Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holiday Mail Bag Plus Some Thoughts

I trust all are enjoying the Holiday Season with lots of turkey, family & friends (with emphasis on the last two)! Questions have been piling up under my Christmas tree like so many gifts so here's Santa Bill digging into that sack of queries.

What one delivery fault do most recreational curlers have?

In my view it's the "sliding device" selected and how it's used. Most curlers cling to the use of the brush for the sliding device and that's fine. And most start out in the hack with the brush in the correct  position relative to the body so that the shoulders are square to the line of delivery. The "head of the brush should be opposite the stone". That's the time honoured admonition from instructors across the curling world and most recreational curlers understand and get the message. But, and you knew there'd be a "but", by the time that recreational curler gets to the most critical part of the delivery, the release, that brush head us no longer opposite the stone, rather the brush is at a 90 degree angle to the body and the upper body, the part where the delivery arm is attached (last time I checked) is literally "bent out of shape" with no end of release issues ensuing.
I'm pleased that most curling facilities have a number of sliding devices, the so-called "stabilizer" available for novices and rental groups. I believe that all curlers should start out that way and move into using the brush as a sliding device when they so choose. I know I'll get opposition on this but I'm too old to care 'cause I know I'm right (& modest)!

What do most team do wrong?

This one is easy! Most teams don't see the members of the team as a "team". It's just a collection of individuals each trying to make two shots per end. They don't see the team as becoming greater than the sum of its parts. This is especially true of recreational teams who just want to curl and have fun, and that's OK if it remains that way but as soon as those same recreational curlers start to get "bent out of shape" (unlike the first question, this time is a psychological bending out of shape) they've moved their yardsticks down the performance field but don't know how to improve as a team.
This is when I feel we as instructors need to step in and offer, not a high performance camp in the way we conduct one for elite teams, but for those recreational teams. There are so many areas that this type of team is missing. It's not so much what they're doing wrong. It's much more what they're not doing at all. It's an error of omission not commission!
I'll give but one example. Most recreational teams never take the time to establish a "communication protocol", something about which I've written on this site and in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion". They end up distracting one another which manifests itself in a sub par technical performance but the problem is not necessarily technical in nature. Many times it's the "failure to communicate" effectively.
I suggest to teams in this setting to contact your provincial/territorial association and ask for a camp with instructors skilled at working with teams. If you're in/near BC, get some teams together with like interest, contact Curl BC now and suggest they contact me. I'll conduct your camp and get some of my "peeps" to join me! I/we (Karen Watson) do exactly that in Seattle each autumn.
I'll add one more "thing" recreational teams do wrong. They watch way too much curling on TV! Don't misunderstand! TV curling is great!!!! Please do watch but don't try to emulate what you see (there's a more in depth treatise on this topic the aforementioned "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion").

What is the one thing that a recreational curler should try to improve?

No question here. To play this sport to any degree of satisfaction/fun, there's a signature skill as there is in most sports. You can't play ice hockey unless you can skate efficiently. You can't play baseball unless you can throw, catch & hit a baseball. You can't play basketball unless you can dribble, pass  and shoot the ball. Well, you'll find it difficult and certainly unsatisfying if you can't slide in a straight line. It's curling's signature skill!
Doing that is relatively simple. If you slide so that the weight of your body is evenly distributed on your slider throughout the slide, you'll slide in a straight line. Full stop!

How can one measure improvement?

From a team perspective, I feel there are three "benchmarks" that when met will demonstrate team improvement. They are (in no particular order) execution tolerance, what you do following a miss by the opposition & the degree to which you make key/killer shots. If you hit these three benchmarks, it's really hard not to play well. If you go to iTunes and purchase "Curl Coach", you'll have a wonderful app to record these "benchmarks".
From an individual point of view, if you have a knowledgeable person keeping shooting statistics, you will see an improvement or deterioration in skill level simply based upon the number of shots being made. I could go on at great length on this very "touchy" subject with me as those of you know who read my scribblings on a regular basis but in this case they can be helpful.
A coach from here on Vancouver Island has developed her own simple yet very effective system whereby she divides the sheet of ice into sections and rotations. By recording degree of performance for each of the two rotations and in longitudinal sections of the ice (12', 8', 4' & left of right of the house) she can show a player where she's struggling or having success. That's using shooting statistics the right way in my view!

If practising as a team is difficult or next to impossible, what can an individual do to improve his/her skill level?

Get a visual recording device (camcorder, tablet etc.) and get someone who knows the difference between "record", "stop", "pause", "fast forward" and "play" to record your delivery. When you watch yourself simple say, "What surprises me?" You can be surprised with aspects of your delivery you know you should see but don't and conversely aspects of your delivery you see that should not be there. You want the perception of your delivery and what's really occurring to be the same. If "perception" and "reality" are never allowed to stray from one another, you'll stay on track technically!
That same person who recorded your delivery can also help you with a stopwatch by recording the time from "back-line-to-hog-line" or "tee-line-to-hog-line" so that you can get a "feel" for weight control and can put a number to it. Get your friend to tell you the "interval time" of each shot then you should begin to tell him/her the "number/weight" delivered and get some feedback.

Would a recreational team benefit from attending a "team camp"?

Absolutely!!!! Provincial/territorial associations exist because of you and your needs. Don't wait for what you need to be offered by your PSO (Provincial Sport Organization). Pick up the telephone or send email to them and indicate your interests/needs. You very likely have no idea that there are several other teams in your area with a similar interest and frankly neither does your PSO. I know PSO's sometimes come under criticism because it they don't offer the programmes the curlers want. Well, they're not mind-readers. Tell them!!!!

Are there resources out there that might help teams and individuals about which they have no knowledge?

Usually, not always, but usually, that's the bailiwick of the NSO (National Sport Organization). Sport science research is not cheap, as you might expect, which is why it's more common that the NSO would initiate and fund it rather than the PSO. There is more sport science available today in curling than ever before. I catch myself in clinics, symposia, team consultations etc. saying, "The sport science tells us ..." regularly. It's certainly made my job much easier! Teams and individuals no longer have to take my word for it either because of a personal bias or through participant observation over decades of working with curlers of all ages, skills and experience. I have the sport science! But, I have that because I'm a national coach so I get it early on. Like medical research, it take some time to work it's way into print material and into courses for obvious reasons.
All the more reason to pick up that phone or send that email to your PSO and ask for assistance!!!!

And now for those thoughts mentioned in the title...


In my post of 11/13/14 entitled "Calm Down", I dealt with the topic of "calmness" and its direct affiliation with performance. I'm reading and enjoying Bobby Orr's book "Orr: My Own Story". I want to reprint a section on p.74 from his excellent publication and it's about being calm.

You might imagine a young player trying to cut his teeth at a higher level could get so nervous he couldn't play to his potential. The reality is very different. At least, it was for me. Being nervous before a game is only natural and probably a good thing, because it means you are getting ready to play. Once I got on the ice, however, and the puck was dropped to start the game, I would calm down and everything made sense. I could almost feel a kind of peace come over me. I was in my element. You get to a place that sports psychologists have identified as the "comfort zone". Getting there allows you to play your game at your particular level.


