Thursday, June 27, 2013

Doing What You Know You Can Do - When You Need To Do It

In my last post I promised to answer a question posed to me by an excellent coach and friend. It was about "peaking", that seemingly elusive of all team and individual characteristics and there's no event that's more under the microscope to determine whether an athlete is performing optimally than at the Olympics. We have witnessed athletes who after years and years of dedicated, purposeful training, fail at the quadrennial mountain top of events. There are as many reasons for that as there are grains of sand on a beach. I don't know about you but I hate to see that happen to any athlete. I want the gold medalist to have won the medal, not for an opponent to have lost it and there's a huge difference between the two.

In my own words, I say it this way. When you leave the playing area, you want to be able to say that your opponent had to bring his/her/their "A" game and drain the tank to win. If that's the case, then you shake hands and leave the playing suface with head and heart held high. When that's not the case, then you need to be a good actor and make everyone around see you as a class act even though inside you feel like crawling into a hole. Outwardly there's no difference but inside you can't wait for the next training opportunities to learn from the loss and never to let that happen that way again!

To make every contest one in which the oppnent needs that "A" game and drain the tank is the utopia in sports as it spells consistency. Remember, as I've stated on numerous occasions, many of them on this site, you can never leave your skills at home so if you didn't perform well, it had to be for reasons other than a lack of skill. They were all there but there was a breakdown. You just didn't use them well but let's not go down that road today.

This is not going to be a long post as I'm going to differ to two excellent articles, one penned by Greg Wells of the Canadian Sport Centre who has an superb on-line piece on peaking (aka "tapering) and the other from the magazine "BC Coaches Perspective" (summer 2013 edition) authored by Laura Watson entitled "The End of 'Peak by Friday Coaching'" so I'll just add a few anecdotal comments beginning with one that I have espoused before and I'll use my recent experience with Canada's national senior teams as we trained to compete in the most recent World Senior Curling Championships in Fredericton, NB as an example. I asked each athlete, in the last week or two prior to leaving for the New Brunswick capital to concentrate on thier "real selves" and not be so concerned about their "performer selves". In other words, deal with any issues that may be a distraction at the WSCC. If there's a misunderstanding with a family member, friend, co-worker etc., try to resolve it or at least begin the process. If there's a project that could be completed, complete it. If there's someone with whom you've wanted to speak about a matter, take the time to do so. In other words, leave no loose threads at home so that when you arrive at the venue, curling is the only thing that matters!

Without stealing the thunder from Laura Watson's article in "BC Coaches Perspective", when you are the type of coach that "empowers" athletes rather than "direct" athletes, their ability to perform when best performance is needed the most is enhanced. You'll read about both types of coaches in Laura's brief but powerful article.

Another point I'd like to make at this time is to say that it's my view that over the years, the standard of training for our elite teams has been to play as many events as time, inclination and resources allow. I've seen more than one team come to the playdown portion of the season totally exhausted and mentally burned out. They still had their skills but their ability to use them was dimenished to the point that forcing the oppostion to bring their "A" game and drain their tank was only a dream. And there's no formula to be applied to all teams. I admit that some teams might need that weekend-to-weekend schedule of events but I'm equally convinced that there are way more teams who follow that  training regimen who should not! Just another reason to have a certified coach on board! Remember, train, don't strain and take your eyes off the prize and focus on the process!

OK, enough of me, enjoy Greg Wells article at ( and Laura's in "BC Coaches Perspective".

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mail Bag

As any "ink-stained wretch" (aka journalist) will tell you, it's not the writing that's the challenge so much as coming up with a topic of interest to readers. Questions from the readers remove that issue and make the writing purposeful and therefore somewhat easier. As you can see by the title, that's the case today.
I recently received some "interesting" questions from a coach who works extensively with "little rockers" and a competitive bantam team. I want to congratulate this coach's efforts, especially with the "little rockers". They are our future. I felt his questions were ones that might have a broader appeal than a simple e-mail response on my part. That said, here are the questions and my responses to them.

