Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer Mailbag

The calendar indicates it's the last day of August, 2013 and that means the last long weekend of the summer. It's my history that's a sad time, not just because it heralds a return to the day-to-day routine of life (school, work etc.) but it's end of that glorious weather that for Canadians seems to come and go so quickly. Heh, I'm not complaining. I like the change of seasons and everything that means but summer, ah summer, those lazy, hazy, crazy days, they're something very special! As a, ahem, retired individual (what a joke, just look at my calendar, this autumn I've set a new record for travel around the country doing "curling stuff") I'm looking forward to the summer-like weather conditions of September. Then there's the glory of October and all that colour (OK Bill, get a grip, this is NOT an Environment Canada treatise on national weather & climate, get on with the mailbag)...

Although I don't instruct at summer curling camps much anymore, time for younger instructors to take the reins and they are outstanding, I do make my way up island to Elaine Dagg-Jackson's adult camp in Parksville, BC (yes, the curling facility IS on the beach) which in one form or another has been in continuous operation for the past, now get this, thirty-two years! Someone out there can correct me if I'm wrong but I believe that's the longest running curling camp in the entire world. Let's hear it for Elaine!!!!

This year when I did my off ice presentation, I asked anyone who wished to ask a curling related question to record it on paper with name and email address and I would respond to them all. Well, as opposed to many separate emails I decided to create a document with all the Q's along with my A's so all who posed questions could see my responses. If you'd like a copy of that document please send an email request ( and it will be sent electronically to you. But one question I felt was worthy of a mailbag response on my blog site so sit back and enjoy this query re. brushing. The question is multi-dimensional so I'll deal with each part separately.

Q. I was wondering if you know of any method to "objectively measure" how effective someone's brushing is for competitive purposes? For example, if there are two members of my team using the same brushing technique and I feel that one is significantly stronger than the other, how could I confirm that?

A. There have been attempts to develop and manufacture an "instrumented brush", filled with electronics to ascertain those aspects of brushing you mention in your question. Unfortunately the project, which was started twice in the curling world, did not produce such a brush but one country did have success with one but not to the degree its sport governing body wanted. I don't know if that country, it's not Canada by the way, has advanced the project or if it's been shelved for the now. But that doesn't really help you much with the point of your question.

If the techniques really are the same, it would be difficult to know but usually if one brush IS stronger, it will show in the technique. Watch the feet relative to the hips. Strong brushers have their feet outside the hip line, with their weight on the balls of their feet, hand low on the handle, head of the brusher directly over the head of the brush with their back parallel to the ice surface. Clearly the size and physical development of the individual will afford a clue to the stronger brusher as well.

Q. I've discussed this matter with a club mate who's a mechanical engineer and we thought of using a bathroom scale to measure downward force but we're not sure if that's an accurate measure since it's not on the ice with the brush actually moving?

A. Actually using a bathroom scale does have some merit especially when one is experimenting with the mechanics of brushing as described above. You will see changes on the readout on the bathroom scale as you assume the correct body position. As instructors we've used the bathroom scale method for several years and it's still a good way to provide feedback to the brusher, even though he's/she's not on the ice.

Q. We also thought about putting a "strain gauge" on the base of the brush handle which would measure how much the handle "flexed". That flexing should relate to the pressure on the head, but that might be inaccurate if various people hold their hands on different places on the handle.

A. Your concern about where hands are placed is spot on! Actually, if there's flex in the handle, it's an indication that the hands are not well placed on the handle. When someone's brushing, their lower arm is rigid, forming a straight line. If that line is extended (from shoulder to hand and across the handle to the ice surface) notice now far the contact point of that arm line extended is from the head of the brush. That distance should be as small as possible. Another clue to this is the angle that straight lower arm makes with the brush handle. That angle should also be very small. One wastes much downward pressure when the angle of pressure is across the handle of the brush. You should feel that the downward pressure is as much applied "directly" to the head of the brush!

Q. I'm also not sure that pressure alone is the key factor in brushing effectiveness. I suspect the speed of the brush stroke also plays a role. Is that correct?

