Sunday, March 31, 2013

I Saw It On TV

As "The Season of Champions" winds to a conclusion for the 2012-13 season, we've seen some remarkable performances by world class athletes in the sport of curling. In Canada, the television coverage is nothing short of amazing! The camera angles and commentary are first class, even Vic (just joking, he is so cute on those vignettes don't you think). But, and you knew there'd be a "but", there's a downside to all of this and I've referred to it in the past, most notably in the article in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" entitled, "The Dangers of Learning Curling Strategy by Watching TV" (p.183).

Those athletes you see on TV are exceptionally gifted! But (there's that word again) the curling deliveries they demonstrate can fool you. Some, and there's not enough money in the world to get me to identify in my mind who they are, are great curlers not "because" of their curling delivery but rather "in spite" of their delivery. How do they then perform at such high levels? Well, one has already been identified. It's the gift they have been given and the other is a dedication to training that's in the less than one percentile of all curlers. In some cases, when made aware of the "flaws" in their delivery, the athlete will persist as they simply don't have the inclination to change, in most cases because they're much too far along their career path to take the time to affect the change(s). Point taken!

What you see on TV is also the "end product" of several years of learning the basics, thereby establishing a solid ground upon which to make the subtle and not so subtle accommodations to their technique that put them in good stead in their narrow competitive environment. And that's another aspect that frequently explains what you see them do. For many, they have competed with the same teammates for a significant period of time and in doing so, they have altered their delivery to work as best it can with those teammates. But what you don't see or hear about is the fact that they too, when they were in your shoes began using the same "basics" you've been encouraged to master. Again, you're seeing the "end product" of that learning and experience, not the beginning.

Then there's the "p" word, practice! Those athletes you see on TV do a lot of it. And they practise with a purpose. If you recall in further scribblings, I use a four stage model for curling teams, recreational, serious, competitive & elite. Curlers in the first two categories never practise. Oh, they might, if they arrive early for a game and the ice is ready, "throw a few warm-up rocks".  But with all due respect, that's not practice! A competitive curler, will,  on occasion, actually reserve a sheet of ice and set time aside to "throw rocks". Elite curlers do it regularly, and they "make curling shots". They never just throw rocks. And that's over and above their regular "team practices"! An elite curler will deliver more stones in practice in a season than recreational, serious and competitive curlers and their teammates will deliver in a season, in games, combined! No kidding!

Now we get to the really fun part, strategy & tactics. I won't go into this here as that's why I wrote the article referred to in the first paragraph, in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion". Suffice to say, from a strategy & tactics perspective, the game you see those TV teams play is uncharted territory for 99.9% of curling teams. Don't even think about it! You just don't have their skill set nor their array of weapons.

Then there's the brushing, and for this it's better to actually put your backside into a seat, as many will this week here in Victoria, as the BC capital plays host to some of the best curling teams on the planet. To see the Harnden boys from the Soo brush a stone, start -to-finish is nothing short of awe inspiring. Again, what you don't see are the hours upon hours, Ryan and E. J. spend in the gym sweating out a demanding and highly intensive training regimen.

The ice upon which they play is also not like the ice you play on at your curling centre/club but that's a whole other story you can read about if you refer to the post of 03/15/13 ("Pampered Ice").

So sit back, either on your couch in front of that TV or in that seat at the Save-on-Foods Arena and prepare to be amazed, but "don't try this at home". They're trained professionals, or as close to that as curling allows! And to those boys from the Soo and their coach, my friend Tom Coulterman, Go Canada Go!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Women V Men

I'm writing this post with great trepidation. I know there will be a collection of out-of-joint noses, raised eyebrows, furled foreheads and clenched teeth after reading this post. I also hope there will be as many, "You know, it's a hard pill to swallow but I think he's right".

I'm going to go where many curling ink-stained wretches have feared to tread. I'm about to draw distinctions between female & male curling teams. OK, here goes and damn the torpedoes.

Women, as a group, from a purely technical perspective are better curlers (duck Bill, here comes the first male delivered brush)! Excellent female curlers are that way because of their deliveries while so many really competent male curlers are so in spite of their delivery. That's especially evident to me in weight control on down weight (draw) shots. As long as a male curler can stay "under" the required velocity, his brushers can make up the difference (see below) whereas a female curler, delivering the same shot must come much closer to the required velocity right out of the hack (and there's the first airborne brush from a female curler).

