February 2010 Revised Feb. 2013
Well I had just started an informative and instructional article on stick curling (it will come I promise…) when I realized the Olympics are about to start! I thought it MIGHT be more appropriate to talk about a few things curling that concern the Olympics. This one is sort of a mish mash but hopefully you’ll find some good information.
The interest in curling always seems to peak at this time of year. It’s natural since there is a huge amount of television coverage for everything from provincial playdowns to nationals. For the most part those TV events stir people who already had a passing interest in the sport. Rentals tend to be up at the club and you’ll find members out on the ice actually practicing! The Olympics are a whole different thing however. The Olympics bring in the never before exposed fans and that is a very good thing. The only issue I have with this effect is that many people who see our sport on TV think it’s easy. Okay, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, if they thought it was impossibly hard they wouldn’t bother trying it. Case in point, how many people are inspired to try ski jumping just because they saw it in the Olympics? Fewer than try curling!! It’s good for new curlers to come out and see what’s actually involved. Getting them into the club and on the ice is the first step. The more people we can get out on the ice the better it is for the sport, without question.
The Games have had some strange effects at the higher levels however. These days you see more cross provincial teams. Take the Middaugh (Wayne, not Sherri) team for instance. At third you have Jon Mead, a Manitoban. This team cannot compete for a national men’s title because of the residency system Canada uses to determine our national champion. Is this a good thing? I think so. I think so because the effect is cross pollination. What is that?? Cross pollination is actually the pollination of one type of plant by another different type of plant. With respect to teams, it means an infusion of ideas from outside the normal (and regional) influences. It’s a good thing to have someone from Manitoba playing with someone from Ontario. Sure, this isn’t happening at the grass roots level (yet…) but there is a trickle down effect. When we watch curling on television we learn things about “how the pros do it”. If the pros are learning to do things differently (and hopefully better…), then so are we.
Another thing that the Olympics have done for curling is to bring to the forefront the matter of physical fitness. Elite curlers are legitimate athletes now, training their bodies so that there is no lack of stamina over the length of a competition. Ours is a touch game and that has always been our excuse for not paying attention to physical fitness. As long as you can get the touch you can play well. When curling got to the Olympic level there was much more attention paid to the “higher, faster, stronger” portion of the game. Someone realized that they could vastly improve their touch IF they were more physically fit. I think this portion of our game is still in its infancy and that as time goes by we’ll see more curling specific training out there. John Morris’ book is an excellent start (pick it up of you haven’t already) so the idea has at least taken hold.
Back to the effect of TV on our game. Watching these elite players is inspiring. For anyone who has curled, you’ll realize that what you see on TV is (usually) the best our sport has to offer. It’s a demonstration of consistency and precision that looks all too simple. The inspiration to play like them is overwhelming and often this is what happens to the club curler. This time of year you see more peels and run backs being called than at any other time of year. What you have to remember however is that those players you’re watching on TV are practically playing a different game than the one at the club. What I mean is that they are playing in different conditions and obviously at a different level. Arena ice is NOT club ice. It’s very much different and requires a different sort of respect than your average club sheet. The effect of your release is much more critical on arena ice than at your club. Don’t mistake me, you need to have a good release on club ice too but arena ice can magnify small problems with your release. Typically arena ice curls much more than standard club ice as well. It allows the game to be played more the way I personally expect the game SHOULD be played, with a balance of precision and power. It’s a hard fact of life that you simply might not be able to draw around a stone it the top 12 foot and have it buried on the button in your club. In an arena, that’s pretty standard.
Another element of the game that you have to keep in mind when watching TV is that of the athletes themselves. I was talking to a top junior coach earlier this season. His daughter plays at the highest level of our game even though she’s still in junior. He was a bit ticked off at a comment someone had made to him about the funding his daughter’s team was receiving. The comment made to him was essentially that the team was so good because “they had gotten lucky by getting all this training money”. It’s a fact that the team has been given lots of funding by the CCA and this person was convinced they had just been lucky in getting it. The fact is, the team earned that money. They had to show they were successful and committed BEFORE anyone was willing to give them money to improve. How did they show that? They put in hours and hours and hours of work towards improving. How many hours? I’m going to guess but I’ll say they train in the neighbourhood of 1000 hours a year and they have been doing this for roughly the last 6 seasons. This is only my rough estimate but that puts them at about 6000 of PRACTICE. I’m not talking about games or spiels and I’m not exaggerating the numbers to make a point.
It’s estimated that to become truly elite at anything you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice towards that skill. These girls might be a bit early but they are clearly closing in on that number. They weren’t given anything they didn’t earn through hard work. It’s the same with any curler you watch on TV. Take Glenn Howard for instance. I worshiped him as a vice when I was in high school and when he was winning world championships and that was a good 20 years ago. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Glenn has put in his 10,000 hours. I’m not discounting his talent when I say that. I’m saying he worked hard to be where he is. The curlers you see on TV have all worked hard to be there. Yes they have talent but they are also dedicated athletes who work for it. When you’re at your next club game wondering why you can’t find your draw weight when you just saw Glenn nail the button for the fiftieth straight time ask yourself this. When was the last time you practiced?
Finally I would be remiss if I did not mention the controversy that happened in the final game of the Olympic trials between the Howard and Martin teams. For those of you who are unaware, late in the game Kevin Martin was required to draw a stone to the button. This was a key shot and a miss would help put Howard in a good position to score. As the rock came to the top of the house Ben Hebert lifted his broom and clearly held it over the slide path of the stone. He may have been slightly shaking it but it might also have been moving due to his body movement. In any event, the stone which had looked heavy (hence Hebert NOT sweeping it into the house) came to rest just a tiny bit heavy but in a very good position for Martin. Richard Hart, Howard’s vice immediately voiced his strong disapproval of the action. In his opinion, it wasn’t right that Hebert had held his broom there during the shot particularly since it was a hair broom Hebert had been using. There were no consequences and the incident passed fairly unnoticed by the television commentators. Hebert never acknowledged any wrong doing and never apologized or attempted any public reconciliation. For the record, this is a violation of the rules. When you have completed your sweeping action your broom should finish to the side of the slide path and should not be held over it.
In my opinion this is shameful. Curling is a sport unlike practically any other when it comes to sportsmanship and etiquette. The game is largely self-governed even at these lofty events. Our rule book actually has a code of ethics in it! It’s not fair for me to pass judgment on whether Hebert did what he did intentionally or not. He certainly looked surprised when Hart called him on his actions so I’d like to think he didn’t do it on purpose however there is no way to know since he never made any comment on it one way or the other. In any event, maintaining the high principles on which the game has been built should be the goal of all curlers. As Richard Hart said curling is a game with lots of rules but few penalties. That’s because it’s a game of sportsmanship and honour and I for one would like to see it stay that way. I would not like to see a flood of new penalties introduced because players start flaunting the lack of them. The big problem with this incident is the trickle down effect. People watching the game, curlers and non-curlers alike might start to think that if Hebert doesn’t have to play to the rules then why should they? I have seen similar incidents in club play and it’s frankly disturbing. I urge you all to learn the rules and abide by them in a spirit of fair play and sportsmanship. Enough said.
The Olympics are a very positive showcase for curling. As an interested non-curler hopefully it brings you into the club to try it. As a seasoned club player or even a budding competitive player it’s great to see how the pros handle the spotlight. Enjoy them but keep a critical eye on what you see. It will make you a better player!