Thursday, 14 August 2008

Bowls Diaries

THIS week I’ve been trying out a sport so radical that it once incurred the wrath of royalty, threatened the future of the British military and was ultimately banned by Parliament... bowls!

When it comes to crown green bowls I’m a complete beginner, but I happen to know a couple of people who have been pretty successful at the sport and one of them agreed to help me out.

Andy Knott has been playing bowls for 25 years, was last year’s CSSC Welsh Champion, and a semifinalist at the British CSSC finals in Blackpool. If anyone could get me bowling it would be him.

Lining up for my first effort I was sure there was nothing to it, just roll the ball somewhere near, easy! As my shot veered away to the other side of the green however, I could tell from Andy’s expression that even for a beginner this was not the best of starts... time to go back to basics!

The sport of bowls dates back to the 13th century, when even the royals were at it, but as the game grew in popularity, it was banned by Parliament, fearful it would lure people away from their archery practice so essential to the military.

Statutes forbidding bowls and other sports were put into place during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, and even the name ‘bowls’ first appears in a law from 1511 in which Henry VIII proclaimed ‘labourers, apprentices, servants and the like are forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas - and then only in their master's house.’

Anyone caught playing bowls back then was liable to a fine of six shillings. I was afraid my bowling today was bad enough to warrant a spell in prison.

Starting out couldn’t be easier. A flat soled pair of shoes or trainers, a set of basic bowls (about £20 on ebay), then it’s off to your local club, in this case Whittington where they have teams of all ages competing at every level.

Getting kitted up might be easy enough, but there’s more to the game than I thought. I knew for example, that the bowls (or ‘woods’) are weighted to one side indicated by a coloured spot and curl in that direction, but even though you show your opponent which side you are using before you bowl, I still managed to forget on more than one occasion, my instructor watching patiently as the wood sailed merrily away in the opposite direction.

In my defence there’s a lot to think about, not least the dome shaped green, which I think is challenging enough, but combine it with the balls’ bias and all of a sudden it’s a whirlwind of lines and options, each requiring a different direction and accurate power. I’ve spent a lifetime in sports that require maximum power over short bursts, so the subtle finesse required for bowls proved a test all on its own.

It had been a long evening and I still hadn’t won a single point. Even with Andy deliberatly leaving me vast gaps to try and aim for, I either drew up short, or sent the ball sailing into the gutter. As the night drew in there was time for just one last effort.

“I’ve got my flat soled shoes, I’ve chosen to have the bias towards my thumbside, I’ve shown my opponent, I’ve picked out a line across the green, curling around the slope, I’ve carefully bowled out the yellow jack beyond the minimum 19metres and I’ve waited for it to stop... Here we go.”

I promptly send my first wood wildly off course, leaving Andy to put his effortlessly within a foot of the jack, but leaving me a hopeful gap.

“All I need to do is repeat the line and length of the jack and... hang on... no... I can’t believe it!.. It’s THERE!!”

The wood had stopped about 11inches from the jack and now there was just Andy’s last shot to go. I try to act casual, as though I’m not really bothered, while all the time willing him to trip over and wondering what the rules would say about tying an opponent’s shoelaces together.

If I’m honest I don’t think he had the heart to take that point away from me, his last wood stopping uncharacteristically short allowing me a tiny victory to take back home.

But that’s all it needs. It’s a frustrating sport, but quite compelling and even that one moment of luck was enough to make me want to try it again. Any ball game that can be banned by Parliament is alright with me!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

When is the time?

“When exactly do we go from being children to being just people? I do know it's not about turning a certain age or graduating from school. It happens when we’re not paying attention. We go from playing with our friends, to playing with our friends’ feelings.

"Without our knowledge or consent, childhood slips away in the night, and our innocence escapes us. And we wake up one morning to find we have become, who we are.” William Krudski

Hands up all those who feel older than they used to? Anyone? It’s something that’s been playing on my mind for a while now.

I look around at my friends, who are all starting to turn 30, and I don’t see the difference from when we were 11-years-old, going running or playing on our bikes, but do other people see us as older? I’m not sure it’s so straight forward as it used to be.

