gotta Find It Again!

We've all been there! We had draw weight in our back pocket (or wherever you keep valuable possessions) but lost it and have to get it back a.s.a.p.! What to do, what to do? Well, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is, you DID have it so it's attainable. The bad news is of course, it's gone but hopefully for only a brief period so let's see what we can do to get it back.

First, if you've followed my posts of late, particularly that of Nov. 12,  you'll know that the degree to which you understand your mechanics, exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it, is your best hedge against losing it over a prolonged period of time. I believe the phrase was, "The athlete who understands why will always defeat the athlete who only knows how". If you've not read that blog, you might wish to leave this one to do so, I'll wait for you here.

Second, how well do your teammates know and understand your skill set? They can be invaluable in getting you back on track.

Third, and it's very much part of the understanding of what you're doing, is how you actually regard it. By that I mean, in your mind, exactly how do you "see" weight control. What does it mean to you? Allow me to digress for a moment.

When I work with an experienced athlete, curler in this case, I spend a good deal of time trying to ascertain how the athlete conceptualizes the task. It doesn't make a hill of beans difference how I think about the skill at hand, it's how the athlete thinks about it. As a result, when I work with an athlete, I spend a good deal of time getting the athlete to verbalize the skill on the warm side of the glass before we step onto the ice surface. That's extremely valuable information. If I detect a disconnect between the athlete's thought process and what's really trying to be accomplished, I'll spend a commensurate amount of time getting the athlete to "see" the skill clearly before any attempt is made to remedy the situation. I am no longer surprised to learn that an athlete's real problem is how he/she is "thinking" as opposed to "doing"! Weight control is a perfect example where thought process is paramount. Allow me to explain.

I'm an advocate of the Socratic method of teaching. I like to ask questions. From time to time I'll catch myself saying, "I don't have all the right answers but I believe I do have most of the right questions." I feel knowing what to ask the athlete is more valuable than attempting to provide the right answers. Why? When you bring the athlete into the fold with his/her experiences to find a solution, he/she will take ownership for that solution. As a result, its sustainability is increased because it will be repetitive. When the athlete assimilates my answer, that may not occur. In terms of weight control my favourite question goes something like this, "If you drew to the top of the house to bite the 12', and your next shot was to the tee line, tell me precisely, in as much detail as possible, how you would add those six feet?" The key word in that question is "you", not your coach, not your teammates, you!

Everyone tends to see the same challenges slightly differently. It's why in a clinic setting, I will make the same statement in a variety of ways. I read eyes when I'm in front of a group of coaches or athletes. I can tell when my response to a question or a statement from me resonates and when it doesn't and frequently it will with some in the audience and not with others. That's my cue to say it differently. I want everyone to understand!

That's never more true than with one's concept of weight control. The answer I receive so much of the time is "leg drive". Hmm, an easy response and since I asked how the athlete controls the weight of the stone coming out of the hand, I will not argue with it but I'll remind the athlete that the quadriceps bundle of muscles in the thigh is the largest muscle group in the body. As such, it's not very well designed for a precise motor skill like controlling the weight of a curling stone over more than 100' of ice. That usually causes the athlete to reconsider the response to include other ways, in conjunction with "leg drive'. That's when I start getting amendments like "arm extension", "shoulder drop", "hack foot placement in the hack" (the list is long). Weight control is like a recipe. It has many ingredients. The chef will add more of this and use less of that and sometimes add something no one else has thought about to create a dish that he/she likes. Weight control is like that.

In a clinic, for weight control, I use a series of challenges to provide that discovery of ingredients available to the athlete he/she employs and an opportunity to learn from others how they do it. The athletes actually do the teaching among themselves. It takes longer doing it like this but everyone is busy and no one is telling anyone what to do. I just issue the challenges!

But here's an answer to my question that I rarely, I think I can say never receive. It's the "time" taken from "park-to-bottom-out".

When the no backswing delivery first took hold of the curling world, as instructors, we had to come up with some terminology to identify its parts. "Park" refers to that part of the delivery when the hips are placed in a position prior to their movement forward. Most athletes when employing the no backswing delivery, raise the hips and then, along with the sliding foot, move the hips back before the forward action begins. Many will actually pause at that hips back location that's why we used the term "park". From that park position, with leg drive, the athlete moves forward toward the slide portion of the delivery. When the hack foot leaves the hack we say the athlete has "bottomed out". The result of the forward movement is velocity of the body (along with the stone) as the athlete slides forward. That initial velocity will decrease due to the friction between the sliding foot and the pebbled surface of the ice but that's for another post.

