Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Let me just say the name of the sport out loud. Curling. What images does that word conjure up in your head? Perhaps you think of curly hair, or maybe…I don’t know some other non-straight thing. With respect to our sport however, it’s no coincidence in the name. Come to think of it “Curling” isn’t actually all that original. Maybe it should be called “Frozen Granite Rush” or “Super Slider Rock Smash” but it isn’t. The game is Curling. And what happens in this bizarrely named game? People slide rocks down a sheet of ice and on the way down they (can you guess?) curl. Stupid intro, I know but stay with me, I do get to a point here.

One of the first confusing things new curlers are taught is how to spin the stone when they release it. Specifically they are taught to rotate it clockwise or counterclockwise depending on what the skip is asking for. Often this turns out to be a little tricky seeing as most people see the signal for the rotation as opposite to what they expected. Most new curlers expect to have to throw it so it rotates towards the skips outstretched hand when in fact we skips are pointing to where we DON’T want you to throw it to. Now, I know many of the coaches out there have very effective techniques for explaining this and for that I applaud you. It does not change the fact that our convention for signalling a shot is intuitively backwards.

In any event, the rotation on that rock does in fact determine the direction of curl of the path of that stone. Now, the interesting thing is, why?!? Well, believe or not, no one actually knows! There are theories and some actual real scientists working on this but there are no definitive answers as of yet. Ultimately, the fact that the stones curl is what makes this game great. If they did not curl, this would be shuffleboard on ice and there would be practically no discussion of strategy. Instead, what we have due to some oddity of our physical world, is a fabulously rich and diverse game. For a great look at the phenomenon, take a look at this. Enjoy!

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!

Friends and Enemies

If you’re a curler in Ontario, okay Canada,  and follow the top level men’s play, you’ll know who Glenn Howard is.  You’ll also know who Craig Savill, Brent Laing, Wayne Middaugh, Richard Hart and Jon Mead are.  Of course you don’t really need to be from Ontario to recognize those names but if you’re from Ontario you’ve likely heard a bit more about the inner workings of this team than if you’re from somewhere else.  Last season a really interesting program about this team was broadcast on TSN, the Team Howard Rockumentary. If you haven’t seen it, it’s very much worth a look (try YouTube). In the program we see how this team functions from a behind the scenes view.  Granted it’s not really hard hitting journalism but as a curler and coach, I found it fascinating to see how these guys get along off the ice.

Truly, this group of guys are friends.  They hang around together, have similar interests (other than curling…) and generally get along well off the ice.  A personal story to add to this; Christmas of 2011 I was at the Tam Heather curling club watching a team I had coached that season play in the TCA Junior bonspiel.  Glenn Howard happened to also be there with his wife and some other friends watching their daughter Carly play.  After the game, in the very crowded lounge, I heard Glenn say that they “should go back to Richie’s, he only lives about 5 minutes from here.”  So what you say?  Glenn was talking about Richard Hart.  They were going to go visit Rich that evening to literally just hang out together.  What is the big deal you might still be asking?  Well at that point in time, Glenn and Rich were no longer playing together. Wayne Middaugh had replaced Rich after Rich retired.  The fact that Glenn and Rich were still close enough to simply get together one night speaks volumes about their personal relationship and about how close they had become while playing together.  These guys are friends!

If you’ve watched this team for long enough, you’ll realize that’s the way they roll.  They are friends.  Wayne was an easy addition to that team because Glenn and Wayne have been friends for years going way back to when Wayne played front end with Russ and Glenn.  The recent change on that team saw Rich come back to the fold, Wayne depart and Jon Mead come in at second.  How does that happen?  Well, as any of you know, when you’re out at competition, once the games are over there tends to be some…socializing.  Somewhere along the way, Glenn et al got to know Jon well enough that when teams started to readjust for the next Olympic cycle, a natural fit came to light.  Glenn, Rich and Craig know Jon well enough to want to play competitively with him, NOT just because he’s a good thrower.   So, I now ask you, from a curling team perspective, do you have to be friends with your team mates in order to be successful.  Lets look at both sides of that one.

Let’s start by asking why you are playing the game in the first place.  Are you a club team just out for a good time?  Are you a semi competitive team out to try to build into something more?  Are you a very competitive team trying to win something big?  The answer will help us because as we move up that competitive ladder, the game more and more resembles a professional sport.  I think that we can all agree that no one really gives a sploosh if all the members of the Toronto Maple Leafs are good buddies off the ice.  They’re paid an obscene amount of money to perform and any player using the excuse that “they don’t like their team mates” would be shipped off to another team fairly quickly.  Professionals have a job to do and their motivations are different than those of us in the amateur ranks.

Top level curlers aren’t strictly professionals (yet) but the notoriety and demands of the game at the highest levels means that there needs to be some semblance of professionalism in order to be successful.  Back at our level, in the clubs, why are we playing?  It sure isn’t for the money, it’s for the pure enjoyment of the game so it sure does help to play with people you like!  This is one of the major reasons that “Open Leagues” are finding some success in clubs.  They allow for people to simply play with people they like!

Back up the competition chain however, the question remains, do you have to be friends in order to be successful?  My cold hearted opinion is that no, you do not have to be friends to be successful.  HOWEVER as in every aspect of life, there are trade offs.  Friendship and camaraderie in a team, particularly a small team such as a curling team can help smooth the path when issues arise.  Teams that have that bonding in place have particular mechanisms built into their friendship that help them deal with issues.  If those “friend” mechanisms aren’t in place then other effective mechanisms are required.  Teams need to be more professional with respect to how they run themselves.  They need to have more strict mechanisms in place than the “friend” team.  All that being said, at some level, even players on the non “friend” teams need enjoy what they are doing at some level.

I will always maintain that an individual will never do their best if they don’t enjoy what they are doing.  If being on a particular team becomes too much of a chore then eventually that team will break and perhaps in a spectacular ( not the good kind of spectacular either) way.

 

Bottom line is, there are good examples of teams that perform because of the friendships within the team.  There are good examples of teams that perform because they build themselves into a “professional” model and put aside personal preferences.  Which style you as a player choose to pursue will depend on what you’re looking for.  What style you choose to be involved in as a coach will depend on the same thing.  Good luck.

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.