Find Your Own Place to Play or Curling Theory of Natural Selection
January 12, 2006 Revised Feb 2013
Your skip is a jerk, always yelling at you…your vice doesn’t talk to the front end because he’s too good for that, your second is always telling you when to sweep when he should be doing it himself and your lead couldn’t hit the ground with his hat. I have just one question, what position do you play?
Curling teams are typically formed with the more experienced players playing as vice and skip and the less experienced players playing as second and lead. This is usually done at the club level to get new players introduced to the game without making them responsible for making strategic decisions. For very new curlers this is good because for new players it’s hard enough just learning to throw the right handle and weight. The problem with this is that for more experienced players, using seniority as the only way to determine player positions won’t make you a winning team. It could be a factor but it’s only one of many that should go into deciding who plays where. Every position on a curling team is important to the overall success of the team. This isn’t just a cliché used to make the front end feel better either. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what you really need from each position to be a successful team. By the time we’re done you’ll see why a team needs skilled players at each position. By skilled, I mean each player has to throw a variety of shots well, every player should have good strategic knowledge and good ice reading abilities and every player should be mentally tough. Still, it doesn’t mean all positions only require these things. Let’s figure out why.
I’ll start with skips because, well, I’m a skip and because most non-skips (my third for instance…) think any fencepost can call a better game than me…sorry, I digress… Skips need to be proficient at all shots. You won’t be competitive with a skip who can’t throw take outs or who can’t adjust to throw draw weight. There can be more stones in play when the skip throws than for any other position so the shots required of your skip may be the most complex ones in the game. Does this mean your skip should be the best thrower on the team? Maybe but maybe not! The skip relies on the team to set up the end so if the team is very good at that and if the skip is calling smart shots then throwing them may be relatively easy. I would say that your skip needs to be well rounded and able to throw a variety of shots well if you want to be successful as a team but the best thrower…not necessarily.
Maybe more important than pure throwing skill is how well your skip handles pressure when throwing. Your skip is your last line of defense so she needs to be the type of person who can handle that pressure. If you’ve never had to throw a draw to the four foot to win a game then you can’t appreciate what this can be like. Even in the most relaxed, fun games having to do this can be unnerving… If she can do it in practice 99 times out of 100 but can’t do it at all in a game, then your team has issues. Skips know that when they throw their rocks the whole game is riding on it. When a skip misses, the mistake is more final than when other positions miss because skips throw last. If your skip comes up light on a draw, everyone will remember that shot more than the fact that she had to do it because the third missed an open take out. (Arghh!! those thirds….) Your skip has to have the confidence to want to throw that shot for the win and to be resilient enough to shake it off when she misses. She can’t let the situation alone rattle her. Someday no matter how good your team is, as a skip, you’ll have to draw the four foot to win. Love it or don’t play skip. He directs the teams destiny with his shot calls and if that responsibility makes him nervous, then he isn’t suited to be skip. Your skip should be the most mentally tough player on the team because this position has more of a mental aspect to it than other positions (no, we’re not “mental”…). To a certain extent, every other player can simply do what he or she is asked to do. Skips don’t have this luxury and the mental strain can be pretty high (no wonder we’re so moody huh?) so the ability to deal with pressure and even thrive on it is important. A good skip manages his moods well. Keeping an even temper when things are going badly is critical at this position. Your skip determines the strategic path a team takes during game play so someone who gets flustered easily is going to lose games for the team because they won’t be able to call the game effectively. I have had the pleasure of coaching many talented players but one skip instantly comes to mind as the model of good composure (I say with great pride, like I had something to do with it…). People who understand the game well can easily pick her out as a skip because she has the perfect constitution for it. She’s quietly confident and it’s rare to see her rattled on the ice. She manages both her excitement and disappointment very well and in fact I’ve never seen her frustrated or over excited DURING a game. Afterwards, it comes out but by the game is over and it’s therapeutic. For a girl of her age in particular, it was remarkable and impressive but most importantly it makes her an ideal skip.
