Brier Lessons

What I Learned from the Brier

 March, 2007 Revised Feb. 2013

Well gang, the season is wrapping up.  Richmond  Hill is having its Championship Day in only a week and some other event just finished…what was that again?  Oh yes, the Canadian Mens Curling Championship, better known as the Brier was played out in grand style in Hamilton at Copps Coliseum.  Being the curling fan I am I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch the action.  I firmly believe that any curler who wants to get better should really get to these events live when it’s possible.  Sure, it’s fun watching really good and consistent curling but there’s more.  In fact, you can actually learn a lot simply by being present.  I was lucky enough to get to Hamilton on three separate days and was there for the really great final between Glenn Howard and Brad Gushue.  Here’s a small sample of the lessons I learned.  To be honest, some of what I’ll talk about below are things I already knew but was very glad for the reminder.

  1. After getting a good grasp of the basics, curlers should work on consistency.  Yes, I realize that “consistency” is a pretty wide open thing to work on so I’ll try to narrow this down.  Getting better even for the club curler means 1. learning to throw with solid basic technique, then 2. doing it the same way every time.  Of course I’m talking about your delivery but when you watch Brier teams play that’s not the only consistency they have.  Teams that have good game routines that they follow consistently will also be more successful.  This means consistent pre-game and post game routines.  This also means having a consistent “language” on the ice.  If your teams’ language is the same game in and game out there won’t be sweeping errors simply from miscommunication (your vice might still make bad calls but the front end will at least be clear on what the call is).  Consistent teams are better teams just the same as consistent players are better players.

2. Even the best teams have value for a coach.  Every team at the Canadian Mens Curling Championship had a coach.  Some of these guys were “5th men” but even a team with the experience and skill of Ontario’s Glenn Howard had an official coach.  Glenn and co. had Scott Taylor there as coach and manager.  Scott was NOT their 5th man, Steve Bice was.  (That’s a story unto itself…).  This shows how teams now recognize the value of that extra set of eyes and experience in making them better.  At this level, the coach is not really instructing of course.  The coach will be helping in more advanced ways.  He’ll be watching the ice, other teams, stones…  In general gathering information that could give their team an edge.  He’ll be watching for issues among the team and trying head those off.  Surely the coach will have an eye for technical issues as well but unless there is something drastically wrong there won’t be any sort of correction or changes.  It’s these small advantages that a coach brings to the big teams.  Some teams did indeed have one person there acting in both the 5th man and coach roles but even when they did, teams chose this person very carefully.  If Glenn Howard can find a use for a coach, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s likely your team can too.

3. Sweeping does more than just keep sweepers warm.  This is most certainly one that falls into the “I already knew that” category but when you watch truly world class teams using their sweepers you realize that they aren’t there for simply correcting those shots that are a bit tight.  Shots at this level are thrown and called with the intention of having the sweepers hold a line.  Sweepers brush “good” shots into perfect shots and if you and your team want to get better then you better get good at sweeping.  You’ve all heard that without great sweeping a team can only achieve so much.  If you don’t believe it then you need to see it in action.  I doubt I saw a single shot that wasn’t swept and I know I didn’t see one critical shot (that was made) that wasn’t swept.  Sweeping is as much a part of the shot as the leg drive, at least for the elite teams.

4. The strategy of the game is very complex.  Yes, yes another “I already knew that” but what I mean is there were countless situations I witnessed at the Brier that I recognized from club play.  The big difference was that in club play you could say that these situations were going to end up in a certain outcome.  Stones behind three or four guards were “safe”.  With Brier level teams these routine situations were never a sure bet.  These guys think at a different level because they are confident they are going to make the shots they call.  Fair enough when you can shoot 85%….  Every end was a set up for the last one or two shots.  The planning was great to see in action.  Again, we all know to do that but these guys are planning the play then executing the plan.  They are making things happen with what they call in a way we’re simply not used to at the club level.  The biggest difference comes from the big weight bail outs that practically every team has in their “shot bag”.  A traffic jam of stones is a five second peel away from being an intentional blank for these guys.  If they don’t like the way the angles are setting up they wipe the board clean then start over.  It looks easy on TV but sit close to the skips and vices and you’ll realize how much they labour over the shots.  It’s not that they don’t know what to do, it’s more a case of how are they going to make the guy on the other team throw that in turn three shots from now that he’s struggling with.