A. Sure, you want as much downward pressure as possible married to the fastest brush stroke. Clearly, the two forces oppose one another somewhat. The more one presses down, causing as much friction with the ice surface as possible, the more difficult it will be to move the brush back-and-forth. From what I've learned, downward pressure is more important so keep that aspect as strong as possible even at the expense of a somewhat slower brush stroke rate.

Q. Could one use sensitive temperature measuring equipment to determine the effectiveness of brushing?

A. The simple answer is not only yes, but devices to measure ice temperature are currently used in some brushing studies. When one considers brushing effectiveness at all, we do think of raising the ice temperature to create a micro-film of moisture that allows the stone to retain as much of its velocity as possible for as long as possible. The temperature measuring devices about which I'm aware, do indicate such a rise in ice surface temperature. What's perhaps even more interesting, is the length of time it takes for the ice to return to its normal temperature. It's longer than expected which flies in the face of those who feel the two brushers must be as close to the stone as possible. But there's another aspect of brushing we can't ignore and that's the physical change to the pebble. A brush, especially a good quality synthetic brush, in the hands of technically sound and fit brushers the pebble can actually be altered. Just ask an ice technician about that when he/she inspects the ice surface following a game involving brushers with the qualities described above. That ice technician will tell you that it appears as though a war has taken place on the ice. The pebble has literally been ripped to shreds!

Let me make a general statement about what I refer to as the "sport science" of curling. Thankfully we now have more sports science available to us in curling than ever before by a considerable margin! When I instruct, and I'm aware of the sport science relating to the topic at hand, that's the way I present what I know. It goes like this; "The sport science tells us ...!". I then leave it to the individual to take that science and apply it as they see fit with me as their guide, offering "suggestions". It's a great way to instruct as it's not you the instructor telling the athlete what to do and how to do it. It's why coaching/instructing certification is so important.

To be certified means you've been exposed to at least some of the sport science of our sport. With all due respect to elite players who conclude their playing career and decide to step into the instructing/coaching role I say this, "While you were playing bonspiel after bonspiel, I & my colleagues was/were attending conferences, seminars, camps, symposia listening and learning from experts in their field of the science of curling. No disrespect to you but you need to "pay the piper" and start down that road so you bring to your athletes not only all that you've gathered as an elite athlete but the knowledge and might I also add the pedagogy to be the best instructor/coach you can be for them!

Sorry if there's an elite athlete reading this whose nose is now somewhere removed from it's normal position. This is no longer about you, it's about your athletes! Every athlete deserves a certified coach!

When I publish this post to my blog site, I'm going down to the lake and if there's enough wind, I'm going sailing aboard "Hurry Hard"! It's still summer!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Who's Responsible Here?

WARNING: What you are about to read will be a rant and if you're not into baseball, especially of the Major League Baseball (MLB) variety, perhaps just wait for my next post when I'm a little more calm.

Oh, so you've decided to indulge my rant, good! Q. Is it just me? Have Major League Baseball players become less intelligent or are the apparent mental mistakes I'm seeing, across the board (although the Toronto Blue Jays appear to be the poster boys) just me getting older and more crotchety (easy there)? What's going on here? The mistakes that I see, and I'll cite examples shortly, are mistakes that were corrected in my baseball career at the Pee Wee level.

We knew that when you're "on base" and a line drive is hit, it's all but impossible to know the exact direction so don't put your head down and charge to the next base. Wait until the line drive gets through the infield so it's not caught by an infielder who throws to the base you've just left, completing a double play.

We knew that when running from first-to-second on a ball that's been hit to right field for a hit, since the ball is effectively behind you, as you approach and begin to think about rounding second base, you look to your third base coach to know if you should proceed or remain at second base. You don't look over your shoulder which slows you down!

We knew that when you attempt an outfield assist to home plate at normal outfield depth, you throw the ball to home plate on one bounce at the cut off man so that he can determine, with the help of the catcher, to cut it off and possibly get a put out by catching the batter who is now the runner, off 1st base or attempting to run to 2nd base, not in the air. Throwing that distance in the air forces you to throw the ball high which means it takes too long to arrive at its destination and the runner, seeing the high throw will move uncontested to 2nd base and in scoring position.

