Monthly Archives: February 2013

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

The Art of the Timeout

I spent this weekend coaching a junior mixed team in the zone playdown (we won B side) instead of traveling to Kingston to watch the Scotties and my favourite womens team, Jennifer Jones (no hate mail please…).  Still, I was able to watch a number of Scotties round robin games on TV and was particularly interested in how teams managed their time outs.  You see, I’m very curious to see what role other coaches play on their teams mostly so that I can see what improvements I personally can make.   What I observed is very interesting because there are so many different coaching styles, more so than playing styles.

On one hand you have Earle Morris, coach of Team Ontario (Homan).  Earle is worth listening to anytime he opens his mouth and has a very determined way about managing the time out.  He comes out to the ice with purpose and imparts a definite preference to his team when he talks to them.  If you watch a Team Ontario time out, it’s…interesting.  I personally find them uncomfortable because there seems to be so much push back from Rachel Homan.  Regardless, the team finds that effective and it obviously works well for them.  On the flip side, I watched a Newfoundland time out where the coach came out, mumbled a few words, was ignored then walked back to his seat.  Again, this might be what works for that team, I don’t know and I’m not passing judgement.

What I will say is that in curling, the time out is such an oddity that it bears a little reflection.  Competitive teams must discuss how the time outs should proceed.  Things such as, who talks first, what information should the team be looking for from the coach, should the coach call the time out or leave it up to the team etc.  Teams should have conversations about this stuff and figure out how they are going to make the most of their meagre in game time with the coach. Personalities figure into this in a big way.  With the Ontario (now Team Canada!) team, Rachel needs to hear some definite and assured opinions from Earle.  She will make up her own mind in the end however, she doesn’t want another soft suggestion.

For my junior / bantam teams I typically tell them that I want them to get the issue down to 2 shots.  I only have a minute and it goes fast so I can’t teach them strategy out there.  From there I typically ask the questions they likely should have already answered.  1. What are you trying to accomplish?  2. Which shot gives you the best chance of doing that? 3. Is the risk of missing that shot worth the reward? 4. How do you want to miss?  I make sure they answer these questions quickly then try to gauge where they are leaning in their shot preference.  Unless their choice is really poor, I’ll support their decision and confirm to them that I believe they can make the shot.  I ALWAYS leave a time out on a positive note, showing support to the team.  Rare is the case where I have to go out and tell them what to do.  It’s far better for younger curlers to work through the decision making process on their own and simply get guidance from the coach as opposed to simply being directed to an answer.

For club teams, how does this factor in?  You might not ever have had a time out!  Well, think about those mini team meetings you have to discuss shots.  When the four players all gather to talk about what to call perhaps at the hog line.  This is very much like an in team time out.  Aspiring club teams should talk about how they want this to go down.  If you watch the pros, you’ll hear the phrase “I’m okay with whatever you like” a LOT.  This usually comes at the end of the conversation and is NOT a matter of the team throwing up their hands and walking away.  It’s their way of letting the skip know she has control and their support on her decision.  Teams should feel they can voice their opinions but once the decision is made they should get on board whether they like it or not.  After the game, if there is still dissention about the shot then you can have another discussion.  Mid game is not the time for that.

My advice to coaches is to put some serious thought into your time outs.  Typically they come at critical points in the game and so deserve some serious planning.

Coach Sean

Skinning Cats

Skinning Cats

Feb. 21, 2013

This first new article isn’t about skinning cats in the literal sense.  I know, shocking…  It’s really about how to get the job of winning a curling game done and whether there is a right or wrong way.  I’m watching the Scotties currently being held in Kingston!  It’s so great to see the level of play from so many women’s teams and I’m very pleased to see that there has been practically no complaining about ice.  It’s been a great event so far!

One of the biggest games so far has been the clash between previously unbeaten Team Manitoba and previously unbeaten Team Canada.  This game was particularly interesting not only because it featured two teams likely to be in the playoffs but also because of the path both teams took to their great 6 – 0 records.  What am I talking about here?

If you’ve ever been in one of my strategy clinics you’ll have heard the term “Team DNA”.  Team DNA is a cute way of describing the make up of your team.  This includes things like favourite shots, team abilities and tolerance for risk.  It is very literally all the things that go into making your team the team it is.  This seems like something that really doesn’t need any explanation.  I mean, obviously your team is made up of four unique individuals and because of that, it’s going to be unique!  Why bother with it and what does it have to do with the Manitoba / Canada game?