5. Every players delivery is unique but good players all rely on some basic principles.  Those principles are: good balance, square hips to the broom and leg drive as the principle means of applying force to the stone.  If you compare the most different deliveries at the Brier, say Jeff Stoughton and, well, anyone, you’ll see that Jeff doesn’t waver at all after he leaves the hack.  His shoulders and hips are square to his target and his release has no push in it.  Sure he’s riding on his toe and his hand is on that long since expired corn broom but he’s solid as a rock.  Solid enough to come in third in the country.  A more text book delivery from say, Brad Gushue has many more elements that I would teach players.  His foot is flat and turned out, his back is fairly straight and his head is up.  Compare him to Jeff, balanced, square and no push.  Hmm.  If you thought a good curling delivery had some secret to it then I’ve just given it away.

6. Curling is a team game.  Really.  It’s not just a game played by four people, one at a time.  Successful teams communicate.  They rally around each other and support each other.  We’ve already talked about relying on your sweepers and that’s a big part of this but there are other team elements that matter.  Teams are in sync.  For the most part they already know what the next call is going to be before it’s called.  This is important because if each member of the team understands and agrees with the shot about to be played then there is a much higher probability of the shot succeeding.  Think about a shot you’ve had to play which you thought was wrong.  Did you hit the broom?  Did you try your very best to make sure your weight was right?  How about as a sweeper?  How often have you busted a gut pounding that broom on a shot which you thought was wrong anyway?  If players all commit to the shot being played they will do their very best to make that shot successful.  Without every player doing their best on each shot to make it successful your team simply can’t get very far.  Each shot needs all four players working on it every time.  Add to this confidence in your team mates.  The great teams believe they can make the shots.  They believe every player can make any shot called and will work hard to do what they can to make that happen.

7. Games played by competitive teams are well planned out far in advance of the game.  See 6.  These guys all know what shots they are going to play in what situations.  They have it all planned out.  They know for instance, that in the 6th end without hammer down by two the plan is to force the other team to take one.  That has been talked about and argued off the ice long ago and any issue anyone had with that was worked out.  In the eleven Brier games I watched I never saw an instance where players on the team were discussing what they were trying to do in an end before the end started.  Plans will change as the end progresses so there will be some discussion about “do we bail?” or “should we try for 3 and end the game?” but when the skip called the first stone into the house for that first shot not one team member wondered why in ANY game.  This is preparation that is essential for truly competitive teams.

8. Mental toughness is a requirement, not an option for success.  Let’s take you, the average player and put you into an arena that seats, oh, say five thousand people.  Let’s fill the arena about ¾ full and have a number of these people shouting or laughing or taking pictures of you.  My favourite was “Let’s go G-Ho”.  Let’s add television cameras and specifically one guy assigned to get as close to your face as possible without stepping on your sheet.  Finally, let’s have a newspaper story about you every morning with someone’s opinion of your chances for the day ahead.  Take all that and know that unless you throw about 75% to 80% in the upcoming game, you’re not even going to compete.  Performing in that environment is mental toughness.  Blocking out distractions and focusing is a huge part of curling at any level.  Without that ability, you will not progress as a player or as a team.  Elite team all deal with this sort of thing differently but deal with it they do.  It’s something they practice.   Becoming focused at the right time doesn’t just happen any more than throwing 90% consistently.  Ignore this aspect of the game and I will guarantee you that you will not ever reach your full potential.

9. The best players in the world love the game and know how to make the most of it.  The teams and players on the ice at Copps were all there because of a love for the game.  I’ll never be able to prove it but I am absolutely sure that this is also a requirement for teams to reach the highest of heights.  I watched a tense 3 – 4 page playoff game where Steve Gould (lead for Team Manitoba) took the time in the middle of the game to give his shirt to a seven year old boy who was cheering for them.  The game was no where near over in the fifth end when Steve peeled off his top and threw it up to the young fan.  Here is a player who loves the game and is doing everything he can to make the experience everything it can be for everyone there.  There was also Brad Gushue, certainly among the most driven and focused players in the game today, who, down by three in the 10th end in the FINAL, jokingly kicked two stones on to the rings while Glenn Howard had his back turned.  Every single player out there was there for the love of the game and understood how special the experience of the Brier is.  They were making sure they had fun out there.  Without this love for the game none of the players out there would want to put in the time required to get a good as they are.

Well, that’s it.  Being in the crowd at something like the Brier is an exceptional way to get a new appreciation for our great sport and it can remind you of many things that you may have forgotten.  This is my last article for the year.  There were fewer than last year but I found myself on the ice far more this year than last.  I promise that next year I’ll work on getting a few more out for those of you actually reading them.

Have a good summer and remember, the ice goes in at the Oakville club in just five months…

Sean Turriff

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