Category Archives: Strategy

Numbers

 

Okay so we’re finally at the end of FESRAIN.  Our last lonely letter is N which stands for “Number” of rocks remaining in the end.  This, much as the rest of our factors, should be an obvious one.  Clearly you call different shots when it’s skips rocks as opposed to lead stones.  The extremes are easy to understand but it’s in the middle where this becomes a critical factor. Many of you will have heard of the “bail point” and perhaps may have even argued with someone about where that point might be.  The bail point is the shot in the end where your skipper finally makes the decision to abandon their pursuit of points so as not to lose the game by taking any further risks.

My opinion is that this point varies depending on the situation but is no earlier than the seconds first stone and no later than than the vices first stone.  Timing of this can be critical and an end can be completely lost if you wait even one rock too long before bailing out and clearing things up.  In fact, timing your moves is one of the more refined areas of tactical curling play.  The very best teams have a sense of when to take press an advantage and when to protect a situation.  That sort of skill mostly comes from experience and is quite difficult to teach.

Now that we’ve been through all the factors that need to be considered when calling a shot I’m going to draw your attention to something specfic about these factors.  If you recall from earlier conversations, strategy is the plan, it is NOT the shot selected.  The actual shot selection is a tactic, or system used to achieve your plan.  For instance, if the plan is to be aggressive and score points I think you’d all agree that there are may different ways to get points.  Perhaps you play a guard, perhaps a freeze.  The specfic choice of shot is a tactic used to achieve your plan.  So, where does that leave good old FESRAIN?

I heard a colleague once tell a group that there were three factors in FESRAIN that were “more important” that the others and at the time, that bothered me.  I mean, after all, you can’t really ignore any of the factors so how can there be some that are more important?  After some reflection on this, I realized he had a point.  There are in fact three factors in FESRAIN that are different than the rest but not because they are more important.  Three of them are strategic factors, the other four are tactical.  Which ones are the strategic ones?

The strategic ones are the ones you can plan for.  If you were going to build a game plan what of those seven factors could you plan for?  End, Score and last Rock advantage.  Those are parts of the game you can plan for.  The others are all situationally dependant and are therefore tactical considerations.  All are important but for different reasons.

Artificial Intelligence or AI

Yes, I know sometimes I struggle with my titles and this one is obviously a stretch so cut me a little slack.  A and I are the next two letters in our strategic acronym FESRAIN.  A stands for Ability and I for Ice.

First, Ability.  Ability clearly refers to a player’s skill level in throwing any particular shot.  As with most of the terms in FESRAIN some of what the letters refer to is obvious but a little more digging helps us see that there’s a lot more going on.  Clearly, not many club curlers are going to expect to make the ‘in-off’ triple that you just watched Wayne Middaugh throw so you wouldn’t likely call that shot.  That however, is the extreme case.  What about the delicate tap back early in the game?  Is that something that’s in your back pocket?  Ability is one of those fluid factors that we need to be wary of.  As club curlers we’ve all had streaks, for better or worse when either we couldn’t miss the button or couldn’t find the house.  Assessing whether a particular shot is within your range RIGHT NOW is an important consideration for the club player.  It is that inconsistency that the higher level players work to remove from their game because it’s simply one more factor that you don’t want to have to consider when you’re playing against the best.  Consistency is king (or queen).

When coaches are thinking about a players shot repertoire we are thinking about the developmental stage of the athlete.  An extreme example of this is peel weight shots for the newly graduated little rocker.  It’s physically very difficult for an 80lb child to throw a 40lb curling stone that hard and so we wouldn’t be pushing that right away.  Players working on their own development should think in these terms as well.  The old adage is that you have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run.

Also, it’s not only physical ability that applies here.  If you’re a skip who simply doesn’t understand angles then perhaps those aren’t the shots you should be looking at first.  You should make a note of that and go out to improve that part of your game!  Ability refers to how likely a particular shot is to be made considering all the environmental factors that go into that shot (line of delivery, release, strength, flexibility, balance, broom placement, sweepers weight judgement…).  Oh yes, curling is a team game and no player throws alone!  If you are prone to calling a lot of delicate weight shots then you better have some good sweepers who can really judge weight well!  Team game, team shots, team ability.

