Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014 World Series MVP

I'm publishing this blog during the morning of game #6 of the 2014 World Series. As my fingers dance (many would say plod) across my computer's keyboard, the Giants of San Francisco lead the best-of-seven series 3 games to 2 over the surprising Royals of Kansas City. I don't have a horse in the race but unless one has some lifelong affiliation with the Giants, it's difficult not to hope that perhaps the underdog Royals just might complete the ever so rare Cinderella season and win the championship of Major League Baseball.

Those Giants of that west coast cable car city are experienced, talented and well coached. In the experience category, they must might win their third World Series title in the last five years. If they do that they will have gone the distance in each of the last even numbered years (2010, '12 & '14). From a talent point of view, they undoubtedly have the best pitcher on the planet in Madison Bumgarner who in game #6 pitched a "complete game shut out" with the white, orange and black side securing a 5-0 victory. A complete game shut out in the World Series is, well, rare and if this goes to a game seven in the home yard of the Missouri 25, I'm sure we're going to see Mr. Bumgarner once again but this time on "short rest". As for coaching, the mild mannered Bruce Bochy is considered to be among the elite of the managers in MLB. To say the Royals, who as a franchise have not won the Commissioner's Trophy since 1985, had an uphill battle would be putting it mildly.

As with most major league sports, the playoff recognizes a player, not necessarily from the winning team, who sets a standard of performance superior to all the rest. My candidate for the 2014 World Series MVP is the Giant's Hunter Pence. You'll recognize Pence for a variety of reasons.

First, he wears his uniform in a way that I've never seen before. Unlike most baseball players whose pants now go to the shoe tops, Hunter has joined the small, but growing number of players who wear the pants in the throwback manner with the pants stopping below the knee where a long pair of socks start. Some even have the "stirrup socks" with the white "sanitary under socks" showing. But Hunter Pence has his pants stopping above the knee. I'm pretty sure he's the only one in MLB who wears his pants like that. He says it gives him more freedom of movement.

Hunter has a mop of curly, brown hair that makes his baseball cap fit rather awkwardly on his head and that cap is 6' 4" from terra firma. He's not short!

At bat, his swing is, well, to be polite, not classic. It's a rather stilted attempt to propel the baseball which is traveling in excess of 90 mph back toward the direction from whence it came and he does it rather regularly, not with much power but the baseball many times finds a hole in the infield for a base hit and frequently that base hit comes at just the right time, either moving runners along or scoring a much needed run.

That's when you'll notice another defining characteristic, his wide-eyed, genuine enthusiasm for this kid's game for which he and his MLB colleagues get paid exorbitant sums of money (baseball, unlike most professionals sports in North America, does not have a salary cap). But Pence gives the impression that although he's an independent business person, he'd play for nothing. His love for the game is clearly infectious. He's the "straw that stirs the drink" on the team. Every team needs a Hunter Pence!

When he fields a ball in his right field position, his throw back to the infield is the first indication, along with that aforementioned stilted swing of the bat, that all is not as it should be physically as no elite athlete in this sport would throw a baseball like that. Hunter is a professional baseball player with a huge obstacle in his way. He suffers from an ailment know as "Scheuermann's Disease".

To state it simply, it's a condition of the spinal column whereby the vertebrae are misshapen and misaligned. There is no cure and no treatment about which I'm aware. It's not life threatening but it's certainly life altering. So, for someone aspiring to play professional baseball, well, to say it takes a dedicated individual would be perhaps the grossest of understatements.

In the face of these odds, Hunter Pence has excelled on the field and in the club house. By his actions and sometimes his words, he makes the Giants team "greater than the sum of its parts". I doubt there's a player on the team who looks at Pence and decides to just "mail it in". Much of what this team does, and the Giant's, like the Royals, had to play their way into the MLB playoffs through a one game winner-take-all contest, it does on the wings of their right fielder!

So my winner of the 2014 World Series MVP Award is Hunter Pence!

