Sunday, March 6, 2016

It's Hard Work! It's No Fun! But The Rewards Are Off The Chart!

Does this title ring a bell with those of  you who have follow my scribblings? If it does, you're right. Published on Nov. 5, 2013 I penned a blog of the same title to encourage curlers to learn how to practise on their own. That blog was written as an inspiration. Now, at the request of a young, very talented curler from Seattle (Ben Richardson [silver medalist at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games]), I'm going to put some meat on that bone, suggesting in more detail, how you can practise when your team and your coach are not present. The activities I will suggest are certainly not the only activities that will be useful to you. It's merely a sample but ones in which I believe.

As I like to say, let's start at the very beginning with weight control, in my opinion, the most important skill in a host of important skills.

When curlers hear that I suggest weight control as the key ingredient to making a curling shot, one reply I field frequently hear refers to the quality of the ice at their curling facility. In short, it goes like this, "How can I practise weight control with an eye on improvement when our ice is less than ideal?". Good question and one of the answers involves "laser timers". There are a number of them on the market. The one I have purchased most recently (no connection with the company and no endorsement revenue) is Chrono Curl ( In essence it's a laser activated timer that records the velocity of a curling stone as it passes through the laser. Interestingly enough, it does so not by measuring the time taken for the stone to pass through, what I call the "speed trap", it measures velocity in one of three ways (miles per hour, kilometres per hour or feet per second). I like "feet per second"! The unit is easy to set up and requires an android tablet to record & display data.

When I use my Chrono Curl, I ask the athlete to deliver shots in pairs, working so hard on the "feel" for the weight of the first shot so it can be duplicated. I set up the Chrono Curl device (laser on one side of the ice and the receiver on the other) just beyond the athlete's point of release so the ice factor is reduced as much as possible. Since the diameter of the stone in use should be constant, it's always better science to use the same stone for both shots. Clearly a teammate or friend who can stop and return the stones is desirable. That friend can also hold the android tablet and therefore provide quick, verbal feedback.

After the second stone has been delivered, the athlete will compare the "feel for the weight" by comparing it to the first stone delivered. It doesn't matter that the athlete delivered both shots with the same weight, knowing that the second is a little lighter, a little heavier, a lot lighter or a lot heavier is just as good. It's about "awareness"! What amazes me about this activity is in the fact that heightened awareness which enables the athlete do know that the second stone has been delivered with the same velocity as the first, or a little lighter or, well, you ge the picture I'm sure, will, almost by default, improve weight control.

A here's an example of this phenomenon from a different sport. A relatively inexperienced and not very skilled tennis player sought instruction from a certified instructor. The instructor began exchanging ground strokes with the "student". Every time the student hit the ball out-of-bounds, the instructor asked how far out-of-bounds the ball had landed. Initially the student's awareness of this was not very good but as time progressed, the student's awareness if the magnitude of the error improved (the instructor always ensured that the student was given the actual distance after the student's guess was provided). But something else improved in parallel. What do you think that might have been? Right! The frequency of the errors decreased as well. In other words, whereas the student would hit the ball out-of-bounds after every second or third exchange of strokes at first, it began to happen after every five or six exchange of strokes then after every 10 or 12 exchange of strokes.

The challenge of knowing how far out-of -bounds the student struck the ball was not the goal for the instructor. His/her goal was really to improve the student's technical skill but he/she did it by allowing the student to focus on awareness as opposed to providing a myriad of technical advice about footwork, grip, stroke, eye contact etc.! All those aspects of striking a tennis ball improved along with the awareness of the magnitude of errors. Getting the curler to assess the degree to which he/she has delivered the second stone compared to the first is in the same vein.

I know I've digressed from the stated premise of this blog but it's clear that I much prefer this method of "empowering the athlete" to figure out challenges as opposed to me telling the athlete how he/she might do it. When the athlete figures it out, he/she makes an investment in the skill, a much more meaningful one than any I can provide. Make no mistake, when I feel that sense of partnership between us has been established and I see brows furrowed on the forehead of the athlete indicated a measure of frustration, I may offer a suggestion or two but it will always be just that, a suggestion, never a command.

OK, back to my friend Ben Richardson who has been delivering paris of stones, attempting to deliver the velocity of the second stone so that it is the same as the that of the first. As Ben begins to better become aware of the differences in velocities of those second shots compared to the first, he will begin to increase his overall weight control as well. I love to see this unfold each time I use my Chrono Curl laser timer!*

For line of delivery, there are a number of "self regulating" activities one can employ, most of which you might have learned very early in your career! Let's have a look at a few.