Your skip also needs to be able to read ice. I have often said that a skip can make a good team look very bad with poor strategy and poor ice reading. You can throw the right weight and hit the broom every time but if that broom isn’t in the right place, you’ll miss every shot (thanks a lot skipper…). Again, every player has to think strategically and read ice but your skip has to make decisions based on her knowledge every couple of minutes for about 2 hours and the team depends on that. A good memory is important for skips. Along side that; your skip needs to have a good grasp on curling strategy. She needs to know how to generate offence, how to defend points and when to do both of these things. All this is on top of making her shots. It’s a lot to keep together! Let’s see a fencepost do all that…hah!
Vices / Thirds:
I have a soft spot for this position. I played as a vice in my junior days and was very happy there. My curling hero growing up was Glenn Howard even more so than his brother Russ because I admired the way he played the vice position. Glenn was (and is!) a great thrower of course but it was the way he conducted himself that I really appreciated. This position is best suited for someone who doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. What I mean is, as we’ve already discussed, skips are the main focus on the team, like it or not. (Still don’t believe me? What women’s team won the Olympic curling trials? Who plays third on that team? Get the idea?) The third should be the type of person who wants to be behind the spotlight, holding it in place. Thirds set up for the skips shots and need to be supportive people not just with their shots but also in their attitude in dealing with their skips and the rest of the team. Glenn worked very well with his brother this way, always supporting and centering Russ. I stopped playing third when I found that I never agreed with any skips I was playing with. I figured if I wasn’t able to provide that support then I had better be willing to take on the responsibility myself.
Thirds need to have a good understanding of strategy and need to be able to read ice as well as skips do. They are generally charged with calling the sweeping on arguably the most important shots in an end, the skips! (Just as a side note, this was the true brilliance of the Ferbey team rotation. With Randy calling the game and throwing third stones, it means that he calls sweeping on the last stones his team throws. He’s the one who has seen the most rocks from in the house and presumably knows best how the ice will behave. Who better to call the sweeping?! Somehow it just doesn’t make sense to bring in someone who hasn’t been able to watch every shot from the house for those critical last stones, does it?) Thirds are required to advise on strategic and ice reading decisions during a game as well so they need to understand these things if they are going to be of any real use. The role of the third isn’t to make these decisions for the skip, rather, it’s to provide options and help the skip think through them. Ultimately the third need to support whatever decisions the skip makes. This is difficult because at some point skips and vices will disagree on the preferred call. Thirds need to be able to put aside their own agendas and support the skips decision. That’s the tough part; swallowing your ego and supporting decisions you don’t agree with.
As a third you also need to be able to throw all the shots. Many of your shots will be similar to what a skip will face and you’re throwing in the second half of the end so a lot of rocks could be in play. If your skip doesn’t have to be your best thrower, does your third? Again, I would say not necessarily but just like for the skip position, you better be able to throw all the shots. My belief is that if your skip isn’t your best all round thrower then your third better be. Another part of being a third that sometimes gets overlooked is that of the communicator. The skip can be isolated from the front end during the game simply because they aren’t physically together much on the ice. Good teams communicate well despite this but the third can really play a role as the bridge between the front end and the skip. Small matters can be relayed through the vice from the front end to the skip and vice versa. This isn’t to say that the skip shouldn’t talk directly to the front end but sometimes there are things you don’t want your opposition hearing and sometimes there are relatively minor items that you don’t need a mid game team meeting for. Good thirds monitor the moods of both the front end and skips and they work to make sure everyone is on the same page.
So, on to the front end….
The Front End:
I will discuss leads and seconds separately but there are many things common to both positions so I’ll start with the two of them together. When you first start curling it’s likely you’ll play lead or second as I said at the beginning. Some players soon tire of the front end because, well, frankly they work harder. As a skip, I rarely come off the ice sweating (frostbite, maybe, sweating, never) but my front end is often down to shirtsleeves. Leads and seconds sweep six rocks each per end and that can wear a body out especially if you’re playing three games in a day… Front end players have to like to sweep (at least, you can’t hate it…) and that means they need to be physically fit.