On my Christmas Day jog with the podcast version of "Primetime Sports" in my ear, host Bob McCown interviewed Toronto Raptors coach, Wayne Casey and commented on the very positive run the team has put together of late, in spite of the trade of the highly-touted Rudy Gay. In fact in the interview, when asked why the team is playing better with lesser talent, Coach Casey said two things. First, the players are playing better "as a team". Second and the reason for the first is the level of "trust" the players have in one another and their own skills has risen. What was it that Coach Herb Brooks said in 1980 with his team of college hockey players getting ready for the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games, "I'm not looking for the best players. I'm looking for the right players!"? What a concept!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's Time To Rethink Pre-Game Practice

Our guest blogger today is HANS FRAUNENLOB from New Zealand. Hans and I go back to the years leading to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. Hans and Team New Zealand, as it made its way to the World Curling Federation Championships, did so on an "around-the-world" air ticket. Essentially it meant the team had to travel either east-to-west or west-to-east and had to make a minimum of three stops along the way. One of those was the National Training Centre in Calgary to spend a week with yours truly (and they lived to tell about it) with one of the remaining two obviously wherever the WCF event was being held and since three of the four (besides Hans there were Gerald Chick & Lorne de Pape) were native Canadians, the third was somewhere else in Canada so at least one of them could visit with family and friends. Sean Becker, the skip of the team, was the Kiwi.
More I think in spite of me than because of me, in the years leading to Torino, the team earned enough points to qualify for those 2006 Games.
Last year, in Frederiction, NB, Hans had the distinction of skipping the NZ entries in both the WCF Mixed Doubles and the Seniors. In fact, NZ was our opposition in the final game for the gold medal and gave us all we could handle!
Some of you may recall on this site (post of 5/2/13 entitled "Mixed Doubles From An Athlete's Perspective") that Hans suggested a rule change for Mixed Doubles. This man lies awake at night thinking these great thoughts. I believe his take on Pre-Game Practice will interest you. Enjoy, leave comments and thanks Hans!

If you'd like to hear an mp3 version of this post, go to sound and enter "coachbill" in the search area at the top. Click on "play" icon beside the title of this post and you're good to go!

Like many curlers and curling fans, I've been following the process of curlers from around the world competing for the honour of representing their country at the biggest spiel of all - the Winter Olympics.

I was fortunate enough to have that experience myself in 2006 at the Torino Olympics.  I've competed in international competitions since then, and I've experienced the growing importance of the 'Draw Shot Distance' (DSD)* factor in the game.  

Now it not only gets you hammer in the first end if you are successful (which is huge) -  it becomes a potentially important tie-breaker at the business end of a competition when all the 'DSD's' are averaged (which can give you big advantages).

I've reached the conclusion that gaining that advantage wins you more games - so it means the pre-game practice has a new purpose. 

It's time to re-think those important few minutes before the game. It's not about everyone getting a feel for the ice and finding your draw weight anymore. Forget about that. It's only about nailing that last shot draw. Nothing else should matter.

The just-completed Olympic Qualifying Event had a four-way tie for first at the end of the round robin (contesting for two places in the Games). At a Worlds we competed at in Victoria. BC in 2005 there was a six-way tie. This stuff matters. You can't afford duds. Even if you don't get the hammer - you can't afford to be full-12 foot either. All your DSD's need to be close - or at the end of the week you might find yourself playing an extra game or more, you wish you didn't have to play.

In an 8 to 10 game round robin, I figure that having the hammer in the first end 80 percent of the time probably adds up to one extra win (versus having the hammer 20 to 50 percent of the time).

In the last two years, my teams have totally re-oriented our pre-game practice routine around nailing that draw shot. We've decided that nothing else matters - and our approach seems to be paying off.

This requires a leap of faith from the front end players in particular. Back in the day, we used to assign different people different parts of the ice to deliver to, to try and get a feel across the whole sheet how much the ice was curling, in different places and at different weights. In that scenario, everyone delivered a lot of rocks.

In our new scenario, we have two different routines. One is for 'first practice' (when the ice is freshly pebbled and slower) and the other for 'second practice' (when there have been a few rocks delivered over different parts of the ice)

If we have 'first practice' - we use the eight rocks delivered away from the home end to get a rough feel for curl, and which rotation might be easier to control to be able to hit the centre line (and the pin). We make a call on the 'preferred rotation' and start to deliver a few more over the 'preferred path'.  We then push rocks back just for the last rock shooter and the rest of the practice is that person delivering the draw to the pin about 6 times in a row. Having the brushers time and follow the stone to be able to judge the carry/slide (on still-quickening ice) is really important. The pace changes literally with every stone. We've gotten pretty good at anticipating 'how much more the next one might carry'.

If we have 'second practice' the routine is similar - but we've had the benefit of watching the other team deliver stones. So the uncertainty of the pace of the ice and a preferred path is lower - you've had a chance to time some rocks and observe the curl (and importantly how much the draws 'finish' - as many last stone draws are 'missed' because of overcurl or undercurl, as they are for over or underbrushing).  So we lock in the 'path choice' earlier - but we still orient the last half of the practice time totally on the draw shooter repeating the draw shot.

There are some small trade-offs to this approach. Your front end players may have slightly less feel for weight in the first end (but I'd argue that is offset by them intently watching draw shots - and at top level competition all players should be able to 'deliver to a number' otherwise you haven't practiced enough!). As a skip, you might be guessing a bit more about curl in different parts of the sheet than you might like (but in top competitions, you have a really good idea what the ice is going to do anyways). Probably the biggest thing to work through in the first two ends is the different pace on different parts of the sheet (some paths are lightning, some are slower, due to many rocks going over a specific part of the ice).

But we believe having the hammer and a preferred position in complex tie-break situations trumps all of that. Try organising all of your six or eight minutes before the game only around making one shot. You might be pleasantly surprised how your won-loss record improves.

* The WCF term for this is DSC (Draw Shot Challenge) and it's the draw-to-the-button now commonly used around the curling world to determine the team that gets to choose the set of  stones it wishes to use to to play the first or second stone of end #1 fir a game and to rank teams that are tied going into the playoff portion of the event. It is worth noting that in that averaging of a team's DSC's, it's common practice to eliminate the team's worst distance.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Coach Can't Lose!

Normally you'd see the text of my posting here, but not today! If you want to hear this short posting, one I just happened upon in doing some "office cleaning" in preparation for a move to a new residence, almost within sight of the one from which I'm writing this, follow the directions below.

I do not know the name of the author but it wasn't me. But, I thought the premise was worth sharing so I chose it for my first attempt at a podcast.

To hear it go to "". At the top of the home page you'll see a "search bar". Enter coachbill and you'll come upon "A Coach Can't Lose".

I'd very much like your comments on this form of communication. If it "flies" with you I'll still create posts here in the traditional way but I'll also make a podcast version.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Professional Golf Syndrome: A Look Back at the Curling Trials

Last week we were hoping to see "world class curling" at the Canadian Curling Trials in Winnipeg. It didn't deliver! What we saw was average curling by our most elite teams and that's putting it mildly.  Don't be mislead by this statement. I really do feel we're sending the best two teams from the Curling Trials to 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and both played extremely well. Heh, when Team Jacobs* goes undefeated and beats one of the better teams twice, that's nothing at which to sneeze and Team Jones was the best women's team all week and I wish them well! But on balance, the curling was not what most of us expected!

