Category Archives: Coaching

It’s Only Fair

I’m coming off a big weekend with the Bantam Girls team that I currently coach.  We were literally inches from a berth in the Junior Provincials and though we didn’t get there, we still feel as though we won.  We had a positive weekend of competitive play and great team bonding and at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to leave the biggest impression on my team.  Now they’re hungry for more because they feel they can achieve that much more.

In any case, our game play isn’t really what this post is about, rather it’s the fall out from a very specific event during our last game.  It was in the 8th end of a 10 end game and the score was very close, a one point game.  The house was fairly messy and our team had a take out through a fairly wide port.  The stone looked good coming over the hog line and just before it entered the rings our lead slipped and did a funky ballet move from her butt to keep from touching the stone, the shot, made!  Or so we thought….

Immediately after the shot was made the opposing skip declared that our lead had in fact touched the running stone and that it should be replaced.  Can of worms now open.  First issue, the rule for that instance is clear.  If a stone in motion is touched inside the hog line the non-offending team has three options.  1.  Leave it alone.  2. Replace all stones as though the shot had not been thrown or 3. Adjust stones to where the non-offending team thinks they would have ended up.  This rule is specific to stones touched inside the hog line.  Between the hogs, the touched stone automatically and immediately is removed from play.  There is obviously latitude here for the non-offending team and this is where the code of ethics crosses with the rule book.  The idea is to resolve a rules violation with something that is fair.

The real issue in our case was that our lead “didn’t think” she touched it.  The opposition skip was adamant that she had however.  Now, it used to say in the rule book something to the effect of “if a team declares it’s own foul” however as I pour over the CCA rules of curling for 2014 to 2018 I cannot find that phrase as it might apply to a touched running stone either in the officiated or general rules.  Being the ethical sports people curlers are however, I believe that in the interest of sportsmanship and fair play, you ALWAYS declare your own fouls.  In our case, I believe my lead completely.  She absolutely would not try to cheat and if she felt she had touched the rock I know she would have admitted it.  Still, it’s possible she could have touched it without knowing.  Regardless, there was definite disagreement over whether the stone had been touched or not.

The official got involved and the result (after some heated discussion between the teams) was that the play was left to stand as it had played out.  My opposing coach being a fine and upstanding opponent, suggested that we call a “Fair Play” timeout at the conclusion of the end to which I heartily agreed.

The “Fair Play” timeout is somewhat mythical.  Not that it’s a myth but finding it’s precise definition and application is not as easy as  one might think.  Some people have never even heard of this so I feel like perhaps it’s a good place to talk about it.  First, it does not show up in the official rules so far as I can see.  I’ve again poured over the rule book to find it and no luck.  I’ve also been through the OCA rules supplement, again to no avail.  If any of you out there can find a reference to it in either of these documents please enlighten me!  I did find it in a copy of the CCA “Special Rules” which wasn’t easy to find itself!  The Special Rules can be found at this link:

You’ll note that the Fair Play timeout is reference under the Special Rules pertaining to the Canadian Junior Men’s and Women’s play specifically.

This is the only place where I find a reference to the Fair Play timeout but it has been explained to me so I’m passing on what I know.  First, the idea is to have an “official” time where coaches can talk to their teams about rules violations or to diffuse a potentially negative situation before it escalates.  You may not slip in any kind of strategy discussion here!  Only the coach who requests the Fair Play timeout may talk to their team and this will be monitored and / or recommended by an official.  It’s a chance for a coach to try to bring some level headed thinking to a team.  It’s an opportunity to remind young teams of the spirit of the game and to reinforce the rules and how important it is to adhere to them.  Each team is allowed a single, one minute Fair Play timeout per game.

Now think about this.  A Fair Play timeout is an opportunity, yes but it’s also the result of something that has gone or is going very wrong.  It’s a chance for the coach to put things back on the rails either in the spirit of sportsmanship or fairness.  The Fair Play timeout is an excellent tool however, it’s a remedy for a bad situation.

In our case, both coaches asked for the Fair Play timeout to help reduce the tension on the ice and to ensure our teams played with the spirit of the game in mind.  So, the result?  I don’t believe there is any love lost between our teams but tensions were reduced for the rest of the game and both teams played in a sportsmanlike manner for the duration of the game.  I think the Fair Play timeout worked well in our case and it was a learning opportunity for me having never gone through it myself.

Now you know, go forth with Fair Play!

Size Matters

I am being continually reminded of one hard truth about the sport we all love so much.  This is the critical nature of team dynamics on in curling.  Certainly, team dynamics are not a unique requirement to our sport but they do seem to have an impact far beyond that of other sports.  I decided to do some research into why this might be the case and what I found seemed to agree with what I had figured on my own.

First, an aside.  For those of you studying teams and the dynamics within teams, I would highly suggest you look into business literature for additional insight.  There seems to be much more of that out there and frankly, the concepts overlap those things that we’re trying to achieve quite nicely.

