Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Defining Moment

I have no idea how many curling games in total have been played since the adoption of the four rock rule but Sunday's Scotties final in Kingston I feel was a "corner turner" in the way the game will be played and I for one could not be more delighted. Finally, and full credit to Coach Earle Morris, a team demonstrated the "bump tick" as a shot that should be played, not just as a late-in-the-game tactic, but as a way to play with last rock advantage (see "Last Stone Disadvantage" [02/25/13]) at other times as well. Thank you Team Homan and Coach Morris! You have lifted the veil of mystery on a shot that's not that difficult to play with tremendous upside.

To that end, I have a newly minted drill for your team to illustrate the point above. I call it "Birds On A Wire".

Place the eight stones of one colour along the centre line, evenly spaced, with one just off the 12', another just inside the hog line and the other six, as stated, evenly spaced between the two. The team takes the other set of stones to the other end of the sheet and playing as a team, shooter, brush holder and brushers, they attempt to knock the "birds from the wire". In other words, the team has 8 shots (two per player) to move the eight stones on the centre line, off the centre line without removing them from play. The shooters remain wherever they come to rest. See how many shots it takes to accomplish the task.

In the drill, you can set your own parameters to success. You might, if your facility has four foot lines, set the standard that the "birds" must come to rest outside those lines, but still in play of course.

I hope you'll discover that the "tick" (never a good word choice in my view) is not difficult! I also hope you'll employ it more frequently as Team Homan did on Sunday night.

Let me know how it goes. I unveiled "Birds On A Wire" last night in a practice session with a masters team at the Glen Meadows CC. They scored eight on the first try so there you go. Match that!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Last Rock Disadvantage

No, it's not a misprint. You read it correctly. The title of this post is indeed, "Last Rock Disadvantage".

When the four rock rule was adopted by the curling world, it really was uncharted territory. Sure, in Canada we had a three rock rule but the four rock version dramatically changed the game from both  participants' and well as spectators' perspectives!

Spectators loved it and still do although, and this may be tantamount to heresy, when the truly elite teams play one another, you can go to the fridge for the beverage and/or food of your choice until the end is at thirds' and skips' shots. The first shots of the end could be mailed in. Don't misunderstand. It takes great skill to place those guards, come around draws and freezes. But, they're all the same. That is until one team decides the "angles" are not favourable. Then you see a skill most teams do not possess. The ability of the elite teams to play runbacks so accurately is truly amazing. After that, the end really gets interesting!

Curlers love it although you really have to be dedicated to the lead position to want to play draw after draw after draw after ... (my kingdom for a takeout). Certainly the game is more interesting as there are many more stones in play. But the four rock rule, upon its inception, did not serve your average club team very well in my view. Club teams did not have the skill set to take advantage of the rule. For a number of seasons, from my participant observation, it was confusing to say the least. Many club skips decided to watch the elite teams play the rule and copy them. That was not a good idea for what should have been obvious reasons. So what to do?

From an instructor's point of view, where do we put novice curlers? Traditionally they would assume the lead position but under the new rule, with leads' stones so imperative, that did't seem prudent. OK, we'll put them at second but that meant developing hit weight which usually is a step or two behind draws in the mastery column. Third? Well, you see what I mean. But, it's a four rock world so suck it up Bill. Get over it!

Make no mistake, the primary reason for the four rock rule despite my scribbling thus far was something other than interest for spectator and player. No, no, no! It was to level the playing field with countries traditionally perceived as powerful on the world stage by countries at the development stage! A secondary reason was to give the team in a deficit position a better opportunity to make a game of it (see first reason). More interest by spectators was in a tertiary position!

With that out of the way, and I suspect I'll get some opposing views in my inbox, why can last rock be a disadvantage? Actually it's inherent in the rule itself. To paraphrase, opposition (don't forget that word) stones cannot be removed from play until the fifth stone is played in the end if they are in the "free guard zone" (the area in front of the tee line not in the house). That means that both lead stones are protected belonging to the team without last rock advantage while for the team with last rock advantage, only one lead stone is protected. That element of the rule can propel a team losing on the scoreboard to a team preparing to purchase the beverages at the conclusion of the contest.

I wish I had that proverbial nickel for each time I had a team contact me with the major concern being the number of games lost when the team had "control". My first comment to the team is the point I've just made about the purpose of the four rock rule. That revelation alone seems to turn on a light bulb (high efficiency of course). Then we have a look at performance. Do they simply make fewer shots than their opponents in the latter stages of the ends? If that doesn't appear to be the problem then we have a look at strategy and tactics so let's get right to that.

The team without last rock advantage wants to play to the centre of the sheet with protection. Their CL (centre line) guard on their first lead stone will do that. That team needs one more thing. It needs protection from behind for their next shot which quite likely will be a come around shot (around their CL guard) by their myopic opponent who has followed the popular protocol and played around that CL guard. Thanks very much. Now they play the come around freeze and they are happy. They have the protection they require and all the play is to the center of the sheet and you helped make it happen! Game on!

