Monday, December 21, 2015

Be the Most Dangerous Team

It's that time of year which all competitive teams seek. It's play down time! Depending upon your age, your competitive team may be near the start of its play down trail or at the doorstep of the provincial level (i.e. juniors).

All the effort, time and resources you've invested will come into stark evaluation. This is where the rubber meets the road (or as one of my coaching colleagues from SK states it, "It's where the toboggan meets the Tarmac." [although why anyone from SK would know anything about toboggans is beyond me]). :)

Depending upon your team's yearly training plan, the end of the play down road might be the end of the road for this season, at least for your team as presently constituted. I always feel badly for Canadian junior teams as this age category is the first to declare participants at every step of the way along that play down trail. If a junior team resides in a populous province like Ontario, it may have to play its way out of its home club before moving on to zone, regional, provincial and hopefully national competition. This year, in Stratford, ON, in late January, one male & one female team will be crowned national champions. That leaves a lot of the curling season remaining for many, many teams. Some of the members of the team may be aging out leaving one or two teammates behind to look for new team members with whom to train in preparation for the following season. But, I'm a little ahead of myself. For the sake of this blog I'm going to assume you're reading this with your team firmly entrenched on that play down trail.

At whatever stage that journey you happen to be, you go into the competition wanting to know how you stack up against the opposition. That's only natural and for all the sport psych. talk about focusing on your team, your skill set, your preparation, your agenda, your supporters etc., it's really hard not to wonder about your place in the pecking order.

Well, advice #1 is this. The ice and the stones when you and your teammates step onto the playing surface and ultimately place your hands on the handles of the stones, have no idea who you are, what you've done in the past, they have not read your press clippings (or more accurately for juniors, your social media entries), what your skill set is, who's coaching you etc.

Advice #2 - Your value as a teammate is going to be equal to if not more important to the success you (sing. & pl.) enjoy than your value as a curler.

Advice #3 - You can never leave your skills at home but the right attitude (and that's always a choice) can be AWOL.

Advice #4 - The only people that really matter when you step onto the ice are your teammates.

Advice #5 - If you want to focus on something at the event, do everything you're able to ensure that your teammates have a great competition.

Advice #6 - You will not be nervous if you're convinced you've done everything possible to prepare. Athletes get nervous when they know deep down they have not done everything possible to prepare.

Advice #7 - Look after your "real self" (your everyday personal life issues) and your "performer self" will look after itself.

Advice #8 - As a team, only discuss and deal with issues over which you have almost complete control (food, sleep, travel etc.) and don't even entertain a second of concern and talk about those aspects of the competition for which you have almost no control (officials, format, rules etc.)

Advice #9 - Know all the rules that govern your participation in the event!

Advice #10 - Be the most dangerous team at the event! The most dangerous team is not the team that enters the competition with a sterling won/lost record. The most dangerous team is not the team with the great pedigree (i.e. the most talented athletes). The most dangerous team by default is not the team coming from a large metropolitan area with lots of resources at hand. The most dangerous team is not the team with the largest entourage of stakeholders. The most dangerous team in the competition is the team with the highest degree of trust in its skill set (individual & team) and the lowest degree of expectation. Don't misunderstand that previous sentence. It does not refer to confidence and trust. It refers to focus. Focus on the processes than lead to performance, not the outcome!

As you can see, I saved the best piece of advice for last. Be that most dangerous team!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

But Can It Work For Anyone?

I've started this blog on a number of occasions as "brushing" continues to evolve as a dominant factor in the performance of a curling team. Each time I was prepared to hit "publish" something new seemed to pop up. This time I'm forging ahead, mostly because recreational curlers/teams have asked me to weigh in. But, as Julie Andrews proclaimed in her role of Maria in "The Sound of Music", let's start at the very beginning!

First let me take a walk down memory lane for just a moment. Most of my competitive playing days occurred in the "sweeping" era, not the "brushing" era. And, I wouldn't have scripted it any other way. Sure, the physical playing environment wasn't nearly as consistent. The rocks were homogenous (no blue hone inserts with the occasional "enhancement" of the running surface) and the ice, well, let's just say it was "eau municipale" (i.e. tap water) full of impurities which percolated to the surface.

Brooms were just that, corn straw implements that deteriorated rather quickly (I purchased them by the box of twelve from the factory in Port Elgin, ON). Later the straw brooms gave way to a synthetic version which created a sound that would cause eardrums to rise in protest. On takeouts, my front end partner (Bob Serviss) and I could literally make the ice vibrate as our brooms struck the ice surface in near perfect synchronization.

Although to the neophyte and spectator, the thunder of a pair of brooms seemed to be the result of a tremendous application of force & power, interestingly enough, almost the exact opposite was true. Once you mastered the basic technique, the broom seemed to move itself in a very satisfying rhythm. You just got it started and the reflex action of the broom's straw created a perpetual motion. Very unlike the push/pull action of today's brushing.