We knew that when running to first base, watch the first baseman. If the throw pulls him off the bag, up the line, that's when you do something you'd normally not do. You "slide" into 1st base so he can't tag you as you run past him.

We knew that as the "on deck" batter, you had two responsibilities when there was a potential play right in front of you at home plate. First, get the bat out of the way to avoid injury and indicate to your teammate attempting to score whether he needs to slide (and the direction of the slide) or remain upright.

I was a pitcher. I knew that when the ball is popped up into the center of the infield, my job was to get out of the way so an infielder can catch the ball, not stumble around the pitcher's mound, effectively getting in the way.

We learned these fundamentals as ten year olds! Everything I've just mentioned, I've seen adult, professional players do incorrectly on a regular basis, all the while making, I was going to saying "earning" but that would not be accurate, millions of dollars.

I wish I had the proverbial nickel for every professional baseball player who missed a sign this season!

Who's responsible for this epidemic of mental errors? Was my father correct when he exclaimed that "Modern athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and dumber".? I don't believe so but something's wrong. Are the coaches whose responsibility it is to prepare these athletes for professional sports failing? I don't know but clearly someone must be held accountable. It's downright embarrassing to watch a professional baseball game! The fans who are paying mightily through a body part originally designed for breathing are the victims (sorry to sound so dramatic, after all, it's a game we're talking about here isn't it).

Umpires are complicit as well. Along with the flood waters of mental mistakes by players are a proportional number of mistakes by the arbiters of the game as replays demonstrate time-after-time. Did you know that baseball does not train its own on-field officials (little wonder it's a mess)? If they did, they might suggest to the umpire patrolling 2nd base to position himself on the outside of the base path like his compatriots at 1st, 3rd and home plate. Planting oneself on the inside of the baseline puts you into a position where on many plays, you're blocked from seeing whether the tag was actually applied to the runner. Inside the baseline, you have to first, make sure you're not in the line of fire from catcher to the player (shortstop or 2nd baseman) covering the base on a steal attempt, by far the most common call at 2nd base. Then after spinning your head like a scene from the Exorcist, you must decide "out" or "safe". Had that same official been outside the baseline, the entire play would come to him (with everything in front) and he could easily see, since base runner always target the outside corner of the base to which they are sliding, whether the tag was applied and if it was, if it was before or after the base runner came into contact with the base. Even if the outfield were to make a play at 2nd base, the umpire would have plenty of time to move so that he could see the play at the base. Oh, I know why baseball would never consider that. Heh, we've always done it that way! Yikes!

Major League Baseball has just handed down sizable suspensions to a number of players who have been using PED's (see my last blog on this subject).* That's a very modern approach to a problem that if not checked, will, in my view, open a Pandora's Box down the road. But this same up-to-date initiative is taken by a game that's currently flush with money all the while sticking its head in the sand when it comes to the positive innovations in our society (can you say "instant replay"?). Baseball does not care if it "gets it right"! If it did, instant reply would be used in every park. As it is, only home runs can be verified by checking the video.

While I'm ranting, why is it that a player can "make a catch" and fall into the seating area whereby the umpire has to guess if he actually caught the ball. Wouldn't it be much better if you had to return to Mother Earth "in" the field of play?

And here's another situation about which I've scratched my head for most of my years. Someone help me here! When a pitcher, usually on an errant 12-6 curve ball, flings the ball into the dirt (it's not actually everyday dirt by the way) to be fielded on one bounce by the catcher, that ball is presented to the home plate umpire who usually removes it from play because it's now "scuffed" (which means its aerodynamics would now favour the pitcher). Can't have that can we! But a batted ball, which is sent careening into that same turf on more than one bounce is thrown to first base, in an attempt to make the batsman, now a base runner, out. That ball, which might be out of "round" as bat met ball with each object moving against one another at very high velocities and clearly scuffed, is returned to the pitcher to be used with the next batter. What's with that?

