Strategically Speaking

Planning for Success or Why Strategy is More Than The Shot Called


February 2007 Revised Feb. 2013


You know I honestly had a plan for my articles this year.  I started writing them in the summer so I would have a big stack ready for the winter.  I planned to lazily sit back and release one every couple of weeks without too much work.  Nice plan…needs better execution though.  I start my article this way because strategy is all about this, planning and execution.

Likely the most debated conversations in curling and maybe the most misunderstood topic is around strategy.  I hesitated to write on this topic because frankly, much of what I’m about to say is laid out very well (and in a very entertaining way) by Bill Tschirhart in an article he wrote while at the NTC (National Training Center) in Calgary.  That article was called, “Strategy – It Isn’t What You Might Think”.  (You receive nothing less than extremely entertaining information in all of Bill’s articles.)  That article as well as many other very good ones can be found on Bills blog which is in my Links section.

Many new curlers want to learn strategy by going over game situations and finding out “what is the right shot”.  A lot of the juniors I talk to approach strategy education this way but many experienced adults also ask this question.  This may seem like the natural way to learn strategy and frankly if you watch enough shots you’ll eventually (say in 10 or 15 years…) be able to get by in many common game situations.  This is learning by “rote”.  It’s like repeating your times tables over and over until eventually you know by heart that 5 times 3 equals 15.  What happens though when someone asks what 5.3 times 275 is?  You’re going to get stuck because you didn’t really learn why 5 times 3 is equal to 15.  In a similar manner, as a curler you’re going to be able to call many common, oft played shots but at some point you’re going to get beat by another team who understands why they threw that corner guard in the first place.

Let’s step back a bit.  We want to learn “strategy”.  What is that exactly?  I love asking people this because I always get so many different answers.  Usually all the pieces are there but seldom do they come from any single person.  Some good definitions of strategy are:

Strategy is the actual decisions made, both on and off the ice, that ultimately determine the shots team will play in a wide range of game situations.

Strategy is the shot called after considering a variety of factors based upon an ever-changing array of factors, in light of a pre-determined game plan resulting in an overall philosophy.

In the most basic terms I can use, strategy is the decisions you make based on the plans you already made.

What is the common theme with these definitions?   First, they’re flexible.  There are no hard fast rules about what to play when.  Second, they talk about plans, or decisions we made before we even stepped out on the ice.  Both of these points are crucial to sound strategy.

I once had a junior player ask me how you could decide how you were going to play before you had seen how the other team was playing.  Honestly, I’d expect this from my vice on my men’s team, but one of my juniors?!  Planning is about being proactive, or being ready for a situation before you’re forced to act.  Waiting to see how the other team plays leaves you reacting to their game.  Sitting back and waiting so see what you’re given is not planning at all.  It’s not strategy anymore either, it’s shot selection based on elimination.  The only time you can generate any offence with that method is when the other team starts missing everything.  You’re not going to win much that way.  It makes infinitely more sense to map out how you prefer to play and plan to throw the shots your team is best at.

There are three ways to approach any strategic curling situation.  You can be aggressive (Pursuing), you can be defensive (Protecting) or you can be cautious (Probing).  That’s all there is.  Most teams will have a preference for one style over the other but that doesn’t mean they will play that way in every circumstance.  It is a preference, not an absolute rule.  Even the most aggressive teams will occasionally play defensively in particular situations.  First, how do you know what sort of team you are?  Once you figure that out, when do you switch from your primary style to something different?  For example, when does an aggressive team switch from offense to defense?  Making those decisions before you step on to the ice is what strategy really is.

A team’s style is going to be based on a few important factors.  One of them is the types of shots they are good at throwing.  Another factor is the teams’ tolerance for risk.  Figuring out your team style is something that requires input from every player on the team.  Each member after all is going to have to live with the situations that the plan intends to create and each player is going to have to throw the type of shots that suit the style.  Team compatibility factors in here in a very big way.  If a player who likes to play close games with little risk is on a team with three others who come out guns a blazing then it’s likely that team won’t last.  Let’s look a little closer at those three styles and what they require of your team.

A Pursuing team is an offence first team.  This means they will try to steal whenever they don’t have last rock and will expect to get a minimum of 2 points with last rock.  A team playing a pursuing style will throw a lot of finesse shots such as draws, bumps, freezes and guards.  The only way to count lots of points is to have lots of stones in play and this means at some point both you and you opposition will have a pile of granite in the house.  A Pursuing style requires a team to take risks and leaving the opposition in the house is risky.  Such risks don’t always work out even for the best teams and a pursuing team will occasionally give up big ends.  This type of team is willing to run that risk because of the confidence they have in taking back a big end down the road.  This sort of team wants to end the game in 6 ends and likely will one way or the other!  This takes a lot of resilience and confidence.  This sort of team has to be able to immediately re-group after giving up a big end or after losing a lopsided game.  They can’t get demoralized.  Think Wayne Middaugh back when he was skipping his own team.  Wayne attacked you every end from the flip of the coin to the final handshake and maybe after…  That’s a Pursuing style.