Women are more coachable in that they are much more open minded about different modalities. The number of female teams attending high performance camps as opposed to men's teams is about 10:1 although that's in the process of change, thankfully.

Women employ, for reasons attributed more to physical capabilities, a much more diverse strategy than their male counterparts. Women play the whole sheet of ice. Men see only the four foot circle!

Women are less technically skilled in the area of brushing. Clearly there are physical limitations with which females must deal but it's a mystery to me why they don't try to negate those challenges with excellent brushing technique. But as a group, they don't! Are there some excellent female brushers? You bet there are!

Female teams, to become greater than the sum of their parts, have to have an element of friendship. Men need only tolerate one another.

Women deal with team dynamics issues with a significant element of emotion. Men just tell one another in no uncertain terms, using many of the seven words you can't say on TV, how they really feel then enjoy an adult beverage together. Women have iron clad memories of every perceived personal transgression. Male memories have a short shelf life on those matters.

Men make more shots than women due to their physical prowess and excellent brushing technique. A competitive male team will defeat a comparably competitive female team 9+ times out of 10 games based on that factor alone.

Men feel they know it all! Women understand that Coach John Wooden was correct when he said, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts!".

Women enjoy the game more than men! Men as a group want to compete. Women's first instinct is to  get involved with curling as an  enjoyable activity first and then compete if their skill set allows.

Women, unfortunately due to lingering mores in our society re. child rearing, stop curling in very large numbers much sooner than men, many of whom never stop. As a result I'm left with coaching and advising mostly male senior & masters teams when I could be enjoying female teams of the same demographic (four masters males at The Glen Meadows G&CC not withstanding).

Women are much more open about their feelings. Men still have that stiff upper lip mentality.

And lastly, women smell better than men!

In today's media the question of male v female coaches at this year's Scottie arose. Of the 12 coaches at the event, only one is female (MB). Clearly the reporter wondered about the wide imbalance in genders. I invite  your comments on that imbalance but that said, I'm sure part of the answer lies in the third last paragraph of this post.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Competitive Data v. Statistics

For those readers who own a copy of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion", you'll know there's an article in the manual about this topic. I'm unlikely to say much new here but I do want to reprise this topic for those who have not yet made the purchase (and in turn supporting "The Sandra Schmirler Foundation").

To say I'm not fond of "statistics" is like saying a fish would rather not travel on a bicycle. Statistics, when gathered expertly and analyzed in a similar way can be very helpful over time. For example, after 20 or 30 games, if a shooting statistic reveals that a player is shooting 80% on out turn hits and 60% on in turn hits, well, I'm guessing there's a technical challenge with those in turn hits, duh! In the preparation phases of training, statistics can be useful and in some cases reveal a trend that might not be so obvious just watching the games. The key word is "trend".

Trends resulting from decisions the team makes are also very revealing. For example, does your team win more games coming home one down with last rock as opposed to coming home one up without last rock? Do you have more success ignoring a CL (centre line) guard when you have last rock advantage by drawing to the open side or playing the "bump tick" than by drawing around the CL guard? Do you subscribe to "Bill's 25% Rule" and never blank an end for the sole purpose of scoring a multiple score the next time you score? If so, how's that working out for you? How 'bout drawing around corner guards on the "short side" (between the guard and the side board) as opposed to the more conventional manner (drawing around the wide side)?

I could spend a good deal of time posing questions about the choices your team makes relative to their outcomes. The resulting data is what I call "competitive data". Clearly there's an element of statistics to competitive data but I hope I've illustrated that they are not synonymous.

And where do you record "competitive data", why in your "Team Bible" of course!

Teams that have a very myopic view of the way they play lose out on this valuable resource. If you play the same way game-in-and-game-out, regardless of your success ratio, you're handing your future opponents a valuable weapon to use against you. They know exactly what you're going to do and how you're likely to react to what they do against you. Now, if what you do is so superior to your opponents that the point made above is moot, then fill your boots, you're either very skilled or very fortunate.