Let's rewind to that CL guard delivered by your opponent as shot #1 in the end. What options do you have at your disposal besides the come around draw? Sure, you could play a corner guard. That's good because you wish to play to the sides of the sheet. You could draw to an open side, hopefully behind the tee line so a hit-and-roll by your opponent does not leave them in the four foot circle. And, if you listened to Russ Howard's comment in the first end of tonight's (02/24/13) Scotties final, you could bump that CL guard into the house, the so-called "bump tick", but seldom played (to the consternation of one Russ Howard and yours truly). Let's deal with them in order.

The corner guard makes a lot of sense of course as with last stone advantage, you want to get play to the sides of the sheet to open up the scoring area so a guard placed in a side-of-the-sheet location on your first lead stone follows that overall end plan. But, and here's where it gets interesting, I'm a big believer at the club level to use it on your next shot regardless of where the opposition plays its second lead stone. You placed it there, use it! It's not good enough in my books to simply "hope" at some point in the end you get a roll behind the guard. If you use it right away you have the majority of your shots to deal with the stones the opposition has placed in the centre of the sheet. Experiment with this tactic. Record the instances it's used and the result (competitive data) and if it succeeds, well, you're welcome.

I really like drawing to a back corner of the 8'! I mean I really like that tactic. First, it gets play to the side of the sheet for the reason outlined above. Second, with its position behind the tee line, a hit-and-roll by the opposition means they're rolling to the back of the house or if it's a hit-and-stay, you have a stone to draw to for backing. But the best part of this tactic is the diversion it creates. The last place the opposing skip wants you to go is to that back corner position. He/she wants you to draw around so he/she can use your stone for protection (see above). When you don't "play ball", it's really annoying. Great!

Now we come to the aforementioned "bump tick". As Russ said on the telecast earlier tonight, it's not a difficult shot! Linda Moore added that teams tend to use it as a late-in-the-game tactic but tend not to use it earlier. Why? I don't know, do you? When you play the bump tick, it's just a heavy draw weight shot whereby the CL guard placed by the opposition gets in the way. There's lots of tolerance on this shot. Even if you bumped it straight back to the button, no problem. There are lots of shots still to be played and you're now in that "control zone" in front of the house. Ideally you'd like to bump that CL guard to the side of the house (where you can hit it anytime you wish) with the shooter rolling to a corner guard position. If your lead could bump that CL guard behind the tee line, well, you're in business my friend.

I like it when teams use a variety of tactics as opposed to the same opening moves end-after-end-after-end. Be somewhat unpredictable! Not off -the-wall ridiculous, just unpredictable and let me know how it goes with that last stone disadvantage!

* The recent post entitled, "What Do I Do With My Lead Stones" (02/20/13) has drawn a record number of readers and some really excellent comments. In the post I suggest that you watch the plethora of curling on TV at this time of the year to see what elite teams choose to do with them, especially when they're running out the clock to win the game. Did you notice what Team Homan (aka Team Canada) did? They put two stones into the front 4' area. The Brier begins on Saturday. Let's see what the men do!

Friday, February 22, 2013

How High The Pedestal?

Unless you've been living under a rock these past two weeks, the world has been enthralled with the bizarre case of the alleged murder of Reeva Steencamp by Oscar Pistorius (aka "The Blade Runner") in Pretoria, South Africa.

Mr. Pistorius has been charged with the premeditated murder of his girl friend, a well known model in S. A., on the night of Feb. 14. The key word in the charge of course is "premeditated"!

According to Mr. Pistorius, he was awakened by a noise in his bathroom. Sensing the presence of an intruder, he made his way toward the bathroom with a firearm (CCN's Piers Morgan will have a field day with this) and fired four shots through the bathroom door, killing the person inside. When Mr. Pistorius opened the locked door (using a cricket bat) he found the "intruder" to be Ms. Steencamp.

A bail hearing was held this week, which due to the nature and notoriety of the case, became the first stages of what surely will be a trial. I have followed news items in the matter closely as Mr. Pistorius has, through his remarkable courage and determination, overcome what most would consider, a debilitating handicap.

For those unaware, he was born with legs that had only one of the two bones normally forming the lower portion, the tibia & fibula. In his case, he did not fave a fibula which meant amputation of both legs half way between the knee and ankle. Instead of feeling sorry for the fate handed to him, he used prosthetic appendages from an early age to attempt to live a normal life.

Fast forward to the most recent Summer Olympic Games in London, UK. Not only did Mr. Pistorius compete as a Paralympian, but also as an Olympian (against able-bodied athletes). The "Blade Runner" nomenclature was earned as a result of his carbon fibre "blades" he employed as he competed in events on the track. There were many who felt that the "blades" did much more than level the playing field, they gave him an unfair advantage.

Needless to say, his exploits transcended the world of athletics. His story was front page news around the world and for many, a wonderful role model. In his native South Africa, to say he was a hero would be putting it extremely mildly.

Perhaps now you can appreciate the shock many are feeling as this charge of premeditated murder is brought forward. If this case does go to trial, which it appears it most certainly will, it will rival the OJ Simpson investigation and trial.

Before I put this into a larger framework, I must say, I'm intrigued by the questions the prosecution did NOT ask in the bail hearing. Clearly there should have been only two people in the house on the night of Feb. 14, Mr. Pistorius & Ms. Steencamp. I'm also going to assume that since it was during the hours when most couples would be asleep that the two were sharing the same bed. But, Ms. Stempcase might have awakened to go to the bathroom for personal reasons.