What did I learn? Well, it’s likely fairly obvious but many of the advantages that small teams enjoy over larger teams also end up being double edged swords.  When those “advantages” don’t work well, they end up damaging the small team.  The first example of this would be clarity within a team.  Each member of a four person team has a pretty direct sight line to each of their team mates.  Any difference in philosophy or commitment will be pretty obvious, pretty quickly and there’s no ignoring it.  On larger teams, players may not have the level of insight into their team mates that they get on small teams.  With that insight is the ability to achieve a level of cohesion that is much more difficult in larger teams.  Of course, the chance of the smaller team being pulled apart by those aforementioned differences is also higher.  Much of this is due to the increased interaction between each team member.  Face it, there’s no “hiding” on a small team, in any respect!

Larger teams can also enjoy (suffer?) the experience of “group think”.  That is, a prevailing attitude or gravitation towards consensus that may or may not be beneficial to the groups success.  In our smaller teams, players are less inclined to go with the flow because the flow is that much smaller!  Again though, the flip side of that is that players who don’t see any support for their opinions can very quickly feel very marginalized within small teams causing discourse and a definite lack of cohesion.

If small teams can get on the same page, they are much better to develop a strong sense of trust in each other.  It’s much more difficult for larger teams to achieve this across the board and that trust brings with it a whole pile of benefits.

That is just scratching the surface of the “small team vs. large team” study.  What does that have to do with us as coaches?  Everything.  It’s our job to build and foster the environment where these considerations go down the “positive” road rather than the negative one.  I’ve said before, a coach cannot force team cohesion, they can only create an environment where it has the best chance to succeed.  I cannot stress enough that in my limited experience, it’s this team formation and nurturing that has the single biggest impact on a team’s success.  We need to constantly be examining how we do business so that we are giving our teams the best chance to bond.

Been There…Now Do That…

Experience…we all want it, we all know it’s power and value. What then, can we do to accelerate the process of getting some? I’m going to approach this from both the perspective of the athlete AND the coach. First, lets talk about the athlete. Every curler has heard that if they want to get better then they have to go out and play, and play, and play, then play some more and maybe more. That’s experience. Even worse, if the experience is going to be truly valuable then they have to go out and lose, and lose and lose again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to learn how to win as well but the “win experience” is has a much narrower lesson than many of the “loss experiences”. Winning means performing under pressure, definitely a critical skill for players and teams who want to succeed. Losing means putting a spotlight on those skills and areas that teams are not so strong in. Of course, the loss experience is worthless unless you realize the lesson and work to improve it. Nice to know that your skip is floating her out turn and losing games for us but unless we’re doing something to fix it…you get the idea.

This is pretty well trodden ground we’re on however. How does an athlete get MORE experience? The truth is, they’re actually pretty smart about it. Those of you who are competitive in the curling world, will have a coach. Why? EXPERIENCE!! That’s right, your coach is a teacher and a fountain of experience from which you can draw on. It’s a built in perk having a coach who will teach skills and share experiences with you. The only catch is, athletes have to be open to absorbing those experiences and integrating them into their own minds. There is another way of accelerating the experience gathering process but I want to flip over to coaches to help introduce that idea.

How do coaches gain experience? Shockingly, it’s no different than it is for athletes. Go coach. Coach some more, make a bunch of silly mistakes, reflect, change what you didn’t do well and start over. Great, nice information right? That’s pretty obvious stuff but I wanted to introduce another way of accelerating that learning curve. That’s the concept of the mentor. Curling coaches are phenomenal about how they interact and share. The best coaches will spend as much time as you want with OTHER COACHES talking curling and coaching. I think that’s a fairly rare thing in sports and we as curling coaches should take full advantage of other, experienced coaches willing to help us out. There is honestly a brother / sister hood in the coaching community. We love it so much that we’re overflowing with the desire to help each other out!

Personally, it took me a very long time to embrace this. I was very nervous about talking to other coaches about what I was doing for fear of being judged or finding out that what I was doing wasn’t right. Eventually, I realized that if I was doing something that wasn’t right, I had to know! My ego finally took the back seat it deserved in this respect. I also would avoid having any other coaches or athletes or anyone really, talk and work with teams. Again, my fear was that my athletes would look to the new source rather than to me. All ego. These days, I use people I know and can coerce into helping my teams as much as I possibly can. I’ve accepted that I’m not an expert in every field and that by bringing in people with other experience, I can more fully enrich my athletes own experiences.

That brings me all the way back to what athletes can do to enhance their own experience. Find a mentor. Find another athlete who has been there that is willing to share. Trust me, they’re out there. The only disclaimer I’ll put on this is that as a coach or athlete, you should not willingly go out there and ask anyone and everyone for their thoughts and experiences. Find someone you respect and who you believe has the knowledge, experience and willingness to help you in in an honest way.

I’ve recently started an informal mentorship program with the team I’m coaching. I have a very successful junior player who is willing to come and share her experiences with my team. She is bringing my girls thoughts and perspective I will literally never have and she’s doing it with enthusiasm. I trust her and am excited to see how this works.

This is not a new idea. This year the Sherry Middaugh team began mentoring the Junior team, Molly Greenwood. I’m very much an outsider looking in on that situation but the whole idea is brilliant. It’s also a very “curling” idea. Curling people, by and large, are good people. I think we should embrace who we are as athletes and coaches and lend a hand to each other whenever we can. It makes the sport stronger, it makes us better coaches and athletes and frankly, it’s just a more enjoyable way of doing business.

