Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

If there is any question I get asked more than any other it’s, “How does a curler practice”? The traditions of our game, which are held in such high esteem, and rightly so, let us down somewhat here. We do not have a tradition of practicing in our game. Indeed, for decades, one’s skill was honed by playing, not practicing. The farmers who were the heart and soul of curling in western Canada played upward of 200 games per season and rarely threw so much as one practice stone. But those days are over! For the curlers who aspire to greater heights of accomplishment in the sport, to ignore well-designed practice sessions, is like leaving much of their game in the locker room while their opponent takes all of theirs to the ice. Teams across the country are forsaking some league play, securing a qualified coach, and are learning and mastering the skills required to play the game at its highest levels.

Before we get too far into the article, let’s make one thing perfectly clear (can’t you just see the ghost of Richard Nixon saying that, jowls failing). I’m not just talking about the get-to-the-club-and-throw-stones type of practices. Some of the most valuable work that a team does is accomplished nowhere near a curling facility. I a er ability to execute their portion of the total team effort. Just as important, it sends a positive message to the team that he/she is willing to follow through on the commitment made early in the season to be the best that he/she can be. An individual who regularly practices, spreads a contagious virus that affects the whole team.

Friend and colleague, Jim Waite, cautions all within the sound of his voice to never just throw rocks. To hear our national coach say it, “Every rock delivered must have a purpose”. Practice the shots that you are most frequently asked to execute in a game. I recall as a high school basketball player in the ’60’s (that’s the 1960’s) my coach coming to me in a practice asking why I was shooting jump shots from the corner when I played point guard and never got to the corner of the court. Good question! The correct answer is that you should practice the shots you use in a game. I have said this before and I suspect I shall continue to encourage teams to record their history. Over the course of several games, hard data gathered will reveal the types of shots the team actually uses and therefore the shots the players should be practicing. Again, I am NOT referring to shooting statistics necessarily. Simply record the shots the team actually plays. The success or lack of same will, of course, indicate the time one should spend on various shots. Oh, yes, one other note. It’s much better to practice for a shorter duration frequently than to practice for an extended time rather sporadically. Eight shots up and back (with meaning) each day is better than one two hour practices each week!

OK, let’s get to it. You’ve arrived at the club. Ice 4 is yours for the next 40-60 min. Some stretching in the club lounge or change facility is an absolute must. Get those connective tissues ready for a workout. An aerobic component such as on-the-spot jogging or an actual light run around the perimeter of the ice surface is a great idea (huff, puff). Some practice slides are certainly in order but, like delivering a shot, don’t just slide into “never never land”. Pick out a target and slide to it. For heaven’s sake, a slide is worth doing right if it’s worth doing at all. Grab a plastic or paper cup and slide at it so that your sliding foot strikes the cup. No, put that stone back. This is the balance and slide portion of your individual practice session. We’ll get to the stone later. Be patient!

Since you don’t have a stone in hand, hold your delivery hand where the handle of the stone would normally be. That’s great practice for your follow-through anyway. Hold it in the “handshake position” as you slide. For those of you who are regular readers of this august publication, I might refer you to last month’s issue and the article on “Straight, Simple and Silent” and you’ll know what I mean. What, you pick up your issues at the club! Well spend a few dollars and get your own copies delivered right to your door. I do! When you practice your slides, don’t use the same leg drive each time. Vary that along with the line of delivery.

And now for the piece de resistance (and my parents thought I wasn’t paying attention in French class in high school). Slide without your brush (or in the case of some you, your “delivery device”). I believe that this is important as much from a confidence perspective as a technical one. In fact, I would encourage players to deliver without a brush whenever possible in practice. The key to the curling delivery is balance. To deliver without a brush, balance must be perfect!

If you can beg, borrow or rent a video recording device, it can be invaluable in an individual practice session. Set the camcorder on the boards aimed at the delivery hack at the other end of the sheet. Zoom in as close as possible. Press the record function and deliver at the camera (use both rotations and various weights). Set a brush against the wall behind the camera if it makes you more comfortable. Move the camcorder to various lines of delivery positions. Take it home after the practice. Pop it into the v.c.r. Pop the popcorn (low fat) and you’ll see what your skips sees. “Yikes, is that me?” With reference to “Straight, Simple and Silent” from last month, ask yourself the “why” questions as you see your delivery.