There were allegations by neighbours that the two were heard arguing. If that were true then for Ms. Steencamp to lock herself in the bathroom seems possible. Why would an intruder lock him/herself in the bathroom?

By all accounts, actually by only one, that of Mr Pistorios, he was alone in bed when he heard noises emanating from the bathroom. If that was the case, then any reasonable person in Mr. Pistoris' position would assume the noises were made by the person missing from his bed. Even if you felt, as was the contention of Mr. Pistorios, that he was somehow alarmed by an intruder, would you not, even with firearm in hand, approach the bathroom door by calling out to check to learn if it was the love if your life behind the door. Apparently Mr. Pistorios did not, assumed it was an intruder, and opened fire. What about a 911 call? Do they not have 911 in S. A.?

Whether Mr. Pristorius had a notion or not that the person locked in the bathroom was Ms. Steencamp, would you not call out to the person behind the door "hoping" to hear the voice of your companion? But apparently not only did that not occur, or surely, in his defense, Mr. Pistorios would have said so, the prosecution didn't even ask him whether that was the case.

As of today's writing (02/22/13) Mr. Pristorius has made bail, surrendered his passport and ordered not go to near his home (an active crime scene), any airport, to avoid witnesses in the case and to not consume alcohol. He is to reappear in court this June.

As sensational and confusing as this case is at this point, it's really just another instance of a highly recognizable athlete going down a path that tarnishes his/her image. Or does it? Do the personal transgressions of an athlete preclude his/her exploits in sport? Is Oscar Pristorius any less of a remarkable athlete on the track and a role model to millions of disabled people due to his involvement in this case? After all, the two are completely separate and to somehow link them seems on the surface to be somewhat disingenuous.

I referred to the OJ Simpson murder investigation and trial of many years ago. Whether you feel he murdered his wife or not, does that diminish his considerable accomplishments on the grid iron? I saw OJ play for the Buffalo Bills in his glory years. My Dad and I had season tickets for three years. The excitement OJ Simpson brought to a U.S. city devoid of much that makes an American city noteworthy was nothing short of miraculous. Now that Mr. Simpson has gone on to subsequent actions that seem to indicate real character flaws, do those heady Sunday afternoons at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, NY suffer in my memory. Actually, no, they do not! Do I feel Mr. Simpson is an example of some traits of the worst of our society, to that I might agree.

When the transgressions cross the line from everyday life to the sport the athlete plays, that's different in my book and of course the poster boy for that is one Pete Rose. He broke the only rule that was universally accepted by virtually everyone in baseball. He bet on the outcome of some of the games while he managed his team, and for many years, lied about doing so! Does that mean he should be excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame? Yes, if that transgression is a criterion. Some say it is and others it is not. I feel it is! Are there rogues and scoundrels already enshrined in Cooperstown, NY. Yes there are but the lives they lived, as unsavory as they might be to some, were outside the foul lines.

For young people being made aware of this post, here's my advice. Admire the outstanding exploits of gifted athletes. If you wish to copy their on-the-field/court/ice/... technical skills, that's OK. You might also admire their work away from sport in trying to help others. But for role models, look to the people closest to you, your parents, your teachers, your coaches, good friends and anyone else who has your best interests at heart. They don't take advantage of you and their support is unconditional. There's never a price to pay for their love and friendship.

That said, no one is perfect. We all make mistakes but the only mistakes we make should be born of the best of intentions, not to deceive, exploit or take advantage of anyone else.

Role models are great! I had mine as a youngster and you will too. Make sure they're good ones!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Do I Do With My Lead Stones?

It's the last end and you have control of the game, in fact "definite control" but it's never over 'til it's over and you don't have last rock. What are your possible opening moves with your lead's two shots? This is another "table top & salt shaker" dilemma. Do I ask my lead to throw his/her stones through the house or do I strategically place one or both somewhere in the house? Let's examine both theories starting with throwing them both into the curling lounge.

Proponents of this strategy espouse that any stones you place may come back to haunt you. You should win the game because the score differential is such that only a catastrophic collapse would change that (but that IS on your resume). If you throw both lead stones through the house you're allowing your opponent to place stones with absolutely no regard for you. You need to know that and if that's OK with you then toss them through! On your second's first stone you can begin the peel process with no fear of jamming an enemy boulder on a stone you had positioned in the house.

If that's not your cup of tea then where might you place your lead stones?

Very popular among teams of late is what I call the one-in-one-through ruse (one on the top 4' and the second in the aforementioned curling club lounge). The theory here being that the stone on the top 4' forces the opposition to come to you at some point in he end. In essence it's the antithesis of the downside of the "throw them both through" strategy outlined above. The opposition cannot place stones with no regard for you! With the second stone thrown through, you at least recognize the potential difficulty in helping your opponent by placing stones in the house that he/she can use or that create complications for you when you start to clear what most certainly are opposition stones in the FGZ (free guard zone).

Less popular, for many of the reasons just stated, is the placement of both your lead stones in the vicinity of the 4'.* The upside is obvious. Can the opposition ignore TWO stones in scoring position? The downside is equally obvious. Now there are two stones the opposition might use and two stones you must avoid in the peel phase of your end plan.