If you've followed my posts of late you'll know that there have been comments re. some of the strategic scenarios about which I've written. "What Do I Do With Lead Stones" (02/20/13) has set a record for the most widely read post to date. What you don't know are the number of emails I've received about how the sender's team deals with the topic of the post. So often my reply to the sender uses the phrase "competitive data". It's the way(s) your team plays the game. Record how you play and the rate of success. To not do so is folly!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's the Best of Times

As the curling season draws to a close, thoughts turn to activities like golf, lawn bowling, sailing etc. It's been a long season and it's time for a change of scene. Curling can be back on the radar screen after Labour Day as the days become cooler and ice begins to form inside curling facilities.

Those thoughts may be the norm and therefore perfectly understandable but before you dust off those golf clubs, I want to encourage you to consider what's been happening with you and your team in the last 5 months or so. This really is the best time to make some important changes and decisions, when thoughts on these matters are crystal clear in your mind and it's your mind that's key to all of this.

I'm a believer in the adage that to make a significant change (in this case to your curling delivery) you must be convinced it's a better way to do it. If that doesn't happen, the "learning curve" will be a long one, so much so that it's much more likely you'll give up on the change rather than stick with it. And that my friends takes time! If you wait until the start of the next season you just don't have that time. Now is the time not only to evaluate your curling delivery but to make the necessary changes that you are convinced will result in better performance. You need to wrap you head around that change and the time the "off season" provides will allow your brain to do just that. When you take to the ice in September, you're ready physically and mentally.

Even if you feel there's no change necessary. Now is the time to get that delivery visually recorded so that the "perception" you have of your delivery is what's "actually happening". I've used this phrase before, perception and reality must be superimposed or what you have is a house of cards!

From a team perspective, now is also the time for your team to evaluate its season from a variety of perspectives. Did you realize your goals? Did you set realistic goals? Where your goals too outcome oriented and need to be more focussed on process? What did your competitive data tell you about how you might proceed in the future? Was your yearly training plan effective? Did you stick to it and if not might that be the problem? How about your "communication protocol"? Was it supportive and not distracting? Is the team aligned to get the most out of each team member? If not, do we need to make some positional changes to become greater than the sum of our parts? Do we need some help from a "performance enhancement team" of professionals (sport psychologist, delivery clinician, nutritionist etc.)? What about our equipment? Are we using the best available? Are we true to our "strategic DNA" and if so are we employing the appropriate"tactics"? And now for the "big questions", are we fit enough to perform in our competitive environment to the degree we wish and did I/we have fun!

The questions posed above do not comprise a complete list for every team but I hope you get the message. They need to be addressed soon, not in September when your competitive season is a few weeks away! It's just too late!

Many provincial/territorial associations offer summer camps for juniors & adults that are invaluable to your yearly training plan. Go to your association's web site or that of the Canadian Curling Association ( for more details. If you're reading this from an international location, contact your national association or go to the web site of the World Curling Federation ( It will be the best money you and your team will ever spend!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


OK, OK, OK!  I'll weigh in on the two most recent examples of one of the hallmarks of shot selection, risk versus reward, but before I do, please understand that my view on these very high profile examples is strictly a personal one.

Example #1 occurred in the Brier 1v2 game when in the last end, with a two point lead, Glenn Howard choose to put the game on the line by attempting a high risk double takeout. He missed, rubbing his own stone to a position which allowed Jeff Stoughton an open draw for three and the ultimate win. Was the risk worth the reward? In my mind, not in 20/20 hindsight, I said this as Glenn made his way down the ice to the deliver what turned out to be the fateful shot, no it was not! Had I been coaching and a time out was called and my advice sought, I would have counselled against playing the shot. I might have even sprawled across the hog line to make my point.
My reason would have been based upon the fact that Team ON had spent the entire game gaining and maintaining control on the scoreboard. It was the 10th end with a two point lead and an opposition stone wide open to a takeout. Hit that stone, have Team MB draw for two and take last stone advantage into the extra end, win and go to the Brier final. I'm not sure, given the position of the stones in question  when Glenn attempted the shot, that the double was very likely in the first place. I'm sure Glenn might say that it was much more likely that his shot would have removed the MB stone thus accomplishing the same thing as hitting the wide open MB stone resulting in the extra end. Well, yes, but the risks between the two shots were vastly different! In short, the risk was not worth the reward even if he had made the shot, the risk/reward ratio was not good.