People’s fashions and tastes have changed so much. You think of the sixties, seventies and eighties and you thing of really bold images especially in the clothes people wore. You could see children of one era dressed very differently to their adults of another. Today the lines seem blurred. We are a mix and match decade of all the ones that went before, in clothes, music, architecture, everything! Even our politics seems generic.

Young people try to be older, old people try to be younger and we all get a bit lost in the middle.

Perhaps it’s not even as straightforward as that though.

My friends’ parents were married with children by 27 and for a long time that has been the norm, but I look at myself and my friends an I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It’s as though we’re the first generation to have been given the chance to keep hold of a large part of our childhood into our 20s, and are obviously in no hurry to give it up.

I look at those people from an older generation and it’s clear that they really are the same people underneath that they were in their 20s. In a way this period now for my generation should be the best time of all; young and energetic enough to do what we want, with the means at last to actually do it, without the responsibility that’s lying ahead of us, with some of our childhood dreams still intact.

It should be a magical time and perhaps a last chance to put any finishing touches to the blueprint of our lives.

We should be out there getting things done while we have the chance, not sitting here writing about it :) but I do like the thought that later in life I might be able to come back here, read my own thoughts and perhaps remember something of what it felt like to be in this time.

William Krudski says it best: “People say we’re growing up too fast. Sometimes they make it sound like it's our fault or at least, our choice, but how can we not? We feel invincible when we know so much. One thing I do know is that we're so eager to lose our innocence. And I wonder if one day we'll look back and wish we hadn't?"

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Karate Diaries

"Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand" Chinese proverb

Well we're in the post-season now, so I'm enjoying a well earned break from basketball. To keep things interesting though I went along to the Gobowen Kempo Karate Club to write a feature on them, so here are by Karate Diaries!

- Border Counties Advertizer June 25, 2008 -
"It's not just fighting Dave!" Back at college my old Chinese room mate was the national Shaolin Kung Fu champion and used to get frustrated when I asked about his fights, insisting that was just one aspect of martial arts.

I always wondered if that was really true, so I jumped at the chance to train with the Gobowen Kempo Karate Club and find out for myself what it's all about.

Thanks to my size and a dose of diplomacy, I've always been pretty successful in avoiding fights, but you wonder what you would do if given no other option. Joining any new club feels a little strange, but the idea of voluntarily putting myself in that kind of situation felt very alien indeed.

Chief instructor, Adrian Davies, has run the non-profit making Gobowen Kempo Karate Club for more than 21 years and says he first tried martial arts after being set upon: "Afterwards I was looking for a way of defending myself, but I found much more than that."

After a warm up and stretch, which showed me how inflexible I am, it was on to basic skillsn and working in pairs to counter attacks and take the opponent to the ground. The group has people of all ages and abilities, from young beginners through to experienced members, all keen to pass on their skills, and all patient with their awkward newcomer.

We took it in turns, one person making five blocked attacking moves then stopping in their final position, The other person then looking at the best options of attack from where the pair had ended up: "It's teaching you to take in your situation, look at the options given to you, and choose your response," explained Adrian.

It was fascinating to watch students perform their katas, precisely practiced flowing movements, whose strange forms all have real applications: "They are like a catalogue of moves and options to chose from," Adrian told me, "but we teach students that the best option is not to be there at all, whether that means avoiding a blow or, better still, recognising a situation and avoiding it completely."

If avoidance is not an option then knowing even the basics of how to stand, fall and block an attack gives you a real feeling of confidence."It's more than just self defence though," says Adrian, "We come to study the martial art. There are many benefits such as improved fitness, balance, control, concentration, and, of course, the ability to defend yourself, but these are the by-products and the art is always the focus. If you become proficient at a martial art, you should become less likely to have to defend yourself in the first place."

He's clearly right. There was no macho aggressiveness from any of the students, all displaying a calm self-control, and a level of respect towards their instructor and each other that I've not encountered in any other sport.

