Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Had it! Lost It! How Do I Get It Back?

In most, if not all sports, there's a "critical skill/element" that can't be bottled up, stored, and taken off the shelf when needed. We hear about a gifted pitcher who, for reasons unknown, even though he's applying the same mechanics as always, steps to the pitcher's mound and his pitches don't move the way they should. Great pitchers don't jump off tall buildings when it occurs. Or the elite basketball player whose free throw shooting percentage is in the high 80's or low 90's but on a given night, couldn't throw a table tennis ball into a trash barrel from 3' away.

Frustration soon sets in. "Why can't I do what I know I can do when I need to do it, because I usually can?" Well, one thing's for sure. You're human! How boring it would be to "make everything"! I can hear the laughter from wherever many of you are reading this ("Boring? I'll take that boring!"). Even though that's the knee jerk reaction, I'm suggesting you'd lose a good measure of interest in the sport if that were the case. Why? The challenge is gone! That's what keeps us coming back, the challenge.

I once played a round of golf with my good, long time friend Jim Waite. Jim's an excellent golfer! I started the round playing quite well, at least for me. Then the wheels feel off. Jim exclaimed, "Well, you had it for awhile Bill!" And he was right. I did have it for awhile but it was gone and I didn't know how to get it back.

In curling, the key skill for all curlers, regardless of position played is the feel for draw weight. When you've got it, you feel you really can make everything. When you lose it, yikes, your world comes crashing down around you. How do you get it back?

One's initial reaction to the loss is to concentrate hard on that which is missing. I believe that's the most difficult way to get it back. It can be done, but it's difficult. It's my experience that to recapture that feel for draw weight is better found in using other methods. One is technical in nature and one is based upon awareness. Let's deal with the technical method first and I've written about it on a few previous occasions, in my coaching manual ("A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion") and on this blog site but here goes again.

There are five components to the current, popular delivery (aka no back swing). In order they are; hack position, park, bottom out, slide & release.

I'm not going to make this blog a "curling 101" treatise so I'm going to assume my audience today is comprised of experienced curlers employing this type of delivery but I will explain that "park" means the position of the hips just prior to forward movement and "bottom out" refers to the instant one's hack foot leaves the hack to begin the "slide" phase. Weight control is literally the amount of "time" one consumes from "park-to-bottom out". The less time consumed, the faster one will slide. The more time consumed, the slower one will slide. This is not rocket science! This whole concept is akin to what most curlers will say is "leg drive" but this way of perceiving & expressing it I feel is more descriptive and therefore more useful. So, how does this whole "time from park-to-bottom out" work in a game setting when you've lost that elusive "feel"?

If you have a case of the "heavies", you're adding to much weight to the stone because you are taking too little time from park-to-bottom out and when you enter the slide phase of the delivery, you're sliding too fast, therefore the stone is moving too quickly resulting in a shot that travels too far. If, on the other hand, you're experiencing a case of the "lights", exactly the opposite is true. You are taking too much time from park-to-bottom out. When you enter the slide phase of the delivery, you're sliding too slowly. But, good news on this front! If you read my recent blog entitled, "Don't Even Try To Hit It Straight", you'll know that this is the preferred side of the weight control issue since with an arm extension (added to the power of your teammates with brushes in hand) you can still apply the correct velocity to the stone and make the shot. In the case of sliding too fast, because you've taken too little time from park-to-bottom out, yikes, drop the anchor, not a suggested method for weight control!

When the time taken from park-to-bottom out has been restored, take careful note of what that slide is like and well, feel is now where it belongs, in your back pocket!

But, there is a second method to restore feel. It's awareness! Awareness of what? Actually, it's awareness of many things. As one slides to the release point, without realizing it, there are many cues available to us to indicate the velocity of our slide.

One is "sound". When you're sliding, the delivery device, most likely a brush head turned upside down, will vibrate across the pebbled surface of the ice and create a sound. Slide more slowly or more quickly and the pitch of the sound will change, not much, but the change doesn't have to be dramatic for you to sense it.

