Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The X's & O's of PED's

This title, "The X's & O's of PED's" is the third of three I thought about and obviously the one I've chosen for this post. The other two were, "Fans Don't Care" and "When the Prize Becomes Too Valuable". I feel you'll see why the latter two were candidates as you read on. PED's of course means "Performance Enhancing Drugs".

Most of you reading this post know why it's my topic today. I'll not go into the details of the specific incident. I'm sure my journalist colleagues will at some point and many have already done so. My focus here is to educate. I'm going to describe first just how easy it is to know if something you've ingested is for something other than nutrition and whether it is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency ( WADA) and I'm going to make you and I active participants in this. Here's what I would like you to do.

1) Go to your medicine cabinet and get any over the counter or prescription drug which lists its active ingredients. I have been prescribed drops for my eyes to reduce the pressure inside the eyes to ward off "glaucoma", which is present in my family.

2) Record them in some fashion or simply have them available. In some cases you'll need a magnifying glass especially if the candles on your birthday cake resemble a five alarm fire. The active ingredient in my eye drops is "brinzolamide" and I did use my reading glasses.

3) Go to the web site www.globaldro.org (global drug reference online).

4) Identify yourself by country and sport (i.e. Canada & curling).

5) Compare the active ingredients for your medication/supplement/drug with the approved list on the web site.

6) Put your hand up if you're taking a banned substance. If your hand is up go to the next step. If your hand is not up, carry on and good curling! In my case, both as athlete and coach, "brinzolamide" is not prohibited "in" or "out of" competition. It took me about one minute to learn that!!!

7) If your medication was purchased by you "over the counter", stop taking it. On the other hand, if it has been prescribed for you by a certified physician and you want to compete on the international level, make an appointment with your physician a.s.a.p. to let him/her know of your dilemma. If there are alternate substances that you can take that are approved, make the switch. If not go to the next step.

8) Contact your national sport governing body to obtain a "Therapeutic Exemption Form" (TUE). Complete the form according to the instructions provided. Make copies and keep one in a very safe place (i.e. safety deposit box).

If your country is not listed on the www.globaldro.org site then go directly to WADA's site (www.wada-ama.org) for similar information or the World Curling Federation web site (www.worldcurling.org).

When an athlete is tested, it is done so by urine and/or blood analysis and can be on site ("in" competition) or randomly ("out of" competition). The test is administered by a WADA certified tester with an official representing the athlete in attendance. A sample is provided by the athlete in full view of the tester and the athlete's representative. If the testing is done immediately following the event, a WADA official stays in full view of the athlete until a sample can be provided. The sample is then divided into to "A" & "B" containers with the athlete participating in the sealing of them. The samples are then coded for identification with the athlete receiving copies of the paperwork. The samples are then tested for banned substances pertaining to the sport in question either on site (if the lab facilities are available) or sent to an accredited lab. The results are provided to the athlete as soon as possible and of course, everyone hopes for a negative result, no banned substances detected. If a positive test result is indicated, the "B" sample is then tested (with the athlete and his/her representative notified beforehand and invited to the unsealing and testing). If the result of that testing is also positive, the athlete's sport governing body is notified for further action.

You'll notice that the steps to determine whether the substance you're ingesting is banned for your sport and country or not is quite simple and self directed. For anyone who is serious enough about competing at the highest level to say they did not know that what they were ingesting was banned is just plain imprudent and if the athlete is competing in a team sport, I'll add self-serving, as a positive test affects the entire team in some instances. Good luck getting caught ingesting a banned substance which causes the team to return medals finding another team in the future!

For our sport in Canada, we also have an individual who is our resident expert on the doping regulations. There is absolutely no reason for a curling athlete in Canada to mistakenly ingest a banned substance!

I'm writing this post in the midst of the Tour de France, the sport most associated with PED's. One must have been living under a rock to not be aware of the trials and tribulations of one Lance Armstrong and his association with allegations of the use of PED's during his competitive cycling days especially in connection with the aforementioned Tour de France.

Each sport, like a society, has a culture which in essence defines what's acceptable and what's not. In your copy of "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" you'll find an article entitled "The Culture of Sport" and how it changes from one sport to another and how athletes playing one sport act and react very differently the moment they change from sport to sport. Why, because the "rules of engagement" change. One of the more disgusting axioms, especially in professional sports is, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying!" and it's accepted in many, perhaps most sports because that's the culture.