#1 What are the biggest mistakes & myths you see in curling training? What are the biggest wastes of time?

I have heard more than one expert refer to our sport as the "technocentric" sport (my spell checker does not recognize "technocentric" but I think you get the idea). As seen by others outside curling, we are obsessed with our curling deliveries, obsessed! Clearly, those outside the sport of curling see us as way over the top regarding the technical aspects of the game. Generally, I agree but I'm quick to add that one's curling delivery is his/her signature skill. It's what defines us in the sport and no, we do not have to all look the same as we deliver the curling stone. I have written about this in a number of articles in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" so I'll be succinct here when I say that your delivery needs to meet three criteria in my view. It must be straight, simple & silent (the title of the very first article every penned by yours truly). But here's the "waste of time" part, it does NOT have to be perfect! I feel very strongly that too many aspiring, high performance athletes spend in inordinate amount of time trying to perfect the curling delivery! Each one of us, given that we got a good start in the game by receiving instruction from a certified instructor so that we do not make obvious mistakes, has a very "serviceable" delivery inside of us. The goal of a good instructor/coach is to help you let that delivery "out" and make you aware of why it's the best way for you to deliver a curling stone, not because anyone else does it that way, but because it's the best way for you to do it! There may be some physical challenges with which the athlete is dealing. Those must not be ignored and many times it will result in an accommodation to those challenges that make the delivery look a little different. Just remember, slide straight, keep the delivery as simple as possible and make the release silent!
There are so many other aspects of your skill set that need attention, mostly on the "warm side of the glass". If you're spending hours upon hours searching for that perfect delivery, you're short changing areas that are just, if not more important that your curling delivery. For example, how much time have you spent developing the skills necessary to preserve and protect that curling delivery you've worked so hard to attain in training so that it will not break down in competition? Hmmm, little or none? I rest my case!
Since this coach works mostly with athletes at an early stage of development, I'll also add what I hope is obvious. Each of those little rockers and bantams are changing physically and for some, in dramatic fashion. Their curling delivery will change regularly and sometimes, in one of those "transition" phases where co-ordination is a little behind physical development, that curling delivery might look pretty ragged. Not to worry, everything will catch up!
I'll touch on another myth in curling, at least in my opinion and I've written about this recently. It's about the selection of a coach. The myth is that any elite player with an enviable track record will make an equally outstanding coach by default. That elite player might indeed become an elite coach but it won't be because of his/her playing career. It will be for other reasons he/she will learn as his/her coaching career flourishes. There are playing skills and there are coaching skills. Full stop! (See "The Anatomy of a Curling Coach" [3/1/13] on this site.)

#2 What are the biggest mistakes novices make in the curling delivery? Even at the elite level, what mistakes are most common?

When I see recreational curlers, either in a clinic setting or in games at their curling facility, I see one aspect of the delivery that causes more missed shots than any other. It's the use of the sliding device! Most curlers use their brush as their sliding device although some use other means (i.e. stabilizer). If a novice uses his/her brush, usually they start with the brush in a reasonably good position (i.e. the head of the brush is approximately opposite the leading edge of the stone). That head-opposite-stone relationship keeps the athlete "square" to the line of delivery, a really good thing when one is starting out and not a bad idea for the remainder of one's curling career I might add! The problem comes as the athlete slides forward, that head-opposite-stone relationship begins to break down to the point that for many novices, at the most critical time in the delivery (the release), the brush head is now well behind the stone resulting in an upper body "bent out of shape" (twisted) to the point that "square-to-the-line-of-delivery" is just a memory. Delivering the stone along its intended line is now a challenge that rarely succeeds.
To compound the problem, many times, in fact most of the time, the curler will not realize that the relationship between brush head and stone as broken down (enter "visual recording"). When the athlete sees it, he/she will believe it!
I'll mention another issue with novice curlers and it's the sliding foot. When the novice slides he/she should be able to feel that the weight of the body is evenly distributed on the slider (side-to-side & front-to-back). When a novice does that, two really good things occur. First, it's virtually impossible to "drift" (another challenge that seems to present itself to novices). Second, the velocity that's generated from the hack will be maintained for a longer period of time thus making weight control easier.
I'll make one statement re. elite curlers. Some elite curlers are that way not because of their curling delivery, but rather in spite of it. No, wild horses will not draw out who I feel falls into that second category so don't even ask but there are several in my view.
Recreational curlers need to understand that what they see on TV is the end product of several years of dedicated training, not always under the watchful eye of a certified coach/instructor and the athlete participates in a very narrow competitive environment. As a result, he/she has customized the delivery, brushing etc. to meets those very specific, narrow needs. What you don't see on TV are the long hours of practising with the basics that were taught to him/her at a very early stage of his/her career.
Listen to the advice of your certified coach and when you watch TV, enjoy it for what it is!

