Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Much Is Your Brain Worth?

There is no bigger topic in sports in recent times than concussion prevention. In fact, there's a movie currently in theatres starring Will Smith of the same name, one I fully intend to see! Let's do our homework first.

The brain is housed in the skull, surrounded by "cerebrospinal fluid" which essentially acts as a shock absorber, protecting the brain from mild head trauma. But when the skull is moving at high velocity in a particular direction and comes to a sudden stop, the conditions are ripe for a concussion as the brain doesn't get the stop message as quickly as the skull and continues moving at a velocity exceeding the protection of the cerebrospinal fluid and bumps into the inside of the skull. When brain cells undergo that kind of collision, there is damage. The amount of damage varies greatly of course. The brain will usually recover with few or no side effects but occasionally those effects can be significant.

Another syndrome associated with repeated concussions is CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). CTE is sub-concussive. It's what can happen over time as a result of repeated head trauma that may not fall under the concussion category. The symptoms of CTE can be life altering to the point that some people have committed suicide. A football player was once described as a person involved in five automobile collisions for each game when the player is playing a  contact position (eliminate the place kicker for example). Little wonder that the average career in professional football is three years!

Bob Weeks, in an article recently published (Jan. 15) on the TSN web site (TSN.ca), put light back onto Brad Gushue's unfortunate meeting with the ice surface during a Grand Slam event about 7 weeks ago. If you're a curling fan and like to watch every curling event either TSN or Sports Net broadcasts, I'm sure you were front and centre to see Brad fall to the ice surface or saw a replay of it, with his head making the first contact. Even though Brad returned to complete the game, to no one's surprise, he did suffer a concussion and according to Bob's article, is still experiencing some effects.

We're hearing a lot about concussions in sports, many sports, especially those of the collision variety (i.e. hockey, football etc.) as stated at the outset of this blog but rarely do we associate concussions with curling.

Brad's fall, as Bob pointed out in his article, has positioned the spotlight on the notion that perhaps we should start to at least explore the idea that curlers should wear suitable head protection so let me weigh in on that topic as it's one that is near and dear to my, no, not my heart although that is true, it's nearer and dearer to my head!

I'm a stick curler who conducts stick curling clinics. Stick curlers are more susceptible to falls for a variety of reasons not the least of which is due to the fact that the stick curler's head is a considerable  distance from the ice surface. By the very nature of using a stick to deliver a curling stone, the stick curler is much more erect than a curler with a traditional slide delivery. If a curler with that traditional slide delivery were to lose balance, it's much more of a "tumble" than a "fall" and the height from which that tumble begins is only a few feet. The body parts do not strike the ice very hard and do so in more of a rolling motion. It's unlikely, although not impossible, that one's head would come into contact with the ice surface. Even if a curler were to fall while brushing, it's still unlikely that one's head would strike the ice. A fall when brushing is almost always broken by the hands and knees.

The problem with falling from an erect position comes from the fact that the vast majority of those falls are "backward", not forward. When one falls forward, in most cases, the hands will break the fall with the head, as suggested above, not likely coming into contact with the ice. But, when one falls backward, even though one's backside is most likely to be the body part to first hit the ice, the head will soon follow! Have you ever heard the sound a skull makes when it comes into contact with the ice? I'm sure many of you have and it's a sound few can forget!

As I indicated, due to a left knee issue, when I play, which I do every Monday morning at the Glen Harper Curling Centre in Duncan, BC, the last piece of equipment I position before heading to the ice surface is my snowboard helmet onto my head. There are only two of us in the league that wear a helmet although there are a few others that have purchased a made-for-curling headband device that has a hard shell material at the back of the head. I still believe an actual helmet is better!

Stick curlers have another thing in common. Most of us have our junior curling careers well positioned in our rear view mirrors. Falls at our age are not fun and can have significant negative consequences. Besides a helmet, I encourage all curlers, not just stick curlers, to wear grippers on both feet. Obviously for a curler with a traditional slide delivery, the gripper on the slider comes off when delivering the stone but it should go back on when doing everything else for five solid reasons (see below).

I cringe when I see a stick curler delivering a stone with a slider! Yikes! It's not a case of "if" that stick curler will fall, it's only a matter of "when"! Again, regarding that age factor, many stick curlers are grandparents. I'm in Orangeville, ON as I write this, visiting my grandsons, Lucas & Jacob. I put my helmet on for them as much as for me! The same stick curler who does not wear a helmet would admonish his/her grandchildren if they did not follow safety protocols but then put themselves in harm's way but ignoring one themselves. Hmmmm?

All that said, anyone, regardless of one's actual curling delivery can fall from an erect position so I don't want to suggest that only stick curlers consider head protection!