For those young people who might be reading this for whom others have said you'll never reach your life goals because (insert physical condition here), remember the words of Henry Ford;


Monday, October 13, 2014

A Coach's Questions

It's time to open the 2014-15 mail bag with two questions that were sent to me by a coach who has become a good friend. He's a think-outside-the-box type coach who constantly looks for ways to empower the athletes with whom he/she works. Here were the questions that I felt deserved answers on my blog site.

My lead is right handed & left eye dominant. The rest of the team is right handed/right eye dominant. Should I have him: a) bring the rock in the hack to his left eye unlike all he has ever been told (this is certainly more natural but he would be off-line with the rest of the team ) OR b) have him line up the rock like the rest of his teammates by shifting his body in the hack/delivery OR c) some other trick of yours!

Let's deal with part c) first. I have no tricks for this one, in fact, thanks to an ophthalmologist who taught a group of us national coaches how to check for eye dominance and deal with the results, there is no trick. I have an article in my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") on the subject of eye dominance entitled "Eye Dominance: Fact or Fiction" (p.77) and there's a followup blog on this site as well ('The "Eyes" Have It' [Feb. 16, 2014]). So as not to re-invent the wheel on the subject, if this is your first exposure to "eye dominance" I strongly suggest that you read one or both of the articles before proceeding. 

The key word in the coach's question is "natural"! If I've learned anything in my years working with athletes in many sports it's this. The body is an amazing machine and as such, performs many motor skills in such a way as to employ systems in the body which already know how to work together. As an instructor/coach, don't mess with what the body does "naturally" and nothing is more natural than the way a curler positions his/her body relative to the stone in executing a curling shot. 

With your lead, the right/left player, when you view his delivery from the front, you should not see his sliding foot behind the stone. His body will want to do that, ahem, naturally because it knows which eye is dominant and with his right hand on the stone, his body position in the slide portion of the delivery will position him so his dominant eye will see the target appropriately. Your other three players, the right/right individuals, will slide so that when viewed from the front, you will see a portion of their sliding foot to the side of the stone. Don't be mislead by my use of the word "side". It's still behind the stone when viewed from the side but beside the stone when viewed from the front. All players need to slide with the body/stone relationship as described above. But, your question was a "team" question so here's my answer to your question. When all the players, regardless of hand/eye dominance reach their respective release points, they will be remarkably close to the same spot so not to worry. Just respect the body's ability to position the players' bodies relative to the stone in the slide, appropriately. 

But before I leave the topic of eye dominance, allow me a closing comment from my own experiences with curlers. This past Saturday I had the pleasure of working with one of the most skilled women curlers here in British Columbia. She had some technical concerns and the first thing I did was check her hand/eye dominance because her primary concern was knowing if she was off line. There have been times when she thought she was on line but wasn't and off line when she was. That's troubling to a curler as you should be the first one to know if you're wide or narrow. I suspected a misalignment of her body relative to the stone. I always do an eye dominance check (it's explained in the APITG:ACC article) so what I see when the athlete delivers stones, confirms that the athlete's body is responding to its natural instincts. If I see an opposite side dominant curler with his/her sliding foot to the side, something's wrong. Conversely, if I were to see a same side dominant curler with the sliding foot behind the stone, then again, something's wrong. Invariably some well-intentioned instructor/coach, not knowing or understanding eye dominance and its role with curlers, has mispositioned the athlete. No athlete will misposition* him/herself unless directed to do so.

In this athlete's case, my suspicions were confirmed. She was opposite side dominant but her body position relative to the stone was if she was same side dominant. My "suggestion" was that she "follow the stone", thus putting her sliding foot and dominant eye into a more "natural" (there's that word again) position.

Let's have a look at the coach's second question.

We have lost some games in the past where opponents' rocks are curling despite weak/lazy handles and ours are not with 3-4 rotations. Should we be practising delivering stones with less rotation (1 to 1 1/2) or would this just create more problems?