How do we measure velocity? It's a relationship between "time & distance" (miles per hour, kilometres per hour, feet per second etc.). Since the "distance" from park to bottom out does not change much we're left with the "time" component. How much "time" did you take from "park" to "bottom out"? Allow me an illustration.

If an athlete was asked to take 1.0 seconds from park to bottom out and release the stone at the top of the house with no arm extension and a positive release, the stone would travel a certain distance to be marked. If the same athlete, with the same stone, with no arm extension and with the same amount of rotation was asked to consume 0.5 sec. from park to bottom out, where would that stone come to rest relative to the location of the final destination for the first stone? The answer is to a point farther down the ice. Why? If the distance from park to bottom out was the same and the athlete took less time to cover that distance, he/she must have been moving faster therefore the stone would as well and after release it would logically move to a spot farther down the ice. If the athlete was then asked to take 1.5 sec. from park to bottom out, the third shot would com to rest short of the distance traveled by the other two shots because the athlete and the stone were moving more slowly than in both of the first two attempts.

When I provide another way for an athlete to conceptualize weight control in terms of the amount of time taken from park to bottom out, if frequently opens a door they never considered and for many it helps greatly. In your next training sessions, as you deliver various draw shots, think about the time you're taking from park to bottom. It may help you as well!

I recently received an email from a coach of a very talented women's team. He wanted to know how he might develop some training scenarios for his players when less than the entire team is available for the session and frequently it may be only one player. The coach had a copy of "Drills To Die For" from "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion". Many of those drills are dedicated to weight control but they were designed assuming the entire team is present.

I like when players, without a stone in hand, slide to various pre-determined locations (allowing the slides come to rest only due to that friction between slider and ice, no digging "in" with the trail leg). I feel this challenge has great value for the athlete because it provides an opportunity to become aware of the various velocities of the slide and creates an relationship between those "slide" velocities and "stone" velocities.

I'm a huge fan of "laser timers" for weight control awareness and training. I have one that is more than 15 years old which has been repaired several times and is now partially held together with electrical tape. No, I'm not that frugal but it's a "speed trap" (my term for laser activated timing devices) that plays a specific role. I have another set of speed traps, only been repaired once, for a second purpose. Here's what they do.

My old speed trap measures the time taken for an object to pass through its laser. It consists of a black metal box with the actual "stop watch" mechanism and a digital display (which I place on one side of the ice somewhere near the hog line, usually just past the hog line) and a reflector (which is placed on the opposite side of the ice). When an object breaks the laser beam, the stop watch starts. When the beam is restored, the stop watch stops and the time between the two is displayed accurate to four decimals (i.e. ten-thousandths of a second). The athlete sliding through the speed trap following the stone does not change the time on the display. It only times laser breaks of less than one second. It's a measure of the speed of the rock! When I use the "black knight" [my name, not that of the manufacturer]) I actually desensitize its accuracy to three decimals (thousandths of a second). The object for the athlete is to deliver pairs of stones so that as much as possible, their velocities are the same. To do that it forces the athlete to become aware of the various ways he/she does that. It's that awareness which is the real value of the activity. I make a sensible allowance for the athlete to deliver the stone with the same velocity according to the black knight. I certainly don't expect two deliveries to be the same to ten-thousandths of a second. I always ask the athlete to tell me if he/she feels the second attempt was about the same velocity, a little lighter, a lot lighter, a little heavier or a lot heavier than the first. I'm just as interested in the athlete's assessment of the two velocities as I am about his/her ability to duplicate and it's the athlete who should begin the flow of information regarding the potential for the stone to come to rest in the prescribed location.

I have a second laser timing system that has more components than the black knight. This one was purchased through "Brower Timing Systems" in the U.S. Essentially its a laser activated system with one transmitter and receiver placed at either ends of the back line (or tee line, depending on your interval timing protocol) and a second pair at the inside edge of the hog line. The third component is a hand-held digital display device. When an object breaks the first laser beam the stop watch on the hand-held component starts and stops when the laser beam of the second pair is broken. In other words, you get the accurate interval time. The pairs of transmitters and receivers (you get three with the set) can be placed anywhere on the sheet so you could place a third pair at the far hog line for a hog-to-hog time if that's useful to you.