Are helmets cool? No! But how much IS your brain worth?


1) You can brush from either side of the stone as it moves down the ice.

2) You will have more downward pressure on the brush head than if you are in a gripper/slider configuration.

3) You take the pressure off the knee of the slide leg when you walk on the ice as opposed to push/slide as one must do in the gripper/slider scenario.

4) When you walk back into position after brushing a curling stone from coast-to-coast you will recover more quickly than if you were to push/glide.

5) It's safer!!!!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Better Than The Right Answers

The questions I get asked more and more are about coaching (what a revelation that is) but not the way you might think. The questions are not about what to do with the athletes, there is much print material available to assist with that. I call that the "science" of coaching. What aspiring coaches are more interested in is the "how" of coaching, not the "what" and good on them for recognizing the difference.

I know coaches who have the "x's" and "o's" of coaching, well, down to a science, but to be honest, I wouldn't want them anywhere near a curling team. Because a coach doesn't coach a sport. A coach coaches athletes. People! The more I coach, the more I realize that the "art" of coaching really is more important than the "science". Some coaches have "it" and some don't! If a coach doesn't have "it", it's hard to develop "it", not impossible but it's a challenge and thankfully, I know of many who have become artful coaches who didn't start out that way.

What is "it"? Well, the best way I can describe "it" is rapport. It's that relationship between athlete(s) and coach from the very first meeting. Clearly, one's basic personality plays a major role in the rapport that so important. Some people are just fun to be around and even though their knowledge might be limited, the "culture" they create is inspirational and when an athlete is inspired to greater performance, the first step to achievement has been taken.

What remains for the coach is to now "empower" that inspired athlete! Empowerment means removing the coach as the fount of knowledge and positioning the more important person, the athlete, into a place whereby the lessons needed to excel come from him/her, not from the coach. The key to that step, in my view the most important step, is by forcing the athlete to come up with answers he/she perceives to be paramount on the journey toward peak performance. The key to that is for the coach to know what questions to ask.

When I work with athletes, I'm right up front with this position. I flat out tell them that I'm not the "Answer Man", mostly because I don't have all the answers, but I have something much better, I believe I do have most of the right questions. The answers are not universal anyway. What might be the right solution to a challenge for one athlete might be totally different for another. It's why I try to encourage coaches and instructors to say the same thing in as many was as possible. What has real meaning for one athlete in the way it's expressed might be ancient Greek to another.

Unfortunately I still see too many coaches who feel that they must be in total control! They are sometimes what I refer to as the "Puppet Master Coach". That coach sees him/herself as pulling on all the strings, expecting his "puppets" to respond appropriately. It's the coach who is usually highly visible and in some cases easily heard by anyone within earshot (and sometimes that proximity can be measured in several meters, perhaps even tens of meters). It's easy to spot this type of coach. On the upside, his/her athletes will generally play well. The problem with this type of coach is the legacy he/she leaves with the athletes. Without the coach telling them what to do and how to do it, they sooner of later stop thinking for themselves and when the "marching orders" from the coach don't quite match the situation, confusion can and usually does ensue.

A coach's task should be to work his/herself out of a job, to have the athletes so prepared to know, think and respond to changing challenges within the context of the athletic conference to the point that they really don't need the coach to succeed. That's an unachievable goal of course to strive for it in my view is what makes a good coach better and a great coach, well, a great!

An effective coach creates an atmosphere in which he/she is a partner in the development of the athlete and the team! Coaches, like athletes, make mistakes. The type of coach referred to two paragraphs above will often rationalize his/her errors so not to be seen as fallible. When coaches operate under that philosophy, they are eventually seen by the athletes for exactly who they are. The athletes will begin to stop listening and distance themselves from the coach! That is sometimes characterized by the phrase, "He/she has lost the room!".

Now, make no mistake, as I feel Tom Coughlin, the recently resigned coach of the NY Giants of the National Football League might acknowledge, at some point, a coach reaches the end of his/her shelf life. They have the resume to demonstrate that they have been successful and are universally respected by the athletes but it's just time to let those same athletes hear someone else's voice.

Not always, but usually in my view, great coaches are calm, especially in the face of great adversity! A very animated coach, who's "on the edge" most of the time, runs the risk of trivializing key stages of a season and a game. When everything in the coach's mind is a crisis, causing great rages and rants by the coach, when a real crisis emerges when some animation is a good thing, the athletes can't tell the difference.