I was not glued to my television nor my computer as I was in Whitehorse, YT at the request of the Yukon Curling Association on the third weekend of a four weekend visit to that territory, working with their top adult teams so what I saw was not ceremony-to-ceremony but it was enough to get a feel for the event. I did speak with those who were actually in attendance and saw every draw. They were even less impressed with what they witnessed than me (yikes).

Had this been in Las Vegas, imagine the money you could have made on a bet that none of Teams Howard (2-5), Stoughton (3-4) and Koe (2-5) would qualify for a tie-breaker much less the playoffs (and you might have upped the ante with the "prop bet" that the trio would have losing records). You might have been able to purchase the MTS Centre and the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise with your winnings. So what happened? Here's my take for what it's worth.

Most of the teams competing in Winnipeg, especially on the men's side of the ledger, spend almost their entire competitive season playing, for want of a better term, in big money events (by curling standards). But, there's no real "losing" involved because like professional golfers, it's only about the degree of "winning". No one loses! They're playing with/for someone else's money!!!! But, put those same professional golfers into a scenario like "The Ryder Cup" where losing is a real possibility, you see some very uncharacteristic performances. Some fold under the pressure and some do the opposite and rise to the occasion but it's my experience it's much more the latter. And add age to the equation where the career finish line is in plain view, and you can mix in a focus on the outcome as much as the process and we know where that road leads. In plain English, nerves were very close to the surface for some very experienced & skilled teams.

As the Curling Trials approached, I was asked many times who I thought might prevail. My response each time was, "I have no idea but one of the four teams coming out of Kitchener (the so-called pre-Trials event) was going to make a splash. I just don't know how large the splash nor who will get wet!" Hmmm, where do you place those bets again?

The women's final was of particular interest to me. I did see that one. Team Middaugh made a mistake on the timing of the speed of the ice which led to the Team Jones score of three early in the game. The look on Skip Middaugh's face and the accompanying body language said all Team Jones needed to see. It was "game over" as that "look" lasted throughout the contest. Experience should have risen to the surface for Middaugh. She should have realized that although the error was critical, the patient was not dead, only in need of life support which a confident demeanour on her part might  have provided. Instead, she looked like someone shot her dog and that never changed. Her team needed to see someone who was resilient and could fight back, instead they saw exactly the opposite!# A TO by the team coach to address that situation might have been appropriate. TO's are not always just about what shot to play!

The skip of the winning men's team might take some advice from one of my coaching role models, about whom I spoken before on this site, Bud Grant, who told his players, "When you score a touchdown, you have two choices. You can hand the ball to the official and jog to the bench or you can place it on the ground and jog to the bench. Make it look like you've been there before and you'll be back real soon!" Team Jacobs dodged what could have been a self-inflicted fatal wound by having its skip make unflattering & disappointing gestures at several points during the event. They prevailed in spite of it but that might have a short shelf life! Team Jacobs might pay greater heed to the personality of its wonderful coach, Tom Coulterman.

Sochi is going to be interesting. Those who feel that it's a given that Canada will win double gold, and I hope Canada does, might rethink that position. It's going to be a good old fashion dog fight to the podium. We'd better buckle our collective chin straps!

* I don't recall the opponent at the time and it was relatively early in the event, but with skips' stones to be played, Brad Jacobs used his first shot to "rearrange the furniture" (i.e. change the angles [at the time it looked for all the world that his opponent had the force of "one" locked]) and with his second, played a very delicate tap to score two. His teammates, as demonstrated by their facial expressions weren't exactly sure what he was thinking, but Brad did.  At the time I mumbled to myself, "If he goes on to win, those two shots were the shots across the bows of all opponents that he came to play"! I guess he did come to play!!!

# I have heard more than one sport psychologist indicate that the muscles you "choose" to activate are the ones that in large measure determine one's level of performance. Great athletes are great actors and learn to activate those muscles needed to perform even though inside they might feel exactly the opposite. Yet another aspect of a curling delivery that affects performance over and above mechanics!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Real Time Visit from the Virtual Coach

Although it was never the intention of my "Virtual Coach Project" to actually visit in person with either team, as my travels recently took me through Southern Ontario, that's exactly what happened and it afforded me the opportunity to visit with the women's team on back-to-back nights at their home curling facility. I'd love to do the same with the men's team but that would necessitate an "across the pond" excursion and that's not in the cards at this point.

Night #1 saw us spend about an hour off ice (while the ice was being prepared for the evening's draws). The team wanted to talk strategy & tactics, but on a shot-by-shot level. The team was most interested in the "what-do-we-do-in-response-to" type of discussion. The various members of the team had slightly differing views on what the response should/could be when the opposition places its first lead stone of the end on the centre line reasonably close to the top of the house. Team Ellen, again not the skip's real name, has last stone advantage and wanted to know what its best response might be. This is a classic strategy & tactics situation, one that occurs, oh, just about every end! Absolutely you need to know what your response will be! The point I made after suggesting that there are two "strategies" and a variety of "tactics", was that some are more appropriate than others depending upon the strategy selected. The two strategies are; ignore the opposition stone (for the moment) or use/deal with the opposition stone. Once that decision is made, you've entered the world of tactics (i.e. selecting the shot that's most appropriate [based upon your game and end plans]). Let's examine the available tactics.

IGNORE - a) corner guard b) draw to either side of the house

USE/DEAL WITH - a) draw around b) split the guard off the CL (perhaps into the house) c) freeze to it (dangerous as it may create an overlap)

This is where "competitive data" enters the picture. The decsion with which you live should be based upon the results you get when you select the various strategies and tactics. What's working for you? What works for you may not be what works for me and my team or anyone else's team!

Then it was time to hit the ice for some technical observations. Team Ellen was dealing with some very common technical issues. Please remember, the names of the players are psuedonyms.

Loni (lead) has good draw weight, certainly a prerequisite for that position. Her challenge is line of delivery but it's not as a result of a lateral drift. Loni tends to not "get out to the brush" and subsequently she has CL guards which don't end up on the CL (which coupled with not haveing last rock advantage) often begins a downward spiral of events resulting in a multiple score by the opposition. I spent a good deal of time with the entire team reminding them of a solid pre-shot routine especially that element of getting one's body "square to the line of delivery". Included in that was the point that the most "reliable" body part to line up perpendicular to the line of delivery is the "hips", not one's hack toe, hack thigh or hack knee. They are "useful" but not "reliable". I also reminded the team that proper hack set up starts from a standing position about a 1/2 step behind the hack. That's when you get those hips square to the line of delivery (a visual line in the ice). When Loni does that, she gets out to the brush!