Yes, it would create more problems, especially since I know your athletes are junior aged athletes. Please allow me to explain and to do that I will once again refer to an article in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" entitled "The Technical Double Cross" (p.53)! It's all about the importance of rotation, the one aspect of delivering a curling stone that doesn't receive nearly as much attention that it should.

Without going into a lot of detail, know this. When a curling stone is manufactured, the "running surface" that ring of granite that actually touches the ice, is milled at 4-5 mm. in width.The manufacturers have asked me to tell you, the curler, that if you don't rotate the stone, from release to stop, 2 1/2 - 3 times, you're asking their product to do something for which it was not designed. That doesn't mean you can't make a curling shot with more or less rotation but if that's the way you play game in and game out, you're tickling the dragon's tail in my opinion. I call it the "screw driver syndrome"! You can open a can of paint with a screw driver but that's not what it was designed to do. In similar fashion, as stated above, you can make a curling shot with more or less than the 2 1/2 - 3 rotations but you won't do that consistently.

If a stone is rotated in the 1 1/2  or less range, it has entered the unpredictable category. It may do exactly what you want it to do, but it may not and when it doesn't, you might blame line or weight (which might have been fine) so you make adjustments to line and/or weight. What you've now might have done is created line and/or weight issues and you still have the rotation issue, the "technical double cross"!

If on the other hand, the stone is rotated so that the handle is a blur, we all know that the stone will track somewhat straighter. There are times when a skilled and experienced curler will deliver a "spinner" in a unique circumstance but that's something to put into your arsenal of weapons just in case it's required. And, spinners take practice, a lot of practice!

So, to that coach who asked the question, stick with that positive 2 1/2 - 3 rotations. It will serve you and your athletes well over a lifetime of games!

* Once again, I believe I have coined a new word, misposition, but I like it!

Copies of APTIG:ACC may be obtained by going to the Balance Plus web site's E-Pro Shop (under accessories). All proceeds go to "The Sandra Schmirler Foundation"!

Author's Note: Going into the final game of the "2014 Curlers' Corner Autumn Gold Classic" in Calgary, there were 32 ends blanked in the four ends of all games played. In only 9 cases did the team that blanked the end, the next time they scored, score 2 or more points. Once again, if you blank the end for the sole purpose of scoring a multiple end, you only have a 25% chance of success (28% in the case of the 2014 event). Hmmmm?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Embrace v. Negate

It certainly didn't take long for curlers to "get it on"! My inbox has received a few queries about strategy, something with which I always assumed was a topic about which I'd write once curlers' "sea legs" were re-engaged but clearly there are inquisitive minds out there so allow me to jump right in.

This is not the first time I've dealt with the "last rock dilemma" and, I suspect, it won't be the last! Who would have guessed that playing with last rock and having a lead would be problematic? Experience has shown that it is and there's a very good reason. You can thank those who devised the "four rock free guard zone rule", for this.

And that's where we'll begin, understanding that the rule is firmly ensconced in the rule book to assist teams that don't have last rock advantage AND might be in a deficit position on the scoreboard. If you're on the other side of that equation (have have last rock and perhaps the lead), you must make a critical strategic decision. You must commit to either "embracing" the rule or attempting to "negate" the rule! I'll weigh in later with my personal feelings on this but it's a decision that has to be made. It's really not practical to sit on the fence with this. Let's walk through the start of an end whereby you have last rock and the lead and your opponent is attempting to climb back into the game.

In all likelihood, the opposition will place a relatively tight centre line (CL) guard and here's where the decision must be made. If you decide to go around the guard, make no mistake, you're embracing the rule because your opponent placed that rock there hoping you'll go around. Your opponent needs something you've just provided with your decision to go around. That something is "protection"! The CL guard protects the centre of the ice (i.e. 4' stripe) and you, by that come around, will provide a different form of protection (i.e. backing) because after you've come around, they'll certainly freeze to your rock. Game on!!!