Ability also covers your opponent’s ability.  When you’re considering the shot you want to call one thing you need to think about is what leave your opponent.  We NEVER call shots expecting a miss from our opponent but if you can choose one that will give your opponent a harder shot then that’s an important consideration.

Ice is the other factor we’re looking at here.  Usually when we’re talking about ice conditions we’re thinking the amount of curl.  Straight ice favours a “shuffleboard” style with tap backs and hit and rolls whereas ice with more curl allows you to actually curl around things and play a draw game.  Everyone reading this has been in a game where there was a guard or port where the path around wasn’t a sure bet.  Will the ice curl THAT much?  The amount of curl on a sheet has a profound impact on how deep your guards need to be in order to be effective.  If you ever watch curling on TV you’ll see center guards literally at the very top of the rings as a rule of thumb.  Why?  Because their ice curls four feet plus and if you place guards much higher than the top of the rings then they aren’t effective.  With that much curl a stone can be thrown with enough weight to remove “hidden” stones.  The TV game is therefore that much more precise because of the ice conditions.  Ice reading is clearly a hugely important skill that is difficult to develop outside a game situation.  Perhaps one of the greatest ice readers is Russ Howard.  If you ever watch a TSN broadcast you would almost think that Russ is psychic with his ability to predict misses.  Truth is, he sees the ice so well that he knows better than the players what the ice is doing and so knows immediately if the broom is in the right place.

The speed of the ice is an important thing to know when you’re playing a game (duh…) but it doesn’t generally factor into shot selection unless you’re in a somewhat extreme situation.  If ice is extremely heavy then it might be difficult make quieter weight shots and you might look at playing a tap back style instead.  With ice within the “normal” range of speed this really isn’t a consideration.

Next up we’ll talk about the last factor in FESRAIN and how the different factors work together!

 

 

Yes SiR!!

Moving forward on our study of the strategic acronym FESRAIN brings us to S and R.  First of all, S stands for score.  Why does the score matter when determining what shots to play?  This seems obvious enough after all, the score is what all this is about!  If we need points, we play more aggressively and keep rocks in play.  If we don’t need points or want to keep our opponent from scoring then we play shots to keep the rings clean.

If we dig a little further however, we soon discover that the score of the game plays an important part in our decision making with respect to Risk vs. Reward.  Assessing the risk associated with a shot versus the potential reward is a very important skill that frankly isn’t considered enough by many teams.  It requires teams and individuals to be realistic and honest about their abilities and the situation that they are facing.  It also requires a good understanding of the ice conditions and how rocks will react.  The problem often seems to be that teams overestimate their abilities or only see the reward half of the situation and fail to recognize the potential risk and its probability of occurring.

Accurately assessing the risk of a shot against its reward is very much affected by the score of the game.  The most simple example of this is when you’re down in the score by a lot.  Most of you will recognize that when you’re back is up against the wall you have to take some risks that will result in higher rewards.  That sort of situation is more clear cut than say, when you’re up by 1 with a medium risk shot that might give you a steal of 1 versus a low risk shot that will force your opponent to 1.  The need for the reward is dictated by the score and therefore directs you in your shot selection.

R stands for last Rock.  Yes, I suppose it could have been FESLAIN or FESHAIN (H for hammer…) but it isn’t and it wasn’t my choice!  Hammer also has a huge impact on your shot selection much for the same reasons as the score does.  Risk vs. Reward.  With last rock, you can manage your risk of giving up points more easily because of the advantage you have and so you can afford to play a bit more aggressively.  Conversely, without last rock you, there is more risk of you giving up points and so would naturally play more defensive shots.  Fairly simple but important!

Score and last rock advantage are two of the three factors that a team can plan for during a game as well.  These are strategic factors in FESRAIN, factors that you can actually make a plan for.  The third strategic factor is Ends.  If you’re going to make a curling game plan these are the three factors you can actually plan for.  For example, you can determine what your approach might be in the middle ends down by 3 or more points with or without last rock.  The other factors are tactical in nature, meaning they are related to the execution of your game plan.

More on this as we push through the last three FESRAIN factors!

 

 

 

 

This is the End…My Only Friend the End

Yes, E is the next in my little series on the strategic acronym FESRAIN.  Extra points if you get the musical title reference! E, if you haven’t guessed it yet stands for “End” as in, what End are you in?  When you’re considering what shot to play, what difference does the end make?