Place an paper cup on a selected line of delivery just beyond your release point and I mean only a short distance from your release point. When you release the stone, the paper cup should be bumped straight forward. When that happens, it means your release has been "clean" as anything other than a clean release will cause the paper cup to move to the left or the right. I know instructors/coaches who use a stone in place of a paper cup. I don't like that for two reasons. First, I believe there's a safety issue as the delivered stone comes to a sudden stop when it comes into contact with the stationary stone and second, since that stationary stone is positioned just beyond the release point, you must commit one of the cardinal sins in stone delivery which is jumping out of your slide immediately after the release! Not good!!!!

To practise the accuracy and precision of your slide, position pairs of paper cups (no, I don't have shares in any paper cup manufacturing enterprise) so that you form a channel, width to be determined by you. Slide through the channel so that you don't strike any cups. Then with stone in hand, deliver through the channel and release the stone so that it strikes that paper cup referred to above. In case you feel this type of practise modality is beneath your experience and skill dignity, I'm writing this from the nation's capital, site of the 2016 Tom Hortons Brier were the day before the event began, Team Canada, at the Ottawa CC did an activity very similar to this!

There are many different activities that you can use to know that your slide is straight and true but when you select those you're going to employ when practising alone, choose those that are "self regulating" in that you receive instant feedback re. the degree to which you are successful. The ones I've just described are of that type. If you strikes paper cups as you slide through the channel you're either drifting or are sliding on some other line. When you release the stone and watch the direction that the cup travels, you know if your release was clean.

I've seen this slide activity accomplished using stones to form the channel. As you might guess, I don't like using stones, again, from a safety perspective. It's not good to misalign one's slide causing granite curling stones to move about during the slide. It's just not a good idea! Go with the paper cups!

To test and or confirm balance, slide without your delivery device (i.e. brush, stabilizer etc.) even if you're actually releasing stones. You'll know instantly if your balance is perfect or near perfect. What confidence you will take into actual games knowing that!

Hopefully you will have a coach or instructor who can provide you with more self regulating activities. Choose the ones that help you become both a more proficient curler and also those that will make you a more proficient teammate. Don't practise skills you don't need or use!

Record your achievements for activities were success can be incrementally measured. Have an achievement goal in mind (i.e try to exceed your average score).

All these activities are hard work. They sometimes are no fun. But the rewards are off the chart!

* When I use Chrono Curl, I set it to meters per second. I might get a readout of 2.65.  The stone passed through the laser speed trap traveling at 2.65 meters per second. I "see" that data, not as a two digit numeral but rather as a three digit numeral (i.e. 265). My degree of accuracy to reply to the athlete that he/she has delivered the second shot within an acceptable range to be considered the "same weight" is five digits in the units column on either side of the velocity of the first stone delivered. In this case if the velocity readout for the second stone was anywhere between 260 & 270, the second stone delivered was delivered with approximately the same weight. If the readout was greater than 270, then the second stone was delivered with greater velocity than the first and noticeably so. If the second stone was delivered with a readout of less than 260, then its velocity was noticeably slower than that of the first. One of the features I really like about Chrono Curl is that the data is saved on the screen of the tablet, in sequence, so if you're practising alone, you can go to the tablet and see the data (but then you'd have to chase down that just delivered stone so trust me, bring a friend who call out the data to you following paris of delivered stones). As the skill and experience of the athlete improves, the degree of accuracy should be altered. Instead of allowing for "five" digits on either of the established time, it might be changed to three or even two digits!

When using this weight control awareness activity, make sure you incorporate many weights, especially for the "upweight" shots. More take outs are missed due to incorrect weight than inaccurate line!

In a team environment, while one team member is delivering pairs of shots, another teammate can be timing (likely back line to hog line), a second judging from back line to hog line and the fourth, about 10 m. from the hog line holding the brush who retrieves the stone. As coach, you will have the android tablet. You will know if the second stone was i) about the same weight ii) a little heavy iii) a little light iv) noticeably heavy or v) noticeably light. Why those five categories? Those are the categories used in the execution of a curling shot! The first teammate to speak will be the one who just delivered the two shots. The teammate who timed, must used the time recorded on the watch and place that data into one of the five categories mentioned above. The teammate who judged will do the same but based solely on his/her observation followed the the fourth teammate on the line of delivery. In this team environment, you will have gathered useful information on three vital aspects of team performance. First, you will have worked on the raison d'ĂȘtre, weight control. Second, you will have tested the accuracy of your internal timing. Third, you will have tested the accuracy of your team's judging skills from two perspectives. All team members were involved productively!

