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.