Hodge Podge

I’m lucky as a coach to be on a continual learning path.  I am constantly learning about the game and how to coach it and I hope I never stop!  This post is about busyness in a curling delivery.  It’s a similar message to the one on the “Really Old Article” KISS but different enough to warrant it’s own posting.

Among the very many things I’ve learned is to view a curling delivery from a technical point of view.  I’ve learned the various key things to look for to help athletes improve their performance.  As anyone who’s ever thrown a rock knows, a curling delivery is a complicated assembly of motions.   Similar to a golf swing, there is a proper place for every part of your body and deviating from those proper positions has an effect on where the stone ends up at the end of your throw.  The CCA teaches its coaches (and by that I mean me and my brethren…) the “proper” technique for throwing a curling stone.  What’s proper?  Well, proper technique is that which has some basis in common sense, mechanics and past success!  I believe somewhere, I emphasized that a coach should always be able to explain why they ask you to do something or change something.  This holds true for delivery mechanics as much as any other aspect of the game.  If your coach tells you to keep your eyes up and can’t explain why…hmmm.

By and large, there are good reasons for the positions and movements that are required in throwing a curling stone properly.  This isn’t going to be a comprehensive examination of all those movements (that’s a big chunk of the Competition Coach course) but I am going to share some of what I’ve learned by watching curlers from a technical point of view.  So, here we go with “What Sean’s Learned from Coaching”

Lesson 1:  It’s Gonna Get Worse Before It Gets Better…

I’ve learned that in order to improve, you need to make changes.  To be honest, I knew this already but what I didn’t realize is that not everyone really understands what this means or if they do, they aren’t always willing to accept the implications of it.  There is a very sensible little adage that you hear at many curling coaching clinics.  “If you want something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before.”  I also like, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  Both are essentially saying the same thing.  Corrections to your curling delivery are going to feel weird!  Expect it.  Expect to have a dip in your performance initially after a correction because face it, you’ve never done that before.  It is however, how you’re going to better than you ever were before.  I get this so much from curlers when they ask for help.  “What am I doing wrong?!” they say.  I watch for a few slides, pick out the biggest fault and give them some feedback.  Perhaps it’s a balance issue, where the slider foot isn’t really getting under the body causing the player to lean on the rock.  I’ll suggest a correction then ask them to throw using the correction.  I’ll actually ask them to throw at least three times with the correction while I’m watching.  Often it happens that the first corrected throw is much improved (with complaints about how “weird” it feels…), the second corrected throw is okay and the third is their old delivery with the correction discarded.  It’s no surprise that when I ask which delivery felt best, the answer is the last one.  It feels best because it’s what you’ve been doing forever!  I’ve had players simply thank me at that point and go on with the delivery they had before we started.  I have had other players struggle through the “weirdness” and actually make a change and improve because of it.

That period of discomfort may also result in an immediate drop in performance.  Your body is a system and when you change one thing in a system it has a ripple effect across the whole system.  Until the entire system adjusts to these new “settings” it can’t be consistent.  That adjustment period may be as little as 10 minutes or much much longer depending on much of an adjustment you made.  This is typically why a coach should really only be making small incremental adjustments to your delivery.  Fix one thing and before you try to move to the next.  It’s practically impossible to fix everything at once.  The cumulative adjustment is just too much.

Lesson 2:  If it ain’t broke…

One of the best pieces of coaching advice I ever received was this.  “Sometimes what you DON’T say is more important than what you do say.”  Some of you have asked me for help on your deliveries.  Some of you need a lot of help with your deliveries…  Some of you don’t though.  Just last week a player on a team asked me if I was going to, “tell them what was wrong with their deliveries”.  I asked the whole team what was wrong with that question.  Some of them thought the grammar was incorrect…  My issue was that the question pre-supposed that there WAS something wrong with their deliveries.  In the case of this team, there are incremental things to work on for each player but the biggest issue they need to work on is simple consistency specifically with their weight control.  They are all balanced and they all hit the broom consistently enough.  The biggest “bang for the buck” improvement they could make is to fine tune their weight control.  They were looking for a smoking gun of a delivery fault and I suppose I could have given them one but to really help them, I had to focus on the single biggest thing that I felt would have an impact.

If I Said It Once, I May As Well Not Have Said It At All

We learn through experience.  We can chew our food efficiently because we’ve had literally years of practice at it (perhaps I’ve had more than some of you but nonetheless…).  Curling is the same.  Even the most focused and keen athlete needs to repeat and repeat and repeat something if they are going to really incorporate it into their curling minds.  One practice, one delivery, one lesson only introduces you to new ideas.  Putting them into practice takes, well, practice!  I’ve learned that you must go out there and simply do that “new” thing over and over again until it just doesn’t feel new anymore.  In the world of bio-mechanics the rule of thumb seems to be that you have to do something 10,000 times before it is incorporated into your “muscle” memory.  This “rule” has come under scrutiny of late but the idea is still sound I believe even if the actual number isn’t accurate.  The concept is to repeat and to repeat correctly.  Practice does NOT make perfect, practice makes permanent.  Perfect practice makes perfect.