Lexie (second) is a "drifter" (in her case, as a right-handed curler it's a left-to-right drift). Lexie's pre-shot routine is good but as she moves her sliding foot under the mid-line of her body in the slide portion of the delivery, it gets there "quickly". When it does so, it wants to continue to move in that left-to-right direction causing the drift. Interestingly enough, Lexie's body senses that left-to-right movement and tries to "get the rock back on line". Unfortunately, that means her shot is really beginning at a point some distance from the hack and that "new" line of delivery oftern results in a shot that misses "narrow" not "wide" as one might expect since Lexie is somewhere to the right of the line of delivery. I reminded Lexie that getting the sliding foot under the mid-line of the body is one of those "automatic systems" the body has in place. I enouraged her to not even try to get her sliding foot to that mid-line position for that reason. Instead, she should try to move her sliding foot directly towards the skip's brush. If she does that, her sliding foor will move to the mid-line position under much more control and the lateral drift will be history!

Janet (third*) collapses out of her delivery so quickly her slide rarely gets much past the hog line. At the most critical time of the delivery, the release, she's decelerating noticeably. This results in a last split second "push" of the rock which makes weight control challenging. I checked Janet's slider and it looks OK. It's more of a conceptual issue. I had Janet, with a rock, slide as far down the ice as she could. Well, she amazed herself with the distance! I then asked her the big question. "Why do you slide so short?" She understood the challenge she presented herself when she decelerated at the release. One wants to release the rock in a free sliding portion of the delivery, long before the deceration phase! When she "slides long", her weight control will improve dramatically!

Ellen (skip*) has the best technical delivery on the team. I'd like to see her get a little more over her slider so more of her body weight is evenly distributed on it but it's just a suggestion to an overall solid delivery. She's a good technical role model for the team!

The second night I was in town, I had an opportunity to see the team play in a league game. Their opponent was not as skilled although the opposing skip demonstrated that she knew her way around a sheet of curling ice. Skip Ellen made a wonderful raise to the 4' to "save" the 1st end and made a number of excellent shots during the game to lead the team to victory (although, due to a time rule, the game ended at the conclusion of the 7th end). In the fourth end, skip Ellen "flashed" two back-to-back open takeouts which led to a score of three by the opposition but those were the only two blemishes on a solid performance by the skip Ellen.

The ice at their curling facility was relatively fast with lots of curl. Even though it was suggested by yours truly, the team neglected to entertain the question, "What's the ice telling us?". Had the team done that, it would have been noticed that the key to making shots on that sheet of ice was to "get out to the brush", which was a rare commodity on Team Ellen that night. Recreational curlers will find that when the skip's brush gets to the edge of the 8' circle or farther, shooting percentages begin to drop and the reason is that pesky getting out to the skip's brush thing.

I very much enjoyed working with the team and look forward to their questions as the season progresses and the same goes for all of my readers. Don't hesitate to tell me about your curling season and feel free to ask questions!

* The team had recently decided to make a position change. Ellen had been the third with Janet skipping. With Janet's short slide, her weight control was a challenge so Ellen moved to deliver the last two stones of the end but with her long time teammate (and lead) Loni holding the brush for her and assisting in determining the strategy and tactics for those end-concluding shots.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The "What" & the "Why"

There are some aspects of one's childhood that remain indelibly etched in one's memory. For me it was my Mother, coming upon something I clearly, in her mind, should not have been doing. Her opening line, and I suspect for many of you as well with your parent, went something like this, "What are you doing?". Well, I knew very well "what" I was doing, and so did my Mother. The real question being asked was, "Why on earth are you doing it?". Aye, there's the rub, why indeed!

I learned very early on that if I was going to do something, anything, not previously condoned in the Tschirhart household, I had better know not only "what" I was doing, but more importantly it seemed, "why" I was doing it. So many of our early childhood transgressions were conducted with no apparent reason. Well, as an athlete aspiring to perform well, you must not only know "what" you're doing, you had better know "why". Why? Well, that's what this post is about!

This is not exactly a new theme about which I have put fingers to keyboard, but as I travel the curling world, I still meet too many elite athletes, who are very talented and as a result play at a very high level, but they're "working without a net"! That is not only dangerous for a high wire performer, it's equally so for a high performance athlete and team!

We are not robots, programmed to follow a carefully planned programme of commands with a consistent response time-after-time. We're humans. Despite the best of intentions and preparation, we make mistakes. It's what makes life fun and frustrating at the same time, in every walk of life, not just sports. The constant goal it seems as I meet curlers of all experience and skill levels is consistency. Recreational curlers don't expect to make every shot or come anywhere near that plateau. But what they and the elite curler universally loath is playing reasonable well one game and unbelievably bad the next. Grrrrrrrr!!!!! Elite athlete share that experience and sentiment with their recreational cousins. It just doesn't happen as often nor to the same degree.

There are ways to reduce those peaks & valleys in performance, knowing how to balance your brain is one of them (see the post entitled "Calm Down" [11/14/13]). Another way is knowing exactly what you do and why you do it!

We don't think about all the minute details that go into the execution of a curling shot. We just do it and hopefully, we do it well. But back to our non-robotic status. When that execution heads south and you don't know what you're doing, literally, you're lost at sea without a life jacket! One of the best ways to get back on track is to refer to your knowledge base. You may have to go back, however briefly, to curling 101. If you know what you do, I'm confident as you go through your Rolodex of sequential movements accompanied with the comfort of knowing why to do them, you'll quickly find the one that's either missing or one that should not be there in the first place.

So here's what you need do. Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the centre of the sheet (in portrait orientation [if you're not sure what that is, ask any 12 yr. old]). At the top of one of the two columns you've created, print the word WHAT and at the top of the other, the word WHY. I think you know what's coming next.

Under WHAT, preferably in chronological order, list everything you do from the time the preceding opponent's shot comes to rest until your shot comes to rest, everything!!!! Beside each of the element of your delivery that you placed in the WHAT column, in a word or phrase indicate the reason you do it in the WHY column. If you can't think of a good reason, don't make one up. Leave it blank!

Clearly, for curlers in their first, second or third year of experience, this will be something of a greater challenge than it should be for those with more experience, but that said, if the novice's instruction has been provided by a certified instructor, that instructor will always state the reason why he/she suggests anything.

In a previous posting I've referred to the difference between "ritual" & "routine" and that difference is the "why" element. Rituals are done without thinking and that's true for routines as well but they part ways early on. Rituals simply evolve, for no reason. Routines are carefully choreographed, revisited & tweaked for very specific reasons, in our case to make curling shots etc. It's pretty difficult, I'd say close to impossible to have "reasons" with "whats". To say that the two go hand-in-hand would be an understatement but as mentioned above, I shake my head at the number of times experienced and skilled athletes struggle with that simple activity previously mentioned.

The next step of course is to have someone visually record your delivery. What that "What/Why" document close at hand, compare what you see with what you expected to see. There may be elements that you see that you clearly did not want to see and perhaps some elements you expected and hoped to see but were absent.

Video analysis doesn't always have to be about an instructor indicating what he/she feels needs to be altered, subtracted or added. In my mind, it's much better that the athlete does the caparison between document and video then ask him/herself the question, "What surprises me?" Frequently the athlete can take it from there and what he/she takes away is far more valuable than anything you or I might have suggested.