I recently witnessed a baseball game where, on a double play attempt by the defensive team, the second baseman missed stepping on the base before throwing on to first base to complete the double play. The play ended the inning. The camera focused on the second baseman who video replay showed missed contacting the base by the proverbial country mile, knew he had, and laughed about it with his teammates on their return to the dug out. Can you imagine what would have happened had the same second baseman gone to the umpire to indicate that he had indeed missed stepping on the base? His teammates and coaches would have reacted with righteous indignation toward him. You see, it's the culture of baseball to accept a call even if you know the official has clearly made a mistake and would be quite willing to rectify the call. But, that same second baseman as a professional golfer, had he inadvertently grounded his club in an hazard with no one watching, would have so indicated and gracefully accepted the penalty. Or if that person was a curler and touched a running stone and so indicated even though no one might have been aware. Same person, different cultures!

In some sports, PED's are accepted by participants and fans because, here it comes, "everyone does it"! What  a cop out! What's more disturbing is the attitude of the fans. In simple language, most, the vast majority in my experience, just don't care. They want to see baseballs leave the yard, cyclists with unbelievable speed & stamina, football players with superhuman endurance ... I hate to say it, those fans don't give a rodent's backside if the athletes they're watching and the entertainment they're enjoying are "juiced". And if the fans don't care, why should the athletes? Well, thankfully, there are athletes who feel playing "clean" is a positive attribute and keep the flame of clean play burning while around them the temptations to artificially enhance his/her performance are readily available.

In my mind, the classic example occurred during the summer of 1998 when Mark McGuire (St. Louis Cardinals) & Sammy Sosa (Chicago Cubs) duelled for the major league home run record with full stadia of fans cheering enthusiastically for every ball that cleared the outfield fences from their bats. Even at that stage there was clear indications that something was amiss. All one had to do was look at Mssrs. McGuire & Sosa to know that their physique was altered. No amount of time in the gym could have produced the bodies they brought to the stadium each day. One of the most distinguished sports periodicals named both players "Sportsman of the Year", an honour coveted by athletes which only re-enforced the heroic efforts of the athletes. Many felt their season long home run contest saved major league baseball from a rather tumultuous period of labour unrest in the preceding few seasons. But, at what price was major league baseball saved? Did major league baseball sell its soul to the devil?

In an attempt to deal with the issue or at least to project to the world that major league baseball cared, it hired George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator to study the matter with the results naming players in his report known as, duh, "The Mitchell Report". Congress even got involved with some players testifying before committees, with some caught lying (can you say "perjury"?). Needless to say, baseball was in a mess. Roger Clemens, while a member of the Toronto Blue Jays was accused of taking PED's as was his Yankee friend, pitcher Andy Pettitte. Mr. Pettitte admitted to taking the substance, in his words, to recover more quickly from an injury, not to enhance performance. Hmm, does that pass the "smell test"? Clearly most believe it does but in Mr. Clemens' case, not so much as the allegations in his case were clearly to prolong a career artificially.

Fast forward to today. Players in the "steroid era" of major league baseball have been shunned by those who vote for inclusion into "The Baseball Hall of Fame" in Cooperstown, NY. Not one player, many of whom "have the numbers", have been voted into the hall. But will the passage of time numb some of those voters or future voters into granting admission down the road? Only time will tell.

Canada was plunged headlong into the world of PED's in the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea when the nation went from euphoria to dismay when Ben Johnson tested positive for a PED. That led to, at the time, the most comprehensive study of the new world of PED's in any nation by the Dubin Inquiry. The report by Justice Dubin had enough blame to go around to athletes, coaches, sport governing bodies etc. It was hoped that other nations would use the report and follow Canada's lead to meet the PED issue head on. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and we're left where we are today!

To me, one of the most disturbing elements of this whole PED matter are athletes, who when asked about taking PED's say that even if they were proven to shorten one's life span or leave one in a diminished state of health in later years, if it could get them onto an Olympic podium or pave the way to a professional career in their sport, it would be worth the risk. Has the prize become to valuable?