Well, there you have the options but which one to choose?

Let's start with the skill level of your lead 'cause after all, that's who you're asking to make the shots if the selection is either of the latter two. If it's less than likely he/she is capable of placing the shot(s) precisely (recognizing the contribution of the brushers) then duh, I'd call for the double throw through

But the real determining factor, in my mind, should be history (assuming your team has had the prudence to experiment). What has been the result when the three options have been employed? Which seems to be most successful in your team's competitive environment?  But there's the rub eh! Have you tried each of them and if so have you used each one often enough to draw a sound conclusion? And, did you record the results in your "Team Bible"?

I realize that this post has been interrogative in nature. That was by design. I can't tell you what to do on this issue. I will tell you that I tend to favour the one-in-one-through option because my "competitive data" shows that works best. What does your competitive data tell you?

As I'm giving this post a final editing, I'm watching Team Canada v Team Manitoba with MB having a three point lead with two ends to play. Jennifer Jones asked her lead, Dawn Askin for two in the four foot so that tells you how JJ feels about this issue. We're right in the middle of The Season of Champions so you'll be able to see how other teams feel about this. By the way, Team Canada scored two on the end.

* This gambit cost Team Ferbey a Brier win v Team Dacey when Team Ferbey's two "in house" stones got overlapped. Dacey used them to his advantage by drawing around which heralded the championship winning three spot in the end.

Monday, February 18, 2013

There's More Than One Way To Steal

This was not a planned post but rather one that had its impetus from the 7th end of the game at the Scotties tonight (02/18/13) in Kingston between BC (Scott) & ON (Homan).

At the time BC was up one (6-5).The end was down to skips' rocks and on Skip Homan 1st she executed an extremely precise run back by just missing a guard to hit the target rock exactly on the right spot to send it onto the BC stone in the 4'! Scott had no choice but to remove the ON stone just delivered leaving a wide open takeout for skip Homan. BC had a shot in the back 12' at about 7 o'clock to force what everyone assumed would be a hit-and-stick by Homan to tie the game. Given the shot just played by Homan, the hit-and-stick would be a formality.

Well, it wasn't as it turned out. Homan made contact with the yellow BC stone but didn't  hit it at just the right spot this time,  rolling a few centimetres too far leaving that BC stone in the 12' to steal the point giving the Kelowna quartet a two shot lead.

The next TV shot was of Team Scott gathering with that "We'll, look what Santa left for us." look on their faces to plan for the next end. At that point, with three ends to play, BC had "limited control" of the game meaning that they would likely win the game and had it not been for a misplaced guard by skip Scott in the next end, limited control would have given way to "definite control" with all that term implies.

Sitting on my son's couch in Orangeville, ON, upon seeing BC steal the 7th end the way they did I unconsciously mumbled, "the no risk steal"!

Two thoughts come to mind.

First, on balance, we tend to overestimate our opponent. Don't assume the skip will make the routine shot! I'm not sure why, although I do have a theory, but skips, like Rachel Homan, who make precision after precision shot, somehow miss the easy one, as in the end illustrated above. My theory is focus. The Rachel Homan's of the world focus so well on the precise shots, they "clock off", unintentionally of course, on the more routine ones on occasion and that 7th end was just such an occasion!

Second, the best guard sometimes IS second shot as in that same end. When it's "steal time" we so often "risk the ranch" in our effort to commit grand larceny. "Whoa, had he/she not ticked that guard we'd have given up two! Put up our one point quickly and let's move on!"  Then there are the times when it would be great to steal but the team just makes the "easy" shots, lying two as the opposition skip, like Rachel, gets ready for the open hit or draw and oops, hit and roll too far or just a little short or heavyon the draw and voila, the no risk steal.

Perhaps it's worthwhile to play more steal ends in "no risk" style than "risk the ranch" format. What does your competitive data tell you? If you don't know what I mean by "competitive data" read the post of 02/16/13 ("Competitive Data v Statistics").

Before I "clock off" for the night, let me leave you with some thoughts about placing guards.

Most guards, the vast majority of them, are missed because they curl too much leaving them useless. To avoid that, position the target brush in such a manner so that the stone has to be "brushed" into position. You will make many more guards if you attempt them in that fashion (as opposed to keeping your fingers crossed that the stone stops in the right place). I'll add that most guards are placed in concert with one that's already guarding one of the two rotations. Your guard is designed to block the other. The "curl too much" then leaves two guards protecting one path/rotation to the target stone and NONE on the other. You don't so much guard the stone as you guard the path to the stone!

Maximize guard placement. So often we get tunnel vision and only care about placing the guard on the right blocking line when by positioning it more carefully, it could also choke off a potential opposition raise. Always maximize the value of the shots you play.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Now What Do I Do?

On occasion the curling gods will smile upon thee and provide a situation about which skips dream. You have last rock advantage and you have stones counting on either side of the house and your team is shooting. Now what do I do?

The dilemma is caused by the precept that with last stone advantage you did what you were urged to do by people like yours truly and got play to the sides of the sheet but now putting another stone on either side might just let the opposition off the hook by setting up some sort of pocket to which they can draw or make a double takeout. If that's your sentiment, you're absolutely correct. Another stone to either side might not be the wisest choice.