Make no mistake, occasionally, even the most experienced and skilled of curlers may not be sure how to proceed when they notice there's something amiss between document and video. They will then ask for a suggestion. That's when you've been invited into the process as a trusted partner as opposed to the omniscient instructor/coach and that's when whatever is suggested has a much longer shelf life with the athlete.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Science Behind Doubles and In/Offs

Yesterday (11/17/13) in Medicine Hat, AB in the final game of the Grand Slam event, the 2013 Canadian Open, a shot known commonly as an "in/off" was pretty much the only shot left for skip Kevin Koe to win the game (and the $$$ that went with it, don't forget that). I did not see the game as at the time I was enjoying the hospitality of Team Canada (Sr. Women) in Truro, NS at the home of skip Colleen Pinkney. On the drive from Chez Pinkney back to the hotel, listening to a sports talk show on the radio, the on-air commentator was quite animated about skip Koe's "fantastic in/off" for the victory.

Naturally I couldn't wait to fire up my tablet to see the shot, as I was reasonably certain it would be front and centre on the SPORTSNET web site, the event's media carrier. If you've not seen it, go to the aforementioned web site to witness one of curling's most spectacular type of shot. This post will make a lot more sense if you do!

For those readers not familiar with an in/off, it's a shot whereby the running stone purposefully strikes a stationary stone for the sole purpose of redirecting the running stone for some intended purpose, in this case to remove an opposition stone. Koe's running stone had to be redirected and strike the opposition stone and not roll away. In curling parlance, Koe had to "stick it"! And stick it he did!

For those seeing the shot and muttering, "Well, that was certainly a 'lucky' shot!", you'd be in a group I would describe as "incorrect". Not only did 'luck' have very little to do with it, the purpose of this post will illustrate that Team Koe had some solid sports science supporting one particular element of the shot, which along with a good measure of talent, great line calling on the part of third Pat Simmons and "practice" (yes, the teams that entertain us week-after-week on television actually practise those shots) helped with the successful execution of the shot.

Let's begin with the sports science. This so-called "in/off" was essentially a "double takeout" whereby the back half of the shot was the only portion that mattered. Elite teams like Team Koe play those shots on a regular basis.

The first order of business is to determine the 'contact point' on the stationary stone to be struck first. For many decades in curling, that was more or less guess work and experience than exact science. That's no longer the case thanks to the work of Ron Mills (SK) who postulated that if one draws a straight line tangent to the circumference of the leading edge of the 'front stone' to the circumference of the back edge of the second or 'back stone', the point at which that straight line contacts the edge of the circumference (i.e. striking band) of the front stone is the contact point.

You can easily test this by placing the two stones to be removed in a makeable double takeout configuration. Now get any object that's straight (brush handle, curtain rod etc.) and place the straight object as described in the paragraph above. Note the contact point. Now, place a third stone to touch the 'front stone' of the double at that exact spot. That simulates the running stone, only it's frozen in time. To animate the entire situation, get a fourth stone and have someone crouch down close to that stone you placed on the 'contact point' and drive it with some force onto the nose of that stone. It will instantly remove the stone it's touching and redirect itself onto the nose of the second, target stone. It works every time!!! I've added some photos below to illustrate.

In a game setting, you'd be more than unpopular when lining up a double, or as in the case with Kevin Koe, an in/off, if you started placing your brush handle on the ice but, there's no rule against holding your brush in the air at about waist height so that the edge of the handle of your brush acts as that straight line then standing so that it visually touches "the front edge of the front stone and the back edge of the back stone" OR you can stand so that you can "visualize" a straight line. The point is this, now you've removed a troublesome part of making doubles and in/offs (knowing where to strike the first stone)!

The next decision involves rotation. The first consideration is that contact point. Choose the rotation that affords the better chance of striking that point. If that really doesn't matter, then ice might be a factor as I believe it might have been with Team Koe (more about that later). The severity of the angle between the two stones also may come into play.

Generally, when the stones are sitting at a relatively "steep" angle to one another, coming "into the first stone" will cause the redirected running stone to come off that first stationary stone at a "slightly" steeper angle, thus facilitating the successful double takeout. Conversely, if the two stones to be removed are at a relatively "flat" angle one to the other, then coming across the face of the first stone will see the redirected stone come off the first stone at an angle that's slightly reduced and it will redirect at a reduced velocity, which may or may not be relevant.

You need to be aware that coming across the face, as with that Koe stone, causes the rotation to be "reversed" (very likely accounting for its reduced velocity). Skip Koe delivered this stone with a clockwise rotation but after contact with the first stone (his as it turned out, but that didn't matter) it came across to tap the Gushue shot stone with just enough force to move it out of its shot position (with his stone taking its place for the win).

My sense is that he chose that "across the face" rotation because it was easier to strike the contact point going "outside in" rather than "inside out" which would have been the case with the counterclockwise rotation.* He would have had greater "jump" with the counterclockwise rotation but with the greater amount of curl, it might have been more difficult to hit that contact point and that's the key element. If you don't hit the contact point, all the rest of the elements are quite meaningless!

In/offs become even more challenging when it's for a hit-&-roll, where there's no second stone to "catch" the redirected running stone. In that case, coming across the face just might be the better rotation selection due to that reduced velocity after contact. Much of this type of shot is experiential in nature but not the contact point. That's sport science thanks to Ron Mills!

* In speaking with someone who did see the entire game, apparently Team Koe had played a shot or two in the exact spot with the clockwise rotation so perhaps that was the deciding factor. I'll invite someone from Team Koe to contact me with the real reason.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Calm Down

Usually when we/I refer to one's athletic skill set, it's only natural to think in technical terms. When I attend a coaches' conference and I'm placed among coaches of other sports, upon their discovery that I'm a curling coach, someone is likely to say, "Oh, curling, that's the technical sport!". And, from a spectator's perspective, it certainly would appear that were true. Heh, how many times have we all said, "Hit the brush, deliver the right weight and all will be well" or words to that affect? Countless times I suspect. Well, we aren't what we appear to be are we! Spectators see the result of a skill set, much of which is not visible to the eye and of late I've been dealing with some of the elements. Today, it's about calming down and at the end of this post, I'm going to lift the veil on a new drill that I've recently field-tested with very good results, sort of curling's "clinical trial".

Excellent athletic performances have common characteristics. One of those is a sense of calmness. Strange as it might seem, when performance is needed the most and nerves and anxiety are at their peak, meeting the challenge is much easier and I might add from participant observation, essential, when you are calm. How many times have we intervened in a stressful situation and suggested, perhaps in very strong terms, that the individual(s) involved, start by "calming down"? It seems intuitive that nothing worthwhile/productive can occur until there's a sense of calmness.

I'm guessing there's more than one reader who's saying right now, "Heh Bill, easier said than done!" and I might have said that too at one point but not any more. Actually, if you know how to do it, it IS easy. It takes knowledge and discipline, that's all!

The knowledge was provided in the videos I suggested you watch in my recent "Quiet Eye" posts ("On the Ball" & "Brainy Putting"). If you've not watched them, please go to YouTube and do so right now.