This one is hopefully one of the more obvious factors in the strategic thought process.  It’s quite uncommon for teams to play the same style throughout the entire game.  That being said there are many approaches that are used even by elite teams.  Specifically there are two trains of thought about how teams should start games.  One approach is to hit the ground running and go full out right off the bat.  Wayne Middaugh is a big proponent of this approach and the reasoning behind it comes from the thinking that the ice is at its best at the beginning of the game so that’s the best time to play those more aggressive shots required  to generate multiple points.  Playing aggressive is a more risky way of playing because it means more rocks in play.  With more stones in play there is a higher risk of your opponent taking points.   Believe it or not, this is actually supports the “go hard early” approach because if you’re going to give up a big end, it’s best to do it early so you have time to come back.  Let’s face it, would you rather give up four in the first end or the sixth?

The opposite approach is to be conservative early.  The thinking here is that you want some time to adjust to ice conditions and feel out your opponent.  So which approach is right?  The answer to that question depends on the type of team you are.  It takes confidence in your abilities and team and ice to go hard for multiple points early in the game.  It also takes a certain tolerance for risk.  If that isn’t you then that shouldn’t be your approach.  On the other hand, the conservative early approach requires patience because it means you’re setting up for the long haul.  Not patient?  Can’t live through the low scores for 8 (or 10) ends?  Then maybe you should think about going aggressive early.

So we’ve seen that there are different approaches for early in the game, what about the end of the game?  By the end of the game you’re playing the scoreboard.  This means if you’re up by a big score then you’re playing a defensive game.  If you’re down by a lot then you have to play aggressive.  If the game is close then you’re going to manage the risks you take so that you have the opportunity to score the points you’ll need to finish off the game.  This might mean blanking the seventh end if you’re down by 1 or 2 so that you have hammer coming home.

Middle ends obviously matter as well.  This is the time in the game where you can still afford to take some risks but want to manage how many points you give up.  This is a good time to manage the last rock advantage and try to gain that advantage in the even ends.

As you can see you really need to consider where you are in the game to help you figure out what style you’re going to play.  Ends count and it’s something you can actually plan for!

 

 

 

FESRAIN on Your Parade

When I took my first coaching course I went into it with a certain amount of arrogance.  At the time I had been curling for 20 years and felt that there was actually very little I could learn.  After about 20 minutes in that first class, I realized that I knew practically nothing of the game that I loved so much.  I always tell people that it was this revelation that hooked me as a coach.  The day I stop learning about my sport is the day I hang up my coaching shoes.

The journey has not been without its ups and downs.  I found quickly that the area I had the most problem teaching was strategy and frankly it was because I had never really learned the theory behind curling strategy myself!  So, I went out and learned what I could, only to realize that for every thing I learned, two questions opened up!  That’s the nature of curling strategy though and now I feel I have enough questions that I’m finally qualified to answer some.

I’ve written about strategy before in “Strategically Speaking” but recently found myself having to plan out how to do this all over again with my newest team! I’m so excited…(sorry, tangent…)  I’m going to start in a place other than the very beginning with a series of posts about an acronym.  That acronym is FESRAIN.  It’s likely that if you’ve ever attended any sort of strategy talk you’ve heard of FESRAIN.

FESRAIN is explained as the seven factors that go into every shot selection.  This is a vast oversimplification of curling strategy but there is still value in understanding the components in FESRAIN so lets dive in.  I’m going to post something separate for each letter starting with….F.

F stands for “Free Guard Zone”.  When I grew up in curling there was no “F” but the introduction of the Free Guard Zone has become one of the biggest transformations the game has ever seen.  The rule in a nutshell says that opposition rocks in the Free Guard Zone can’t be removed until the second’s first stone.  The Free Guard Zone is defined as the area in front of the tee line outside the rings.  This means there is a certain amount of protection for a limited time and it means it’s easier to set up an end without last rock than it was before the FGZ was introduced.  Why is this something you have to consider strategically?  I would argue that it’s more of a tactical consideration than a strategic consideration but I’ll leave that discussion for another post, perhaps the last in this little series.

The Free Guard Zone is consideration because it represents a tool that a team can use to generate offense.  Rocks in the FGZ enjoy a little bit of extra protection allowing you to get something in play.  Obviously, you need to make a decision whether you want to use this particular tool or not.  You also have to think about when and how you want to use it.