#3 What are the key principles for better, more consistent deliveries? What would the progression of exercises or drills look like?

I like this question for what it "assumes". It assumes the curler will practise, what a novel idea! So let's "assume" that the curler will take some time to work on the consistency that seems so elusive to so many. To be sure, there is a very small minority of athletes in a sporting endeavours who practise infrequently who will, by their standards, achieve acceptable results. In my four categories of curlers (recreational, serious, competitive and elite) only recreational curlers get away with this premise/rationale. I have great respect for recreational curlers but to be honest, they really don't give a "tinker's damn" if they play well or not. They have the time of their life on the ice with people with whom they enjoy curling and the w's & l's also don't enter into the picture. Despite my encouragement to spend some time improving their skills with the goal of enhancement of the experience, it mostly falls on deaf ears. It's simply not high on the priority list so Bill, get over it.
For those in the remaining three groups, practise, meaningful and based upon sound training principles (as taught by a certified instructor so that practise doesn't end up making the curler simply very good at doing the wrong thing) is the key to consistency. There's no short cut! If there was, I think I'd know about it but to date, it doesn't exist!
The second portion of this question refers to exercises and drills. I'll touch on one I like and hope readers who have not already done so, will purchase a copy of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" to learn about others. I feel placing paper cups on varying lines of delivery with the athlete (with or without sliding device 7 without a stone) trying to knock the cup(s) down with the sliding foot is very beneficial!

While I was answering the questions sent to me by the bantam coach, I had another coach ask about "peaking" and whether I had an material on the subject. I said I didn't per se so I'd do some research on that topic and report back. I'm into the research and will report back in my next post. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 3, 2013

You Do This At Your Own Peril

This has been a tough week or so for coaches of elite teams. The Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League released the entire coaching staff from their coaching duties, a move that has brought more than its share of scepticism here on the left coast of Canada!

More recently, the curling world was notified that Team Ulsrud had decided to part ways with their long time coach Ole Ingvaldsen. I'm not here to judge the validity of these decisions but one thing is certain from where I sit, when you change coaches, you do so at your own peril!

In the case of a professional team making a coaching change, the stakes are different from that of an amateur curling team as the money involved is so vastly different. So why does a professional team, regardless of the sport, make such a change?

In some cases, you hear that the coach "has lost the room". That curious phrase refers to the team locker room and indicates that the coach's words are now falling on deaf ears as he/she tries to inspire the team to greater heights of performance by inspirational locker room verbiage. Occasionally, key players will have issues with the coach's style, and all that comes with that, at which time the seeds of discontent will have been sown among the rest of the roster. In most cases, as has happened with the firing of the New York Rangers (NHL) head coach, John Tortorella, the team simply has not performed to expectations (Coach Tortorella's ascerbic attitude, especially with the NY media, didn't help his cause).

The dynamics are also very different for a professional teams as there are two layers of administration that just don't exist with an elite curling team, notably the team owner(s) and the general manager. This unholy alliance of owner, GM & coach can be a curious one.