In the scene at Dr. Debbie Crews' lab at Arizona State University, the well-known actor, Alan Alda was matched up with a professional golfer in a putting contest. You will recall that Alda, except for the miniature golf outings with his grandchildren, does not play golf. Tina Tombs played golf for a living. But Alda won the contest easily because it appeared as though Tombs, even with her excellent skill set, had not learned how to calm herself down, or as Dr. Crews described it, to calm the "left hemisphere" of the brain. Tombs putted horribly and Alda performed well even though their relative skill sets could not have been more different.

I hope that scene in "Brainy Putting" was like a building falling on you! If you don't know how to balance your brain (i.e. calming the left side so the just-do-it-trust-my-skill right side can perform) you're taking a sound curling delivery onto the ice with no protection against "competitive breakdown". I've said this before on this site, "If all you take onto the ice is a sound technical delivery, you don't have very much!"

You saw in the videos, more than one way to balance the hemispheres of the brain but I hope you took note that it's the "left side" that's the problem. The left side, the "do-it-this-way" side, always wants to be front and centre. Unfortunately, the right side, the side that actually does the performing, only works when it's in balance with the left side. I like to think of the brain's right side as on autopilot just waiting to help you perform and will do so, but only when the left side has been calmed.

In our sport of curling, I like a "mantra", a word or phrase, technical in nature, that just might make no sense to anyone except you, as perhaps the easiest way to do the job of calming the brain's left hemishpere. As I said in my follow-up post, the left side of the brain is searching for a job. If you don't give it one, a task you know is helpful to your performance, it will step to the plate and choose a job on its own and the one it selects might be most inappropriate and as a result, a satisfying performance is all but out the window. Or, as "luck" would have it, the left side might choose a task that results in a great performance. But you'll never be consistent operating on the basis!

Balancing your brain will not make an average curler great but not knowing how to balance the brain frequently makes a great curler, average. Look, you've worked very hard to develop that sound, technical delivery. Why would you leave performance to chance and not learn the other half of the process, balancing your brain so you can compete in a calm, personal atmosphere?

In about an hour, I'm going to head from Charlottetown, where I'm writing this, to Crapaud (about 30 min. east) to meet about 30 junior curlers for an on ice clinic. Then I'm headed for Cornwall where I'm going to meet some coaches for a two hour session where we're going to talk about "coaching stuff". I'm guessing the coaches are expecting me to bring some of the latest insights about delivery or brushing, something technical and I will do that but I want to spend most of the time encouraging them to ensure that aspects of the curling delivery one can't see on video get some attention. Making the athletes aware of the modalities available to balance their brain will be an agenda item.

And now for the new drill. I call it "All Hands On Deck" and of course, it's a team drill, perhaps the ultimate team drill and I believe you'll see why I say that. When I first came up with this, it was just an end-of-practice-let's-do-something-just-for-fun activity. And it was fun!!! But the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that it had a component that's very difficult simulate in a drill. And that component was providing a seemingly chaotic environment, where teamwork was paramount but one's role in the drill is to turn chaos into calmness.

The object of the drill is simple! Each member of the team will draw two shots to come to rest somewhere in the house. But, the last of the 8 stones must reach the near tee line before the first stone delivered comes to rest. Picture that!

For this drill to be feasible, the ice must be "up-to-speed" to be sure and the team must choreograph the position of the stones and movements of the players (i.e. there's no time for the time-honoured tradition of cleaning the stone so you're going to have to do that before the drill starts).

Clearly the team will be in hurry up mode but twice during the chaos and confusion, each player will have to calm down enough to make the shots (obviously without brushing). To date a few teams have tried the drill with varying degrees of success. The first order of business is just to get that 8th shot to the near tee line before the 1st stone delivered comes to rest regardless of the final resting places of the set of stones. Once the team has accomplished that goal, then they can try for the ultimate goal of eight stones in the house.

I'll invite the first team to accomplish "All Hands On Deck" to send me an email so that I can recognize the feat on this site. In the meantime, just calm down will ya!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Virtual Coach Programme - Team Introductions (and a really good question from the women's team)

Allow me to introduce the two "Virtual Coach Programme" teams. Both are club level teams with very clear outcome goals. The women's team is from Canada in Southern Ontario and the men's team is from Switzerland (I get to practise my Kitchener-Waterloo version of German). The men's team is somewhat (diplomacy rules the day) older than the women's team for whatever that's worth. The women have taken my suggestion and have adopted pseudonyms. I have watched this team play and will actually be able to spend some on ice time with them soon as I travel back to BC through S ON. I'm in Charlottetown as I write this post.
The men's team and I have "Skyped" to answer some questions and will be doing so again soon. Who knew when I started this coaching/instructing more than two decades ago that I'd be conferring with a team thousands of kilometers away on something call an iPad and in doing so, we'd hear and see one another in real time?

Women's Team

We are a brand new team which was formed to compete in the zone playdowns for "Women's Intermediates" (40+ age group in ON). We are all friends who have either played on a previous team or played in bonspiels together at one point throughout our curling careers. What we lack in technical skills, we definitely make up for with our positive team dynamics! Our major outcome goal for our season is to qualify for the provincials. To help us achieve that we are playing together once a week in a league at our curling club and competing in some cash bonspiels throughout the fall. 

Loni (Lead)

Playing lead is by far my favourite position on a curling team. I love the challenge of throwing lead rocks and I very much enjoy brushing.  Although my actually ability to brush the rock is not the greatest, I take great pride in attempting to improve constantly my ability to judge the weight of the rock. I have been curling for 14 years. I did not start the game at a young age unfortunately. What I lack in experience, I make up for in enthusiasm. I believe I have a very positive attitude on the ice and I always believe we can win the game, no matter the ability of the opposition or the score. Until the game is over, I always believe we can find a way to win.

Lexie (Second)

I started curling in high school and played several different positions on my school team. I gave up curling when I went to university but came back to the game about 10 years ago. I have played in various leagues at my local club and have played in a few provincial curling association competitions. Second is my favourite position on a curling team. I love the opportunity to throw lots of hits and I enjoy brushing. I am very excited about this team - we are great friends on and off the ice - and I am looking forward to learning lots this season.

Ellen (Vice)

I have been curling for over 20 years. I played competitively as a junior (women's and mixed) and have spent my adult years curling at both the club and competitive level. I skipped a competitive women's team for a few seasons, but the bulk of my experience lies at the position of vice. It was a debate whether Janet or I would skip the team, however, I strongly believe we are in the positions that best utilize our strengths.

Janet (Skip)

This is my first year playing skip ever! I enjoy a new challenge and love throwing the key shots in games. I have been honing the strategy aspects of the game while playing on the provincial competitive circuit for the past two years. I've been curling for 7 years and have always regretted not starting to play the game sooner in life. Having said that, I've spent most of my winters in a rink and enjoy both the social and competitive aspects of the game.