The FGZ in its current configuration is most beneficial to teams who are trying to steal because they enjoy the benefit have being able to protect their first two guards from removal early.  Craig Savill earlier this 2013/14 season broached this subject publically by wondering aloud if perhaps the FGZ should be extended by one stone.  That way the team with last rock would also enjoy some protection for two guards.  This makes a ton of sense if you think about it because if you have last rock it means you just got scored on.  If you’re getting scored on a lot, then you’ll have the hammer a lot and perhaps need a bit of a hand!  It’s an interesting proposition and if I hear more about it’s development I’ll post something on it.

Much of the strategic discussion regarding the use of the Free Guard Zone then concerns itself with how teams without last rock can use it to score and how teams with hammer can defend the steal attempt.  Typically when teams are trying to steal they will try to get two center guards up on their first two shots of the end.  Teams have differing opinions on whether the first center goes high, the second deep or vice versa.  My opinion tends to lean towards throwing the first one high with the second one deep because of the tick shot.  The tick shot is a shot where the protected guard is moved but not REmoved from play.  Typically a tick will push it either into the house or simply off the center line.  If the first guard is thrown high then it’s very difficult to tick into the house without leaving something near the center line.  A first guard close to the house allows the opposition to tick it into the rings and roll to the wings (like the rhyme there?).  The high first deep second strategy does present the problem of having to draw a guard in behind your guard however which may be quite difficult depending on ice conditions and your skill level.

In any case, generally a team trying to steal will try to get two center guards up with the intention of hiding something around them that will eventually count.  Why two guards instead of just one?  That’s easy! More protection and a bigger chance of your opponent jamming one of your guards and leaving something up the middle.  Despite the ability of the top teams to run rocks back, it remains a very difficult shot to pull off and so an opponent rock up the center can be an effective guard!

So, using the Free Guard Zone is fairly straightforward if you’re trying to steal.  How much benefit is it if you need to take points with the hammer?  It does give you one “safe” guard but that’s about it.  As you all know (or don’t…) with hammer you want to try to keep the center of the sheet open as much as possible so that you have a path to the button for your last stone.  If you can effectively do that then you can guarantee one point.  With hammer though, your goal is to get two points and with the middle of the house open, you need to use the wings to try to generate your second point.  I know, it’s not that easy or simple but it’s that corner guard that is supposed to give you some cover for that second point.  Sounds so easy doesn’t it?

Sometimes the first stone of the end will not go out front, rather it will be called to the top of the four foot.  Why would a team do this?  A rock on top of the four foot can always be removed according to the rules so this is an attempt to entice the opposition into playing into the rings and playing out a relatively clean end.  The opposition might choose to do this or they may try to generate some offense by getting up their “free” corner guard.

Clearly the Free Guard Zone has huge implications on how an end will begin to set up.  Choosing how you use this tool is a critical part of your tactical planning.  So…now we understand the F in FESRAIN.  Next up…E!  Later…

Wanna Score? Stop Guarding!

Okay, so the title is purposely misleading.  It’s a hook to get you to read this!  This post was born from a conversation I had with my vice in my game this week.  We were playing a very skilled team and holding our own.  At one point we were sitting a pile of stones without last rock in the four foot and we had to make a decision.  We could have guarded but the two of us could see how wrong that would have been.  I decided right then to write this up for you.

What could I possibly mean by “stop guarding” if you want to score??  I mean, lets face it, you’ve been told forever that the best way to score is to use guards and now I’m saying something completely different.  Actually, I’m not.  Guards are an important tool in your offensive kit however, they are NOT what many people think they are.  When you watch little rocks, the games typically go something like this.  All players try desparately to get a rock into the rings and once someone achieves this then they try to build a wall of stones in front of it.  That is really an excellent place for a 7 year old to start!  This method shows that they understand the concept of capturing a scoring piece of rings then protecting it from their opponents.