A Protecting team is a defense first team.  They are not concerned with stealing points and will only work on getting two points with last rock if they are fairly certain they can do so.  A blank is quite acceptable and a Protecting team will have many blanks.  They will want to limit the opposition to one point with last rock.  To do this, the Protecting team will keep the house very clean.  They will throw lots of take outs and may be very good peelers.  Uh, I mean, good at taking out shots and rolling the shooter for those of you who thought I may have stopped talking about curling…  Protecting teams do not like risk, they play safe.  This type of team will have low scoring games and so need to be very patient.  They will wait all game if required before going after those points but in the meantime they will be very stingy with what they give up.  This requires patience and lots of it.  Think Colleen Jones when she was skipping.  She would wait you out until you got frustrated and made mistakes.  Only then would she try to make things happen.  She’ll look for that mistake and make you pay for it.  Once she gets a small lead she’ll close the door on you and not let you back into the game.  That’s a Protecting style.

The third style is a Probing style.  As you might suspect, it’s a mixture of the other two styles.  This is the most difficult style to play because it requires the execution of both the previous two styles.  It also requires the mental toughness of the other two styles.  That means you have to be both patient and resilient.  They also have to be able to throw all shots extremely well.  All this is difficult enough but likely the most difficult part of being a Probing team is timing.  You have to know when to flip the switch from defense to offence (or vice versa) and you have to recognize it as a team.  Not recognizing when to shift gears can be disastrous for this type of team and very frustrating.  Many teams say they prefer this style but in truth many of those teams, especially at the club level, are reacting and not really playing with a plan.  The difference between a Probing team and one who is simply reacting is that the Probing team will know exactly when to strike and when to batten down the hatches.  The non-planning team will mostly just react to what is being thrown at them…so to speak.

As I explained earlier, even the most extreme of these teams will adjust their style based on game circumstances.  Wayne Middaugh for instance will most certainly stop drawing stones into the house when he’s up by four or more (or maybe 5….or 6….maybe…).  Colleen Jones will play aggressively in the 10th end when she’s down by 3.  How you’re going to play in various situations is the very basis of strategy in curling.  What most people don’t understand is that the majority of these decisions have to be made before you step out on to the ice.  The “TV” teams have all mapped out how they’re going to play in various situations and are all on the same page when the skipper puts the broom down.  Most new curlers confuse shot selection with strategy.

So how do we decide what style to play?   First and foremost your team has to come together and have an honest conversation about what their strengths are.  They have to figure out their tolerance for risk.  If you don’t think your team will bounce back easily from giving up a big end then it’s likely you’re not a Pursuing team.

Next, map out how you would prefer to play in various situations.  I know this sounds like I’m talking about shot selection again but I don’t mean what shot do you call.  I mean, what sort of result do you want based on the situation you’re in.  I’m talking about making those decisions about when to probe, when to pursue and when to protect.  As a team, decide when you want to play a certain style.  There are three things that primarily influence a teams style of play.  These are:

  1. The end you’re in.
  2. The score differential (up by two?  Down by four?)
  3. Who has last rock.

Other factors will help you decide the specific shot to play but those three give you the framework to plan how you want to play (pursuing, probing or protecting).  To help you see what I’m talking about let me show you a picture.

Sample Game Plan



This chart serves as a strategic plan for your team.  The colours will be different for your specific team but I’m only demonstrating the concept.  This breaks out by end, score differential and last rock what style a team is going to play.  Take a good look, no where does this say anything about what the other team is doing.  It’s a guide that your team has developed to remind you what you decided to play in various situations.  As a team you were able to make these decisions when you were calm and the team had the time to really discuss how they felt about the different situations.

Here’s a question, when in a game would you deviate from the plan?  I mean, when during a game would you look at this chart and say, “Oh I know it says to play protecting but I think we should play pursuing instead”.  The answer?  NEVER.  If you find yourself having that conversation then you need to meet with the team after the game and change the plan.  Don’t just ignore it.  The reasons for why you made these decisions should have been discussed at length with the team prior to implementing them.  Mid game is not the time to go back and question those decisions.  Now, that isn’t to say you should never change the plan.  After all, you may think you’re an aggressive team but find after a few games that you really don’t have the tolerance for risk required.  When something like that happens, call a team meeting and review the plan.  Change the colour scheme up, splash in some red where you were uncomfortable with green.  Make it something you can live with, then live with it.  Failure to follow a plan is as disastrous as failing to plan at all.