Example #2 came about in the Brier final between Team NO and MB when skip Brad Jacobs (NO) played a "pick" of a shot MB stone to score three and even though the game was still in its early stage, pretty much salted the game away for the first Northern Ontario Brier victory since 1985. That risk was worth the reward for two reasons. It was early in the game and control of the game, which NO had, was not in jeopardy. Clearly the reward had a huge upside and the risk, in comparison was small. Again, had I been coaching NO and a time out was called and my advice was sought, my reply would have been, "Play the shot Brad"!

I think the world of Glenn and he knows it but in this case, Team ON made a bad decision and Team NO made a good one!

The risk/reward situation is personal and many times it's up to the player delivering the shot and that's OK as long as the ratio between the two is well thought out before the shot is attempted. If it is and the shot is missed, well, as I've stated many times in the past, when you lose the game, don't also lose the lesson it affords!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pampered Ice

No you would not! You might "think" you'd like to play on "championship ice" but as a recreational curler, even though you could strike it from your "bucket list", I can just about guarantee that your performance will be less than satisfying. Championship ice (aka "pampered ice") may be cold & damp just like the ice in your curling facility but that's where the two surfaces part company.

The two buildings are vastly different (does your curling facility seat 15000 spectators?), therefore the air flow is different to say nothing about the sheer volume of air. Championship ice is in the hands of a "world class" ice technician with a crew of 12-15 certified assistants using the very latest ice maintenance equipment. The data gathering electronics is state of the art. Time is available between draws to completely resurface each sheet. That world class ice technician has a budget for the duration of the event that's quite likely more than your ice technician has at his/her disposal for the entire season.

The result is ice that allows the highly skilled athletes to display all the shots they have developed over many seasons of training and playing in elite events. Weight control means everything on "pampered ice"! Stones on pampered ice don't so much "curl" as they "break"! Not knowing exactly where that "break point" is located will cause no end of problems. You might brush right through the "break point" and wonder why the stone didn't curl as expected.

And let's talk about curl. On some curling facility ice, you're hard pressed to draw around a CL guard that's midway between the top of the house and the hog line. On pampered ice they can draw to the button around stones at the top of the 4'! But, and here's the most striking difference between pampered and curling facility ice, deliver full hit weight on pampered ice and the stone will very likely run very straight which is why you see run back after run back after run back on TV. On your curling facility ice, assuming you could achieve four feet of curl, a full it weight takeout would require at least 1' of ice.

Thus far in this post, it appears that pampered ice might not be such a difficult surface upon which to play. Wrong! Pampered ice is not very forgiving, whereas curling facility ice is just the opposite, it's very forgiving. Deliver an ounce too much or too little weight on pampered ice and it can make you look very foolish. On your curling facility ice, and ounce or two or more one way or the other is not the end of the world in terms of making the shot.

In other words, a perfectly delivered stone (clean release, exact line of delivery [no drift], precise weight control and positive rotation) is rewarded on pampered ice. Mess up on any one of the above mentioned parameters and, well, look for a place to hide!

In the list of prerequisite parameters for the completion of a successful curling shot on pampered ice is "positive rotation". Pampered ice is also usually "arena ice", not "curling facility" ice. Rotation in my mind is the almost forgotten aspect in the delivery of a curling stone. In my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") there's an article about rotation entitled "The Technical Double Cross" (p. 62) which describes the importance of "positive rotation"!

On its web site, the CCA has an excellent video entitled "Making Championship Ice". It's under the "Go Curling" section (in that banner at the top of your computer careen). Click on " Go Curling" then on "What Equipment Do I Need". On the right of your screen you'll see a number of topics. "Making Championship Curling Ice" is at the bottom of that list. Click on it. The process involved in taking an ice hockey surface and turning it into a world class curling surface is amazing!

Before I close today I want to welcome another outlet for the purchase of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" in Alberta. If you live in the Edmonton area of that province you can now contact Mark Johnson at the Avonair Curling Club on Princess Elizabeth Avenue to make a purchase. And for Calgary area curlers, coaches and instructors, go to the Calgary CC ("Curlers' Corner") and speak to my friend Bernice Merrick. On behalf of "The Sandera Schmirler Foundataion", thank you Mark & Bernice!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

They Became Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts

Tonight's Tim Hortons Brier Final was a masterpiece of skill and sportsmanship.