Your team DNA bears reflection because if you understand it, then you’ll understand how you like to play the game.  It’s usually in this part of the strategy clinic that I find the most yawns but trust me, having an understanding of this is critical for success.  You’ll understand if you like to gamble or if you prefer a slow and steady approach.  Again, this is something you might think is intuitive EXCEPT that you’re not playing an individual game.   If you’re going to be a competitive team at any level, then everyone on the team should have a similar set of values leading to a similar outlook towards game play.  Two gamblers and two defensive players don’t make an effective team over the long haul simply because they will not agree on many shots and therefore will not commit to all their shots.  Now the nice thing about Team DNA is that it isn’t literal DNA and so individuals can learn to adjust their attitudes and fit into a group if they recognize the need and have the desire.

So we understand that teams have their own personalities and preferences for style of play.  Going back to that fantastic Canada / Manitoba game, how does this factor in?  Team Canada (Nedohin) has a preference for hits.  This team prefers to play the hit and roll versus the tight draw.  They like it a little more clean than most teams and will direct play as much as they can to these sorts of situations.  Looking at their record coming into the game (6 – 0) you might be tempted to say “well, that’s the direction of women’s curling now, everyone should play that way.”  The problem with that thinking is that their opponents, Team Manitoba (Jones) doesn’t play this way.  They like it messier.  They like a more finesse style game and will direct play to these sorts of situations.  Hmm, they can’t both be right so, what’s going on??  Yes, you guessed it, it’s Team DNA.

Both of these teams have figured out where they are comfortable and do their very best to play their games in that style.  They are as successful partly because they are true to their own values and preferences.  One caveat here however.  Just because they have preferences, they do recognize that they can’t always be in control and can’t always direct play to their preferred style so they work hard to make all the shots.  They can play each others game but try not to as much as possible.

So, how does this manifest itself in a game?  We’ve already talked about hits versus draws but from a rock placement point of view it means that Heather Nedohin prefers rocks in the house to rattle around.  She likes being able to come in off things and running stones back into other stones.  Heather is great at reading angles and figuring the precise spot to hit it in order to roll to the perfect place.  Perhaps she doesn’t like as many guards in play.  Jennifer Jones on the other hand likes those front stones to come around.  She likes finessing rocks into position and working them into better places within the house with soft shots.  Again, remember, Heather can draw and draw well.  Also remember, Jennifer can hit and hit well.  The game the other day (Manitoba won 6-5) was classic back and forth and a battle of styles as much as anything else.

Club teams often tell me that this doesn’t apply to them and perhaps it doesn’t if you have no aspirations towards being competitive.  If you want to do well however, you MUST understand your team DNA and how it affects your play even at the club level.  There aren’t any right or wrong answers because the adage is true, there are many ways to skin a cat.

As always, if you have any questions I welcome them and will do my best to answer them.

Coach Sean

Almost There!

Thanks for your patience!  I’m almost done configuring the old articles into actual pages.  It’s a bit slow but it gives me the chance to make sure they’re sort of up to date.  I know the Scotties is on and yes, I’ve been watching!  Let’s see what we can learn from them…  Stay tuned!

Progress!

So at this point you’re saying, “where is the new content???”  I don’t blame you.  Right now, I’m going through the old articles in the Old Articles section and updating them from the old .pdf format to nice shiny html formats.  While I’m doing that however, I’m updating the content a little.  Can you believe that things have actually changed in the last seven years?  Yeah, well they have and I hate reading old stuff that has changed.

If you’re that eager to check out new stuff, start with new old stuff!  I’m going to get all the old articles transferred to the new format then look out.  I’ll post lots of new stuff as soon as that’s finished!

Welcome!

Well here we go…  What is this site?  Well, a few years ago I decided that I wanted to share my thoughts about curling on this new fangled “internet” thing.  So, I went to my local club and secured a page where I could post thoughts on curling in general.

This is really the next evolution of that effort.  I’m going to start blogging here and hopefully extend that as I slowly learn how to manage my own website.  I’ve added the old articles that had previously been posted and in the near future I’ll start posting new stuff as well.