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Some thoughts on coaching competitive wheelchair curling in Canada
 

Technique is (almost) everything

While good technique is essential it is also individual; dependent on the physique of the individual curler.  It is therefore difficult and may even be intimidating to coach. The temptation is to assume that the wheelchair user understands how their body works, and that they will on their own arrive at an efficient delivery. This is a very big, and often false, assumption.

Not all wheelchair users are comfortable in their wheelchairs. The job of the coach will be to ensure that the wheelchair is a support and not an obstruction.  To do this the coach must understand the athlete's relationship to their wheelchair, as well as understand what movements the athlete's physique will allow.

A pendulum delivery, while appearing to allow a smooth motion that maximises delivery weight, has the huge disadvantage of making the curler triangulate between their head, the rock, and the target.  The negative effects of this triangulation can be reduced by removing wheel rims, or using narrow axles which have the effect of moving the rock closer to the head and narrowing the angle.  What tends to happen however, is the thrower leans across the chair, the better to line up the shot, at the same time destroying any chance of a balanced delivery.

Similarly unless the curler has a full set of trunk muscles they will need to anchor their body to the chair during delivery, typically by gripping the off wheel with their non-throwing hand. This ensures that their shoulders are not square when the rock is released, making it that much more difficult to throw accurately.

Unless it is necessary to use a pendulum delivery because sufficient weight is unobtainable any other way, a push delivery would seem to be preferable. 

There are two obvious push deliveries: sitting square to the target pushing a stone placed in front of the chair; and sitting at a 45° angle to the target and pushing away from the side of the rear wheel. Both deliveries avoid the triangulation of the pendulum delivery.

Maintaining the stability of your body through the delivery is vital. Anchoring your non-throwing arm in a way that twists your body at delivery cannot help accuracy. Any delivery made sitting square to the target should allow both shoulders to move forward at the same pace, remaining square at release. Trunk muscles might allow this without the need to anchor the off hand behind the rock. Absent trunk muscles, a way must be found to allow both shoulders to move forward at the same pace without the thrower falling out the chair.  A forward extension support on the offside may be an inexpensive and easily manufactured answer.

A better answer may be an angled push away from the side wheel where target, rock, hand, head and supporting off-arm, can all line up. Perhaps the only reason not to use this would be if it didn't generate sufficient weight.

Throwers tend to underestimate the negative effect that the chair moving at the time of delivery, has on their accuracy, perhaps because they are not necessarily even aware that the chair may have pivoted several inches during the delivery motion. This tendency is exaggerated the harder the rock is thrown. It’s surprising that so many throwers are allowed to execute what is in effect an illegal as well as a less than optimal delivery.

Most throwers cannot make an up-weight pendulum delivery without their un-braced wheels moving. That makes it very difficult to practice on your own, and makes it very easy to fall into bad habits. One of the advantages of an angled push delivery is that the off wheel is behind the stone and can be braced by the off arm, making the chair less prone to movement.

In conclusion while it might be sensible to have a default coached delivery, and I would suggest the angle push is the best choice, deliveries are likely to remain as individual as the musculatures of the athletes.  It will be interesting to see how proposed biometric analysis illuminates this issue.

Beyond technique

Format: If we were to start from scratch with wheelchair curling, four person teams would probably not be the best way to go. They suggest a relationship to the able-bodied game that doesn't really exist.  Wheelchair curling is not aerobic, not especially athletic, and not a team enterprise in the same way as able-bodied curling.

It is difficult to justify the presence on the ice of the lead and the second when they are not throwing; and in major competition it can be easily 30 minutes between throws.

Warm-up and hydration: Every wheelchair curler I've known has been casual about warm up, but if indeed that is important, it should be just as important to do a warm up routine during those 20 or 30 minute intervals of inactivity between ends, in the cold, on the ice. Hydration is also stressed by coaches, but frequent drinks of water have implications and inconveniences in wheelchair curling that often dissuade athletes from recommended fluid intake. If hydration is as vital as is so often stressed at training camps, then it needs to be built into on-ice routines,

Team roles: There is no reason why traditional team roles should follow the order in which the rocks are thrown.  The person with the skills needed by a skip could throw lead, second, or third. Likewise the traditional role of 3rd need not be played by the person throwing 3rd rocks.

Rules of play: WCF rules dictate mixed gender teams, a laudable goal. But statistically there are far fewer paraplegic female wheelchair users than males, and if we insist that at least 25% of participants are female, we artificially limit our potential for grassroots growth.

Similarly, though WCF rules guide international competition, they may not be best suited for informal play in a country where appreciation and participation in curling is as deep rooted as Canada. Our national team must take cognizance of them, but it is easy to imagine rules for the sport that are far more congenial to a wider range of wheelchair users than presently participate.

My feeling is we should welcome anyone into wheelchair curling in Canada who cannot for whatever reason participate in regular curling, bearing in mind that the national team must reflect WCF criteria.

Tactics

My impression is the effect of the absence of sweeping on the viability of shots called is underestimated. There's not a lot of point calling for a freeze, for example. Similarly delivering the rock from the centre line reduces the range of available draws. This has obvious implications for game calling

At the nationals last year it was obvious that Team Canada had decided they would be a hitting team.  That sounded plausible given how much able-bodied curlers rely on sweeping for an accurate draw game.  The problem with the hitting game, as was fully exposed in the final end of the gold medal game into Torino, was that you can't afford to miss if your opponents draw into the rings.  Additionally, and as it turned out almost catastrophically, hitting without sticking is almost as bad as missing, and an unswept “hit and stick” is just as difficult to execute as an unswept draw.

Drawing lead stones into the rings and challenging your opponents to execute accurate hits seems a winning tactic.

Though it is tempting for skips to call the shot they would like to see made, successful skips call shots that allow for a wide margin of error. If 50% or 60% is to remain an excellent shooting percentage, and I think that it will, then don't call a finesse game. Throw lots of stones in the house and take your chances.

Eric Eales
December 3rd, 2006

 
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