So, what is the obvious choice? Right, put it in the middle! You want to draw the attention of your opponent away from the sides at this point. By placing a stone in the middle, especially if it's later in the end which it quite likely is, the opposing skip pretty much has to make a play on your "middle stone" and to maximize the shot, he/she must hit-and-roll to the side where he/she really wants to play. To force a club skip to make a hit-and-roll as the shot you leave I feel is sound reasoning. There's a time honoured axiom in curling about which all experienced curlers are aware. It's not the shot you make. It's the shot you leave!

Sometimes in an end where your team has played exceptionally well and perhaps your opponent, not so well, you are counting three, four or even five shots. It's no longer about where you want to play a shot. It's much more about where the opposing skip hopes you will play so he/she can make an end saving shot. In other words, it's no longer about you. It's about him/her. You need to place a stone that provides the least possible chance that they will cut you down substantially or even steal the end away. That can be devastating and I see it happen much too often when a team that should score a multiple end falls victim because they failed to realize the point just made. Don't let that be you!

Remember, put it in the middle!

A corollary to this situation is when you don't have last rock advantage and your opponent, who obviously does, gets play to the side of the sheet, exactly where you don't want play to be. But, through some misfortune on the part of your opponent, or a great shot or two by your team, you get shot rock in that mess at the side of the house and it's your shot. Again, now what do I do? Well, you seemed to have escaped the "danger zone" so get away from that area. Generally the best place to put a stone is on the tee line at the edge of the 4' opposite from that aforementioned danger zone. Your opponent cannot ignore your shot as it's, well, shot, and to get back to the danger zone, a hit-and-roll  must be executed. What did we say about the shot you leave? Right, for a club curler, a hit-and-roll is in the higher degree of difficulty range.

Remember, get away from the danger zone as soon as possible and the edge of the 4' is a safe haven!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Turning Two Into Three

I had several club curlers contact me regarding my recent post entitled, "It's How You Finish" (02/12/13). Many wanted to know if I had more advice re. strategy & tactics about which curlers in their competitive environment might not be aware. This is another one of those.

You have last stone advantage and through an early-in-the-end missed shot by your opponent, you find yourself with a stone, at the side of the sheet (let's say nicely biting the inside of the 12').  So many club skips want to "split the house" and place another stone on the opposite side setting up a potential score of "two". It "sounds" like a good idea but it isn't for a few reasons but for the sake of this post we'll assume that's what you do.

Now that you have stones on opposite sides of the house, you've managed to get play to the sides of the sheet when you have last rock advantage. That's good! The "not so good" part is that to score your two, your team has to shoot 100% the rest of the way and two is the "best" you're going to get. What you're counting on is an exchange of hits on either of your stones. If that occurs, yes, you've got your two but let's go back to the previous sentence to that 100% part. When was the last time your club team shot 100% in an end? I thought so. The reason I say that your team must shoot 100% (and by the way, your opponent only has to shoot 50% [to make matters even worse]) is because obviously your opponent is hoping to make takeouts successfully with you missing or hitting and rolling out of the house or failing to replace the stone they hit and rolled out on and good-bye your score of "2".*

So, here's an alternate plan. When you find yourself with last stone advantage and one stone in the house with the opportunity to place a second stone, don't draw the other side, guard the shot you already have in place. It should be an easy shot because the shot you placed in the house that was missed by your opponent will tell you the brush placement and the weight of the shot (a little less). Your chances of making the shot are high. Drawing to the other side might, to some degree, be uncharted territory with less chance of success. With the guard in place, you're now posing a challenge to the opposing skip. Part of your shot stone might be visible (hopefully on the outside) and  might entice the  other team to try to remove it. Even if they did, they most certainly will roll out as well. Now you can draw around your corner guard and bury the shot even better (hopefully in front of the tee line). Quite likely your opponent will remove the guard, if so replace it and keep doing that as long as required. Don't be impatient! You may be able to put a second stone around your guard if the opposition misses everything. If that happens, now you're playing for a potential "3". If you did get two stones behind the corner guard, then you can then draw to the open side if you wish.

If the opposing skip tries to freeze to your stone behind your corner guard, yes, they might make it but again, you've got play to the outside of the sheet thus opening up the scoring area and in the process, keeping the center open for an end saving shot to the 4'!

Guarding your shot creates more options for you and fewer for your opponent! Try it. I believe you'll like it and send me email to tell me about it, seriously, send email!

* When to choose to deliver a takeout, with last stone advantage, choose a weight (board or hack) that improves the chance that you'll make the takeout and stick around in the house. When you're on offense, play shots in an offensive manner! Full hit weight with a vapor trail is not playing in an offensive manner!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How Well Do You Play The Golf Course?

Hundreds of years ago those hearty Scots were seen sliding large chunks of granite on frozen lochs in the winter and attempting to manipulate a small, feather filled ball into holes in the ground in the highlands of their beloved piece of an island in the North Atlantic in the summer. These were the origins of the sports we now know as curling & golf.