Your slider will make a sound, much like your sliding device, but your slider will also send a sensation to the sole of your foot as it vibrates over the pebble. A change is sliding speed will be mimicked by a change in that vibration sensation to your foot.

Even the stone will sound and feel different as it slides more quickly or more slowly across the pebbled ice surface.

And here's the one that we seldom recognize. When you slide through that ocean of cold air, a subtle wind chill is applied to the nerve endings in your cheeks, no not those cheeks, the ones on your face silly! Slide more quickly or more slowly and that wind chill changes, enough to be sensed.

If you have a consistent release point, when you get to it too soon, guess what, you're sliding too fast and conversely if you get to it too late, you're sliding too slowly. This sensation of time consumed to release point is sharpened for those curlers who employ the split/interval timing system.

What does this have to do with the recapturing of feel? You have either shut down or suspended these cues, not intentionally of course. But the key point is to return to a more heightened awareness of them. They in turn will help you recapture "feel".

It's really difficult to "teach" weight control. I've found it most useful to make the athlete aware of the variety of ways it can be attained, which is what this blog is all about. When the athlete has that buffet of information, he/she will select the elements from the buffet table that work for him/her.

Your task as coach/instructor is to set the table and be available to assist when the athlete has made his/her selection. You've done your job. You have empowered the athlete!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Don't Even Try To Hit It Straight

I don't feel you have to be a golfer to appreciate how incredibly talented the professionals (and some amateurs) you see play on TV are. And, should you ever have the inclination or invitation to actually attend a professional tournament, don't even hesitate. Go! It's the best live spectator sport, especially if you attend one of the practice rounds as the players generally don't mind a quick chat as they walk from green to next tee and the taking of photographs is allowed. During the tournament, you can select a spot and watch the groups pass by or you can follow a group or, well, I think you get the picture. It's the just the best!

And, to see them strike the ball, well, it will take your breath away at the distance and accuracy. But, if you're not a golfer, and even if you are, you will be surprised at one aspect of that striking of the ball. Those supremely talented athletes don't even try to hit the ball straight. Wow! Really? They don't try to hit straight? No they don't!

You see, hitting a golf ball is not exactly the easiest motor skill known to mankind even though the ball is stationary and you have all the time required to set up and swing. There are so many variables at play in the striking of a golf ball that it's a game that one can learn relatively quickly and spend a lifetime attempting to master, even within one's physical limitations. One of the biggest problems facing the recreational golfer is this whole business of trying to hit the ball straight. Assuming one is a right-handed golfer, usually as the ball leaves the club head, it will begin to travel a curved path either from right-to-left (hook) or left-to-right (slice). Unless things have changed since I started to play, most beginning golfers slice the ball left-to-right and that is exasperating to say the least.

So, what does the slicer or hooker of the ball try to do? They try to hit it straight and therein lies the problem. The professionals don't. Why would you? Allow me to explain the basic physics involved.

To swing a golf club in such a way so that for the millisecond the face of the club is in contact with the ball, it's exactly perpendicular to the intended trajectory of the ball, straight in this case, is asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. It's very unlikely that's going to happen and, when one tries to hit the ball straight, they're a fraction from either slicing or hooking the ball. Usually, and the recreational golfer knows not when, the right-to-left or left-to-right trajectories rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times (left-to-right when right-to-left would have been OK and right-to-left when left-to-right would have sufficed). Grrrrr!!!!!

What does the low handicap (golf parlance for "really good golfer") do? He/she "shapes" the ball. He/she decides, given the natural tendencies of his/her swing, to hit it right-to-left or left-to-right but under control. The curved trajectory is not great. In fact, the recreational golfer's "slice", in the hands of a really good golfer is now called a "fade" and that duck "hook" becomes a "draw". And, through practice with an instructor, the elite golfers can "work the ball" either way. But, the point here is that for all intents and purposes, he/she does not try to hit it straight, for the reason stated above.