Athletes frequently reflect the personality of the coach. Athletes under the tutelage of that "Puppet Master Coach" feel they have to live up to the coach's expectations. Every coach will have expectations and occasionally, to get the best out of an athlete a coach might come down pretty hard. Every athlete is different and no good coach ever treats his/her athletes the same, except in the category of "fairness". When the athletes start playing for one another, the chances of the team becoming greater than the sum of its parts is greatly enhanced. That doesn't mean that sometimes, due to the very special relationship a team might have with the coach, the team wants to "win for their coach". After all, the coach IS part of the team but that role is in preparation, not in the athletic contest itself in terms of inspiration. The game is not the place to feel you must inspire one's athletes. It's too late for that! Athletes need to arrive at the venue inspired and therefore motivated to achieve a high degree of performance.

In my view, coaches who are overtly animated are often that way because as the game looms large on the horizon, they feel a sense of a lack of preparation. The calm coach is frequently that way because he/she, and the athletes, know they've done everything they can to be as prepared to play as possible.

The best in game coaching performance I have ever witnessed was in the 1999 World Women's Ice Hockey gold medal game. Once again the combatants were Canada and the USA. The Canadian coach was Daniele Sauvageau. The final score was 3-1 for Canada but that score does not do justice to the way in which Team Canada emerged as gold medalists. The referee, very early on in the contest, became overwhelmed by the fact she was officiating in a world championship game between arguably the two best women's hockey teams on the planet and the rivalry was fierce. For some reason, the referee took it out on Team Canada. I've tried to actually obtain the game summary to back up what I'm about to say but I've not been successful so I'm going to forge ahead based upon my recollection. If anyone out there can verify my memory, or refute it, have at it.

As I recall, the ratio of unwarranted penalties between Canada and the American squad was about 5-1. The Canadians played short-handed it seemed for about 1/3 of the game. Using the term "unwarranted" in the previous sentence was being kind. Some of the calls were outrageous! The players were mystified and could very easily have lost complete emotional control, but not Coach Sauvageau. She knew that if she reacted to the referee's calls, and she would have be totally justified in doing so, she would have a team doing the same thing and in the process lose site of the task at hand which was to play at peak performance levels.  I sat before my television in complete admiration for Coach Sauvageau! The team immediately picked up on their coach's attitude, put their heads down and just played. I had the opportunity at a coaching conference to meet Coach Sauvageau and tell her how I felt about her coaching performance in that game.

In one week I'm going to have the pleasure of being around 28 coaches of junior teams in Stratford, ON at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships. We'll share stories and in some cases perhaps I'll be able to help them as the competition proceeds. One think I know for sure, I'll leave Stratford a better coach for having been with them! If I'm asked to weigh in with a team to help them better deal with the challenges of a national competition, I won't have the answers they might seek but I will have something better. I'll have all the right questions!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Message Are You Sending?

Last Sunday (12/27/16), those members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins of the National Football League so inclined, for the 43rd consecutive year, popped open champagne bottles, as the previously undefeated Carolina Panthers suffered their first loss of the current season. You see, for those of you out there who were not around in 1972, & suspect that's many of you, the '72 Dolphins were the last NFL team to assemble an unblemished won/lost record for the regular season through to the Super Bowl. The 2007 New England Patriots came within one game, unfortunately it was the "big one", of matching that remarkable feat. And I'm not kidding about the champagne thing. Apparently some of the members of that '72 Dolphin team actually do that.

The loss did very little to deflect the Panthers march toward a possible Super Bowl Campionship. The team has already clinched its division and unless there's a second before the regular season ends, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Charlotte, NC as it will have secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But there's more to the loss than might first meet one's eye.

The victorious team was the Atlanta Falcons, a team in the Panthers division. Not only that, only a few weeks earlier, the Panthers defeated the Falcons 38-0! But it's what happened immediately after that lopsided victory, to which I want to draw your attention.

The entire Panthers offensive unit, led but its MVP-bound quarterback, Cam Newton, gathered on the sideline for a celebratory group photograph. The defeated, and I'm guessing humiliated, Atlanta Flacons, upon leaving the field took note of this. I suspect that extra incentive might just have been what the Falcons needed to put an end to the Panthers' undefeated season. Certainly, without bragging on their part in the sound bites I've heard, the victorious Falcons made mention of the Panthers' group photo.

It's hard enough to win a game at an elite level in any sport! Why would one provide any "bulletin board material" for those teams in one's competitive environment? To my way of thinking, it's just not smart! But, I know, I'm in a shrinking minority so save your dissenting comments. I'm "old school" on this. I know that. But I'd rather error on the side of caution and I'll explain why beyond the example cited above.