With a history dating back to the Ming Dynasty, there's a depth to karate you don't get with many activities: "Karate is properly applied only in those rare situations in which one really must either down another or be downed by him," wrote one of its pioneers, Gichin Funakoshi, who said it should not be unusual for a student to use their karate perhaps only once in a lifetime, and that those who misused what they learned brought great dishonour upon themselves.

After some pad work, stretching, and a warm down, it was time to finish, each student bowing respectfully as they left. You can see karate has given the older ones a confidence that extends into the rest of their lives, while the youngest students' grins showed they had thoroughly enjoyed Adrian's coaching.

There are many different martial arts on offer around the Oswestry area and with styles ranging from the frenetic stick fighting of Kendo, to the gentle movements of Tai Chi, there is bound to be one that has what you're looking for.

As for me, I now understand a little better what my old room mate was trying to tell me, and have to agree, it really isn't all about fighting after all.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Lions win championship cup!

NWBA Championship Cup Finals
Hope Lions 81 - Colwyn Bay Bulls 50


Having lost to the Bulls in our last two encounters, the most recent of which was by around 20 points only a few days before, this was going to be a tough one for the finals, but in our last game of the season we produced our best performance of the season.

Despite the nerves of the finals, everyone played relaxed and worked hard on defence. Our forward Titch was good as ever, Aziz Ibrahim lit up the scoreboard to get us a good lead, Max Gore was deadly from three point range (picking up the MVP award) and Rob Clarke was taking no prisoners on the inside!

Playing a Box-and-One defence meant I spent a happy 40 minutes keeping their main scorer off the ball or stopping him from shooting. It's more fun than it sounds and I he only managed to score two baskets past me during the game so it did the job.

Even though we ended the game so far in front, the little voice in the back of my head kept telling me we weren't so far ahead that they couldn't sweep back through if we fell apart. It's such a relief! Not just to win, but to play like we knew we should have been all season long... and the best bit is that the people playing for us on the day, should be the people who are playing for us next season, with one or two welcome additions.

It was one of those really nice days!... the sun was shining, we won the game, my mates came along to watch, we chilled out it in the afternoon, then went out for a meal and the cinema in the evening... and it was my birthday... it doesn't get much better than that! :)

My friends managed to get some video of the game, so big thanks to them for that and I'll see you all next season.

Friday, 2 May 2008

One last chance

“If we have not achieved our early dreams, we must either find new ones or see what we can salvage from the old." Rosalynn Carter

We've been thrown a lifeline. While we have won just a handful of league games this season, we managed to win our cup matches, with one last win in the final-four over the Magic, sending us through to the NWBA Championship Cup Finals against the Colwyn Bay Bulls.

The Oswestry players on the Lions team, from left, Aziz Ibrahim, Max Gore, Rob
Clarke and David Lawson. Photo by Huw Davies, Border Counties Advertizer.

It was a hugely exciting semi-final and not one I think many of us expected to win. Aziz Ibrahim put in some great jump shooting and Max Gore was on target from three point range, while point guard Sam and forward Titch were going great guns as we pulled within three points in the last few minutes and went ahead with just a few seconds on the clock to win.

Since then, in a strange twist, our last league game of the season saw us playing the Colwyn Bay Bulls, the very same team we wil be facing in the finals of the cup... it didn't go to plan. We were behind early on, drew level and went in front at the half, then went behind again towards the end to lose by 16.

If I'm honest, I'm delighted we've salvaged at least a finals place from this mess of a season, but just think, if we can just hold together one more good performance, it could go from the worst of seasons to one of the best, just like that!

The final is on May 11 in Deeside, so we don't have to wait!

Friday, 29 February 2008

Getting it in the neck

"Man is a goal seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals." Aristotle

Well, it shows you should be careful what you wish for... I said I wanted us to have more fun and guess what, we did. We played the Colwyn Bay Bulls, led right through the game and played some great fast paced flowing basketball along the way... until we got to the last few minutes, realised we were going to win and tried to run our offences... we lost by two baskets.