Although I purchased the speed traps separately (the first from a manufacturer in Quebec) I use them together. For this illustration we'll place a pair of transmitter and receiver at the back line and a pair at inside edge of the hog line. The "black knight" is placed just beyond the hog line (10 cm.). I believe you can see how this combination of the two system works. When a player delivers a shot, both the deadly accurate "interval time" and the "rock speed" are provided. Teammates not involved in the delivery of the stone can compare their interval times (as provided by their stop watches) with that of the hand-held laser timer. If each member of the team delivered a stone with the same interval time, it's interesting to know if the "rock speed" is also the same. When I do this with an experienced team, it very often confirms what the team believes to be true about the relationship between interval time and rock speed for various members of the team.

Bottom line, get a laser timer. If you "google" laser timers you'll see that there are now many manufacturers producing them at a relative low cost. I wouldn't leave home without mine!

Before I leave you today, I want to refer you to an interesting article from "Golf Digest" entitled "The Do's and Don'ts of Practice". The author (Ron Kaspriske) cited a study by a professor at UCLA (Richard Schmidt, PhD) who is a noted authority in psychology and motor behaviour. In essence it was a study to learn the differences between "blocked practice" and "random practice". The URL where you can read Mr. Kapriske's article is . I'm not going to give you my take on Dr. Schmidt's findings but I would like to know yours (

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Performance Benchmarks

It's November here on Canada's Left Coast, actually I suspect given today's date it's November everywhere (what a grasp of the obvious) but whereas golfers around the country likely have packed it in for the 2012 golf season, hackers here on Vancouver Island only get out the "rain shoes" as play continues through the winter. Why the reference to golf? I can interview golfers as they come off the 18th green and by asking one question about their round, I can tell them if they played well (and the question is not, "How well did you play?"). My question quite simply is, "How did you play the par  3's?".

For those of you who are not golfers, golf holes come in "three sizes" (par 3, 4 & 5). When the "par" for a hole is established, it's primarily the length of the hole which is the determining factor and given the allowance for two strokes on the green to "putt" the ball into the hole, on a par 4 (the most common of the three par designations) from the tee to the green you are allowed two strokes which added to the two for putting make a total of four. In other words, to get on the green in "regulation" on a par four it should take two strokes to accomplish the task.By extension then, on a par five hole, you have three shots to make it to the green. That said, you can "make par" in other ways. For example, on a par four you might not have executed a world class tee shot but a superior approach to the green added to the two putting strokes and you have your par. You may have kicked the ball around the fairway to take three strokes to make it to the green but make a long, winding putt to "save par". On par five holes, you have three shots to make it to the green. Generally par fives are more forgiving because even with their added length, you can "make up" for a poor shot and still make par.

Not so with par three holes. You're expected to hit your tee shot onto the green then make two putts for par. Par three holes are not forgiving! You have to play well to make par. More strokes are lost to par on par  3's than to the other two types of holes.

Therefore my premise, score well on the par 3's and you've very likely played well on the 4's & 5's too! Your performance on the par three holes is a "benchmark" to your overall performance! A benchmark is an "indicator" of overall performance. Hit your benchmarks and the remainder of the challenge should fall into place. Another benchmark for golf is your total number of putts. Again, given two putts per hole, on an 18 hole golf course, of your total score, 36 or fewer should be putts. If you're averaging less than 36 putts per round but you're not scoring satisfactorily, you know your problem is either on the tee or in the fairway. Benchmarks, useful diagnostic tools!

After a curling game, I feel there are three benchmarks which need to be addressed. If you hit these benchmarks, in my opinion, you are playing well. Do not confuse "benchmarks" with "performance goals". They are not the same. A performance goal is entirely in your control. Benchmarks are the result of performance but key indicators to the forensic examination of your overall performance and this can be applied to recreational curlers as well as the most elite.


Like those par 3's, the ends when you don't have last stone advantage are key indicators in my view. Look I really don't care much how a team plays with last stone advantage. If a team wants to employ its offence first game strategy, or its defence first game strategy or wishes to play like a blended attack team, from my perspective "behind a pane in the glass", I'm not that concerned. But, when you don't have last stone advantage my interest swings in the other direction. I care very much how you play! The reason is obvious, you don't have last stone advantage! You're playing a par 3. It's not very forgiving. A missed shot when a team has last stone advantage can be negated by your fourth player on his/her last shot of the end. Miscues when you don't have last stone advantage tend to show up on the scoreboard, and not on your side of it I'm afraid!