But, if you want to negate the advantage the rule affords to your opponent, you don't have to play ball with them. So how might you do that?

You do that by remembering that with last rock advantage, you should be wanting to play to the sides of the sheet. You will want to do that to open up the scoring area. Your opponent, knowing that, played the tight CL guard to promote the opposite scenario. Your opponent wants to shrink the scoring area. With that in mind, you can choose to ignore the CL guard for the moment and simply draw to the side of the house but please make sure your lead's first shot comes to rest "behind the tee line" so that a hit-&-roll by your opponent does not result in a roll into the 4'! By drawing to either of the back quadrants of the house, you've forced your opponent into a critical decision. If they ignore your rock in the house, it just may be the start of a multiple score for you. How good is that!!! Drawing to either of the back quadrants of the house can be a really "annoying" shot to play. Curling is the one game where being "annoying" is a good thing!

The other tactic is to play a shot with tee line weight as though you're going to come around the CL guard, but your skip doesn't give you quite enough ice and you wreck on the side of the guard, sending it to a corner guard position or into the house and your shooter rolling the other way, hopefully to come to rest as a corner guard. The shot really is just that simple! I can make a case that if you play the so-called "bump tick", you've achieved three very positive goals. First, your opponent no longer controls that critical area in front of the house on the CL known commonly as the "control zone". Second, if you've raised that opponent's CL guard into the house, you may choose to remove it on the next shot. Third, you have a corner guard which allows to you play a come around draw, tah dah, to the side of the sheet.

When the four rock rule was first instituted, I could not fathom why teams didn't employ the "bump tick" tactic. It's not a difficult shot in my view, never has been! Of course it took Team Homan to make it popular and we've all seen the success that team has enjoyed.

Yet another way to negate the rule is to simply ask your head to play a straight forward corner guard.

In all cases, when you ignore the opponent's CL guard by not drawing around it, if your opponent does play a come around, it's without backing. By taking a little less ice and a little more weight on the following shot, you stand a good chance of moving that opponent rock to the side of the house, or right out-of-play, all the while having your shooter roll to the side of the house, hopefully to now join the rock you played to the back quadrant of the house to now lie "two". Wow, doesn't that put pressure on your opponent! If they play around that CL guard yet again, you're out of the free guard zone restriction and can run their CL guard back, attempting a raise take-out or you can play the "peel" or, well, whatever your heart desires.

I encourage all teams to give all these tactics an airing early in the season, Find out what works best for you. When the games begin to have a little more significance, you'll know which tactic will afford your team the best chance of success.

I said at the outset that I'd weigh in with a personal view. I think you can read between the lines to realize that I like the "bump tick" tactic. It's an easy shot for your lead to practise. I took a team to a Brier that had a lead with two year's experience. When this team qualified for the Canadian Men's Curling Championship. I asked him to practise this one shot. Which he did. Our last game was against not just one of the top teams in the event, but one of the best teams in the curling world. We were never in any danger of winning the game but this world class team didn't put up one CL guard when we had last rock. When asked why after the game, the skip said, "Why would we do that? You were just going to tap it out of position, into the house at the side!" Obviously that team had watched us play and knew our lead, that third year curler, was shooting about 85% on the "bump tick". So for anyone reading this who still thinks it's a difficult shot, well, I beg to differ and I think I have the proof!

I'm a huge believer in not being predictable in the way your team plays the game. Imagine the consternation on the part of your opponent when they're not sure what you're going to do when it places that CL guard. Keep 'em guessing!

Before I leave you today, a number of teams have contacted me regarding last season's inaugural "Virtual Coach" project. Yes, I'm going to do it again! If your team would like to participate, send me a summary of your team's composition, hopes & aspirations for the season, current location in the curling world (last season the men's team resided in Europe and the women't team in Ontario). In short, send me anything you feel will enhance your team's chances of being "my team" albeit from long distance. Let's make the end of this month of October the deadline for applications. My email address for this will be canadiancoach@mail.com.