In every athletic contest, there are two battles to be won. One is obvious, it's the battle on the scoreboard. Many would argue that it's really the only battle. That's naive to believe, as the scoreboard battle often hinges on another, albeit more subtle but nonetheless significant struggle. It's  the psychological tussle for mental superiority. If you don't believe it exists you haven't competed at a high level. I don't mean that as a shot across your competitive bow, it's simply a statement that in your career development, you're currently at some other stage. When you get there, you'll better understand the premise of this blog but trust me, you'll be better prepared when that day arrives and it will arrive!

From the moment the two competitors arrive at the venue, before the contest begins, the process of "sizing up" will be in full forward gear. The way you talk, react, carry yourself/selves, your pre-game actions etc., all make a statement about who you are and what you are about. Allow me a real time, personal example.

When I take our national senior champions to the world championships, we conduct all our team meetings at our hotel. The other countries never see Canada huddled together in some last minute discussion, planning some sort of strategy going forward. And the same is true following the game. We socialize with our opponent as soon as possible, often waiting for them to "debrief" while we enjoy the company of one another, our supporters and/or spectators, curious about who we are and what life is like "back home". We want to be seen as so confident, so prepared, that on site conferences just aren't  necessary. Don't misunderstand, we'll debrief and plan for our next game, but as state above, it will be in an environment we control! And in the process, we want the message we send in that psychological engagement to also be carefully controlled as well, as we understand that winning that battle often give us a better chance to win the one we want!

One of the scenarios I use in high performance camps around the country is to ask teams how they might react to an unfortunate bit of adversity, such as a pick on a particularly important shot. I point out that the opposition is watching the reaction very carefully. I suggest that it's really a choice as to how your team will visually respond. It can look like someone just shot their dog or they can deal with it like so much water of a duck's back. It's their choice but consider the two reactions. Imagine the extra "lift" the opposition gets to not only benefit from your misfortune but also from your very negative reaction. You can't do anything to change what happened to your shot but you have complete control over your reaction to it.

But I don't stop there. I also ask how the team will react to an unearned bit of good fortune. Perhaps missing the line on a shot so badly that the shooter ricochets off a stone, and perhaps raises another and, well, I think you've got the picture. Your opponent is also watching that reaction as well.

The sports world has changed. I get that! Spectators of sport seem to first want to be entertained. It's not good enough it seems to just make great plays on the field, court, ice etc. Now it's expected that when you do excel, to please the fans, your teammates and perhaps your own ego, you need to create a unique celebration to cap it off. I smile that major league baseball players, adults mind you, who have a "secret handshake" to congratulate a teammate for excellence. I recall one rookie who's first task, first task, was to learn the secret handshakes (and there were many) even before the third base coach's signals to the player when he was at bat. I kid you not!

I've cited this coach before but I'm going to do it once again. His name is Bud Grant and he instructed his players that when they scored a touchdown, they had two choices (there's that word again). They could hand the ball to the nearest official and jog to the bench or they could drop the ball and jog to the bench. Why? Send the message that you've been there before and you're coming back real soon!

There's a very fine line between the camaraderie that comes with recognizing the accomplishments of a teammate and the type of celebration that provides that extra incentive to your opponent.

I have, on a DVD, ten very famous shots that have been made by Canadian teams over the years. Each shot is spectacular in its own way. The reason for showing the shots is because of what happens before or after the shot, out of camera range. One of those shots is by a very well known team whose skip who is now on the SportsNet broadcast crew. It's a wonderful shot! Make no mistake! It was called and made! It was no fluke! The fans and the team went wild. To be fair, the skip to whom I referred, to his credit, was, by comparison to his teammates, quite matter-of-fact about it. But the damage had been done and what the viewers don't see is the other team who got together and said, "Look at them! They think they've won the game!". Well, they didn't and one of the reason why was because their celebration sent the wrong message.

I understand that sports, like society in  general, has different cultures. What's acceptable behaviour in one sport's culture might be way over the line in another. Those who play different sports are well aware, or should be well aware of the differences from one sport culture to the next. So my admonition about one's reaction is to be seen within the culture of the sport in which one is engaged. But what concerns me most about excessive celebrations is the fact that in my opinion it subordinates the athletic accomplishment that led to the celebration as we're left with it in our mind rather than the great play!

I referred to my age earlier in this piece. I'm still of the mindset that it's what happens within the context of the athletic contest that causes me to be "entertained". I don't need the entertainment value of the celebration that follows. When and why did that change?

Now that I've descended from my soap box, let me remind you that the reason I've put fingers to keyboard is not to try to change the sports world (despite what one of my loyal readers might think), I know that's not going to happen, but rather to caution you to think before you act and react.

Before you set foot into the venue, perhaps might want to give some thought to the message you wish to send! It's too important to send the wrong one!