Think of it this way. You're on the tee for a par 4 or 5. You have that pesky driver in your hand. The fairway is, oh let's say, 40 yards wide and, of course, you're trying to hit the ball straight down the middle of the fairway. But, most of the time, in attempting that, you will either slice or hook the ball and let's say that's exactly what occurs. How much of the fairway do you have left if you're trying to hit it down the middle? Right, only half of it (i.e. 20 yards). Even if it lands on the fairway, it's headed for the rough, trees, or out-of bounds. Yuk! Sound familiar?

Now, let's return to the tee but with a difference. You don't try to hit the ball straight down the middle. You have developed a right-to-left trajectory (a draw for that right handed golfer) so you set up somewhat toward the right portion of the fairway. You can do that because you know for sure, you're not going to hit the ball left-to-right (slice). You might hit it fairly straight but you're anticipating that nice draw (right-to-left). How much of the fairway do you have to land the ball? Right, more than 20 yards, much more, likely most of the width of the fairway. Now do you see that you shouldn't try to hit the ball straight?

And, the same is true for curling (you knew I get a round to the curling tie-in at some point) but it's not about trajectory, it's about "weight control", the most important skill of the game!

Did you watch the recent "Continental Cup"? Did you notice the shooting percentages of players who participated in the "mixed doubles"? Athletes who were accustomed to shooting in the high 80's and low 90's were shooting in the high 50's and low 60's. What's with that? I hope the answer was obvious. Those wonderful curlers didn't have their support system in place (i.e. their brushing teammates). They had to try to deliver the down weight shots with exactly the right weight. And the result frequently was a stone that was either light or heavy. In golfing terms, they were trying to hit the ball straight.

What they do most all the time, for a down weight shot (i.e. any shot that's intended to remain in play [draws & guards]) is slide from the hack somewhat more slowly than required and if they have the weight of their body evenly distributed on their slider, thus reducing the rate of deceleration, they will monitor the velocity of the slide and with a "soft elbow" (i.e. slightly bent) extend the delivery arm to add the weight required so that the brushers can take it the rest of the way to its intended destination.

But that's generally not what recreational (& some more competitive) curlers even attempt to do. They try as hard as they can to slide from the hack at exactly the right velocity. When you do that you're asking the largest muscle group in the body, the quadriceps (in the thigh) to execute a fine motor skill and it's the muscle group least prepared, physiologically, to do that. I was party to a study, when I was the National Development Coach, that proved this fact. The curler that was used for the study, at the time, had two world championships to his credit. This elite athlete could not drive from the hack at a consistent velocity. But, in competition, this athlete had superb weight control.

In other words, the sport science simply doesn't support the notion that even an experienced and talented curler can slide from the hack at exactly the right speed. So, "don't even try to hit it straight"!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Code Red Or Code Blue?

In a recent blog I identified what in my experience is the most poorly played shot across the curling spectrum, the guard. Well, this shot is in second spot on that list in my opinion. It's the time-hounoured "come around" shot!

In a free guard zone era, this is the shot that's played often, very often and to play this shot well is usually critical to the outcome of the game. We've heard all the cliches regarding a less than stellar execution of the come around with, "We're just on the wrong side of the inch/millimetre" the likely leader in the excuse category! Translation, "Doesn't matter where we place the target brush, and even if we hit that brush with the right weight, we're going to 'tick' the guard!" Here's my take on why this shot is a close second to the guard on the list of most poorly played shots and like playing a guard, it's the way the shot is attempted that's the problem.

We all can identify with a scenario in which, after a tough loss, we lament about "ticking" so many guards and almost for sure, someone on the team will utter the phrase, "Yah, and in the 6th end all we had to do was get past the guard, why did we play it so close?". Right, why did you? It was more a mental error than an execution error and there's a simple way to make sure you don't commit those "unforced errors" that so often sink the ship.