The really scary part in all of this is for parents whose teenage sons & daughters feel that for a variety of reasons, taking PED's is a necessary part of achievement and/or status. Common feeling among those whose expertise is in the area of PED's and their long term implications is that they are generically dangerous. Until the "steroid era" athletes reach those birth milestones when those long term implications are make known, it's only conjecture. Is the risk worth the reward? Well, clearly some say it is!

Those who turn a blind eye to PED's and their detection often point to the fact that like "prohibition" if someone wants to artificially enhance his/her performance and take both the physical and social risks, there are those who will do so and the "PED Police" will always be a step or two behind in the detection game. Until the culture changes, I'm afraid PED's may rule the day. I hope I'm wrong!

I've used the word "artificial" and a few of its derivatives in this post. When confronted by the question re. PED's and my feelings toward them the answer is simple. It's a short cut to the time and effort spent by one's peers in training. It's artificial! In my books, if you take PED's, you're cheating! Where do you stand? I invite your comments!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

All Star Awards

Those who know me well can very likely compose the remainder of this blog. I not a fan of "all star awards", especially in the sport of curling. Make no mistake, I'm not opposed to the recognition of exceptional performance. But I am adamant that the process to identify worthy recipients be appropriate. But more about the all stars in curling later in this blog.

Hockey fans, or  should I say NHL fans, were bemused unless you're an Edmonton Oiler follower (Oiler Taylor Hall was the second highest vote getter at left wing) then you were likely much more than bemused when the Professional Hockey Writers Association voted for the first and second 2012-13 All Star Teams. Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL's Hart Trophy winner (the NHL most valuable player award) was voted to both the first all star team at his normal right wing position and to the second all star team at left wing. Now to be sure, the Russian super star does, on occasion, play on the left side but it's common practice and indeed a directive from the PHWA, at the end of each season, to name players to a particular position for the purposes of voting for all star team inclusion.

The honour of being a member of the august body of scribes charged with the responsibility to establish each season's all star teams is not taken lightly by most of its members. In many cases, for a player to be named to one of the two all star teams means dollars in that player's jeans. When a player negotiates his contract, incentive clauses are often included and a common one is all star selection.

The PHWA association sent out an email to its members to make sure that they understood that Alex Ovechkin's position for voting was that of "right wing". Many NHL players, in specific circumstances play a position which is different from the one they play on a line change by line change  basis. On the power play for example, it's not unusual to have one defence man and a forward on the blue line. That forward playing defence might amass a significant number of power play goals & assists which are assigned to him and just might make him a candidate for all star selection but when the members of the PHWA association consider his candidacy, it will be for his "regular" position. Forty-five of the approximately 180 members of the PHWA failed to read the memo and voted for Ovechkin on the second team at left wing. To say the other 135 members of the PHWA who did read the directive are embarrassed is an understatement. Voting for the all star teams and other NHL awards is one of the most important tasks each of the members takes on and to not read the most important of directives is unconscionable. To call yourself a "professional" writer at the same time is disingenuous.

From what I gather, the voting is done secretly even though many members of the PHWA make their selections known in the media outlet they represent but not all. I would hope that those 45 members who acted in the most unprofessional way possible in this voting procedure voluntarily withdraw from the PHWA! Let's see how many do.

When one earns then accepts the designation of "professional", that individual's performance is held to the highest standard of conduct and accuracy. No one is perfect, but best practices are not only expected by a professional in all fields but in the case of the medical profession, it could be a matter of life and death. That's clearly not the case here but nonetheless it's of sufficient import to be a cause for concern for those in the media, players, fans and the PHWA.

I shake my head in dismay when I hear or read about a professional athlete when he/she says he/she can't seem to get up for certain games or state that it's sometimes hard to be motivated to perform. What?! I would like to ask that same athlete, if they were injured and needed career-saving surgery, would it be OK with them if the surgeon indicated, prior to the operation that he/she just wasn't feeling up to it or that he/she was not motivated to be the best he/she could be in that operating room? Hmm, I think not! Professional athletes not only accept that their performance will be held to a high standard, they are paid large, very large sums of money as well, in most cases more in a short span of time than most of the people who buy the tickets, products and services that support the athlete/team will see in a life time!