Owners come in all different flavours. Some just like to own a professional sports team and leave the front office and on the field/ice/court decisions to the GM and coach respectively. The owner happily just sign the cheques! Professional sport team owners have D-E-E-P pockets!!!! Then you get the Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys [NFL]) of the world who feel that ownership gives them all the rights and privileges of GM, coach and players. To say Mr. Jones and his like are "hands on owners" would be like saying a hurricane is a stiff breeze. Thankfully, most owners of professional sport teams fall somewhere in the middle. Then you have the NFL's Green Bay Packers whose owner is the City of Green Bay. Yes, each resident of Green Bay, WI can say he/she is an owner.

General managers are now much more prominent in the triumvirate than ever before, to the point that some teams are known more for their GM than owner or coach ("Can you say Sir Alex Ferguson, formerly of Manchester United of the English Premiership?")!

For those reading this who might be unfamiliar with the roles and responsibilities of a GM, it's his/her task to "put the team together" by signing players to contractual obligations. The coach then takes those players signed by the GM and tries to make them greater than the sum of their parts. Occasionally, one person will take on both roles, GM & coach but that is relatively rare in modern times as it's a burdensome responbility. One doesn't have to be a genius to figure out that if a GM and coach work well together and have the best interests of the team at heart, along with an understanding and supportive owner, you have a winning combination. And the best part is that the players will recognize the harmony among the three and usually respond in kind.

There is a "pecking order" among owner, GM & coach and that's it, owner, GM & coach. You'll notice that the coach is at the bottom of the totem pole. In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, the owners of the team are a family, the "Aquilini" family and the GM is Mike Gillis. The coaching position is currently vacant but for the last seven years was filled by Alain Vigneault and his staff. When a new GM comes on the scene, usually he/she wants to choose the coach with whom he/she will work. That was not the case in Vancouver but now it will be as GM Mike Gillis searches for a new head coach.

There are many Canuck fans who feel, as do I, that the person doing the firing, in this case the aforementioned Mr. Gillis, should have been the one to leave but if that were the case, it would have to be the Aquilini's who did the firing and that didn't happen and in fact, when Gillis went to the family with the idea of a coaching change, the family clearly agreed.

When a team replaces the coach, it's a risky move due to the message it sends. Alain Vigneault was recently recognized by the NHL's "Coach of the Year" award. I don't think he's lost his coaching skills since that award was bestowed upon him. In fact, he's very likely a better coach now from a skills, experience and knowledge perspective. Did he "lose the room"? There was no indication that had occurred. Historically when that's the reason, the "leaks" are numerous. So I feel we can stroke that off the list. Do the players simply need to hear a different voice? That might hold some water.

Coaches have an expiration date. It's a daunting task to keep the challenges in practice and games fresh. Sooner or later, the message, valid and as fresh as it can be, starts to fall on those deaf ears. It's really difficult to turn that truck around!

Sometimes, as in the case of Coach Vigneault, the Aquilini's and GM Gillis felt the culture surrounding the team needed changing. Do you replace 10 or so players or the coach? Clearly it's easier to change the culture by replacing the coach but is that the "message" you really want to send because there will be players who will see the coaching change as a validation of the attitude/culture the players espoused. I feel when the coach and his staff are of such a quality that they are quite likely the best you might have at the time, it's a better message to retain the coaching staff which then tacitly let's the players know it's their performance that's the problem.

History has shown that franchises that hire an excellent coaching staff and stick with them through thick and thin, in the long run, the team does quite well thank you very much!

I cite teams like the Dallas Cowboys and their long time coach, Tom Landry. In the NHL there's one team that has had the same coach for its entire existence. That team is the Nashville Predators and that coach is the diminutive Barry Trotts who for all the world looks more like your local bank manager than the coach of a professional hockey team. The point is that the Nashville Predators are not thought of as a real challenger for Lord Stanley's mug but they are a competitive team. Fans going to the games know they are going to see a team with a legitimate chance to compete for the "w" and take a serious run at the playoffs even though they don't make the post season games every season. The players seem to like playing for Coach Trotts and his coaching staff and the management of the team appears to be able to assemble a group of athletes who perform well. Hello!!!!