I will reinforce the need to change to the athlete however, as a player it’s up to you to work for improvement.  You have to go through a period of discomfort if things are going to change for you.  You have to know it’s going to happen and you have to be willing to do that which you’ve never done before.

So, a little of this and a little of that today.  Mostly just some food for thought.  Happy curling!

Big Lesson 1 and 2

I spent this past weekend in a curling club.  I admit it, I’m addicted.  The good thing is that my team, well the team I coach, did exceptionally well.  No we didn’t win the spiel but we grew as a team beyond the coach’s expectations and I count that as “doing exceptionally well”.

This was my team’s first event of the year and I wanted to share with you, what I felt were some of the most important lessons that I personally learned from the event.  My team had one, on ice practice prior to this event mostly due to logistical reasons.  For some of the team, that practice had been their first time out on the ice this season.  That practice went pretty much as expected with a number of delivery issues coming to light.  We worked as hard as we could and I was satisfied with the overall effort and results.

Entering this past weekend therefore was, what I felt a lightly prepared team and we approached the spiel with that in mind.  Our goals for the weekend were around team development and the discovering the specific issues that might arise with a new team early in the season.  It was then with some surprise that I watched my players making shots in situations that I had never seen before.  Clutch draws, timely take outs and exceptional adjustments.  They played like champs and I was frankly forced to consider what was going on here.  This was not the team that left off last year and while yes, we had a line up change, we were 3/4 the same team as last year.

Here is part of what I discovered or more accurately, re-learned.

Big Lesson #1.

Teams need time off.  Anyone learning a skill needs time to process what they have learned. It’s a similar concept to walking away from a problem that might be giving you issues.  How many of us have heard the phrase “sleep on it”?  That’s a break that you need in order to let your brain fully process and integrate the information that it’s taken in.  With technology today, we are very proud of our ability to gather great amounts of information extremely quickly.  What we may lose sight of, is that processing this information, the integration of it, takes time and there are NO shortcuts for that process.   We often forget how complex and wonderful our brains are.  They work even when we don’t know they’re working.  They process information, they put things together, they build pathways that are needed to retrieve and use that information all while we aren’t consciously thinking about it.  This is one reason that sufficient sleep is critical.  That literal unconscious break in activity gives your brain the time to put it all together.

Coaches need to very critically assess how much practice is appropriate for their own team and when it might be more appropriate NOT to practice.  My girls needed the summer to fully process the previous season.  I pushed them last year on a number of levels and it’s possible I (who me?? nahhh) overloaded them with all that instruction.  Did I make a mistake?  It depends on what my goals were.  Our team’s primary goals are long term.  Sure we had season goals for last year but the longer term goals are a higher priority so, I felt as a coach that I could spend a season cramming them with information, then give them the summer to process knowing that when they came back this fall things would make more sense.  Thankfully, it actually worked out that way.  So, is every team like that?  Of course not.  Every single team is different and that coach, is where you come in.  We want to give them as much as we possibly can but we have to be very aware of the amount of information and instruction that actually GETS THROUGH!

This concept of taking a break features in the theory of periodisation in season planning.  Periodisation is the concept of breaking the season into chunks or “periods” so that peak performance is achieved at the appropriate time.  This includes having appropriate breaks within and between periods to allow for both physical recovery and mental processing.

The lesson summary?  Teams need time to process what you’re teaching them.  The amount of time needed depends on the team, the coach, the amount and type of information you want to get through to your athletes.  Just one more difficult thing to consider as part of your coaching duties.

Big Lesson #2.

Team dynamics can be fostered but never forced.  This was my team’s first event together and while they had spent a fair amount of time together, it had been all social time.  Hanging out with good people isn’t the same as working with them towards a common goal.  The pressure of performance shows a different side of how people interact.  As a coach, all you can do is create an atmosphere within your team that will allow your athletes to perform together but at the end of it all, if they can’t work together, there is nothing you can do to make it happen.  Sometimes you just have to let it go.  On the flip (and positive) side, if you do create conditions that allow teams to come together, then magic can happen.

What are those conditions? Well, again, sorry but this is team dependent!  It’s a critical task of the coach to evaluate what your team needs in order to be allowed to come together.  One example of something I believe is always needed is the idea of creating an honest and open environment in the team.  I’ll explain.  I made a mistake this weekend on a time out and struggled (for a millisecond…) about whether to tell the team about it.  In a nutshell, I had the team call a shot with a certain goal in mind that wasn’t necessarily the goal we HAD to pursue. In the end, I explained my mistake, what it was and why I believe I made it.  I feel that being honest with them about that and modeling open, honest behaviour is a KEY element in creating an atmosphere where good team dynamics can flourish.

For coaches, sometimes  building a good atmosphere for team dynamics means standing back.  Almost always it means giving the teams and players responsibility for their own team.   It means being the boundary keeper rather than the director.  It can hit us in the ego a bit but if we are to be truly effective as coaches we have to remember what we’re really doing here.  It’s not about us.

As usual, none of this is ever easy.  Coaching isn’t an easy job, just a worthwhile one.

Love to coach.