At first glance curling & golf seem like oddly different offsprings of the same culture but one only has to spend some time with each to learn why they have much more in common than they differ. To my mind their most striking similarity is "experience"!*

In an era when the average age of elite athletes is in the low 20's and in the case of a sport like gymnastics, you're a veteran at 16, the average age for events like the Brier & Scotties and on the P.G.A. & L.P.G.A tours is north of 30 years of age. Why? Experience! It's the one thing as coaches we can't teach. But I want to draw another similarity between curling & golf in this post. It's about the way we approach the challenges each poses.

Let's begin by thinking about a golf tournament. Do Phil Mickelson & Tiger Woods really feel that they're playing against one another and the rest of the field? No! Their focus is not on their competitors. It's on the golf course. The pre-tournament practice rounds are designed to provide the players with an opportunity to learn the subtle and sometimes not so subtle nuances of the golf course. One of the best examples of this is Augusta National, the site of the golf season's first major tournament, "The Masters". Professional golfers will tell you that despite great technical skills, one plays well at "The Masters" only after a number attempts to win the coveted "Green Jacket"! You need to experience playing the unique undulations Augusta National provides to learn how to adjust your game to the plot of land, once a garden nursery in the middle of Augusta, GA. It's been said by more than one "patron" attending "The Masters" that the golf course is the real competitor. Television does not do justice to the uphill, downhill & side hill lies with which one must contend.

A golf course lives, breathes and changes. A round played in the morning when the course has been freshly prepared can be a very different place in the late afternoon when the grass, especially on the greens, has had several hours to grow, all the while following the sun as it makes its way across the sky. A putt might be with the grain on a green at 0900 but against it at 1500.

The scoreboard merely reflects, in an objective manner, the relative success the players have in playing the golf course. If the two protagonists mentioned earlier in this post finish one, two in the tournament standings with scores of 280 & 282, it doesn't mean one beat the other by two shots, it means one "played the golf course" two shots better. There IS a difference!

What does this have to do with curling? I see way too many teams concerned about their opponent? "Oh, we're playing that _____ team!" No you're not! Well, I know on the draw sheet or league schedule your name and theirs indicates you'll be on the same sheet, on the same day at the same time but you're really not playing them any more than they are playing you. Like golf, your common opponent is that sheet of ice. Lucky you if you feel that all the sheets of ice at the venue are identical but I'd hazard a guess, each one is at least slightly different. Very much like that living, breathing golf course, a sheet of curling ice is very likely to change as the game progresses. There's no grass to grow and follow the sun, but the pebble changes, and sometimes dramatically as the ends count down. I wrote about this in an earlier post entitled, "The Case of the Reversing Ice" (12/05/12).

When a golfer steps up to the ball to play a shot, he/she's in complete control. So are you when you step into the hack to play a shot. The golfer uses visualization. He/she sees the shot successfully completed before stepping up to the ball. You should see your shot successfully completed before you step into the hack. The golfer will, or should, have "one swing thought". You should have one "delivery thought". Both of you need to "trust" your skill set then just do it!

The scoreboard at the away end of the sheet only reflects, at any given time, how you're dealing with the challenges of the ice compared to how your opponent is dealing with them. The score at the end of the game simply is a summary of how well you played the ice as opposed to how well your opponent played the ice.!

At various times in the game it's a good idea, no, a great idea, to stop and ask yourselves, "What's the ice telling us?". The ice will always "talk" to you. Listen and don't argue. And, the message might change so ask yourselves that question regularly.

When your skip takes charge of the house following a shot by your opponent, your team is in complete control. You select a shot. The brush is placed as a target and the weight of the stone is indicated. One player delivers the stone while two teammates judge the weight and prepare to brush while the skip/third assesses the course of the shot and provides guidance. It's all about making the shot! Where your opponents have placed their stones is not as relevant as you might believe!

This was brought home to me at a very early stage of my curling career back in Galt (now Cambridge) ON, when one of the older members took me aside and said, "Billie (don't even think about it), it doesn't matter where you have placed your stones, when the other team is about to play its shot, you're defenceless!". I didn't fully understand nor appreciate what he meant but I do now. He was right.

The attitude you have re. the challenge of the game I feel is huge. If you're going to approach that challenge obsessing about your opponent then it will surely affect the way you (sing. & pl.) play! If, on the other hand, you see the challenge posed by the "golf course/curling ice" as the measure of success, then I feel it's a more appropriate way to approach the game.

How well do you play the golf course?

* Experience doesn't mean you'll make fewer errors but it will reduce and sometimes completely eliminate the negative effects those errors have on your performance.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It's How You Finish

There's a game-ending scenario that's relatively common. I don't often weigh into actual strategies and tactics in this forum but I feel this one is worth airing and once again, I welcome your comments.

Here's the situation. The game is tied or your team is down by one, it's the last end of the game, you don't have last stone advantage (been there many times as I suspect have you) therefore a steal is on the order paper. You have placed centre line guards but the opposition has been successful in removing them but one, two or perhaps three stones, which didnt roll out, lie in corner guard positions. It's down to skips' rocks. You must decide where to play your first shot.

The knee jerk reaction is to place another, seventh, centre line guard in hope that the opposition will not be successful and either miss the peel or hit your centre line guard, close enough to the nose to provide enough cover to allow you to execute a come around to the 4'/button area (in front of the tee line). When you think about this for a moment, the opposition has just executed 6 peels. Do you really feel the odds are in your favour that they'll miss a seventh? I don't think so! But let's play this out.