First, the sportsmanship. Is there a classier curler on the planet than Jeff Stoughton? Well, I don't mean that literally of course, I'm sure there are many classy curlers but his display of what so often seems to be a diminishing brand was, well, refreshing. Jeff, you and your teammates bring much honour to the sport.

The skill of course was in full display by Team Northern Ontario, not Northern ONT as one TSN commentator seemed determined to use to describe the boys from Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo Curlers Association. I spent a few sessions with Brad Jacobs original team some years ago and when they really started to get "serious" about pursuing their dream of one day winning the Brier, they asked me about a coach. I spent single digit nanoseconds before I said, "Brad, you have one of the best curling coaches on the planet whose coaching skills are only exceeded by his qualities as a human being right in your home town." That coach was TOM COULTERMAN so when Tom walked that walk toward the podium with the team to be recognized as Brier Champions, I couldn't have been prouder of a team that really has become greater than the sum of its parts and the man who has his fingerprints all over the process.

Oh, by the way, none of Team Northern Ontario qualified for either the first or second all star team. Curling you see, is a team game!

And let me be one of the first Victorians (even though I live 20 min. down the road in Sidney-by-the-Sea) to welcome you to the Ford World Men's Curling Championships at the end of the month. You'll look great in red & white!

Friday, March 8, 2013


They start out as interested friends, family and club mates. It's the group of people who, for one reason or another, follow your team's fortunes as it makes its way through the curling season. As one success follows another, then another, the size of this group becomes proportionally larger. Should your team reach the pinnacle event in its competitive environment (i.e. provincials, nationals or worlds), the group of stakeholders can be large indeed with a dizzying array of interests in your team's fortunes. To make the statement that the team needs to deal with what could be a major factor in its potential success is a gross understatement of reality!

In that larger group of stakeholders is that core group referred to in the opening paragraph. They're the ones who have been with you through thick & thin. Now that you are in "rarefied air", they want to support you as best they can. But just as playing in this dream-come-true event is "uncharted territory" for you, it's also "uncharted territory" for them.  You, hopefully, will have a trained group of performance specialists to assist you. Who does that for the stakeholders? And trust me on this, your stakeholders need some guidance. They might "think" they know how to support you but there's absolutely no guarantee that's the case!

If you (sing. & pl.) don't clearly define their roles and the rules & regulations that go with them, it will be left to the stakeholders to "assume" what they do is appropriate. That assumption is not worth the risk to you. You need to take the time to gather, either in "real time" or "electronically", the individuals in your group of stakeholders who will be in attendance and provide crystal clear instructions as to the best and most appropriate ways to support you. Be blunt!

As an illustration, four men won their province's championship and qualified for the Brier. The team did not exactly break from the starting gate. By day three, their w/l record had only the numeral "1" on the "w" side. Family and friends who had accompanied the team began to dissect the team's troubles in the stands and at the host hotel with much "blame" being passed around. Even after a couple of wins, the "sniping" among the group of stakeholders got to the point that the team finally got the entire group together at the hotel and basically told the stakeholders that if the infighting did not stop, the team was going to withdraw from the Brier! Yikes! The team went on to explain that despite the less than stellar w/l record, all was well with the team. They had learned the lessons the losses provided and were actually much more pleased with their performance. The team ended the meeting by explaining how the group could support the team in a positive manner. Fortunately everyone got the message and the week ended in a much different fashion than it did when the event began.

I'm of an age whereby I can recall a very effective TV commercial for Fram oil filters. The commercial spot was only of 30 seconds duration and depicted a vehicle with hood up and steam billowing from the engine compartment in the background. In the foreground was a mechanic holding the aforementioned Fram oil filter. His words were short and to the point, "You can pay me now (gesturing to the Fram oil filter in his hand) or, you can pay me later (looking at the vehicle over his shoulder)!" My friend from CBC's "Under the Influence", Terry O'Reilly, I think would agree that the commercial sold a lot of Fram oil filters.