Here We Go Again!

Wow so, apparently I’ve not been online much based on the activity on my own blog.  Well, that’s not true and there is a ton of stuff to update and talk about.  Right now though, I think I’ll do a quick refresher for beginning the year.

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to have been a coach at the OCA’s Bantam HP camp held in KW.  The camp was a great success with eight teams of eager curlers (and coaches!) attending to try to get their year started off right.  So, some of you might ask, where is the best place to start?

If you’ve read through my ramblings, you’ll know that I place a high value on goal setting.  Certainly this has to be close to the very top of the list after you’ve formed your team.  I personally try to have our goal setting session around May prior to the summer because I want to make sure we have incorporated goals around preparation on things like mental toughness and physical fitness.  It’s far too late to start considering physical fitness for your curling team in September.  Start with goals.  Believe it or not, if you do a good job of goal setting, much of the rest of what you need to do follows in a fairly straightforward way.

Another task that needs to be addressed early (very early…) is your team’s schedule.  It feels to me like the bantam / junior curling year starts earlier and earlier every year.  I’m sure there’s a sarcastic comment about my age just waiting to be revealed by that last statement but my bantam girls team is playing in a spiel in two weeks, mid September.  The Carleton Heights Junior spiel goes on Labour Day weekend.  Many clubs particularly in smaller centers don’t even get ice in until mid-October or later.

Goals are now set, schedule is now set.  If you’ve taken care to do both of those things well then honestly, the next thing is to get to work!  With no ice, this means taking time to work on those warm side of the glass items that should be in your season goals.  Things like strategy, teamwork, communication all can be addressed at this point with regular meetings.  Now is the time to get jacked up for the season.  Whatever it takes, go do it!

Short entry this time and hopefully that means I’ll be able to get more of them out there more often.  Cheers all!

It WAS My Team…

Wow, Olympics huh?  Our very own Brad Jacobs gets off to a slowish start then like a train rumbles through the field to get to the playoffs.  Jennifer Jones, well, what can you say?  The first team to go though the round robin at the Olympics undefeated!  You have to love the heart both of these teams has shown throughout the qualifying process and the games themselves.  Personally, they make me proud to be Canadian.  Okay, enough cheerleading (go Teams Canada!!).  This entry does stem from that “heart” that our teams have shown and examines a question that isn’t new in curling but does keep coming back over and over.

The “Great Britain” team (um Scotland for those of you who aren’t up on English politics) is composed of five players.  The core of the team, that is the vice, second and lead all played with and exceptional skip named Tom Brewster.  Tom took that team to two consecutive World Curling Championship finals which in of itself is an amazing feat.  The team is relatively young but Tom was able to corral them into a curling force to be reckoned with.  If you’ve been following the games and Team Great Britain in particular, you’ll see that Tom is there but he’s mostly sitting on the bench with Great Britain’s Swedish born coach, Soren Gran.  The sport federation in Great Britain has decided to use this five man rotation in the games as they think it is the best shot they have at capturing a medal.

This concept of “subbing” in players or rotating them is not popular in Canada however I think it’s time we asked if the concept of the “home grown” team is actually the best model for building championship teams.  The United States is in an uproar over their poor showing in curling at these Sochi Olympics and are starting to look at what can be done to improve that.  There is some very good thinking going on there that includes questioning the model of the home grown team for championships.

Let’s go back first and understand what I mean by “home grown” teams.  As most of us know, in curling, teams are generally formed by the players themselves.  This happens in a number of ways but usually they start with players of a like mind from within a club.  As they improve they may adjust line ups by casting a wider net towards other clubs or at the highest levels, other provinces.  Coaches become involved with teams through a myriad of different ways but in general, teams pick the coaches.  Now I love our game but this is a fairly unique situation for a team sport, particularly an Olympic sport.  It’s much more common for a sporting association to have coaches ready to choose team members and assemble the teams.  It’s much more common in individual sports (such as figure skating) for the athletes to choose their own coach.

As an aside, why is this?  I think it’s important to think about that.  I think it becomes fairly clear that if two individuals don’t get along then it’s unlikely they’ll function well as a “coach-athlete” pair.  Individual competitors then take great care to choose a coach they can work with.  Team coaches need a different skill set to balance group dynamics.  Curling is a hybrid of these requirements.  Because teams are relatively small, curling coaches are like individual coaches that coach teams.

In Canada, our counter argument to the “choose a team” model has always been that it’s impossible to create the team dynamics required to be successful with that method, and yes, we have tried to disastrous results.  We say it’s virtually impossible to have a team bond to the extent required, but is this true?  First, you have to decide how important this “team bonding” thing is.  Curling is a small team sport making it fairly unique (small team meaning only four or five members as opposed to say, a hockey team with 20 members).  Each member of this small team have a number of important jobs to do that don’t just require them making shots.  They need to work to make their team mates shots as well.  There are split second communications that need to be completely understood and executed.  There is a level of trust and honesty that is required in order to make good decisions during a game.  Can these conditions only be created over a long period of playing together?  I’m not so sure.