If you can talk a friend into assisting you, they can be invaluable at this point in the practice especially if you use internal timing. What’s that? You don’t use it? Well, get into the 90’s. It’s real value is in practice. It’s where the “other” systems break down. Without stealing next month’s thunder let me just say that by using interval timing, you can turn a slow sheet of ice into greased lightning (goes with the “thunder’ metaphor rather nicely don’t you think?). Get your friend to time your shots from the back line to the near hog line. Try repeating the time, time after time until you get that particular weight “locked”. Then move on to another time and get it “locked”. Don’t worry where the stones end up. Who cares? What’s important is that you delivered the stone with a prescribed weight. When you get good at that, see if you can guess the interval time before you get the actual time from your friend. That’s when you really begin to develop weight control.

If your friend isn’t too cold by this time, get him/her to hold a brush for and give you some instant feedback regarding your release and line of delivery. Hopefully, he/she will remain your friend as the hard news about your delivery becomes a reality.

As a conclusion to an individual session, I like to play two ends against my toughest opponent, ME! Of course I win the coin toss and take last stone in the first end. But seriously, play the end (from both perspectives [offence for one team and defence for the other] as you know your team would). The two ends don’t have to be the first two ends of the game. Play a particular “two end” situation. If your friend is still there and not warming up in the lounge, get him/her to position the camcorder in the line of the delivery on the backboards before each shot is delivered so that your at home viewing can be very interesting indeed.

While we’re at it, let’s take a page out of the Penny LaRocque book of preparation and draw your last practice shot to the pin to win the Canadian championship. Now get into the lounge and buy that friend something warm to drink while you do your all-important cool down exercises. No cheating here, hear?! Now, let’s deal with the full blown team practice.

While in teachers’ college one of the profs said that you’ll know if you’re a teacher or a coach if you plan your team practice before the English lesson. Guess, what? Coach Bill here! And planning is what makes a practice, a practice, and not just ice time. Your athletes want to see you pull out the written practice plan and see you refer to it even if it means a momentary pause on the action ’cause practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. To a coach, planning an effective practice is akin to an athlete having draw weight in his/her back pocket. Walking away from a great practice for a coach is a feeling like nothing else (well, OK, having your team win the Brier or the Scott perhaps). What then are the elements of a good team practice?

FOCUS – There should be a central theme for the practice. Without revealing it to the players in so many words, it should be evident to them.

ROUTINE – Parts of each and every practice should be business as usual. Perhaps a particular drill is repeated frequently or one of the team’s pre-game practices is rehearsed (yes, you read correctly, rehearsed).

INNOVATION – For variety, try something new as frequently as possible. It doesn’t have to be a roaring success. That’s how ” Drills To Die For” [Advice from coaches]) came to be.

INDIVIDUAL – Each player should feel that you gave him/her some time that was just for him/her. The players should leave a practice feeling as though they now understand part of the curling delivery, or brushing technique etc. better or they have improved that aspect and are now more confident.

TEAM – Some of the drills and practice modalities should be aimed directly at the team as a unit. Be sure to employ team drills.

MAXIMIZE ICE TIME – Don’t stand around any more than necessary. The players want to be active. Don’t spend time explaining something on the ice which could have be dealt with in the curling lounge or locker facility.

SEASONAL – Your practice should reflect the point of the season in which the team finds itself. An early season practice for example will see the team spend much more time on the basics than it will just prior to a competition.

MENTAL/TECHNICAL – Some of the emphasis should relate to mental skills as well as technical.

HAVE FUN – You need an explanation?

When you plan your practice, take a page from our ice hockey brother and sister coaches. If a team spends 15% of its time on the power play, then 15% of its practice time should be spent in that area. If it kills penalties 10% of the time, then it should spend 10% of it’s practice time on penalty killing. In team practices, as I mentioned in the individual portion of this article, the time you spend on various aspects of the practice should come from hard data which you have gathered from the games your team has played.

Practice planning and execution is an art form. You’ll never have a perfect one but it’s the pursuit of excellence which is the essence of sport for players and coaches alike. Some coaches are excellent practice coaches and some are great game coaches. I’m clearly the former. My personal philosophy is that if you do your work in practice, the players will play like it. Sit back and enjoy the game.

Speaking of enjoyment, until next month when we have a closer look at timing systems, enjoy working with your athletes.

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