I do not understand why teams play with reckless abandon right out of the gate on ends when they don't have last stone advantage when "the big three" (end, score, last stone advantage) don't make it a necessity. I get the fact that on occasion, you might just get a feeling deep inside that says, "Go for it!" even though you may not have last stone advantage but to make that style of play your modus operandi, you're "tickling the dragon's tail" in my view.

Here's why this is such a big deal with me. Statistics tell us that to win a ten end game, on average you need to score, in total, 7.5 points. When I ask teams if they can do that when they know they're likely to have last stone advantage in five of the tens ends, I rarely, if ever, have a team tell me they cannot score 7.5 points under those conditions. My follow up question then becomes, "If that's the case, why then do you play so aggressively without last stone advantage thereby forcing you to score many more than 7.5 points to win the game with all the risks that entails?". If you're "competitive data" shows, over time, that playing aggressively without last stone advantage proves beneficial, then ignore my warnings and let me know how that goes!


The second of the the three benchmarks is what happens following a missed shot by your opposition, especially in a well-played game were misses are like the proverbial hen's teeth. You need to understand that a miss by your opponent is not a miss until you make the next shot! So many times when a team gets a rare miss by its opponent, it misses the shot following. It's like there's "something in the water" at that point in the game and everyone has taken a drink.

When one team misses, I look to the body language of the team that should be the beneficiaries of the faux pas. Look, we've all been there. You get a miss from the opposition and there's a subtle voice inside that says, "Well, finally, they're human. Whew, what a break!" Shoulders drop and a feeling of well being takes over resulting in a drop in concentration or perhaps a modicum of overconfidence. And, unfortunately, the result so many times, is a miss on your part and that miss can be devastating in the big picture.

"Mo" (as in momentum), following a miss, has your team's jacket in one hand and that of your opposition in the other. "Mo" will put one of them on but will not do so until he knows the result of the shot following the miss because of the italicized phrase above. Make the next shot and it's your jacket he wears but miss and he wears that of your opponent. There will always be a momentum shift at that point in the game. The direction of the switch is up to you so much so that following a miss by the opposition, you may not decide to play that high risk, high reward shot. Many will as they feel it's time to  "put your foot on the throat of your opponent" at that stage. I shall not sit here and counsel you otherwise except to make you aware of "Mo". Only you can determine if the risk is worth the reward but I will counsel that perhaps, to make the opposition pay for its mistake, you need to make a shot, any shot at this point! To miss, is just not worth it!


This last benchmark will not come as a surprise to any of you who follow my writings. I talk about it a lot! There are many shots in a curling game that do not have to be made perfect. Some must, but not all. Make all the shots within execution tolerance and your performance will improve and it will do so right away!

Execution tolerance begins with the person in the house recognizing that there IS tolerance on the shot and "indicating" that to the teammate about to play the shot. At this point that player needs to "acknowledge" the execution tolerance and then "confirm" it with the brushers. Elite teams follow that three component protocol to execution tolerance.

In my first draft of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" there was an article is entitled, "Tennis Anyone?". It was one of many that didn't make it into the final version to keep the weight of the publication under one kilo for shipping purposes. The tennis reference conjures up a phrase commonly used in that sport, "unforced errors". It's hitting the ball into the net on a ground stroke that 99 times out of 100 you'd hit over the net. Your opponent had very little if anything to do with your error. In other words, it was an "unforced error"! To a competitive tennis player, unforced errors are a dagger to the heart! A competitive team just can't make unforced errors and missing a shot "outside execution tolerance" is the curling equivalent to an unforced error in tennis.

Many curlers, sensing the value in reducing unforced errors (should be "zero" unforced errors) will ask the question, "OK, we know the execution tolerance. The skip so indicates, the shooter acknowledges and it's confirmed by the brushers, but how do I execute the shot to stay within the tolerance?". Good question and I will answer it but before I do I want to make an important point. Don't get so distracted by the execution tolerance on shots that you subordinate making the called shot as requested. In other words, you're still trying for that 4/4 statistical score on the shot!

OK, let's for the sake of discussion say that the tolerance, so indicated by the skip, acknowledged by you the shooter and confirmed with the brushers is "light" (not, "Don't be heavy!"). You should be skilled enough to look up to those brushers and say, "You're going to have to brush this for sure. I just don't know how much!". If the brushers are going to have to brush the stone at some point, the only way to not get that 4/4 is to be a little light, but that was the execution tolerance! Conversely, if the execution tolerance is "heavy", your conversation with the brushers will go something like this, "I'm going to put this there all by myself. Keep it clean but you will not have to brush his shot!". The only way you can miss that shot is for the stone to come to rest beyond its intended destination but again, that was the execution tolerance. On occasion, execution tolerance will be line. The ice might be telling you that you just can't be wide, especially on take out shots so clearly the tolerance will be narrow. Conversely, you may be playing a come around shot and getting past the guard is critical, therefore you know and execute the shot to the wide side.