You place your first skip's rock on the centre line and yes, the opposing skip peels it off (perhaps leaving a fourth corner guard). Where would you try to place your last shot of the game that you hope will propel you to a win or an extra end if the game is tied? Of course, you would choose one of those corner guards and draw around it as close as possible to the button. Likely you're somewhere in the 8' so to win the game the opposing skip need only draw the full 8', not a formality on the difficulty scale, but also not too difficult.

OK, let's rewind to your first shot with those corner guards in position. This time go around the most favourable corner guard.  What  does the opposing skip do? Well, for sure he/she will make a play on it keeping in mind that "inside" is the execution tolerance ensuring the guard is removed. Let's go on to assume that's exactly what happens and the guard is removed exposing your shot stone in the 8'. Now, where to place your last shot? You place it in the house on the center line so that if it's struck on the nose it won't be shot and as close as possible to the button. Clearly there's very little if any execution tolerance on this shot.

You have given the opposing skip a more difficult, a much more difficult shot than that he/she would have faced had you placed a centre line guard on your first shot. He/she has two choices, hit your stone in the 8' (assuming the shooter would be shot of course) or draw to the 4'. On option #1 there's little if any roll tolerance. On option #2, your last shot is protecting the 4' to some extent which will be in the opposing skip's mind making the draw more challenging.

To be sure, if the opposing team has made 6 successful peels (including two "tick shots") they have executed well. Clearly you're not in great shape but that doesn't mean you should wave the white flag either. Drawing around a corner guard before your last shot will at least keep you in the conversation.

Some teams will have their third/mate play around the corner guard on his/her last shot rather than waiting for the skip's first shot.

In this past weekend's AB men's playdown, Kevin Koe needed to steal in the last end versus the "other Kevin". Team Martin's lead (Ben Hebert) was successful in "ticking" the Team Koe's center line guards leaving corner guards, Koe wasted no time and had his second (Carter Rycroft) go around that corner guard. The teams then traded peel-for-guard-replacement right up to Koe's last shot. In othe words, the situation described above was in place. Koe meant to place his last stone on the centre line top four foot to increase Martin's degree of difficulty but his stone slid into the four foot, which allowed Martin to "break the egg on it" and punch his ticket for an all expense paid tip across town to Rexall Place in the first week of March.

The next time you're in that last end steal situation with no centre line guards, don't wait until your last shot to go around a corner guard. Go around earlier in the end!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Championship Sunday

Today (02/10/13) is "Championship Sunday" for most provinces and territories as men's provincial/territorial finals take place to determine Brier representatives. Each championship Sunday brings back an "interesting" memory.

During one particular curling season I had worked with several men's teams across the land and since coaches of men's team were more scarce than skips who could sweep/brush (sorry, couldn't resist that) five of them asked me to coach them at the Brier should they qualify.

After the first request, when the others came, I informed each team that I had been asked by another team, or teams, and that to be fair, if more than one should qualify I'd honour the teams in chronological order. That seemed fair to them and no team knew from whom the other requests came.

You can imagine my mindset. I pretty much set Brier week aside on my calendar as I was reasonably certain I'd be coaching one of the five elite men's teams at the event I euphemistically referred to as "The Purple Heart Spiel". I really had only four chances to be accurate as two of the teams were from the same province/territory.

As championship Sunday arrived I settled in to watch the results unfold across the country according to the different time zones. The two teams from the same province/territory played one another in the semi-final so I was indeed down to four opportunities, not five. Confidence remained high as the first result came in. Oops, "my team" lost in a tight one. OK, one down, three to go.

I'll save you the details as I'm sure you know where this is headed. One by one, each team lost its provincial/territorial final!

I sent the five of them the same tongue-in-cheek email blind copied, "If you had a change of heart re. a coach, all you had to do was tell me. You didn't have to go about it this way!"

I hope it gave each team a chuckle, as much as one can after losing a game which meant a trip to the Brier. For me, laughter wasn't my exact sentiment but I feel I did set something of a coaching record, one you won't find in any record book. We'll keep it between us.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Good Athletes Are Good Actors

The Canadian curling world has been abuzz (there's a word I'm using for the first time) of late over the expulsion of a player in a provincial play down game (I know the player well). I've been inundated by questions re. the appropriateness of the decision by the official to take such an action. There were very few who questioned the inappropriateness of the action by the athlete which caused the situation. But what disturbed me more was the photograph of a teammate apparently appealing to an official (not sure if it was the official who made the decision to act upon the athlete's actions). In all of this, I feel there are important lessons.

At the time of writing, the exact action that resulted in the suspension of the athlete for the remainder of the game, was somewhat unclear but it was clear that it was not a solitary act that caused the suspension. From reports both heard & read, the athlete used inappropriate language and exhibited inappropriate behaviour, each with a warning from officials. The team played the remainder of the game, which it won, with the remaining three players. The stone kicking was not the "sole" reason the athlete was suspended.

Officials are people like athletes. They have a job to do and do it to the best of their abilities, just like athletes. In our sport, officials are there, not so much to enforce rules, the players can do that themselves. Their primary responsibility is to assist the players in fairly applying the rules. If a rule infraction occurs, and the teams work it out themselves, even if the applicable rule is not applied according to the rule book, play continues. Everyone is satisfied! It's one of the aspects that sets curling apart!