There are other laser timers on the market that employ pairs of emitters and receivers. They record the time consumed from the time the stone breaks the first laser beam (between emitter and receiver) and when the second laser beam is broken. I have two sets of those. One is manufactured by Brower Timing Systems ( and the other by TracTronix. ( These laser timing devices have the added feature of providing times between any two points on a sheet of curling ice (i.e. hog-to-hog or back line to hog line).

Although I'll not go into detail about this in this blog, an activity I use with teams on the ice employs either my Brower or Trac Tronix timers and my Chromo Curl laser timer. I use it to learn if everyone's interval time will result in the same stone velocity, a key piece of information in my mind. I'll put fingers to keyboard and explain how I do that in an upcoming blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Voice

Growing up (there's much debate on that) as I did in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON there were entire seasons whereby I listened to at least a portion of very game the Detroit Tigers played. You might have noticed the verb "listened" in the previous sentence. Of course the medium was radio (and I still take my radio to games in Seattle to listen to the play-by-play broadcast as the contest unfolds in front of me).

In those days it was the voice of Ernie Harwell and his partner Ray Lane. Curling fans of a certain age at the western terminus of the 401 will recall those excellent broadcasters. Each time a foul ball entered the spectator areas he'd mention that it was caught by someone from East Lansing or Flint (how on earth did he know that the fan lived in those places?). Ernie was that familiar, trusted voice that brought much summer pleasure to me and countless fans of those Tigers of Detroit.

The Toronto Blue Jays from their very inception had the late Tom Cheek and his partner Jerry Howarth there to describe in expert fashion the triumphs and disasters that befell the Lake Ontario twenty-five.

Probably the most well known of the baseball voices belongs to Vin Scully who can describe the play on the field and make his listeners feel as though they are sitting beside him in a way that clearly sets him apart from his colleagues and he's been doing it for 66 straight season for the Dodgers of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Iconic voices have brought many events of significance to us. Those voices become a part of our every day lives and without them, the day just doesn't seem to unfold the way it should.

Curling is no exception. This season marks the 30th campaign that curling's "voice" once again resonates in iconic fashion. Those vocal chords, to the legion of devoted followers of the roaring game know, belong to one Vic Rauter of TSN.

His original partners in the booth were Ray "Moose" Turnbull and Linda Moore. Today he's with people who I'm honoured to call friends, Cheryl Bernard and Russ Howard. They are supported on TSN's multi-platform offering by Cathy Gauthier and Stephanie Ledrew. Brian Mudryk of TSN rounds out the broadcast team.

Vic's voice has been the constant over those thirty years and winter for curling fans just wouldn't be the same without the rises and falls of his colourful and skilful call of the game. He knows most if not all of the answers to the questions he poses to Cheryl and Russ but he asks them on our behalf. Questions he feels the audience might ask, to learn more about the game from the inside.

Over his years Vic has become a trusted friend to Curling Canada, the players, the coaches and his media colleagues. Trust is an on air personality's greatest asset (along with the dulcet tones of his/her voice). Walter Cronkite was so trusted as he brought millions of watchers to CBS News that many felt he was the most trusted on air media personality of his generation. No argument from me on that! In the curling world, Vic is our Walter Cronkite.

At last year's Brier in Calgary, I had the honour of coaching the team from the Yukon. We made it to the play-in game as part of the pre-qualification tournament that now precedes the main Brier draw. We were pitted against a young, skilled and dynamic foursome from Prince Edward Island skipped by one of the really bright lights in curling, Adam Casey. Our game was part of the first draw of the Brier and we were TSN's TV game. The game went to an extra end before the island four proved to be the better team. But it's what happened after the game that I want to share with Vic's fans.

As we were packing our brush bag and other paraphernalia, I heard that "voice" over my shoulder as he expressed his professional and personal congratulations to both teams on a wonderful game that TSN viewers found entertaining. Vic didn't have to do that, but he did! It showed me that he's not only a class act on air, he's a class act off it as well!

Vic, on behalf of curling fans everywhere, keep that voice strong, the curling world needs to hear it for many more years!