A note of caution at this point when line is the issue. Make sure the team knows if it's the shooter who will deal with the line tolerance or the person positioning the target. If you both do it, you'll find making the 4/4 shots difficult indeed.

Hit those benchmarks and watch your performance improve! Contact me at billchpc@shaw and let me know how it goes!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Strategy & Tactics 101

There is no area of our sport which has caused more discussions (usually involving salt & pepper shakers and/or drinking glasses on table tops following games) than "strategy & tactics", although I dare say most of the discussions would have been described as only "strategy" discussions. I rarely hear the word "tactics" so let's deal with that first.

Strategy is/are your plan(s) whereas tactics are the actual shots you're going to play to execute the plan(s). Knowing that, through participant observation I can say with confidence that strategy is usually not the problem. It's tactics! Teams generally make good plans. But, frequently teams try to execute the plan(s) with shots that are less than appropriate or, for some inexplicable reason, they abandon their plan. It's much better to have a plan that doesn't work than no plan that doesn't work!

So there's my first piece of advice to recreational curlers. Make sure your concern is directed at the root of the problem. If your plans are flawed then deal with them but I'll wager that most of the issues are with the tactics employed to execute the plans. Allow me one illustration.

It's the third end of a ten end game. The score is tied 1-1. Your team has last stone advantage and the opposing team, on its first shot of the 3rd end places it on the centre line at the top of the 4' circle. At that point, you have two "strategic" choices. You can ignore the opposition stone or you can use/deal with it. Once that decision is made, you've entering the world of "tactics" because now you have to call a shot. Let's assume you've decided, for now, to use/deal with that stone. You have a variety of tactics at your disposal. One of them is to hit that stone and roll out (I can visualize the rolling eyeballs of most readers as I sit here at my computer). Right, that tactic just doesn't make much sense when end, score and last stone advantage are 3rd end, score tied 1-1 and your team has last stone advantage. About the only reason that tactic might be appropriate is because you feel you don't have a handle on the ice conditions to employ another, arguably more appropriate tactic. Perhaps your lead is struggling with the down weight shots but is really good at takeouts. OK, I get that! But I hope you see where this is going.  The tactic of a hit and roll out is very likely not the most appropriate tactic. Hitting and rolling to the side of the house, drawing to the stone, drawing around the stone and tapping it behind the tee line all seem better tactical choices.

I used the "p" word enough in this post so let's deal with plans next and they can be subdivided into game plans and end plans.

A game plan is simple. It's a decision by the team (not just its skip) as to how the team is going to "start" the game and you have three choices. You can start the game pursuing a scoring opportunity, protecting against an anticipated scoring threat or you can be flexible and wait until a scoring opportunity arises and choose shots that take advantage of that situation OR if a scoring threat rears its ugly head, play shots that deal with that scenario. If you choose the third approach you better have a skip who can tell the difference between a scoring opportunity and a scoring threat, an easy task perhaps in the warmth of the curling lounge that often becomes more challenging in the cold air of the playing surface! A game plan is a general approach to start the game.

An end plan is a decision to "start" the next end, you guessed it, pursuing a scoring opportunity, protecting against an anticipated scoring threat or positioning stones carefully waiting for a scoring opportunity or scoring threat to emerge. End plans are more specific than game plans simply due to the fact that an end plan reflects the current situation.

You'll notice the word "start" in both game plan and end plan. The "start" for your plan may not materialize. You might wish to start the game pursuing scoring opportunities but your opposition deals with them so effectively that you find yourself unable to accomplish the plan and in fact, realize that YOU are the one who has to deal with scoring threats so you do just that. The same might occur with an end plan. You might decide to protect against an anticipated scoring threat but find that you play very well with your upweight shots and with a miss or two on the part of the opposition, you find that in the latter stages of the end YOU have the scoring opportunity and decide the time is right to pursue it.

The point is this. A plan need not be "rigid" and if you see both game and end plans as ways to "start", you will have all the flexibility needed to make the plans work FOR you, not AGAINST you!