But all that said, where will you find me on summer evenings, you bet, watching the great North American past time, shaking my head and uttering in as sarcastic a way that I can muster, "PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL"!!!! Except for that immense talent difference, my pee wee team could have bested any major league team, at least in the mental mistakes department!

Before I leave you for today, note to general managers of professional teams and the team coach. The next time (GM) you seek to improve the team, perhaps instead of seeing each potential member of the team as an individual with the "numbers" he/she brings to the table, you might want to consider if this player, and all the players you have under contract can "play together". If that's the case, sign him/her. If not, as the late Herb Brooks famously said, you should stop looking for the best players and start seeking out the right players. And heh coach, I know you can't get on the ice, court, field etc. and make the plays but you are responsible for the "culture" that exists on your team. Make sure it's the culture that brings out the best, not only in each player but in the team. I don't care how good the players on your team are or how good you or they think they are, they must become greater than the sum of their parts. Over to you coach!

* The MLB player receiving by far, the longest suspension is Alex Rodriquez of the New York Yankees. On the day of the announcement of his suspension, he filed an appeal which means he can play, if his team wishes, until the results of the appeal are made known. His team, those same Bronx Bombers, had a chance to support MLB's stance on PED's and not actually put A-Rod into the line up. But play him they did, at 3rd base and in the "clean-up" spot in the batting order. You see, the Yankees this season are getting very little offence from whomever plays 3rd base, or anyone who bats from the right side of the plate for that matter so the wins v losses took precedent and even though the Yankee organization came out with great disdain for the way A-Rod handled his rehab. assignment, the bottom line is not the integrity of the game, or the role model it sets for young people, it's win-at-all-costs. Would any other team in MLB do the same? I'm guessing they likely would. Welcome to the real world of professional sports!

Thursday, August 1, 2013


As I write this post, the sports world, especially the golfing world as abuzz with the final round exploits of one Phil Mickelson in the 2013 British Open played at famed Muirfield on the east coast of Scotland recently. His 66 took him from 5 shots down going into the final round to a three stroke victory and his first in this major golf tournament. Only the U. S. Open stands between Mickelson and the Grand Slam (winning all four major golf tournaments [the Masters and the P.G.A. being the other two]) although he holds the unique position of having been runner up in the U.S. Open on six occasions.

The word I heard most often regarding his exceptional last round score was "pressure". I found the use of that word at least, interesting, as I felt the "pressure" was not on Mickelson but rather the British golfer Lee Westwood, who many feel is one of the best golfers to have never won one of the majors. He went into the last round with a three shot lead. Now that's pressure in my mind, not coming from five shots back with nothing to lose (the money is of little consequence). The famous golfer of yesteryear, Lee Trevino, probably summed it up best re. pressure when he said, "Pressure is playing a $5 Nassau with only $2 in your pocket!".

What is pressure? According to my Merriam-Webster on line dictionary it's "the stress or urgency of matters demanding attention". In sports, the matter demanding attention is one's performance or winning (those who know me best also know I draw a distinction between performance and winning). The key word in the definition in my mind is "stress". According to Merriam-Webster stress is a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. The key word in that definition is "tension". I've listened to enough sports psychologists and champion calibre athletes to know that when one is tense, even though skills can never be left at home, a satisfying performance is all but impossible. The antithesis to stress & tension is "calm". Great performances come from athletes who achieve a sense of well being resulting in a calmness that allows skills to come to the surface.

In any competition the most dangerous team/player is the one that has low expectations and high trust. This is not a new concept on my blog site. I've discussed this before but I've never tied it to "pressure".  

One of the great enemies of performance is "expectations". Expectations are largely artificial, many times imposed by some third party. The best example of that in Canada is the mantra heard across this land every four years as the Winter Olympic Games loom on the horizon. From sea-to-sea-sea the words, "It's gold or nothing!"reverberate from hill and dale, from prairie to lake. Talk about expectation/pressure! Of course it's very well-intentioned and meant to be supportive of our ice hockey team but it's misplaced, understandable coming from fans but not helpful. Thankfully the players, coaches and administrators at Hockey Canada for the most part simply smile and say "thank you". Who needs that kind of pressure?!