Men's Team

The core of this team was formed in the 2008/09 season with two members added, one in 2010/11 and the other in 2011/12. They are all experienced curlers with an average of about 10 years experience on "pebbled ice" (not sure what ice was used before that). Each member of the team is motivated to be the best teammate he can be but each asked me a different question in our first give-&-take via email. The team's goal is to finish in 4th place or better in their group (again, I'm sure they'll tell me what "group" means at some point, perhaps "league").
The team does practise on a regular basis if memory serves from our emails.
The team has sent me video files so I have seen each player's delivery and have responded with comments. This team is dedicated to improve but from their bio's, it's clear they play as much because they simple enjoy the experience (best reason in the world and it's the same for the women's team). Let's meet the players.

Hanspeter (lead)

This is Hanspeter's 14th season playing on pebbled ice and has been with the team for 3 seasons, with the 2013-14 season being the fourth. Hanspeter is a football (i.e. soccer) fan of FC Bassel and enjoys classical music, reading (about politics) and is a model railway enthusiast.

Silvan (second)

This is Silvan's 3rd full season with the team. He sings in a gospel chorus, enjoys fine wine and hiking. Silvan is  a left-handed curler.

Thomas (third)

Thomas has curled since 1973 but only on pebbled ice for the last 15 seasons. He along with skip Walter, is one of the founding members of the team. He enjoys soccer as well. FC Thun is the team he supports but also is an active skier and cyclist. Like his teammate Hanspeter, he enjoys music.

Walter (skip)

And I might add, from our  emails, Walter is clearly the managing general of the team (and I say that with respect). He is the question & answer man on the team and he asks really good questions. He keeps me on my toes! Walter has much curling experience, we'll just leave it at that. Although he did not so state on his bio, I know from our emails that he relishes discussions about strategy & tactics.

And now the question (actually, a question and a comment) that was sent by Lexie, the second on the women's team.

I have a question for you after our recent cash spiel.
I feel one of our biggest challenges is the different delivery styles of everyone on the team. It makes it difficult for the brushers to judge the weight & for the skip to place the brush when there is no consistency among the deliveries. I know there are many elements to the delivery that we could adjust. Knowing that we can't all commit to hours of practice, is there one element of our deliveries on which you would recommend we all focus so that we can at least start to get some consistency?

Since I have seen you (pl.) play, I agree with your assessment that each of you has a delivery style. First off, that's certainly not unusual so no need to jump off any tall buildings or hide sharp objects from the four of you! Clearly it's why I'm pleased that we can spend some on ice time together soon but that doesn't help readers who see a similar situation with their team so let me comment on your observation and concern about delivery differences.

You've used the buzz word that's on the lips of all curlers, consistency. Even if you don't aspire to shoot in the 90% range when you know a solid 60% is a good night for you, you get frustrated with the peaks and valleys of your performance. I'll begin with a non-skilled based item that will work wonders but only if you do it every time you are about to deliver a curling stone. Visualize the successful completion of your shot. Keep that picture in your mind's eye then make a copy of the picture in real time. In other words, "follow the picture". If you did your homework re. my post on "Quiet Eye" and saw the videos, you'll know what I mean. Second, know how to establish line of delivery. It starts with you standing behind the hack (good time to take that picture) and aligning your hips (the most reliable body part) so that the hip line is perpendicular to the line of delivery. Then when you get into the hack, make sure those hips are still perpendicular. If you slide to that the weight of your body is evenly distributed on your slider, you will slide, not only straight, but also at the skip's brush. But of course all of what I've just suggested means diddly squat (oh spell check will have fun with that one) if your grip, rotation and release are not sound. Apply the clockwise rotation with the gooseneck starting at 10 o'clock and the counter clockwise at 2 o'clock with release at 12 o'clock for both.
When I get on the ice with the team we're going to check everyone's stone set up, grip, release point, application of rotation and number of rotations (my so-called "team technical check-up") to see if we can make the deliveries work better together.

I thought I would share one other comment. I'm sure this is no surprise to you, but I think we were all surprised at the spiel by how much changing Ellen's and Janet's positions affected our 'team dynamics'. We had played a few league games in this order and things seemed good, but it was challenging at the cash spiel. The first couple of games were especially tough. The good news is that we talked a lot between games and we were all feeling and performing much better in our last game.

Welcome to the club, Lexie! You're right, what happened was not a surprise to me. And actually, I know there were more responsibility changes on the team than just the switch of skip and third because lead Loni holds the brush for Ellen, not Janet.
Anytime a group alters the responsibilities of any of the group's members, there's bound to be a change in the way members of the group relate to one another, especially and obviously to the members whose responsibilities have been changed. When the new responsibility is attached to a new level of authority it's even more tenuous in the beginning. In professional team sports, when an assistant coach becomes the head coach, the relationship the new head coach has with the players is totally different. As an assistant, the players could go to him/her with issues that they would never bring to the same person if he/she was the head coach. The same is true in the workplace when a staff member gets a promotion. Now he/she must relate differently to co-workers and they in turn.
On the "team dynamics wheel" it's not unusual, in fact it would be unusual if the reverse was true, that the team will revisit the "storming stage" of the wheel.
I was encouraged by the fact that you indicated that the team recognized the change in team dynamics and sat down and openly talked about it. Good for you!!!! So many teams make the classic error of brushing it (pun intended) it under the rug. That results in an "elephant in the living room" and we know where that leads don't we!
So, I feel you did the right thing and by doing so, the team will emerge stronger!
Keep those good questions coming!


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!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Light My Fire

This post has absolutely nothing to do with curling! But it does pertain to those cold winter nights when building a wood fire in one's fireplace or wood stove sounds like a great idea. But the crabgrass in the idea is getting the fire "started".  You can buy commercially produced fire starters or use countless pages of  newsprint, for those of you who still get your news that way OR if you know someone like me, a wood turner, who produces wood chips by the bucketful, you can make the world's best & least expensive fire starters. Here's how to do it.

MATERIALS: wood chips/saw dust, paper muffin cups, muffin tins, wax (old burned down candles are terrific), cooking pot, juice tin (open at one end), small stir stick

METHOD: put water into a small cooking pot - put wax into a juice tin & place into the cooking pot - on medium/high setting, melt the wax - while waiting for wax to melt, place muffin cups into muffin tin & fill paper muffin cups with wood chips or saw dust - pour melted wax into the wood chip filled muffin cups & mix (I use Popsicle sticks) - use just enough wax to soak the wood chips - before the wax solidifies, use the stick to jam a length of string into the wood/wax mixture to act as a wick - set aside to allow the wax to set

These fire starters work amazingly well!!! Be careful to use only enough wax to "bind" the wood. If you use too much you will have made a candle rather than a fire starter! They will produce a large flame that burns for several minutes. If your wood is dry there's no need for kindling. Just sit back, watch your fire start and enjoy! These fire starters are great in the summer months to start campfires.

In the next post I'll provide may "take" on the "Quiet Eye" home assignment of 10/22/13 so if you've not seen the videos, do so soon. You will be amazed at what you learn! It will change how you instruct/play this great sport!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mailbag #3

At a recent cash spiel, a perplexed athlete stopped me in the curling facility's parking lot and asked to talk with me about "hitting the brush". It seemed that her skip felt line of delivery had become a challenge but the athlete "thought" she was on line.

I commiserated with the athlete as you should be the first one to real realize that you've "missed the brush", not the last or worse, contend that you indeed had hit the brush!

