Close Only Counts in Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and Curling
November 2006 Revised Feb. 2013
In this article I’m going to give you information that is guaranteed to immediately improve your curling game. The method is simple but sticking to it isn’t.
Have you ever heard that expression, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”? I’d throw in nuclear devices too but I’m already straying from the topic… I would have another addition for that short list. Close also counts in curling. Watch any club curling game and you’re likely to see a shot at some point during that game where a draw shot is called and the thrower puts just a little too much on it. It crosses the first hog line and the sweepers look up at the skip (or vice…nah not on my team anyway…) at the far end with a look of helplessness. The stone is too heavy and all everyone can do is watch it as is happily drifts towards the house. Sweepers may or may not stick with the rock (they should…) as it ignores the skips pleas to stop, slow down, for the love of granite and ice just slow down… Oblivious to the pathetic cries of the players on the ice, the stone slides on down the sheet and out the back of the house. We’ve all seen that shot. Most of us have thrown that shot.
Clearly the thrower put too much weight on the stone, so how does he improve? Throw less weight, right? Sure, of course, the weight was wrong. Curling however is not a game of absolutes. You can’t classify every curling shot as either “made” or “missed”. When calculating player percentages scorers use a four or five point rating system to determine how well a shot was made. Sometimes you miss (3 out of 5), other times you really MISS (0 out of 5) and occasionally you make your shot (5 out of 5!). But if you aren’t getting 5 out of 5, what difference does it make if you get a 3 versus a 1 out of five? A miss is a miss, isn’t it? Well, no, how you miss makes all the difference in the world. Let’s take a non-curling example. If you ask two people what 2 + 2 is and one person answers “five” and the other person answers “purple” what do you have? You have two wrong answers but are they equally wrong? Clearly the first person can’t add but the second person doesn’t even have a concept of math. The second person is “more” wrong than the first and correcting them is going to be much different and more complicated than correcting the first person. It matters how wrong they were and the same goes for curling. Going back to my vice’s stone from above (oops…let the cat out of bag there didn’t I?) lets assume the shot called was a tee line draw. Throwing it through the house is like 2+2= purple. What if the shot had stopped in the back of the eight foot instead of sailing through? Well, that’s a better miss (probably) than having the rock out of play all together. So, 2+2=22…wrong but it’s not purple. What about if it had stopped in the top 12 foot? Now, 2+2=6. That’s a pretty close miss and you know what? Sometimes all you need is an answer that is + or – 2 of the perfect one. (Trust me, I’m an engineer and we live and die on how close we can get…)
When a skip calls a shot they are usually only showing you the perfect desired outcome (picky aren’t we??) and every shot thrown has one of these “perfect” outcomes. It’s the stone that’s thrown with exactly the right weight on the exact right path. Sweepers just have to keep it clean and watch as it comes to rest in the perfect position. Nice. Unless you’re throwing 50 – 100 stones a day in practice then that shot isn’t going to happen every time. The thing is though your shots don’t have to be perfect every time for you to be successful.
As a player you should be aiming for perfection, I’ll never tell you otherwise but if you want to improve your game, you have to recognize the window of execution or allowable tolerance for shots. The tolerance is the range where you can throw a shot that isn’t perfect, but still is useful. It’s a “good” miss. In reality, most of the shots we are asked to throw don’t have to be in the perfect place. Take the leads first shot of the end. Let’s assume the call is a center guard splitting the center line 2 feet from the top of the house. That is the perfect shot and that’s what you would ideally like to see happen. What’s the tolerance though? Is it okay if that rock goes into the house? No! That changes your skips entire strategy for the end. What about the opposite case, what if it only gets over the hog line by 2 feet? Well, the skip still has a center guard and the sweepers are likely tired but you still have a useful stone. It’s a miss that is still useful. How about if you’re way inside the broom and you end up 2 feet from the top of the house but covering the eight foot instead of the center line? Again, the entire strategy has to change. What if that shot isn’t that far off? What if it’s just barely touching the center line on one side or the other? You’re still covering the center of the house and it’s out front. That’s a very good miss. You now have an area which you’ve identified where that shot can end up where it wasn’t perfect but was still very useful. My friend, you’ve just identified the tolerance for that shot.
Almost every shot has a tolerance. I say almost because sometimes you need to cover the pin and “getting close” gets you nothing. The number of shots that require a perfect result isn’t as big as you might think though. Even the pin has some width to it. Most of you know this already. Next time you’re on the ice listen for a phrase similar to “don’t be heavy” or “don’t be wide”. Why is the skip saying these things? The skip is really saying it’s okay to be a little light or it’s okay to be a little narrow. They are trying (clumsily) to tell you what the tolerance is for that shot.