Yes, I know, everyone needs to be fit but the but really, your skip doesn’t need the same level of endurance and strength the front end players (and vice) need. She simply doesn’t need to sweep like they do. Front end players need good sweeping technique (a future article!) and they need to be a good judge of weight. (See? They’re more than just worker bees….) The front end should be proficient at judging weight since at least one of them is always responsible for sweeping the shot. Sweepers are responsible for making sweeping decisions based on weight for every shot so the front end has some big responsibility here. Accurate weight judgment by the front end will result in better sweeping decisions and that will result in more shots made. (and yes, that should result in you winning more…) The front end also needs to communicate their weight judgment to the house. The skip (or third) call sweeping for line only and they need to know how much weight a rock has in order to effectively call that line. Accurate weight information early for the person in the house can give a team a big advantage. Front end players need to work as a unit. They need to be in sync when it comes to weight judgment (there’s nothing worse than having your lead yell out that a shot is going to hog and at the same time hear your second yell that it’s going through the house…) and they need to work together while brushing so there are a minimum of “accidents” (also known as burnt rocks…).
So, there are many common abilities that seconds and leads need, what are the differences?
The stones the lead throws determine the strategy your team will play for the entire end so consistency at this position is highly valued. That means consistent weight and release especially. This also means the lead has to recognize and be comfortable with that responsibility. Easily the most common shot required of leads these days is the guard but the life of a lead has become much more diverse since the free guard zone came to pass. In addition to guards, she will also need to adjust her weight to make bumps and draws and even the occasional hit. In the days of yore leads were generally subjected to making draws or take outs and take outs and more take outs. Today the bread and butter shot of a lead is the guard. No team will be successful with a lead that cannot place guards. It won’t happen. Ever. The better a lead is at being able to position long guards and short guards at will, the better off the team will be and the more options your skip will have!
Seconds are what I call the “build or bail” players. If your lead has positioned you well with their first two rocks then the second can build the end with their stones. On the other hand, if things have gotten a little out of hand, the second can go in there and bail your team out. Seconds therefore must be able to both draw and hit well. The second stones are the first chance a team gets to peel guards out because of the free guard zone rule. Sometimes this means attempting double peels requiring big weight so big weight is an important tool for seconds. While seconds need to be comfortable throwing this they also need to be able to transition back to draw weight to build ends. It can be debated that the turning point in an end happens with third stones but for many teams, this can be too late so removing rocks with your second stones is often necessary. A solid second with good hit weight and good transition skills will improve team offence and team defense all at once.
The Whole Team:
Finally, curling isn’t a game of four individuals. Hopefully as we went through what was required at each position, you noticed each player needs to interact effectively with the rest of the team. Four good players do not a good team make. Teams need to have a common belief in the strategy the skip uses and they need to work together to accomplish what they set out to do. Players need to enjoy the positions they are playing because otherwise, what are you doing out there?? Hopefully you now also see why seniority isn’t necessarily a good way to determine positions for experienced players. Players need to understand the unique requirements of each position on a curling team and work on that specific role. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that being a skip isn’t for you, it’s not where everyone belongs. At Richmond Hill the men have Sunday morning curling league called Sinners. In this league, every player rotates through each position for two ends over an entire eight end game. They do it as a fun way to stir up the game but it’s truly a great way to introduce newer players to the demands of other positions. It’s a relaxed, no pressure way to get your feet wet as a skip or to remind skips how hard the leads really work!
I want to share one final thought. I’ve told you where I think the strongest thrower should play (by “strongest” I mean the player who can most consistently make a wide range of shots) but I haven ’t discussed the dark side of that question. Where should the weakest player play?
I hate this question and it is one that comes up too often. This is not the factor a team should start with when trying to determine positions. As we’ve seen, there are many other factors that teams should consider first when determining positions and hopefully you never get to the point where you say, “Sean, you play second because you’re our worst player…”. (That’s a conversation sure to build confidence!) Every position needs to be strong and each player needs to be suited to the position they are playing if a team wants to be competitive. If I really have to answer (and I’m always forced to…) I would have to say the second position is likely the most forgiving. There is half an end to bail out your second and their shots don’t necessarily mess up your plans for the rest of the end. Still, it’s a dodgy question because in the end, if you want a strong team, you need, (all day, every day, 24/7….) a strong second. Without one, you’ll never be a really good team. My teams have been able to make positional decisions based on comfort and fit, which is certainly the best way to do it. On one of my teams, I am very confident of their ability to win specifically because of this. We have four strong players INCLUDING the second position but more importantly, each player is comfortable with where they are playing and can meet the demands specific to that position. I know my second is a strong take out player (bail!) and she can transition over to the finesse game when she needs to (build!). Find your own place, and have fun!