After a few questions on my part it seemed to me that "eye dominance" was a factor in the dilemma, perhaps the out-and-out cause of the disconnect between player & skip. I hoped the athlete would contact me with the success or lack thereof of the advice I offered. What follows is that feedback and my response. For privacy purposes, I'll call her "Sally" (what ever happened to that name?).

Hi Bill 

I really appreciate our discussion regarding this right hand / left eye dominance issue.

I've been working on keeping my rock behind my left eye per your suggestion and have been finding that I'm getting more consistant feedback from my skip that I am hitting the brush.

Through practice I've just discovered on my out-turn (counter clockwise rotation) that if my alignment is off I tend to deliver from my right shoulder (right eye) which is not my dominant eye.

Can you suggest any specific drills I can do to work on this issue in general?

Thanks in advance!


Dear Sally, 

I'm pleased for your sake that our brief chat helped! 

As I recall you were "opposite side" dominant (right handed and left eye dominant). This proper positioning of "rock-to-body" during the "slide" portion of the delivery is something the body will do correctly/naturally assuming (whoa, that's always dangerous) no one, instructor or teammate, not understanding the critical role of "eye dominance", has unintentionally mislead you. In other words, as a curler slides, the body already knows your eye dominance and it will encourage you to get your sliding foot in position relative to the rock according to your eye dominance. In your case that sliding foot to rock alignment will be such that your sliding foot will be "behind" the rock. Your mantra then could be "follow the rock"! 

For a  curler who's "same side" dominant, he/she will slide so that when viewed from the front, you will see a good portion of the sliding foot. That's because that individual will need get get the eye that's on the same side of the body as the hand that's on the rock, behind the rock.

This is all about "targeting"! 

Everyone is "eye dominant"! And, eye dominance can vary according to distance between the individual and the target. That's why when testing in curling, I always have the athlete standing on the boardwalk at the home end with the target (usually a sheet numeral or letter as the target) because that's the distance with which we're dealing. Also, eye dominance can be trained to be either eye although I'm not sure why one would want to do that but I'm guessing there ARE reasons. 

But, you asked about a drill. Here's one hat has helped many, many curlers at all levels. It's based upon an observation I made very early in my curling career. When we know what rotation has been selected by the skip, we make accommodations with our body positioning, grip, hack foot placement etc. just because it's a clockwise or counterclockwise rotation. When one does that it gives rise to favouring or reluctance to one rotation over the other. Not a good thing! So here's the drill (& I need a name for this). 

Get someone to stand about 5m beyond the near hog line, holding the brush with "both hands" (i.e. no rotation indicated). You then line up to that "line of delivery" (from behind the hack), assume the "hack position", position the rock so that the middle of the rock is opposite the arm pit and (here's the key element) position the gooseneck of the handle so that it's at 12 o'clock (the so-called "neutral position"). Then the brush holder raises a hand to indicate the rotation. You then move that gooseneck to either 10 or 2 o'clock (whichever matches the rotation indicated), raise your hips and delivery the rock to the brush. 

I think you can see the value in this drill. It removes all those unconscious, subtle but destructive "accommodations" (picked up over seasons of play) to return the curler to that "pure", unencumbered delivery with the dominant eye and body positioned appropriately (as determined by the body's natural instincts). 

Give this a try and let me know how it goes!


NB - if you've not done so, please go to my previous post  of 10/22/13 entitled "Quiet Eye -A Home Assignment". I'll be drawing conclusions on the amazing research conducted by Dr. Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary plus what actor Alan Alda (of TV's  M*A*S*H fame) learned at the University of Aizona. It will change how you mentally prepare to execute a curling shot. It certainly changed, in a profound way, the approach I take in assisting curlers with the only challenge that really counts, making curling shots!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Quiet Eye - A Home Assignement

While in my position as the National Development Coach for the Canadian Curling Association in Calgary, AB, my partner, Helen Radford introduced me and the athletes to Dr. Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary. Dr. Vickers was in the final stages of a research project designed to ascertain what athletes actually look at while they attempt to execute a shot. The fact that Dr. Vickers was literally in our backyard and we in hers brought us together. By the time Helen had arranged for curlers to be tested with Dr. Vicker's measuring devices and equipment, she had drawn some initial conclusions and to say it was "ground-breaking" would be putting it mildly!

Dr. Vickers and her associates were surprised and almost at the shocked stage when they tested some of our elite athletes. But to really understand why they were so surprised you need to do some homework and I can assure you, it will be a most entertaining and educational assignment.

Go to There you will find two videos. One is entitled "A Quiet Eye" and the other "Brainy Putting". In the first, you will meet Dr. Vickers and a very well-known personality, Alan Alda (TV's M*A*S*H and numerous motion pictures). The second will introduce you to researcher Debbie Crews at the University of Arizona. In concert with one another, their work is why I used the term "ground-breaking" in my introduction to this post and how I coined the phrase "the performance cocktail" about which you'll read more in a soon to be published post.

You might need to view the videos more than once, perhaps a few times to get the full relevence of each and the tie between the two that revolutionized the way I work with athletes.

I'm constantly referring to "the sports science" when I make technical suggestions. After meeting Dr. Vickers and watching the "On the Ball" video more times than can I count, this is the sports science that should change the way you approach making a curling shot to maximize the skill set you have.

Please, don't pass up on this opportunity!

I'll be back to give you my take on the videos and how I use them with athletes.

Enjoy and be prepared to be amazed at what you see and learn!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

More About Left/Right

What you see in the photo below couldn't have arrived in my inbox at a more opportune time. This photo was sent to me by "Marco Farrero". Now that name might not mean anything to you but it sure does to me and it should to you as well because every time you deliver a curling stone, I'll wager you use his product (with his name emblazoned on the back side). Yes, it's the industry standard Marco Hack! In an exchange of emails w/Marco, I learned that we've been using his hacks for longer than I had recalled, since 1988!

I mentioned to Marco that his hack is one of my favourite trivia questions, the answer to which you are now aware ("What's the name of the hacks used in the vast majority of curling centres?"). But here's a better question about the Marco Hack. What is its most useful design feature (and there are a few excellent design features but this one stands out in my view)? Well, the next time you go to your curling facility, place your hand on the sloped portion of the hack, the trapezoid shaped part. What do you notice. Yes, it's not flat, it's concave. Hmmm, I wonder why Marco did that? Any ideas? If you do, place your idea into the comment section below. I'll reveal the answer in an upcoming blog.

But, this post is regarding that left/right matter about which I've written lately. Marco has suggested that his hacks be positioned in a side-by-side configuration as seen in the photo. In fact, those nice folks at "Canada Curling Stone" have created a plate that will allow an ice technician to easily choose to position the hacks as they are presently configured in your curling facility OR in this side-by-side manner.

Marco's contention is sound. If they're place side-by-side, then with the curler positioning the middle of the stone relative to the inside edge of the hack being employed (or opposite the arm pit, whichever reference point you prefer), the "stone setup" part of the TTC (Team Technical Checkup [see last post]) is almost identical right from the start.

Great idea Marco! I hope it has legs and is given serious consideration by the game's sport governing bodies!