Although not the focus of this blog, in the midst of all the adulation paid to professional athletes who are touted as bigger, stronger & faster, my late father would also add, dumber! And he was correct in my view. I see more "mental mistakes" made by professional athletes than ever. Baseball is particularly susceptible it seems. Players throw the the wrong base. They get caught off base and become the back end of a double play because they didn't let the line drive get through the infield. I could go on and on as I watch major league games on television.

But this blog is about all star awards. Of the four main professional sports in North America (hockey, baseball, basketball and football) the baseball "all star game" is clearly best. I never miss it on television even though it's far from perfect, very far! Look, every all star game is a fantasy to some extent. It's not a genuine athletic contest and in most cases is nothing more than a showcase of entertainment for fans and league officials. That said, when the teams representing the National & American Leagues match up, there is something on the line. The team that represents the league that wins that season's all star game, will get home field advantage in the World Series. At least it's something for which to play. The final score matters to some extent. Baseball is also the only one of the four to include fan balloting. It's the fans who choose the eight "position players" to start the all star game. The managers of the teams who played in the preceding season's World Series select the pitchers.

But the fans get to vote as often as they like which I guess is OK but it seems somewhat of a popularity contest as much as a sober decision re. a player's skills. Here's what I'm proposing for professional all star games. Voting is done by three separate groups. One group are the fans (and OK, vote, and vote often). The second group, despite what's happened with the PHWA, are the accredited reporters. The third group are the players themselves who will vote by the position each plays. If a player receives the highest number of votes by all three groups or two of the three, he is the starting all star at that position. If three different players are at the top of the groups vote tally, the player who has been voted by the players themselves will be the starter at that position. The remainder of the team can come from fan voting.

Also, remove the caveat that all teams must be represented. No explanation required for that one and make the game mean something, anything! Put a wheelbarrow full of money on the side line which goes to the winning side if that's what it takes but try to win the game, not just make sure all players play, as is the case many times in the baseball all star game.

Now to curling and many of my regular readers (thank you for sticking with me) already know what I'm going to say here. There is nothing more inappropriate than all star selection that's based upon shooting statistics! Every shot is a team shot, every shot! To say that a lead shot 87% is just wrong. The team shot 87% on the first two shots of each end played. If the "team" with the best shooting percentage is honoured at the end of a competition, fine! I rather like that! Now, shooting statistics are  appropriate!

And, I'm not suggesting that all star awards be removed. But make them relevant. I'd be most happy if the players who play each position voted for the competitor they feel played exceptionally well in all phases of the skills required at that position. Now you have all stars that have really earned that designation.

Before my days end on planet Earth, I want to see our all star awards changed. I'm only one voice. If you also feel the way I do, please speak to your provincial/territorial representatives to the Canadian Curling Association Congress and AGM next June. If enough representatives at the annual CCA powwow put their hands up on this matter, it will happen. We can do this and it's the right thing to do!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Curl Coach" - An Exciting New Tool for Curling Coaches

My guest blogger today is Stephen Orr. Stephen introduces himself in his blog from a curling perspective so I'll not go on any further with that but I will say that Stephen is, in addition to a curling coach, a computer programmer who has created a wonderful "app" for one's iPad. It's called "Curl Coach". As Stephen indicates below, it started out as another stats gathering and disseminating tool but in conversations with Stephen, the final product will, if you're a curling coach, knock your socks off! "Curl Coach" is available from iTunes for the modest fee of $25. Next to "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion", it's the best money a curling coach can spend. With the additions that Stephen has planned and is in the process of coding (I have the privilege of knowing what's down the line and let me tell you, it's exciting), with your iPad under one arm with "Curl Coach" and APITG:ACC under the other, you're ready for any challenge that might come your way. 

I first connected with Bill when I came across his article on Curling stats on this blog. Given that I had recently published Curl Coach, which is, at its core, a curling stats app for iOS, I reached out to Bill asking to if he would be open to a chat about stats in curling. You see I have found that the best way to make an app like Curl Coach really good, is to get to get input from people who will actually use it, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Obviously Bill responded and we had several good discussions, and Bill thought it would be interesting to his readers to get some insight into how apps like Curl Coach come to be.