When contemplating a come around, ask yourself whether you really need to "bury" the stone about to be played or is it more than good enough to just make sure you get "past the guard". When you make that determination, you need to convey that message to the team. You need to let the team know if this is a code red come around (i.e. we have to come close the guard as we need to bury the shooter) or a code blue (i.e. let's not tick the guard which right now is in a favourable position, let's just get past it, then worry about the curl to get around it).

You can create your own system of communication but if I may, when I skipped, a code red come around was indicated by tapping the final destination location with my brush and then with a clinched fist in front of my chest, indicating that I was giving just enough ice to miss the guard. If it was a code blue then no clinched fist which indicated that I was giving a liberal amount of ice so the shooter ended up going past the guard.

Make no mistake, in both cases we're attempting to, well, come around the guard, thus the name. The difference is "execution tolerance". For a code red, we've decided that the risk of ticking the guard is worth it but in a code blue situation, it isn't.

It's really important to ensure that the entire team is aware of the "code". If it's a code red, the shooter knows that you as the skip, have already accounted for the tight target and conversely, in a code blue, you've done the same. There's no need for the shooter to do likewise.

When I was the National Development Coach at the the National Training Centre in Calgary, I had one of my more interesting telephone calls. It was from one of the top coaches in our country who lamented that his team, one of the top female teams in Canada, was not executing come arounds "worth a darn" (his description was not for family consumption). He had tried everything to remedy the situation and asked for my advice. Yikes, what was a going to say? I said I needed to think on the matter and would get back to him. And that's what led to the whole "code red/blue" idea. The skip wasn't letting the team know "what was acceptable". In other words, it was a matter of communication, not execution. It was the team that came up with "clinched fist for code red" idea. They began to execute the shot much better and I had an idea I could use for my own team.

So, the next time you take to the ice, make sure your team has some method to tell the difference between a come around that's intended to bury the shooter from one for which the shooter needs to get past the guard.

If I may, before I leave you today, I want to resurrect an idea that Linda Moore (we miss you on the TSN broadcasts and wish you good health) put forward. She called it "maximizing every shot". So often when we play guards and come arounds, with a little foresight, we can not only get around a guard or when placing a guard, we can also choke off a potential raise your opponent might attempt. Bottom line, when calling a shot (strategy) then deciding how to play the shot (tactic) get the most out of it. And thank Linda!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Mine Field of Play Downs

The curling world is abuzz this week (especially that part of the curling world known as "the centre of the universe" [aka southern Ontario]) with the demise of one of the elite men's curling teams in the nation at the regional level in its quest to compete for yet another provincial title. It isn't the end of the road in this populous province as those who  qualify for regional play, regardless of the outcome, get a spot in what's known as "The Challenge Round", a last chance attempt to qualify for provincial honours.

The dilemma for this team is one of timing. It has a spot in "The TSN Skins Game" which just happens to coincide with the aforementioned last chance event. What to do? What to do?

I'm here to report that as of this scribbling, the team has decided to fore go fame and fortune (well, at least some potential fortune) and continue on the road to the "Tim Nortons Brier" in Calgary but even though I admire that decision, this is not an editorial on the decision, it's to deal with how an elite curling team with talent coming out of its ears and experience beyond measure, got it into regional play down and lost twice!

For want of a better term, I'm going to refer to this elite team as a "Grand Slam Team" as that's the competitive environment in which it plays. In other words, its opponents are primarily the relatively small group of elite teams in the curling world. They play for large dollars most all the time! They don't go to your local weekend or one day fun spiels. Not that they are nose-in-the-air arrogant about playing with us regular folk, in a manner of speaking, ironically enough, they can't afford the time as those big money events consume a lot of it and they have jobs & families too.