Looking up at our chart above, what sort of team is this?  Are they Probing, Protecting or Pursuing?  To be honest, I don’t know.  Maybe they’re none of the above and to be honest, it doesn’t matter.  I know I’ve spent four pages explaining that you need to figure this out but what is really important is deciding how you’ll play in various game situations and not finding a label for your team.  The whole idea is to decide where your teams comfort level is and then playing to that comfort level.  The detail and amount of thought put into creating a chart like the one above for your team will mean infinitely more than trying to settle on a single label for your team type.  Wayne Middaugh’s team chart may have a lot more green in it than the one above but I’ll guarantee you that there will be some red in there in for particular situations.  Teams can create a chart similar to the one above and bring it on to the ice with them if need be.  Think about each situation independently and see if each member of your team can live with it.

Earlier I talked about risk tolerance and shot preference.  Your team is going to need to understand these things in order to figure out what style you’re going to play and when. Shot preference is relatively easy to figure out for your team.  Everyone is good at throwing take outs…then you sound like a defense first team to me!  Our team excels at draw figuring out draw weight…we sound like an aggressive team.  Risk tolerance can be a little more difficult.  One way to analyze your risk tolerance is to ask yourselves four simple questions.  Take each situation (box in the chart) above and decide:

  1. What do we want to happen?
  2. What can we live with?
  3. What don’t we want to happen?
  4. What is the bonus?

I think the most telling of these questions is #2.  If your team doesn’t mind giving up two points without last rock then you’re likely you’re happy to probe or pursue.  If the most you can live with is giving up 1 without last stone then you’re likely defensive.  As the situation changes, so will your willingness to live with these same results.  Down 3 in the 7th end?  You probably can’t live with giving up 2 no matter what.  As you discuss the answers to these questions you’ll get a fairly clear understanding as to whether the team prefers to be aggressive or defensive in various situations.  Those discussions are so incredibly valuable for your team and essential if you want to excel.

Finally, you need to understand how to implement your plan.  This is what most of you want to hear when you ask me about strategy but I always answer that question with a question.  “What are you trying to accomplish?”  If you can answer that question of mine then it’s likely you already have a couple of ideas on what shot to call.  You then can assess which one you’re most comfortable with throwing and which one you think you’re most likely to make.  If you know what you’re trying to accomplish, then choosing the shot becomes a much simpler matter.

Think about this, how many times have you been watching a curling game and heard the question, “What would you do here?”  This is one of the big attractions of our sport; it allows so much “armchair skipping”!  In any case, the reason that question is interesting is that there never seems to be a unanimous opinion on the correct shot and nor should you expect there to be.  Every “warm side of the glass” skip watching that game would have a different plan in his or her head and would play each situation differently.  As a result, there rarely is a “right” answer to the question of what shot should be called.

I promise I’ll talk about how to implement each of these three styles in an upcoming article but I’ll leave you with just a teaser.  The factors that go into your shot selection are all captured by the non-word FESRAIN.  You’ll see FESRAI commonly used but I like to add the N…

F – Free guard zone; can you use it?  Does it have an impact on what you’re calling?

E – End; what end are you in? (it’s in our chart and so it’s a major strategic factor)

S – Score; what’s the score?  Are you winning or losing (this too is in our chart…another major strategic factor)

R – Last Rock advantage; do you have it or does the opposition? (the last major strategic factor from our chart…)

A – Ability; what is your teams skill level?  Your opponents?  Can your team make this shot?  Can the opposition make the shot you’re giving them?

I – Ice; will the ice conditions allow you to make the shot you want to call?

N – Number of rocks remaining in the end; is it the skips stones or the leads?

Back to my junior who wanted to wait and see.  Take a good look.  The only place where you consider your opposition is in the “A”.  Ability.  How good is your opposition?  How sophisticated do you have to be to beat them?  It’s only one factor out of seven and you know what?  Your plan for the end isn’t affected by the opposition’s ability.  Only how you’re going to implement it.

None of this is easy but then, if it was, how interested would the game really be?  It’s because the strategy of the game is so involved that the game is so intriguing.  Don’t let it overwhelm you.  Really, it’s just a matter of knowing what you want before you reach for it.

Sean Turriff



1 thought on “Strategically Speaking

  1. Pingback: FESRAIN on Your Parade | Coach Curling

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