Even so it was so much fun to be playing well as a team. Even training last night was fun. It was as though it had never occurred to us we could play fast run-and-gun basketball until now and everyone was getting in on the act. I think much of the difference owed to the return from injury of point guard Sam for the game and Danny from the Raiders at training, but everyone else raised their game around them.

(If I don't mention Rob and Max's legendary blocks, I'll never hear the end of it:)

I felt bad for one of the Bulls' players. We went for the same ball early on, I'd caught him in the nose and was pretty disgusted to realise I'd ended up with a huge wet bogey on my finger! I went to take the lineout ball and surreptitiously wiped it onto the wall of the gym behind me to get rid of it... that's not the full story though...

Afterwards I saw the guy tending to himself in the mirror of the locker rooms, and discovered I had actually caught him in the neck and that thing I had wiped onto the wall of the gym was actually a lump of skin and flesh. Obviously I apologised, but I wonder if I should have told him where I had left that bit of his neck so he could have retrieved it!

One of my friends bought me a great basketball film called Crossover for Christmas. Watching it took me right back to being 11 or 12 and watching Michael Jordan videos for the first time.

It’s that childlike enthusiasm that best fuels the long hours spent in persuit of our dreams, but as we get older we look around and realise that the vast majority of us are not going to achieve what we set out to, and will have to find our own way of coming to terms with this.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men," wrote Shakespeare, "which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” (I once heard the line and it has nagged at the back of my mind ever since whenever I think about skipping a session :)

It's all about taking the opportunities put before you and we all know he’s right, though ironically it’s something we probably only realise when the key chances of our lives have almost passed.

Even so, "a life bound in shallows and in miseries" sounds a bit harsh. When I think back to running races on the track, just one person can win, but does that make meaningless the tremendous journey the other competitiors followed to reach that point? Even for the one who wins, there will always be one more thing in their career they could have achieved.

I wonder then, if it’s not always about the big picture, but actually about the moments, and that when we come to add these together, our lives will have been more meaningful than we could possibly have imagined.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The FUNdamentals of basketball

“They've just got to run up and down, open up the floor, use their athleticism and play some exciting basketball. It should be fun.” Mike D'Antoni

Writing again after a leave of absence it’s getting harder and harder to be excited about the matches and I don’t think it's just me.

I was in Chirk a few weeks back playing basketball on the outdoor court with a couple of friends and it was great fun ... roll back a week or so and we finished work, made the trek out to Llandudno, where we lost and then trekked back... it’s hard to find the joy in it.

Since I last wrote, the team has won a few, but lost a whole load more, and though we’re getting better, it’s just not happening fast enough. When you’re in a team made up of a group of old friends it’s a different feeling. The natural team spirit allows you to ride out the rough learning curve. I’m not saying our team aren’t friends, but as you see with professional football sides, if they get off to a good start the team spirit builds around that success. If they start with a string of losses however, the early shoots of that spirit get snuffed out before it has a chance to grow.

That kind of feeling lies heavily on a team and it’s a horrible suffocating feeling. Get off to an early lead in the game and the spirits rise expectantly, but hit the difficult patch in the game (and there always is one) and too easily the heads drop, as though it was only to be expected.

For me, I find the solution that works for me is to ignore the scoreboard completely (which has its down sides) but at least means you play each point for what it is, enjoy it and move. If you score or defend against them, great! If you miss or they score, it’s forgotten instantly, doesn’t matter - you’re already in the next point!

The sad part is that we’re moving in the right direction. Even the few characters I worried might pull the team apart have checked their attitude for the good of the squad and in little spells during the games you get glimpses of where the team is heading, surprising teams as we go on fast runs of points.

There’s not many games left in the season and strange as it sounds that’s almost a relief. Obviously we’re going to keep on working hard, trying to pick up game experience and wins, but if I’m honest I’m looking forward to putting this year behind us and putting in a proper off-season with the team so we can get ourselves into gear... something I just don’t think is going to happen going from game to game.

We’re all taking it seriously... but I think we need to find the fun in it again.