Game plans result from a team meeting, or an exchange of emails, some time before the game begins. If it's a face-to-face meeting, it need only consume a few minutes. Heh, we're playing (insert team here) on sheet (insert ice here) and our current skill set is (insert team skill set here). Taking those into consideration, we believe it's prudent to (insert game plan here). Easy, but does your team take those three minutes to agree on a game plan?

End plans can be accomplished by having the skip and third/mate meet (while the stones are being removed). Taking end, score, last stone advantage (and perhaps momentum, ice conditions etc. in consideration as well) you choose to "start" the end playing "green" (pursuing a scoring opportunity), "red" (protecting against a scoring threat) or "yellow" (positioning stones carefully, waiting to see what arises, a scoring opportunity or scoring threat). When the end plan has been decided it's relayed to the lead and second. Everyone is one the same page!

But before game and end plans are examined, you need to know, from a "strategy & tactics" perspective, the type of team you are. My colleagues and I say that each team has "strategic DNA" and it's embedded in the collective desires, experiences and skill sets of the members of the team. In other words, due to the parameters mentioned in the previous sentence, there will be a way the team wants to play and hopefully with the skill set to do just that. And that should be an important part of the selection of teammates. Please, when you are selecting teammates, find out how they feel the game should be played from a strategy & tactics perspective before you have them sign on the dotted line! I don't care how good a curler they are from a technical point of view. If they are a square peg being inserted into a round strategy & tactics hole, it isn't going to work! Choose someone else!

From a "strategy & tactics" perspective, there are three types of teams, offence first, defence first and blended attack. An offence first team will tend to gravitate toward the selection of a tactic that promotes a scoring opportunity whereas a defence first team will have a tendency to see a situation and play a shot that keeps a scoring threat at bay first. A blended attack team relies on its ability to see the potential in a scoring opportunity and the danger in a scoring threat and move quickly and seamlessly to deal with it.

There was a time in our sport when an offence first team or a defence first team could play that way, game-in-and-game-out. That is no longer the case! Even the most aggressive (offence first) team will employ its defence first game on occasion and the same is true for a defence first team. It will obviously take advantage of a scoring opportunity by using its offence first style of game. Blended attack teams will move from offence first to defence first and back again dependent on the situation.

I have referred to end, score and last stone advantage a number of times in this post. They are the big three factors that influence both strategy and tactics. There are others which play a role from time to time but end, score and last stone advantage are always factors. It's an art on the part of the skip to weigh the factors accurately. I can't tell a skip how to do that, only to make sure they always consider the relevant factors.

There is no "risk free" style of play. An offence first team risks its opposition taking advantage of the scoring opportunity created by your offence first approach (you always provide stones in an offence first environment that can be used by ether team). Sometimes you'll get burned and that's why an offence first team must be resilient. A defence first team risks missing scoring opportunities in its desire to protect against potential scoring threats. They will play in many close, low scoring games. That's why a defence first team must be patient. Blended attack teams rely heavily on assessing the situation accurately and responding appropriately. A blended attack team that misreads the situation can be in a heap of trouble and since they will place that burden on the shoulders of one player primarily, they must be willing to move into defence first or offence first mode at a moment's notice so the team dynamics on that team must be unshakable!

On my "strategy & tactics" PowerPoint presentation, I have two slides that I tell recreational skips they need to remember and only those two slides. They come from two transparencies back in the day when I was an instructor for the Ontario Curling Federation, the forerunner of Curl Ontario (there were dinosaurs roaming Ontario at the time). Here's what they indicate;

When you have last stone advantage, play to the sides of the sheet. When you don't have last stone advantage, play to the centre of the sheet. When you're winning the game, play in the house. When you're losing the game, play in front of the house.

If you combine the messages from those two slides, it's all you need to know about strategy & tactics!

Be wary of the strategy & tactics you see on television employed by our most elite teams. Their skill set is likely so different from your team's skill set that the style of play you see them employ will not work very well for you. Another distinguishing factor is the "pampered ice" upon which they play. It's so unlike curling club ice in that it's not forgiving. Yes, you can make a lot of shots you can't even imagine you could even think about on your curling facility ice but the precision required to do so might just be off the charts for your recreational team. In "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" the article is entitled, "The Dangers of Learning About Curling Strategy By Watching TV"(p.169).

By the way, APITG:ACC makes a great Christmas gift for the curler/coach/instructor on your list!

Before I leave you today to watch the final games on TV from Brantford, ON, I will leave you with this thought, suggested to me by Roz Craig. You win a lot more games by making the "wrong" shot than you do by missing the "right" shot!