That same message was not lost on that team and its stakeholders at the Brier. The team did indeed learn a valuable lesson. Deal with your group of stakeholders BEFORE you leave for the event, so you don't have to do it DURING the event causing a huge distraction! Would those four young men have actually withdrawn from the Brier? No, of course not but it was the team's way of putting an exclamation point behind the message it now realizes it should have delivered long before the event began.

When I had the honour of taking four young women to a Scotties, I composed a letter which each player forwarded by email to individuals they knew would be attending. I explained who I was, why I was going with the team, what my role at the event was, what I expected of the team members AND what the team and I expected from them in the way of support. It was only one page but it was worth every word on that page and the most grateful were the stakeholders themselves. They now knew what to do to positively to support the team and what not to do.

In about one month, I'll have the honour once again of taking ten senior curlers to the World Senior Curling Championships, this year in Fredericton, NB. As I do each year, a will compose a letter to those family and friends who will be in attendance at the event outlining the nature of the competition and how they can best support us. I'll do this by email and even though many of those stakeholders already know what to do and what not to do, it's just too important not to put it into black and white.

I'm especially pleased that one of that group of stakeholders will be Cathy King's father. If you read the post of 11/29/12 ("The Great Escape - The Rest of the Story") you'll know why. I'm very much looking forward to shaking the hand of a real hero and telling him personally how thrilled I am to meet him and coach his daughter's team!

A meeting with the stakeholders. Don't leave home without one!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Don't Be Predictable!

It's draw #2 at the 2013 Brier in Edmonton. Team AB is in the 9th end of a game versus Team QC. with Team QC skipped by JM Menard, up one with last stone advantage over the hometown quartet skipped by Edmonton's iconic skip, Kevin Martin. Cathy Gautier (TSN) just commented that Team AB is not sure what Team QC will do in this end. Had AB's opponent been Glenn Howard, they'd know exactly what they would do but JM Menard doesn't play in the same competitive environment so thus the quandary re. strategy & tactics.

I don't think this is going to be any revelation and I hope none of the "TV teams" is offended when I say they are not the only elite teams on the planet. There are some very talented teams out there who for  reasons known only to them, do not participate in the same competitive environment (i.e. Grand Slams, big money cash spiels etc.) and as a result, play close to home so I'll refer to those teams respectfully as "home teams". But don't for a minute think the teams you see regularly on TV are a select group and all others are somehow inferior, clearly less experienced in that competitive environment, but not necessarily less skilled.

Like professional golf where the average fan sees Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson etc. and assumes that's the norm, so curling fans see the Glenn Howard's, Kevin Martin's, Jeff Stoughton's, Jennifer Jones', Rachel Homan's etc. and operate under a similar assumption.

Back in each of those teams' home province or territory, there are some very talented teams. And when do the well-known and lesser-known teams clash, at play down time. And although the TV teams (perhaps not the best collective noun but at this early time of the day, it's the one I'll use) usually do rise to the top of the standings as they try to qualify for the Scotties or Brier, the road to that provincial/territorial title is sometimes bumpy indeed. It's not unusual for a TV team to find itself on the "B side" of the draw at their zone or regional competition and it's my view that predictability is the reason. The team that plays the TV team has watched its opponent play game after game across months of televised events seeing it playing exactly the same way so not only does the "home team" know what the TV team is going to do, it knows how it's going to do it.

Make no mistake. If you've read any of what I write here on this site, you know I go on and on about how it's really about making curling shots and many more times than not, the TV team is going to win on that basis alone. But occasionally the "home team" will have a career game with the TV team not quite hitting on all cylinders resulting in that "B side" situation referred to above.

In all of this I feel there's a lesson for all teams wishing to compete more effectively and it's the title of this post. Don't be predictable!

In one of the more recent posts ("Last Stone Disadvantage" [02/25/13]) I outline a few options a team has at its disposal to react to the prerequisite CL guard the team without last stone advantage places with its lead stones. If you respond to that shot in the same manner each and every time, think about what you're doing. You're putting your opponent into a comfort zone. It gives that team a measure of assurance that it's doing things the right way based upon how you do things (forgive me for the use of the word "things"). Is that OK with you? And, it might be because, as implied above, you're going to make your shots more often and to a higher degree of precision than your opponent so it simply doesn't matter if the opposition knows what you're going to do. I get that! That's quite likely the reason the TV teams play the way they do against one another event after event. No one is going to fool anyone. Let's simply see who curls better so sit back as spectators and be amazed!

