What to watch when you are watching curling?


Hear more about this subject and other curling topics from Jonathan Havercroft on Rocks Across the Pond: A Curling Podcast  available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and TuneIn

Playdown season is now in full swing. TV networks will broadcast a major national or international championship virtually every week from now until early April. In the internet streaming era, it is now possible to watch provincial championships from Canada, live coverage of the US championships through TESN, and even a humble live stream of the English Curling Championships.

With so much curling to watch this is not only a chance to enjoy some great (and not so great) curling, it is also a chance for curlers to improve their games. There is plenty to learn from watching curling on TV, but there are also some potential pitfalls from trying to emulate the pro game. So what should you watch for when watching curling on TV?

1.    Watch the strategy, but don’t copy it

While the five-rock free guard zone has introduced a bit more variety into elite curling strategy, most ends at the elite level have fairly similar openings. The lead on the team without hammer throws up a center guard. The lead of the other team draws around to the top of the four-foot. The first team freezes on that draw. The other team the freezes on that. It is only when one of the teams makes a subtle miss – setting up an interesting angle, or jostling the stones in a useful way – will the end turn interesting with run backs and delicate hit and rolls.

It is worth watching this closely to learn the strategy, but there is no point in trying to copy it at the club level. Do you have a lead who will curl over 90%? Can your second make a runback 80% of the time? If you answered yes to both questions, then you are probably curling on TV, not watching curling. The danger in trying to copy such an aggressive style of play is that you might end up giving up a big end to your opponent. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that club teams necessarily need to play defensively. But the strategy of elite teams is based on the assumption that their players will make more the 80% of their shots.

I think a better way to approach studying the strategy is to study three key things. First ask yourself if a team is playing an offensive style or a defensive style? Is the team calling mostly take-outs (defensive style)? Or are they playing mostly draws (offensive style)? Second how is the team trying to manage the scoreboard? Are they trying to score in even ends? Do they change their strategy when they are ahead or behind? Third, when do teams spend more time discussing shots? And what kinds of reasons do they use to decide upon a shot (Ice conditions? What they leave their opponent? The risks of missing a shot?)

2.    Watch how teams communicate with each other

The unique thing about curling on TV is that all of the players wear mics and the viewers can always hear what they are saying and thinking during the game. This gives us tremendous insight into the team’s dynamic. I also think that this is the easiest aspect for the novice curler to emulate. It takes years of practice to develop an elite curling delivery, but being a good teammate is mostly a matter of playing with the right attitude.

When you watch a game on TV pay close attention to how teams make decisions – especially when there is a conference about a curling shot. Who gives input, and what kind of input do they give? How does a team finally decide on what to do? Many club teams have authoritarian structures. The skip normally says what the shot is, and most teams usually defer to that judgment. But most elite teams run on a more collaborative and democratic decision making style. It is worth studying how teams do this and then discussing with your team how you might make decision making a more inclusive process (without of course spending too much time discussing every shot).

Aside from decision making it is worth noticing how elite teams communicate at two other key junctures. What kind of information do the sweepers and throwers share with each other before a shot? Notice how they communicate about the different paths on the ice and what they say to help a player execute to the best of their ability.

In my experience this is a key difference between club and competitive curlers. A lot of front-end curlers check out of games when they aren’t throwing. They don’t read the ice conditions, and often don’t communicate this information to their teammates. Every member of an elite team is talking about ice conditions all the time.

Even worse, many club level teammates say things that undermine their teammates. They get angry at teammates when they miss. They often unintentionally place negative thoughts in their teammates mind when they are about to throw. Or they argue with the skip about a shot just as he or she is in mid-delivery.

Compare these types of behaviours to what elite players do. How do elite players react to misses? What do they say to teammates right before they throw? How do they communicate with their skip? Most elite teams will have had numerous conversations about who says what when, what kind of information each player wants before he throws and how each player responds when a teammate misses. Watch how teams manage these situations and then think about how you can incorporate some of these strategies into your own team.

3.    Watch the sweeping, and try to copy it

Sweeping is another area where club level players can make tremendous strides with minimal effort. Most novice curlers begin as front-end players in a club league. A front-end curler is going to throw two stones and sweep six stones each end. So a novice curler is going to be sweeping three times as much as he or she is throwing. But most novice curlers put all of their effort into developing a curling delivery and no effort into sweeping.

As with communication I think sweeping is an area where most novice curlers could make tremendous strides with a little bit more effort. Sweeping involves three elements: technique, judgment, and communication.

When you are watching curling, pay attention to the sweepers. They are actually in the frame for most of the curling shot. Pay attention to their footwork and how hard they are sweeping. Pay attention to how often they communicate the weight. Pay attention to how they manage the stone down the ice. Is one player doing the judging and communicating while the other keeps it clean? How do the players decide who is the inside sweeper and who is the outside sweeper? How and when does the team switch sweepers? When does a team only use one sweeper and why?

Every sport has a set of skills and tasks that are not glamorous, but real fans of the game know are important. Think of the center in basketball who does not score much, but gobbles up rebounds and can set a hard screen. Or the catcher in baseball that may not be a great hitter, but is known for calling a great game and managing a pitching staff. In curling, sweeping is that skill. Elite teams have always had front-end players who earned their pay cheques from their sweeping skills. If you learn to appreciate the fine art of sweeping while watching it on TV, and then carry those skills over to your club game, then I guarantee you will always be in demand as a curler.