It's always about making curling shots!

Contact me if you'd like to explore this topic with me further (

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Most Frequently Asked Question (cont'd)

Hopefully you will have read the previous blog about the question I get asked more than any other; "Why am I so inconsistent?". As stated in that blog, the reasons are varied but I feel there are two "culprits" that mitigate against a consistent performance. The one I dealt with in the last post was a lack of knowledge/awareness of your own skill set. To that end, I'm a huge fan of the use of a video recording device. I don't know why a coach would not have one available at every training session. The key to the awareness of exactly what one is doing lies in ensuring that "perception" and "reality" are the same. You can do that most effectively in my view by the use of a video recording device. For many years I would have used the word "camcorder" but today there are so many devices that will record visually, the options are many!

One "app" that I particular like is called "Coach's Eye". I have it on my apple devices. It allows me to record then draw lines, circles etc. on top of the saved image for review with the athlete. I believe it was all of $5. I will devote a post to various methods of visual recording later this season.

The other enemy of consistency in my view is "distractions".

Look, they are the crabgrass in the lawn of athletic performance. You can try to minimize their occurrence but for as noble an aspiration as that might be, there will always be some with which to deal!

One distraction busting activity I really like involves a piece of paper and a writing instrument. On the paper draw a large circle. Inside the circle, collectively brainstorm all the aspects of the upcoming competition over which the team has either complete control or significant influence. For example you may be able to choose the food you eat (but not necessarily when you eat the food), travel to the event, the accommodation etc. Outside the circle, as you might guess, place those aspects of the competition over which the team has little or no influence (i.e. schedule of games, quality of the ice & stones, officials, venue etc.). I believe you can see where this is headed. Anything "outside" the circle is "off limits" in terms of discussion, concern, angst etc. In other words, you will not allow those aspects of the event to drain emotional, psychological, mental or physical energy from you. All those energy sources will be directed to those aspects of the competition over which you can exert some influence and thereby benefit!

Some distractions are about "mind over matter". When I first met the pied piper of curling, one Guy Hemmings, I asked him how he can be so involved with the crowd at a Brier and then get into the hack and execute a challenging curling shot. He said that when he gets into the hack and looks up, he's no longer in the Brier venue but rather alone in his curling facility simply making a curling shot. There are no spectators. In fact he has to "imagine" his brushers ready to escort the stone down the ice and his third holding the target brush. In other words he trained himself to be somewhere other than the pressure-packed, distraction-laden Brier venue. Was this something that came naturally to him? No, he had to train himself to do it. He said it was all a matter of motivation. He wanted to perform well and knew that engaging the crowd helped with that goal but he also needed to calm himself down to perform the on ice tasks required to facilitate that success.

I recall a coach about to take his junior men's team to provincials where there were going to be more spectators than the team had become accustomed. To especially help the skip he asked the men's league in which the team played to gather around the sheet on which his team was playing when the skip was about to attempt a critical shot. Of course the coaching was using "simulation" as his tool to minimize the effect of distractions. Some NFL coaches have used huge outdoor concert speakers to simulate the noise of the crowd in places like Century Link Field (Seattle. WA) where the crowd noise is in the legendary category.

One of the best ways to relieve the distraction of anticipated results from a group of stakeholders (family and friends to the entire nation) is to remind yourselves that when you take to the ice, the only people that matter are your teammates and if your team dynamics are solid, that's not a distraction but rather a comfort.

But, that said, generically speaking, most of the distractions that negatively impact upon the performance of the team come from within the team itself! Yikes!

I won't go on about this as I have done so many times as those of you who have read my past articles and posts can atest. It's all about a "communications protocol" (who says what to whom, when is it said, why is it said, how is it said, where is it said?). This can happen in two ways. You can use the time honoured "trial & error" method (mostly error) and let it evolve over time with many losses to show for it OR you can sit down and go from teammate to teammate to learn from one another who says what to whom ... It's your choice but it must happen!

And there's something else we've recently learned about distractions. It has a physical component. When we're distracted the blood flow to the cerebellum, that portion of the brain where all those hours and hours of training to open neural pathways to preform motor tasks is redirected to the cerebral cortex where reasoning is centred. The result is a less than satisfying performance and a waste of all those long hours of directed repitition.

Distractions, remove as many as possible and minimize the effects of those you can't! It's what elite athletes do!