In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, given the success the team has had in regular season in spite of the goal tending fiasco with Cory Schneider and Roberto Loungo coupled with the early exits from the playoffs in recent years, a case could easily be made that Coach Vigneault and his staff were the only ones in the organization that did a good job, perhaps an excellent job that they were the ones who were relieved of their duties.

Look, every coach knows that when he/she signs a contract, at some point he/she will be replaced. It's just the nature of the beast. And, as some will contend, the coach is the most responsible for the "culture" in which a team operates (along with the owner, GM and even the fans), if it's agreed that the culture must change, well, do the math, as stated above, it's a lot easier to change the coach (and his staff) than 10 players! And back one last time to the Vancouver situation, many feel if there WAS a solid reason for the coaching change, that might be the one.

Even though I've painted the coach as something of a poor third party in the organizational triad, if the league needs an element of change (as with the "head shot" issue with the NHL) if the league gets the coaches on board, the players will follow as it's my belief that no player acts contrary to the dictates of the coach and remains an active player for very long. Even in professional sports, the players will do what the coach instructs them to do. There are head shots in the NHL because the coaches have not acted against them! Full stop!

On the day of the publishing of this post, there are only four teams, interestingly enough, the last four Stanley Cup Champions, remaining in the NHL playoffs. There are a number of coaching vacancies in the league and a number of both rookie and experienced coaches from which to choose. It's going to be an interesting few weeks as teams make their selections.

But most of you reading this are from the world of curling and coaching at the highest levels in our sport follow a very different set of guidelines. For example, we might be the only team sport where the coach is selected last. Usually the team has been formed and then a coach is sought. I hope that will change over time. The sooner a team aligns itself with a certified coach, the better that team will function and the more efficiently it will function. I don't want this post to be a diatribe on the value of a certified coach but suffice to say we now have athletes in our sport who have always had a coach. The days of the elite teams going it alone are over!

My post of 3/1/13 ("The Anatomy of a Curling Coach") delved into the perils of selecting as coach, a recently retired elite player, thinking that the value of someone who has been there, done that and has the T-shirt is a wise decision. Clearly that's a choice that's fraught with peril. I won't regurgitate the details on this matter. I'll leave you to read the post.

Team Ulsrud has decided that the team has plateaued. It simply needs to hear a different voice. If you have seen the team play of late, it's clear that something that was once there, is gone. I don't know what it is, although I do have my suspicions, but the team feels a different voice is in order. But, they've replaced their coach and his enviable track record, with a retired player. Since that former, very successful and likable player retired, he may indeed have spent time getting certified. If so, then it's a good decision. If not, well, Team Ulsrud, you have rolled the dice. I hope luck is on your side!

Right now, there's a crisis in coaching in curling. Simply put, there are many more elite teams than there are elite coaches. There just aren't enough to go around. I feel one of the reasons is that the impetus for many coaches is their son or daughter who wishes to play competitively as a junior athlete. When the athlete ages out, the certified parent/coach stops coaching. We need more of those coaches to continue. Even though your son or daughter may not have chosen to continue down the competitive path for a variety of very good reasons, you're missing out on the opportunity to grow as a coach with a young adult elite team that would benefit greatly from your certification, experience and skills.

If you're one of those coaches whose coaching career stopped when your son or daughter aged out of juniors, please consider returning to the coaching ranks. I can tell you from personal experience that's its rewards are as much intrinsic as they are extrinsic! Contact me if you'd like to talk (!

Now that there are no Canadian-based teams remaining in the NHL playoffs, I'm pulling for those Penguins of Pittsburgh so Jarome Iginla can finally get the Stanley Cup ring that the Tampa Bay Lightning "stole" in 2004 (in game #6, Martin Gelina's goal was "in")!