But even with all I've just said, from a coaching perspective, I'd be somewhat miffed that a member of the team I coach, acted in an inappropriate manner. It reflects on teammates and coach. That's why the wearing apparel is called a "uniform" and why if an athlete is found to have ingested a performance enhancing substance, it affects the entire team. But, the person affected most, even though the athlete may not realize it, is the person who stares back from the mirror because much inappropriate behaviour stems from the fact that the athlete is not accountable. Champions are accountable.

The example I use is John McEnroe. Many in the tennis world regard John as perhaps the most gifted player in their sport but few if any regard him as the best tennis player of all time. Why, because his short-comings were always someone else's fault (ball boy/girl, umpire, locker room attendant etc.). John very seldom looked inward.

Inappropriate behaviour is frequently rationalized by enablers as "passion". Don't be deceived, truly passionate persons don't behave badly!

The worst part about inappropriate behaviour is what it does to your team and for your opposition. It should be embarrassing to your teammates and coach. And they should support you but do so honestly and the truth is that you need to cease and desist from that behaviour becomes it's making the team's task more difficult because it's providing incentive for your opposition. They don't need any extra incentive especially when it comes from YOU!

I've heard  more than one sports psychologist caution that the muscles your choose to activate are the muscles that inevitably control your actions. In other words, "Look upset and you'll play upset". To illustrate this point in clinics and camps, I get the athletes to stand, smile, start bouncing on both feet and wave their arms in the air. When they've done that for several seconds, I ask them to continue and feel "sad" at the same. It's just about impossible! But had I asked them to sit down, close their eyes, cross their arms and relax and feel sad, there would have been no problem.

There is value in "keeping it inside" despite what you might hear from someone who says, "Let it out then move on!" Well, good luck with that!

Athletes who act inappropriately don't fool anyone. Their reputation is like a 10' neon sign for all to see. For the athlete, it will make it difficult to find a place on truly elite teams. Better that athlete should take up golf, tennis or some other "individual" sport. Curling is not for them!

Sunday, February 3, 2013


In the last blog, I referred to a "pre-event" activity my national senior teams employ at the World Senior Curling Championships for the pre-event practice (an opportunity to use each sheet for 15 min. the day prior to the event) and in the evening (when sheets of ice are available to countries wishing to practise in preparation for the next day's games). Canada always practises in the evening!

Whether it's the pre-event practice or the evening practice, the goal is the same, learn as much as possible about the ice and stones!

What follows is certainly not the only procedure one might use to accomplish that goal, it's only the one I prefer. Over time it's proven its worth to me and the teams. I call it "Sixty-Four" because in 15 min., the team should, with practice, be able to deliver 64 meaningful shots. You'll notice I said "meaningful" and "shots". We're not out there just "throwing rocks". Never just throw rocks! Always make meaningful shots!

I'll describe "64" then make some final comments. It's going to appear, in printed form, much more complicated that it is when you try it on the ice so don't let my description dissuade you.

Stage One
The objective of this stage is two fold. One, it's the only time in the activity you'll deliver stones down the center of the sheet. Second, it gets half of your stones and team at each end of the sheet.
Following practice slides, each player delivers one stone to the away end of the sheet, down the center. Two should be with a clockwise rotation and two with a counterclockwise rotation and two with draw weight and two with up weight. The players delivering the first two stones, follow them to the away end. Now we have half the stones and team at each end of the sheet.

Stage Two
For this stage and all remaining stages, stones are delivered from both ends of the sheets simultaneously. No stones should collide!
This stage is on the right side of the sheet, playiing shots from outside in. The line of delivery may be as wide as the edge of the sheet but should be no close to the center than the mid eight foot circle.

Stage Three
Same as pervious stage but using the left side of the sheet.

Stage Four
Back to the right side, this stage is for shots inside out. The  line of delivery is no close to the center line than the edge of the four foot circle.

Stage Five
Same as previous stage but using the left side of the sheet.

Stage Six
Stages 6 & & test "crossing the center line". For these stages, to ensure that stones don't collide, it's imperative that players deliver stones at the same time from each end. Again, we're back to the right side of the sheet with the line of delivery the edge of the four foot but, like stages 1 & 2, the stones are delivered outside in.

Stage Seven
Same as previous stage but using the left side of the sheet.

The coach is to the side in the middle of the sheet to "direct traffic" and ensure that stones don't collide (and they should not if the  procedure outlined above is followed). I use simple hand signals to switch from one stage to the next. I like to watch rotations and note slight irregularities with the normal deliveries of the players. If a player is working on something, I'll pay particular attention to it.
Players should pay special attention to the stones they are likely to actually use in the game. There is no one holding the brush as a target so visualization, which should be occuring anyway, is a critical component. Also, players should vary the line of delivery and weight accordingly as well (play the shots one is more likely to play in the game).
At the end of the activity, notes re. ice and stones can be given to the fifth player or team manager for subsequent review to be entered into the team "bible" (see post of 10/10/12 ).

As with your pre-game warm up, this needs to be practised and choreographed. These activities done precisely with purpose set a tone for the team that will serve it well in the game!