My regular readers know I categorize curling teams into four groups, recreational, serious, competitive and elite. My suggestion to train so that you have a variety of tactics to employ in a similar strategic game situation is for the two groups in the middle of my list, serious and competitive, especially the competitive teams.

BTW, Team QC defeated Team AB!

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Anatomy of a Curling Coach

Under the "old" system of coach/instructor training, if memory serves, it was in Level I Theory that a topic called "The Role of the Coach" existed.  Prospective coach/instructors were hit head on with the set of unique challenges facing a "curling" coach. When I took my Level III Theory component where you were with coaches of a variety of sports, I was the one about whom most of the other coaches were curious because of those unique challenges and the fact in the group, I was the only "curling" coach. The others were coaches of team sports like hockey, basketball, soccer, football etc.

One of the most unique features of being a "curling" coach is chronology. The coach of a curling team is often the last to be chosen. The team has already been assembled then it looks for a coach to fit the team whereas for virtually all the other team sports it's exactly the other way around, the coach is in place and he/she plays a prominent role in the selection of the team members. In professional sports, interestingly enough, team coaches frequently inherit a team whose coach was "replaced" (aka "fired") with the new coach also "last chosen"! I feel your angst!

Unlike my coaching colleagues in the sports named above, I must "empower" my team to compete. I have very little contact with them during the actual athletic contest. It's very likely the one greatest difference between coaches in curling and other sports. I can't call time outs to take a player aside for an extended period of time for some remedial consultation then but the athlete back into the game. If things head south on a player, he/she will have to rely upon the technical "lifelines" we've put in place for just such emergencies.

I was once asked by a journalist to describe my role as coach of a curling team. I had a few days before the interview so I sat down, writing instrument in hand, to list the various roles I played as coach of a curling team. It began with sport psychologist and morphed into roles like team dynamics consultant, travel coordinator, first aid provider, strategist, tactician, sociologist, event planner, transportation provider, agent, scout, publicist, delivery clinician, ice technician, treasurer, secretary, media consultant, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, psychologist, psychiatrist and legal counsel* to get the list started. I recall that there were about 25 definable roles I had played over my years as a curling coach.

My story in coaching started very early. Sports has been my whole life as an athlete and coach. My first coaching role was as a teenager coaching a group of young (10 year olds) playing basketball. When I began my career as a professional educator, I always coached teams in my school both intramurally and varsity in a variety of sports. When I decided to specialize as a Physical Educator, I coached all the varsity teams in various junior high school placements. Thirty years of coaching scholastic athletes tends to broaden one's views on the challenges you face.

My favourite sport to coach was basketball. Besides coaching the boys varsity team at my school, I also coached our local community college team. I loved coaching basketball! First, it was a winter sport but it was in a "warm" environment. But mostly it was the sport I enjoyed most as an athlete so the visceral connection was there from the start. That was true until I started curling!

That career, unlike today's young athletes who start with "little rocks" before there's double digit candles on their birthday cake, began in my early 20's. I soon discovered I couldn't get enough of this sport and realized that I could play it at a high level. Only the demands of a young family kept me from playing the "cash circuit" which is why I marvel at the time & resources some athletes in curling are able to spend at a similar life stage today. I don't know how you manage it but I take my hat off to you for doing it!

As I wound down my teaching career. I felt compelled to transpose my coaching skills to curling. My "break" came when I received a phone call from the Athletic Director at the University of Waterloo, Judy McCrae, who asked if I would be interested in coaching the men's & women's varsity teams. I said "yes" and never looked back. I was a "curling coach"!

That decision had more ramifications than might appear on the surface. I knew that if I was going to coach this sport, my competitive playing career would be in the rear view mirror. I felt I had to commit to one or the other. Gone was my "purple heart" dream as a player but one I realized a coach. While my peers who continued to pursue their careers on the cash circuit and play downs,  I was attending conferences, symposia and coaching clinics listening to the very best in their field to attain the highest level of certification possible. I'm very proud to say that I'm a "chartered professional coach" in Coaches of Canada, thus the ChPC after my name. It was a long and challenging journey to reach that level of certification so when you see a coach with that "ChPC" after his/her name, you know you're seeing someone who has "paid the coaching piper". I frustrates me when I hear some people repeat the phrase, "Those who can do and those who can't teach or coach." That's both ignorant (in the true sense of the word) and unfair! I took a long time and  considerable resources and effort to attain those "coaching skills", just as much as an athlete does to attain elite "playing skills". And this is not just my story. Any number of chartered professional coaches will have one similar!