Now, you’re asking if I’m a proponent of this “All Star” approach to building a curling team.  I am not but I’m not saying it can’t work.  It’s been my experience as a coach that the greatest impediment to success that most teams face is that of team dynamics.  It’s incredibly difficult to find four players who can deal with each other in the heat of battle over and over.  It’s not just personalities that get in the way either.  Players need to have common goals, common levels of commitment and a common view towards how to achieve those goals in order to get along.  If they don’t share this, eventually cracks will form that will negatively affect their on ice performance.  IF there was a comprehensive process for getting into the heads of players to really get to the core of their beliefs and attitudes and IF you could find four really good players with similar enough (how similar is enough??) attitudes and IF they were all sufficiently talented and IF you could teach them to communicate effectively in a short amount of time then I do believe you could create an All Star type team that could be successful.  I don’t believe there is a process that can do all of this and hence, don’t believe we are ready to implement the All Star process into our sport.

How do other sports do it then?  Well, first what sports are we talking about?  Let’s take Canada’s second favourite ice sport, hockey.  What’s the difference there?  There are actually a lot of differences but the biggest is this.  In curling, we have one player who basically directs the team throughout the game.  This dynamic is very unique in team sports and changes the requirements for the teams and how they work together.  In curling, you have a “boss” who is also your teammate.  What other sport is like that?  In a sport like hockey, you have your positional requirements but any real “direction” comes from the coach.  Another difference is something I mentioned before, that being team size.  So you don’t like the second line left winger?  Whatever, as long as he’s in position when you pass it there, it’s fine.  You don’t need to make any decisions together, in fact, you don’t really even need to talk to that player to be successful.  Curling is a much more personally interactive team sport.

Another consideration is the amateur nature of curling, and I use the term literally.  The US is arguing that you would never let a home grown basketball team compete in the Olympics, so why would you do so in curling?  Well, one factor (at least in the US) is that the basketball team is made up of professional players who are doing a job for a lot of money.  Professional players of any sport approach the sport as a literal business.  We curlers do not and even when money is being made in the sport, we do not yet see our game as a business.  Have you ever seen a player “trade” in our sport? Now, that is not to say our curling athletes are not as committed as professional players, it’s only meant to illustrate the difference in attitude towards the sport itself.  Players making six figures damn well better do what it takes to win.  Amateurs are still doing it primarily for the love of the game.

So, it’s my considered opinion that curling isn’t at the point where we can make “All Star” style teams work at the highest level.  The conversation is valuable however and important if we want to push the sport to it’s highest potential.  We have a beautiful and unique sport in curling and its worth considering what makes it tick.

Take  quick watch….What do you think?



They Deserved It

So Canada’s Olympic curling qualifying process has come with a couple of teams that we figure we’ll send to the Sochi Russia.  It was a fantastic week of curling that produced a few surprises particularly on the men’s side (Koe?? Howard??) though you only have to take a second glance at the field to see that maybe, just maybe we should have expected one or two of the “great” teams to have some difficulty. It was a ridiculous field for anyone to have any thoughts of dominating yet, I think both of our newly minted Team Canada’s did just that.  In my opinion, they deserved to win and it’s that concept of “deserving” to win the prompted this particular entry.  If you follow my ramblings you’ll recall that I previously stated that “realistically” only a couple of the teams from the “Road to the Roar” really have a shot at winning the Roar itself.  Interesting then that the final featured both teams that qualified from the Road to the Roar.  It sort of makes you realize that maybe it’s not so easy to pick a sure winner or that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  You choose.

Just prior to the Roar of the Rings, Ontario held it’s Junior Men’s and Women’s regional playdowns.  The winners from those events get a chance to compete for the Provincial title and one of them will represent Ontario at Nationals.  That’s a big deal.  If any of you follow junior curling in Ontario, you’ll be familiar with a number of names that tend to do well at the competitive spiels held in Southern Ontario and typically those are the teams that will end up playing at provincials.  This year however, a number of those teams did not qualify for provincials on both the men’s and women’s side.  This “upset” (and I use the quotation marks on purpose) caused a lot of discussion about “who deserves” to be at provincials.  This discussion got fairly heated and a number of teams and players who made it through to provincials were bashed around a bit because they “didn’t deserve” it.

In my opinion, this is a fairly silly argument.  For me, it’s simple.  If you won, you won and you deserve your shot.  If you lost, I feel badly for you but you lost so no trip to the next round.  That’s why we bother playing the games folks.  There are always going to be teams that feel that they put in more than others but that only means you’re improving your chances at making that next round, it doesn’t guarantee anything.

Take this view to the Roar of the Rings.  Who at that competition didn’t work their butts off to get there?  Any of them?  Of course not.  They all knew what was at stake and they all knew that in order to have a shot they would have to put everything they had into preparing for it.  There was a lot of online chatter too after the Roar from many teams that didn’t get through but I have yet to see anything that sounds at all like “they didn’t deserve to win”.  Every team in Winnipeg knew that all out preparation was just their ticket to the show.  It guaranteed them nothing except entry and that is the potentially devastating part of sport. It’s the fallacy that you actually have control.  Any mental prep coach can tell you (right Nicole?) that you CANNOT control outcomes.  You might think you can control your shot, until it picks, or until your sweepers over brush it, or until the ice gets soft in your slide path or….get it?  You can’t.  You can’t control outcomes of shots or games or competitions.  You can only control how you approach them and how you deal with the outcomes.  A good coach can help you keep various outcomes in perspective by keeping your expectations appropriate and by helping you deal with hard situations.