This should be part of the instruction set that skips give to players on each shot. That means on every shot a skip should communicate the desired weight, desired target (broom), the handle (rotation) and the tolerance. In reality at the club level you usually only hear about the tolerance when it’s a critical shot or when my vice is throwing and I just KNOW he’s going to be wide on that hit…
When communicating the shot tolerance I advise players not to use the word “don’t” when explaining where to throw the stone. (Don’t say don’t…I just did it myself…) When someone hears, “DON’T be light” all that sticks in their head is the “be light” part. Use positive language. It can be a little difficult to get out of that habit but once you catch on to it your team will respond much better. Change “don’t be light” to “it’s okay to be a little heavy”. Using positive language helps you to define the shot tolerance in a way that allows your players to envision success, not failure. Besides, it’s easier to list out where it’s okay for a rock to end up than where it’s not okay to end up. The list of acceptable shots is shorter because there are an infinite number of unacceptable shots.
Another phrase you’ve likely heard is “throw it to your sweepers”. My vices shot from above that missed the off ramp to the house was not thrown to the sweepers. The sweepers were helpless to have any effect on that stone because it wasn’t thrown with the tolerance in mind. It would have been okay for that shot to have been thrown a little light. Then the sweepers could have earned their drinks after the game. Throwing to your sweepers is another way of saying “get it close”. A shot that is swept hard is NOT a miss. Sweepers are not just there to bail out bad shots. They are there to open up the tolerance for throwers. They are resources every thrower should take advantage of. The pros know this very well. Watch how much sweeping there is on a “TV” game. It’s rare when the sweepers simply follow a rock down the sheet. Those teams know how to use the sweepers to give them an advantage.
I promised to tell you how to immediately improve your game and hopefully by now you’ve already figured it out. If not, here it is. Before you throw every shot make sure two things are clear in your head. First, what is the perfect result? Second, assuming you’re not going to be perfect, what’s still okay? Again, let’s not focus on what’s bad or what a bad shot looks like. As soon as you start visualizing bad shots you’ll start throwing them. Answering the second question will tell you how to miss on the “pro” side versus missing on the “amateur” side. As soon as you start missing on the pro side then your game will improve. Pro misses are shots that miss in the tolerance range. Amateur misses are useless or harmful to your teams’ efforts and aren’t in our window of execution.
Let’s go through a couple examples of this.
The shot called is a nose hit take out on a stone in the top eight foot. It’s the last rock of the end and the skip intends to score with this shot. The perfect shot is a dead nose hit and stick. What’s acceptable? Can it be a little light? Maybe but you must have enough weight to remove the opposition stone from play. Can it be a little heavy? Again, maybe, but if it is then you better make sure you hit the nose because the higher weight shot will roll and may roll out. So, we know the range of weight we need to throw. How important is it to hit this stone right on the nose? Again, the intention is to leave the shooter as shot so as long as you don’t hit it on too much of an angle and roll out then you’re okay. Now you have a range in which you can throw that shot and still get what you want out of it. The pro miss here is the hit and roll for shot. The amateur miss is the whiff or the hit and roll OUT!
How about this one? It’s the second’s second stone. The skip is trying to bail out of a little trouble and has called a double take out. The second has to hit the top stone on an angle and roll over to get the other stone out. Starting with weight, is it okay to be a little heavy? Being a little heavy is likely okay because you do have to remove 80+ lbs of granite from the house. What about a little light? Being a little light can be okay as long as you get the roll over to the second stone. If you’re a little light and you hit the top stone and roll in front of the second stone then that’s a pretty good miss. Being so light that you barely get the first stone out and get no roll is not going to help you bail out. (Amateur miss) What about line? In this case you clearly need the roll off the first stone in the direction of the second stone. A nose hit is a bad miss as is a roll to the opposite side. The pro miss removes one stone and leaves your stone close to the remaining opposition stone. The amateur miss either misses everything all together or leaves the opposition with a simple shot to sit two again.
I said at the beginning that the method was pretty simple. After all, most of us already think about this a little bit when we throw though it may be from the perspective of “don’t do something” rather than “it’s okay to miss” certain ways. The really hard part is sticking to it. We all want to nail each shot perfectly and that’s good, we should aim for perfection. The problem is we get so focused on the perfect shot that we don’t recognize that there are acceptable ways to miss. If you want to improve look for the tolerance on each shot you throw and aim to get close. Work to throw within the tolerance for your shots and your game will improve, guaranteed.