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.

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!

True North Strong and…Different

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games are officially in the books and well, wow.  Once again Canada has come out of the Winter Games looking like a powerhouse of winter sport.  The accomplishments of our athletes at these games cannot be overstated but we should take a moment and reflect on this phenomenon because you see, it wasn’t always like this.

It’s worth looking back a ways, all the way back to say, the Nagano games in 1998.  In those games we considered ourselves a winter Olympics type country sure but how did we fare?  We won women’s gold in curling and men’s silver.  Six gold medals for our athletes and a total of 15 medals overall.  All in all, this was considered a respectable showing, not amazing and not unduly disappointing.  Four years later in 2002 we had what I’ll call a “similar” showing by capturing 17 medals in total, 7 of them gold.  Nice, nothing spectacular but…respectable.

As Canadians we tend to have a very particular attitude about these things.  We strive for respectability and except for a very few areas, we are rarely inclined to take the risks required to push for something beyond that respectability. We don’t want to step on toes and we don’t want to look bad in our attempts.  Generally, we are satisfied looking “good enough” for the most part.

Fast forward to July 2, 2003.  Suddenly, good enough, isn’t.  On this date Vancouver was awarded the rights to hold the the XXI Olympic Winter games and suddenly, we were going to be hosting the world.  Now, we had done this before.  In 1988 Calgary hosted a very successful Olympics.  Successful in that we didn’t mess anything up.  Canada won a total of 5 medals in Calgary, none of them gold.  Everyone else had a great time, we smiled and waved, thanked them all for coming then moved on.  From a competitive standpoint, we barely showed up.  Privately, this hurt.  It hurt our pride to host the games and barely be there when it came time to hand out medals.

Vancouver had to be different.  This time, as a host nation we weren’t simply going to host the games, no, we were going to show the world what this nation could do.  February 2004 saw an unparalleled meeting of the Canadian sporting minds.  Canada’s 13 winter national sport organizations, Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Sport Canada, WinSport Canada and VANOC all met to develop a plan that would become known as Own the Podium.  The goal was no less than being the top nation at our own Olympic Winter Games in 2010.  We had six years and one Olympic Games to work on our plan and so it was game on.

New approaches to sport in Canada were pushed.  Funding for coaching and athlete development went up to levels never before seen and what did it get us?  In 2006, just two years after the initialization of this project, Canada captured 24 medals in Turino, including our first men’s gold in curling.  Suddenly the nation was awakened.  Seven more medals than we had in the previous Games.  No longer were we seeing the Olympics as a hockey tournament with some added events, no, we saw the games as a stage where we could show the world what Canada was truly made of.  We had shown off our “True”, “North” and “Free” parts long enough, now it was time for the “Strong” to show through.  We discovered something else in Turino.  We discovered as a country, that though we are for the most part comfortable with our image as a congenial people, we also very much enjoyed the image as “winners” and fierce competitors.  We came, we saw, we won and we liked it.

The results from Turino stoked a fire for Canadians.  The country got behind the leadership of the Own the Podium project and we all started to believe that maybe, just maybe, we really could win those Vancouver Olympics.  Funding continued and so did the efforts of coaches and athletes across the nation.  Getting there and looking good wasn’t good enough anymore.  We wanted more.

Vancouver was a triumph for our nation.  We hosted a fantastic event but that wasn’t the sole goal.  We stormed the games.  We won 26 medals with more than half of those (14) gold and we truly showed the world what Canadian strength is.  Still, we were very much in danger of reveling in our own success.  We risked patting ourselves on the back and simply saying, “job complete, well done.”  Within the curling world there was much speculation and consternation about the potential drop in  funding levels post Vancouver.

What we saw however was that Canada as a nation liked success.  We enjoyed being successful and rather than ramping down Own the Podium, we kept it up.  We kept working towards the next opportunity to show what Canada had to offer.  And that’s where the everything changed.  We started out trying to make a big splash at our own Olympics but discovered that we were comfortable in our role as champions and weren’t all that eager to give it up.  More than that, we all truly started to believe in ourselves.  Sochi showed this belief. The vibe from Russia was different, even from Vancouver.  In 2010 we were somewhat surprised at ourselves.  Pleasantly surprised for sure but wow, look what we did.  In Sochi, we expected it more.  We had more faith that our champion athletes would succeed against the best in the world.  In curling, for instance, Jennifer Jones and her rink were the class of the field.  They stormed that tournament.  For the men, I personally fielded any number of questions from friends asking “what was wrong with the men?”.  I found it easy to tell them all to relax, to have faith.  Brad Jacobs was the best we had to offer and our best is THE best.

Post Sochi, things are different.  Canada has swagger.  We have a new belief that we really (honestly) are the best and finally we feel no need to apologize for it.  This country has been on a decade long journey to get here.  What we need to do is recognize how we got here, thank those athletes who put us on top and then get back to work.  The world is going to be coming after us and for the first time in a very long time we’re ready to to say “bring it”.

 

 

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?

http://www.youtube.com/watchv=hgnaKfQUBhA&list=PLMYWJ8myLUEiWfXw4wNq8jXnMx6he67t_#t=77

 

 

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!