But pressure can also be self-imposed. Trying to be "perfect" all the time is pressure to the nth degree, a subject about which I written in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" (p. 203, what you don't have your copy?).

Then you hear the phrase, "I/we play better under pressure!". No you don't! You play as well you need to play if that's the way you want to approach a contest. Recently the coach of a talented junior curling team mentioned that when the team returns to its Tuesday night league game from a weekend competitive spiel, the team finds it difficult to be motivated to put forth the best effort. That's not a good sign! It means the team has at least one eye on the outcome or the prize. The prize was bigger or more important for the weekend spiel so the effort matched its value.  

So we see then that pressure sometimes is tied to the reason for participation. The return on investment in that Tuesday league game simply did not make a full effort, well, worth the effort. My concern is that this team is slowly sliding into the abyss believing it can turn it "off" and "on" at will. My response was, "It's much easier to keep something going that it is to get it going!" I'm not the first to utter those words but whomever was, said a mouthful!

Now we're into the world of inspiration and motivation. Again, full credit to my daughter Susan, the professional speaker who set me straight on the difference between the two. Inspiration can come from a variety of sources, role models, family, friends, fans, coaches, sponsors etc. Motivation has but one source, the athlete! You may have the full toolbox of skills but if the motivation to use them effectively is missing, it's like the tools themselves are missing. You performance will likely be disappointing to say the least. 

Sometimes there's a very fine line between "inspiration" and "pressure". Your stakeholders might have wanted to inspire you to a great performance but the distillate was a perceived pressure to perform on your part. If you're trying to inspire someone, especially a teammate, make sure it's seen as inspiration and not pressure.

Dr. James Loehr, in his book, "The New Toughness Training for Sport" created a matrix he called "The Ideal Performance State". All athletes have been there but it's my experience few know how to create that state. Dr. Loehr's book is a must read!

A successful performance comes when the athlete is motivated to want to perform/win but without the fear of failure. Ah, there's the rub, the fear of failure. When Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees broke into major league baseball, in his first few years, his defensive prowess was suspect. Jeter's defense has been the subject of criticism from a number of sabermetricians, including Rob Neyer and the publication Baseball Prospectus. The 2006 book The Fielding Bible by John Dewan contains an essay by Bill James in which he concludes that Jeter "was probably the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position" over his entire career. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that, from 2002 through 2005, Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop in MLB. Two sites that rely on advanced defensive statistics, and, rated Jeter below middle-of-the-pack status in 2010, despite his receiving his fifth Gold Glove Award that season.

Jeter committed 18 errors in 2007, his highest total since finishing with 24 in 2000. After the season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his staff saw Jeter's defense as an area that needed to be addressed. To say that Jeter turned that ship around is an understatement. His errors dropped in dramatic fashion. Sure he had more experience but his skill set had not changed dramatically. What changed was the pressure he put on himself. You could also say, he had a different attitude. When asked about the sudden improvement, Jeter reply was concise, "I stopped being afraid to fail! (and I might add, caring about that "others" thought about him)". 
At this point you might have expected me to say that he also had more confidence. In my view, his level of "trust" had risen which is the true source of confidence in my view. 

And that leads me to my favourite question when I work with an athlete or team, "How much do you trust your skills?" Give me a less skilled and experienced athlete/team that trusts the skills he/she/it has over a highly skilled athlete/team that does not!!!

I remind athletes about to play an important game (and I'll use curling as my example) that the ice and stones do not know it's the final game. You will sink to the level of your preparation so prepare as well as you're able!

I'm in the early stages of getting Canada's national senior champions, men & women, prepared to head to Dumfries, Scotland next April to the 2014 World Senior Curling Championships. My main goal as coach is to help them come to the point that if they trust the skills they will have at that time, there will be no pressure as it will bring a calmness that is the hallmark of every great performance. Nervous, why feel nervous or pressured? I trust my skills and my preparation. I just can't wait to play!

* some material on Derek Jeter was excerpted from Wikipedia