For me, I have two sons curling, one in Bantams and one in Little Rocks. As they grow older and move up, I wanted to be in a position to help them be their best. So I took the OCA level 1 competition course last fall and started on the path of coaching a young competitive team. Being partially retired (code for between jobs) I had some time on my hands and thought it would be interesting to develop a tool to help me with coaching. Now there are other applications out there for the iPhone and iPad, but I thought I could bring something fresh to the table because I saw those other applications as more about the stats than about coaching (my opinion only). While the stats are important, I wanted to create something that would help coaches coach. Stats are a part of that, but only if they can be leveraged to help with team and player development, learning strategy, and improving from game to game and season to season.

Okay, so that is the philosophy that drives Curl Coach development. I am going to spend a (very) little time on the technical aspects of developing, and then get back into how the app evolved and continues to improve. First, developing on apple platforms requires an architecture called Model-View-Controller or MVC for short. The M in the case of Curl Coach is the database of data that is required to managed players, venues, competitions and do all of the game charting. The V is the actual screens (and parts of screens) that you as a user interact with to enter information, do game playbacks, get reports, etc. Curl Coach has dozens of views that combine to provide the required functionality.

Some of these views are built in to iOS, buttons, date pickets, etc. whereas others are custom views (the sheet, the scoreboard, even the rocks) that have special properties and abilities built into them. Finally, the C part is used to collect up a set of views and to connect them to the Model.

When I develop as a one-man shop, it is very much about working on whatever interests me next. In the case of Curl Coach, the first piece was the sheet. A custom view that would draw the rings and all of the lines, and that could manage a set of sub-views that could draw the rocks. Once I had that, I added the ability to add a brush and move the rocks around, and from there the ability to extract all of those rock positions and movement and save them in the model. From there I built out the parts of the model to create players, pull them into teams, as well as creating venues and pulling all of that together into a competition, creating games, and starting to chart. I also developed some very simple reporting ability, more to verify that all of this data was actually getting saved properly and could be extracted later. Then I started using it to chart real games, and started running into real issues.

First came the realization that charting a game is HARD. It takes concentration and full time attention, and a charting app has to be simple and as easy to use as possible.

My first real issue came in the second end when I realized that the rings were the wrong way up, I spent much of that game holding my iPad upside down in order to be able to chart anything Another early problem came when the skip placed the brush (and I followed suit), and then promptly changed the brush once they got to the hack. I had no way to undo that brush. Many, many other issues came up, and each of them led to some kind of change or refinement to the application. Anything I could do to make charting easier, faster, more automatic, I did, that's how the application got automatic sheet rotation, turn, and difficulty. I also started talking to real coaches at my local club, and started refining the reports. One coach liked to look at shoot accuracy based on brush position, so that went in. 
Another asked for the objective stats (force efficiency, etc.) so that went in. Once I was ready I got reached out over Linked In and connected with a Colin Sinclair of high performance coach based in Toronto who agreed to Beta test the application with his Seneca college varsity team at the Ontario provincials, and provided a whole bunch more feedback.

That is pretty much how Curl Coach evolved, a lot of hours of development and testing, and a lot of looking for ways to make charting as easy as possible while also providing the tools that can help coaches communicate with their teams and help drive real improvement over time. Indeed Curl Coach continues to evolve. In discussions with both Bill and another high performance coach, there was an interested in what the team does after an opposition miss. The shots selected (and executed) are often critical to who will eventually win, so the next version of Curl Coach includes a report that pulls out opposition misses and lets you look at what the team did about it.

Similarly, Bill believes that all Elite teams have to spend a lot of time thinking about shot tolerance, so the next version of Curl Coach will add, what I believe is the easiest way to track tolerance as part of charting a shot, and with that will come a new set of curling statistics and analysis to help teams improve both shot selection and shot execution.

I intend to continue to evolve Curl Coach to enhance the number of tools and abilities it provides to help coaches develop their teams and players. I would like to thank Bill for giving me this opportunity to talk about my journey (so far) and hope curlers everywhere take advantage of the off-season to recharge and, come the fall, get back to the ice ready for some great curling. 

If you'd like to contact Stephen directly, his e-mail address is support@chatorr.ca and his web site is found at http://www.chatorr.ca/support/About_Curl_Coach.htmlA purchase of the current version of "Curl Coach" puts you in line for all future additions and upgrades at no charge (that's like "free")!