Since many of you have hopefully graduated from that first tactical lesson you should be starting to realize that the game is much more complex than that.  Lets start off by looking at an effective guard.  What is it there to do?  Obviously it’s there to protect stones that are in play or to provide protection to a piece of ice where you’re hoping to put a rock later.  For simplicity, lets start by looking at a single guard.  That single rock is (obviously) one rock wide and what is it protecting?  One rock.  Clearly that guard is going to have to be in a pretty precise spot to completely cover the thing it’s supposed to be covering.  These days with the typically excellent ice we play on, there is a lot of curl which means the depth of that guard is very important.  Guards that are placed just over the hog line do practically nothing to protect anything in the house because a down weight hit can still get around enough to remove the stone it’s supposed to be protecting.  The skill level and introduction of the Free Guard Zone has also altered the skill set that many teams have.  What I mean by this, is that many teams, including your better club teams are able to make run backs with some regularity.  With that being the case, a short guard isn’t all that helpful either.  How deep a guard is placed depends on ice conditions and the skill of your opponents.  In any case, it needs to be fairly precise.

Remember, we are talking about a single guard.  When you start considering multiple guards then you exponentially increase the amount of protection you get because with a second protector, you can cover depth and width at the same time.  Again however, the skill level is increasing so much that placement of two stones relative to each other is critical to avoid allowing a double on your carefully placed guards.

We have hopefully established that guard placement is important (duh…).  Lets talk about when in the end you want to look at playing them.  I find that this is a very difficult thing to teach younger curlers who are just starting into their competitive careers.  WHEN you throw a guard is as important as any other aspect of the shot.  Early is great.  A very common first shot of the end is the center guard.  That center guard is a statement by the team without last rock that they are playing aggressive and are going to try to score.  There is little risk at this point in the end because of the sheer volume of stones left to come.  If the opponent somehow does get something buried in behind you that you aren’t happy with there is lots of time to get to it.  In fact, the first few stones into your seconds shots are fine for playing guards.  At this point in the end you’re trying to set up something, be it a steal or a deuce.  These guards are an attempt to create a situation that will keep rocks in play.  Often those guards will not survive the end but like pawns in chess, they serve as a sacrifice to protect the more valuable shot stones.

Middle of the end now.  The situation is either set up, or it’s not.  There is promise there or disaster lurking.  This is the bail point that you’ll have heard so much about.  Do we keep pushing or do we try to get out of town with our skins intact?  This is not a good time to play your guards particularly if you don’t have last rock.  Again, there are still as many as half the stones in the end left to play.  How many times have you seen one team with a single lonely rock on the four foot surrounded by a pile of opponents stones on the perimeter of the rings?  Often this situation is a result of guarding too early.  Your opponent has looked further ahead than you have and realized that the more of their stones in play in the middle of the end, the better.  I’m not saying you never guard in the middle of an end but if you do, it better be something really good or it better be a second guard with you sitting more than one.

Finally, late in the end.  At this point your choices are much more limited because the number of possible outcomes is lower.  What I mean is, sometimes a guard is all you can play and often at this point it is the shot that makes the most sense.  It’s almost like the sprint to the finish.  Leads throw the most guards but, though I don’t have stats on this, I would say that the last vice shot and first skip shots are the next pair of shots likely to be guards.

Hopefully your next question is, if I’m not guarding, what AM I doing?  Thank you, that’s a good question.  Remember that I described the purpose of the guard as being protection for a piece of ice or for stones.  If we expand our thinking on the purpose of the guard to the scoreboard and start thinking that what we are trying to protect is our likelyhood of scoring or forcing the opponent to one then we can start to see other options in our play.  In my case from my game the other night, instead of guarding rocks on the four foot I bumped one from the top four into a pile that was building on the back four foot.  My goal was to reduce the likelyhood that the opponent could get his stone into a shot position and the most effective was to do that was to fill the available scoring area with my stones in such a way that made removal impossible.  If I had guarded in my situation I would have provided an opportunity for him to get into the pile, use both the backing AND my guard as protection for his shot stone.  Freezing for second shot is an effective way to reduce the opportunity for your opponent to score particularly if you don’t have last rock.  Splitting the house is another tool you can use as part of your team protection system.  Remember too that there are no real “rules” to curling tactics so there may be times where a mid end guard makes sense.

My advice to teams is this.  Talk about your style of play first.  Figure out what you’re good at and what you’re comfortable with.  Next (particularly with competitive teams, young and old) explore ways that you can achieve your end goals that might not involve throwing a guard.  Guards are and will forever be an important part of a teams protection system but they are not the only tools in there.  Remember, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like nail.  Don’t limit yourself by only using guards in your protection plans.

Coach Sean