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Most Frequently Asked Question

When I conduct camps (at just about any level), clinics or team consultations, the one question I get asked more than any other goes something like this, "I'm happy with my skill set as it's equal to the amount of time I want/can put into it but it's frustrating when I play poorly so how can I be more consistent?". As with so many questions of this nature the answer is multifaceted but that said, I'll deal with what I feel is one of its key elements in this post.

Sooner or later something I call "competitive breakdown" will occur and it happens to everyone! It just happens much less often with elite athletes. Clearly it manifests itself in poor performance and it can happen at any time. Many succumb to it "under pressure*" and it's pretty clear that missed key shots happen most often when we stray from the normal pre-shot routine. Those elements so carefully nurtured to produce desirable results get replaced by negative thoughts usually about the consequences of a miss. What's happened is really quite simple to explain but not so easy to remedy. If you have "trust" in your skill set, I mean genuine trust, that's one of your best hedges against competitive breakdown.

Trust can have many addresses. It can be the result of quality training, the comment of a coach or teammate or excellent results over an extended period of time. You need to know where trust resides for you as you will need to pay a call on it at some point!

I don't recall at this moment who said this but if I do or by research I find out, I'll update this post but I'm a true believer in, "The athlete who knows why will always beat the athlete who only knows how." When you know and understand "why" you accomplish the motor tasks commensurate with your position on the team, if for whatever reason you stray from doing what you know you need to do, a thorough understanding of why you do what you do will be the best way to recall and therefore return to doing it! On the other hand, if you only know how to do something, when competitive breakdown comes calling, you will find returning to a satisfying level of performance very challenging.

Make no mistake, no athlete performs well by concentrating on all the elements of hitting a baseball, throwing a football, serving a tennis ball or delivering a curling stone. Hopefully you're so well practised that all the elements, the so-called "muscle memory" kick in so you can follow the advice of my friend Merv Fonger from the last post and just do it!

When I work with an athlete and ask why he/she does something in the curling delivery, there are two answers I won't accept. They are a) "I didn't know I did that." and b) "I know I do that but I don't know why." You must have a reason for everything you do! When that occurs we can discuss the merits of those "things".

In curling, it sure helps when the members of the team not only understand their deliveries but those of their teammates as well. The coach sitting behind "a pane in the glass" (great book by the way) may spot your technical issue but he/she may be out of time outs so when a teammate can spot the problem and know your delivery so well that he/she can remind you of the "why", you will know exactly what to do to get back on track.

The next post will be about another factor that makes one inconsistent which is a close second to that described above. See you soon!

* One of the best comments I've heard regarding pressure is, "Under pressure you sink to the level of your preparation/training." How's your training regimen?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wise Words from Merv Fonger

My guest  today is a friend and colleague whose opinions, expertise, experience and vision I respect greatly. As you can see by the subject line, it's MERV FONGER from the only province in our great nation that has "curling" as its official provincial sport (that would be Saskatchewan)! He's the coach of Team Amber Holland. This man knows of what he speaks! Enjoy!

The whole idea of maximum performance is to simply go on autopilot. Allowing the mind to focus on only performance and nothing else is an important key to being successful. Sound technical skills are a must in order to compete at the high performance level. If the focus is on how to do it rather than simply executing the skill, then you lose your flow and the focus is not where it needs to be.
We have a multitude of skills that we use when we perform, it is important to know when and how to use them without giving it a second thought. Those skills that require technical training need to be soundly incorporated into muscle memory before the big event, whatever that might be. Technically strong performers are confident, assertive, and task oriented because they have the ability to take what tools they need and go on autopilot without fear of negative consequences.
It is not that new skills and different ways of doing things are bad, but they are necessary for people to improve performance. Knowing when to implement the changes and developing a plan to getting those skills to autopilot mode is what is important. Peaking can only take place when the performer has total confidence in the technical package.
Yogi Berra once said, "How can you hit and think at the same time?"
Nike has the right idea, "Just do it!"

Friday, November 2, 2012


At our local walk-in clinic where I did a pre-op physical for upcoming cataract surgery, I noticed something on the bulletin board I thought was worth sharing. Enjoy!

This should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body but rather...
to skid in sideways, champagne in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming...
Yahoo!!!! What a ride!
Kinda brings a wry smile to your face when you recall all those late nights at the curling club with friends and a beverage of choice in hand. On that sheet of paper on the bulletin board, beside the second paragraph someone had scrawled "Keith Richards" (hmmm, an extreme example perhaps but the image sure fits doesn't it).