As much as I enjoyed sweeping, it became clear towards the end of my career that brushing was here to stay! It wasn't nearly as satisfying, but it was obvious that it was much more efficient!

Like brooms, the first brushes were hair (of the equine variety). Then, as with brooms, synthetic brush heads became available, giving rise to a debate still very much alive (hair vs. synthetic).

Then there's the rules issue! In the sweeping era, outside actually striking the stone, sweeping rules were not really necessary. With the action of the brooms, so-called "snowplowing" was impossible. Making one's last sweeping stroke "away" from the path of the stone was irrelevant, of course it was away from the path of the rock!

Since the brush head was always in contact with the ice, rules had to be written to ensure that brushers did not unduly influence the natural movement of the running stone to the point that the skill of the athlete was subordinated (where have we recently heard that sentiment expressed?).

Brushing a curling stone, although a respected part of the game, for most was as much curiosity as anything else. Then Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympic Games! That changed everything in terms of what we knew was true for brushing a curling stone. The then Canadian Curling Association (now Curling Canada) commissioned two groundbreaking studies, one was an exhaustive examination of the mechanics of the delivery (Saville Spirts Centre in Edmonton, AB) and the other was the first-of-a-kind study of brushing (University of Western Ontario in London, ON).

I'll freely admit that during weekend high performance camps, my colleagues and I only touched on brushing and sad to say that if some topic needed to be scrapped due to time constraints, often that topic was brushing. Now it's close to the head of the agenda and that's primarily due to what we learned from the UWO study.

Until that study, much of what we suggested when the topic of brushing was at hand was through participant observation (i.e. what we learned that the elite teams believed to be true). And it's that phrase "believed to be true" that was key. And to a certain extent, it still is, even in the face of the sport science we now have in the area of brushing.

So that's my first piece of advice for those of you out there who want to move your performance yardsticks down the field by being more effective brushers. Experiment! Then after examining all the styles and theories, believe what you see. Commit to it (not with blinders on to the point that you're never going to be open to new ideas) and go with it!

OK, now here's what we have learned from that brushing study referred to above, not all of it, but the parts that are relevant to the question in the title, can this work for anyone?

It can if a) your equipment (i.e. brush head) is clean and dry, no not clean, pristine and very dry b) you've spent time in the gym working on upper body and core strength (see the "Harden's" for an example) c) your technique is putting maximum pressure on the brush head (your head is directly over the brush head, your lower hand is near the point where the handle meets the brush head, your back is parallel to the ice surface and your feet, as much as possible, are outside the hip line [if someone was to come out and pull the brush out of your hands, you'd fall flat on your face]) d) you understand and make use of the sport science as it applies to brushing (see bullets below).
  • brush at 45 degrees to the path of the stone
  • the angle between your brush head and the handle of the brush is ninety degrees
  • your push stroke is much more powerful than your pull (return) stroke
  • the new fabric on the brush head seems to influence the curl of the stone
Before moving on, let's get this directional fabric issue out of the way. In the fourth bullet above, I'm not referring to the "directional fabric" that recently caused curling jurisdictions to ban certain brush heads due to their overriding effect on the path of the stone to the point that the accuracy of the delivery of the stone was subordinate to the brushing. The approved fabric does seem to create something on the ice so that if brushed according to the parameters listed above in bold and italics, it can influence the path of the stone in a manner that does NOT subordinate the accuracy of the athlete in delivering the stone.

What you're seeing on the ice in events where the very best teams are competing, is a brushing technique whereby, unless the brushing is simply to maintain stone velocity (in that case both brushers are engaged), only one brusher is active. That brusher is brushing to either influence the stone to curl, or to reduce the amount of curl. If his/her brushing partner were to be involved, the thought is that the second brusher, on the opposite side the stone and brushing in the opposite direction, is essentially working at cross purposes to his/her partner, in effect negating or at least reducing his/her effectiveness.

The TV commentators have described it well. The brusher, with his/her brush stroke is pushing the stone in the desired direction.

Let's assume a stone delivered with a counterclockwise rotation at takeout velocity. The only reason for that stone to be brushed is to reduce the amount of curl so it's the brusher on the left side of the stone who would brush, pushing the stone away from the curl path.

Now let's reduce the velocity of that counterclockwise rotating stone to draw weight, and a draw around a stationary stone (i.e. guard). The admonition of the skip is to try to make the stone curl more, so this time the only brusher would be on the right side of the stone, in essence, pushing the stone towards the curl.

That's it in a nutshell. It's not complicated. Can it work for you? Well, once again, see that paragraph above with the four aspects of brushing (equipment, fitness, technique & science) to see where you fit in! And let me know how it goes (!