In my opinion (I say that a lot don’t I?) everyone who competes deserves to win.  You put yourself out there and should get some reward for it.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Great coaches maintain perspective and don’t judge themselves or their athletes on outcomes.

As a side note, I’m honoured to know people on both our Men’s representatives and Women’s and get all tingly just thinking about those fantastic people getting to go to an Olympic games for Canada.  Sochi is going to be a great ride and I’m really looking forward to getting a picture with my friends and their gold medals after it’s all said and done.  Go CANADA!!

Certified or Certifiable?

This weekend saw the beginning of the Ontario Junior playdowns with the zone competitions running across the province.  Somewhere in the group of men’s and women’s teams are a pair of teams that will represent Ontario at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships in Liverpool, NS January 18 -26, 2014.  If it seems early for this (being November and all) it isn’t.  The Junior curling season starts and ends earlier than the standard club season because a lot of levels of play have to be stuffed into the calendar.

This season the OCA rules committee decided that coaches at all levels of junior men’s and women’s competitions up to provincials must be Competition Coach Certified.  This has a very specific meaning within the NCCP (National Coaching Certification Program) and without making it complicated, it means the coach must have been trained as a Competition Coach, completed an online Making Ethical Decisions test and have been evaluated by a certified Evaluator.  It’s not a short process and the goal of the program is to make sure those coaches who are coaching at playdowns have been trained in the methods promoted by the CCA and are proficient at applying those methods.  It applies a rigor to the coaching art.

The OCA rules committee also has determined that all coaches coaching at Bantam boys and girls competitions (at all levels) must ALSO be Competition Coach Certified.  Now, there is always some confusion around what the OCA does, the CCA’s involvement and who the NCCP is so let me try to de-mystify this.  First, the NCCP is administered in Ottawa for all sports in Canada who receive federal funding.  They set the guidelines and advise sports bodies on what they believe are best practices with respect to coaching in general.  The NCCP also sets up the general format for coaching certification and training.  That format for coaching certification is surprisingly similar across sports in Canada because it all comes from the NCCP.   Sport bodies pay close attention to this and apply it to their sports because if they don’t, they don’t get to keep their federal funding!  The CCA (Canadian Curling Association) is responsible for applying the guidelines set out by the NCCP to our sport across Canada.  They take the best practices as outlined to us by the NCCP and make it work for curling.  They develop the detailed information that will be taught at the various levels and streams of coaching for our sport.  This is a monumental undertaking that literally takes years of dedicated work by some of our sports best minds. It’s not simply a book thrown together.  They also plan out and develop how the technical material will be delivered to new coaches or developing coaches.  The CCA literally writes the curling book for us coaches here in Canada.

Finally the provincial body, in our case the OCA (Ontario Curling Association) puts that work into practice by administering the coaching courses and conducting the evaluations.  This takes a great deal of co-operation between a number of layers of bureaucracy and in Canada, it’s been done very well.  We lead the world in our technical understanding and broadcast of coaching education in the sport of curling.

Nice info Sean but, so what?  I mean you start with playdowns then ramble into NCCP, the question really is, have you finally lost it completely?  No.  I actually haven’t.  I provided the background on the coaching course development and application so that I could talk to this point.  The OCA has another responsibility besides application of the CCA coaching material.  A separate branch of the OCA (specifically the rules committee) determines how the varying levels of coaching education will be applied within the OCA run competitions, commonly known as “playdowns”.  This year, after years of discussion, the OCA finally made it law that coaches have to be Competition Coach Certified to enter into OCA playdowns.   As an OCA Learning Facilitator, OCA Evaluator and “about town” curling coach, I have heard 1000 different opinions on this decision, most of them unfavourable.  I have listened patiently to those complaints and usually have kept my own thoughts on this to myself.  Now, for the first time world wide, I am unveiling my opinions on this volatile subject.

The most frequent complaint I hear is that it will push kids out of the sport if certified coaches are required.  Let’s be clear here, certified coaches are ONLY required at OCA playdowns.  There are dozens of spiels, both recreational and competitive that do not require any level of coaching certification at all. Nothing is impeding kids from playing in those and trust me, curlers can be quite busy playing in competitive spiels.  Playdowns are not fun spiels.  They lead to provincial and national titles and if you’re entering them, there is some part of you that is aiming to that.  If you are even semi-serious about pursuing this, why would you not want a certified coach?

The next most frequent complaint I hear is “but they’re just kids, why do you need such rigor for the kids?”  My reply is this; when are kids learning the most about the fundamentals of the sport?  I’ll tell you from experience, it’s not when they’re 18.  It’s when they’re starting out, which is anywhere from age 6 to 13.  THAT is when they need the most knowledgeable coaches working with them to help them improve.  And yes, that means I believe that the CCA program is the best path to the development of knowledgeable coaches.