By that point in my career I learned one thing in particular and it's the premise of this post. I don't care how talented an athlete might be, or has been, there is very little correlation between the skill set of an athlete and a coach! It's the mistake so many curling teams make when they are the surprise winners of an event which leads to another for which a "coach" needs to be selected. There's the knee jerk reaction to take a "former player" thinking that his/her experience in the event is what they need most. Wrong! Yes, the athlete has been there, done that and also has the T-shirt but it was not in a coaching role. The skill sets are different, vastly different! Can a former player relate to the challenges faced by the first-time-at-the-event athletes? Of course he/she can. But it's a very limited contribution!

The landscape is littered with the corpses of young teams who have made this classic error. Both they and the athlete they selected to "coach" will learn this the hard way. And, it's a mistake they're very unlikely to repeat but the downside is that the team may never be back to the event to complete the "do over". That's the sad part!

This is especially true at the junior level where so often it's the parent of a team member that assumes the coaching role and the team wins, not because of the parent/coach, but in spite of the parent/coach. The team then goes on to a level where coaching certification is a requirement and the parent/coach is left wanting and the only way the team can compete is to obtain the services of a certified coach with both the time and inclination to step in an assist. I've done that and thankfully the "team coach" had his head screwed on right and saw the value in my role with "his team" as we partnered in assisting the athletes.

Many times there's some vocalization among supporters of the team that this is somehow "unfair". Well, there is something that's unfair but it's not unfair to the uncertified coach. It's unfair to the athletes as they participate in a provincial or national event. "Every team deserves a certified coach!" was the slogan of a national sponsor of coaching certification in our sport some years ago. I liked the slogan because it not only advertised coach certification and the sponsor's role in it, but it also succinctly stated the philosophy of certification in six, well chosen words.

There was a time when the national sport governing body for curling in our country "grandfathered" an uncertified parent/coach to a national event if it was the parent/coach's first time. The feeling of the national sport governing body was that when the parent/coach was around certified coaches, he/she would see, first hand, that certification really does benefit the athletes as the parent/coach saw the skill set acquired through the coach certification process "up close & personal" in action. Hopefully that parent/coach would go home and get certified.

Certification also demonstrates to all that the individual has "done his/her homework" to be the best he/she can be. Isn't that what you'd expect of your athletes? What better way to set the example!

I've coached for a long time! I'm still learning. In fact when I work with a team I flat out tell them that I'll be a better coach/instructor because of the time spent with that team, and I'm very sincere when I say that. This coaching thing has a measure of science, and I use that science to back up what I teach as often as possible so the team can make an informed decision. But, it's mostly an art form. What makes a good coach? I have some ideas on that but I'll tell you one thing. I know it when I see it and so do athletes!

One of the readers of my posts is a recently "retired" athlete from a men's team in our country that is at the top of its game. He has started coaching at the bantam level in his province and has dialogued with me. To paraphrase, "I never dreamed that there were so many challenges to coaching for which playing does not prepare you!" This man is going to be a great coach!

It's a wonderful journey to work with what I consider the best of our society. To that athletic director at the University of Waterloo, "thank you" from a very grateful "curling coach"!

* I was once asked by the team I was coaching in another country to represent the team in a "grievance hearing". I said I would and prepared the team's case as best I could. In the hearing, the athlete who had  filed the "grievance" was represented by a real attorney, gulp. My thought? "Bill, you're in over your head this time!" and even though we didn't win, and I told the team that the "rules" in the matter where not on our side, the attorney complimented me on my presentation. No, I wasn't about to give up my day job to attend law school!

Articles relating to this topic found in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion";
Coaching Certification: Why Bother? p.12
Empower the Athlete p.17
Sixteen Life Lessons from the World's Greatest Coaches p. 34
The Physicist, the Exercise Physiologist and the Coach p. 36 (set aside more than a few minutes for this one)