And therein lies one of this team's self inflicted wounds. For a variety of largely understandable reasons, all the teams they play, well, play the same way. And that my friends is why so often a team like this finds the sledding at play downs tougher than it might have expected. The teams it meets there, don't read that "Grand Slam" playbook and don't play the way this team's opponents do! Oh, yes, and by the way, teams that sign on for provincial/territorial play downs are pretty good curlers who for reasons known only to them don't play in the same events as those elite teams. The comfort level of play from a strategical and tactical perspective has been removed for the elite teams (see more about "strategy & tactics" below). On the other hand, those local play down teams watch carefully as the elite teams play in those televised events and as a result, the play down teams pretty much know exactly how the elite teams are going to play, something of an advantage I would suggest, in some cases, a significant advantage.

Then we come to what in my estimation is the second most important reason elite teams struggle in play downs. It's the ice!

Trust me on this, the ice technicians that make the ice for those large money events make ice that the play downs teams will seldom, if ever experience. I call it "pampered ice" and have referred to it many times in my scribblings. It's, well, different from curling club ice and playing on it is why those who aspire to playing in the Grand Slam type events regularly, don't play up to their talent level as they become accustomed to the nuances of such a sheet of curing ice. If play downs leading to provincial play were played on pampered ice, any of the advantages local play down teams might have would be so much pebble water. Now that many provinces and territories use arenas for their final play down stage, and in may cases employ those same ice technicians, any elite teams that do survive the mine field of play downs, do very well and return regularly to the Brier & Scotties.

I can hear the naysayers even before I hit "publish", "Well, if those elite teams are so good, why can't they make the adjustment to local ice conditions?". Good question and here's my answer. In many cases they can & do but in some instances, the differences between pampered and curling club ice are so different, it can play a significant role in levelling the playing field. If you are still skeptical on this ask any local play down bound team if they would choose to play an elite team on regular curling club/facility ice or in an arena on pampered ice and if you get a response that they'd rather play them on pampered ice, let me know so I can hurry to my local convenience store and buy a lottery ticket and then check for that second blue moon in the sky.

Local play down teams aren't stupid, they know that curling club ice is the great equalizer not just for the differences referred to above but for another reason. Many of the shots elite teams can play because of the pampered ice upon which they play, they simply can't play on curling club ice and the shots curling club ice does allow them to play, they must play them somewhat differently. In other words, it's the elite team that's taken out of its comfort zone. That team must make the changes. The local play down team does not and again, don't forget, as stated above, they are really good players in their own rite.

Then there's the attitude thing! What's that? What attitude thing? It's this! That local team is playing with "house money". It's the more dangerous team as its expectation of victory is very different from that of the elite team. All the pressure is on the elite team! How embarrassing it would be to lose to the local team! As the local team prepares to play that elite team, it bands together and in many cases plays a very simple style in a let's-stick-together-and-play-for-one-another environment. It realizes its  only chance is to trust the skills the team has, singular and plural. Trust, if you've read my blogs and my coaching manual (A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion) is a powerful weapon, very powerful!

Now, put all these factors together, mix them up and you get the situation the Canadian curling world is buzzing about! I was not surprised at the news about this elite team's struggles in play downs and feel somewhat for them as I consider them friends and know how hard they have worked to become one of curling's elite and much of that work is useless given those ice conditions.

Many provinces & territories have adopted a format whereby the defending champion moves directly to that province or territory's final stage. Make no mistake, when an elite team wins its provincial/territorial championship knowing it does not have to make its way down the play down trail the following year, it's a huge sigh of relief!

So what's the lesson for your team? I feel there's one for sure. Don't be predictable! It's somewhat of an occupational hazard for the elite teams but it doesn't have to be for you. There's a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is your plan, for a game, an end or a shot. But in many cases, there are a variety of ways you can execute that plan. That's tactics. Don't get stuck in a rut and employ the same tactic all the time. Use a variety! Make your opponent uncomfortable when it sees it plays your team next. Leave your opponent in a constant state of wonder (i.e. "I wonder how they're going to play this shot?")!

And to my friends is they enter that Challenge Round, good luck, you may need it!