You can argue perhaps that maybe Competition Coach certification is a big step as your first foray into the coaching world.  Yup.  I would argue that if you aren’t serious about coaching, you shouldn’t bother.   I’m passionate about this point.

The only issue I have with any of the NCCP lead, CCA developed, OCA applied coaching system is that we are starting to see people new to the sport entering the coaching stream as prospective Competition Coaches.  Previously, there was a pre-requisite before new coaches could attain this level but again, without making it overly complicated, now there isn’t.  I would personally like to see some mechanism in place that ensured prospective Competition Coaches were at least familiar with the sport before being allowed to take the course.  This is, however, a minor point because the evaluation process is designed to ensure that “new” Competition Coaches aren’t CERTIFIED until they prove they know their stuff.  That aspect of the program is a checkpoint that “tests” coaches, specifically around their knowledge and ability to apply the knowledge.

Yes, this post was a rant and it’s mostly born from the virtual flood of complaints I’ve endured lately.  I don’t necessarily see myself as a conformist and I had a LOT of questions about the “new” coaching system when it was first introduced to me but I had very smart curling people explain it to me and I have come to embrace it as the best path we currently have.  Sure, someday it will all change and hopefully for the best but for now, I see more upsides than downsides.

Good coaching to you all.


My Side or Yours?

This curling thing we do is a very “sided” game to play.  By that, I mean that when we play our favourite game we are very definitely “righties” or “lefties”.  There has not to my knowledge been a successful switch hitter, uh, thrower in the roaring game.  This side bias certainly exists in other sports, just think of baseball where a hitter has a preferred side of the plate for swinging the bat and where they wear their catching glove on one hand, throwing with the other.  This matters in baseball.  A lot!  Managers go through considerable mental effort going over rosters and pitching matchups particularly when they need to make substitutions.  The handedness of the pitcher is considered carefully because a like handed pitcher is generally more successful against a like handed hitter.  Consider too how this affects, say the first baseman.  Left handed first basemen are prized for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they wear their gloves on the big side of the field and not closest to the line.  Lefties on first also have a positional advantage when it comes to the pick off from the pitcher.  All this simply serves to show that our physical preference for one hand or the other is in play in practically all sports.  Curling is no exception.

There is, for instance, a significant difference in the line of delivery to a single broom placement for righties and lefties.  This assumes the use of the no lift delivery of course, where the start point of the stone is closer to the toe of the hack foot, rather than the center line.  Brushing effectiveness is another place where our handedness affects our performance.  It’s been proven that a closed stance is more effective than an open stance.  In case this means nothing to you, a closed stance is essentially the stance where you need to stand somewhat sideways facing the stone in motion.  So if you hold your broom in a “left” grip (that is with the left hand high and right hand low), the closed stance means you’ll be on the left side of the stone as seen from the throwing hack.  The same grip swept from the right side of the stone as seen from the throwing hack is an open stance because your hips and shoulders are open to the direction of the path of the stone.  I’m a right handed thrower.  I’m a left handed sweeper.  Yes, it’s not common but it happens and it affects how I sweep considerably.

Now, I know you’re saying, so what?  Sure we know this but what is the point?  Well, it just so happens that recently I was out in a practice with some of my favourite curlers and this notion of sidedness came up.  It seems one of my players thought she was having a problem with her out turn (counterclockwise because she’s a righty) and my other player thought she was having a similar problem with her in turn (clockwise because…yes, she’s a righty too).  Before making any judgements, I studied my players and their deliveries.  I went back to basics and that meant I didn’t start with any assumptions or in fact even observations about their turns.  I looked first to their timing, or sequence of movements.  Everything seemed to be just fine there so I moved on to their line of delivery.  We went through and exercise designed to see just how straight along the slide path they were sliding.  My out turn problem player’s first slide was perfect.  Right up the line.  My in turn problem player’s first slide was also perfect.  Second slides for both? Not so good.  The difference was this.  My out turn problem was sliding beautifully up the left side of the sheet.  My in turn problem was sliding beautifully up the right side of the sheet.  When they switched sides, it all fell apart.  Both of them were sliding wide on their problem sides, out turn wide on the right, in turn wide on the left.

It wasn’t the handle or grip that was causing the problem, it was something lower in triangle of skills we need to assess.  It turns out what looked like a “handle problem” was nothing of the sort.  It was in fact, a “side of the sheet” problem, they only thought it was a handle issue because on those sides of the sheet, those are the handles they most often throw.  Sidedness was a major contributor to why they were missing shots, not handle.

As coaches, this aspect of the game needs to be in our minds at all times.  Skips have preferences for handles, so do players.  Brushers prefer one side of the stone over the other (sometimes).  Our players strengths and weaknesses can very often be identified by some sort of sided preferences.  Helping our athletes mirror their motion on both sides of whatever aspect of the game we’re working on is critical to consistency.  Even our physical preperation needs to address the fact that we get into a very specifically sided position over and over throughout game play.  How often do you right handed players stretch out in a left handed delivery position?  Physical trainers who are knowledgable about curling will tell you that if you really want balance in the game, you’ll work both sides of your body equally.

Next time you’re out there watching your players keep in mind this concept of sidedness when trying to detect errors.  It might save you a lot of work!