The words that you shall read in this article concern strategy. Although I wish as many to read my words as possible, I want to save some of you the time you might otherwise spend on this web site. If you shoot less than 50%, or more than 90%, continue surfing. If you are in the former group, strategy is not your problem. Your time would be better spent with a qualified instructor. On the other hand, for the few, the very few, who might be in the latter group, what do you care about strategy? Call any shot you want! Chances are that you will make it and I have yet to see a skip call a shot that isn’t designed to improve the situation. But, if you are somewhere between 50% and 90%, settle back. I believe I can help!
I wish I had the proverbial nickel for each time I have been asked to help a team with “its strategy”. I have been in clubs where the bar tender and kitchen staff have both exhausted their supplies of drinking glasses, bottle caps, salt & pepper shakers and coasters in an effort to supply “curling lounge adversaries” with the tools to continue their games on table tops and bar counters. The “what if’s” and “if only’s” could fill an entire strategy manual many times over. Like the weather, strategy is what everyone talks about, but few seem to master. That team that I described at the onset of this paragraph was served very poorly by this scribe because even though I was well-intentioned, it didn’t take long before I was preaching the strategy gospel according to St. Bill (who I can assure you is far from a Saint). The difficulty in “teaching strategy” is quite easy to understand. It only took me about 30 years to realize that for one curler to teach strategy to another, it is all but impossible to remove the personal bias of the instructor. I’m a quick study! The usual method is to grab that ever-faithful strategy board, place the plastic curling stones into “typical situations” then ask the team what it would do. This of course is followed by the inevitable judgment of the “teacher” (which is where the personal bias comes in to play). But, the thing that bothered me most as the team left were the nagging questions. Will they remember what I said? Will they be able to remember the “situations” we used? Will they remember what shot I told them to play”. Will those situations actually arise? Even if the answer to some or all of those questions was positive, sooner or later strategy starts to break down. I might be on the other side of the country, or the world, when the breakdown occurs. Then what do they do? It’s broken and no one can fix it! Some teacher I turn out to be! Finally I discovered the missing ingredient. I was not “empowering” the athletes. I was teaching like I was a puppeteer and the team was on the ends of my strings. Unfortunately, those strings don’t penetrate glass! There had to be a better way. There is! And here it is (he exclaimed humbly)!
When I have teams in that “help me with my strategy” setting now, I no longer panic. The “workshop” approach that I now employ is only limited by the size of the room. I am no longer teacher, I am facilitator! I promise the teams attending the workshop that I shall do two things. First, I will empower them to develop a plan that is uniquely theirs (for reasons I will explain later in this article) and second I will empower them to adjust and repair the plan as conditions change.
To accomplish these two goals requires action on the part of the team. What follows are the chronological steps in achieving those goals. Get your team, some paper and writing instruments and your coach. There IS light at the end of the strategy tunnel!
Strategy begins with goal setting. For a clear strategic plan to emerge, all members of the team “must be on the same page”. A team which hasn’t defined its goals will, in all likelihood, struggle with their plan on a continuing basis.
Record a “working definition” for strategy as it applies to your team. When I do this step with teams I get quite a variety of definitions but here are the common ones; game plan, plan to maximize the team’s potential, shot called, plan to ensure victory, blueprint to attack and defend, a plan to structure the shots called to give our team the best chance to win. Of course, all the definitions are correct because they are “working” definitions. To a lesser or greater degree it works for your team. My guess is (unless you are one of the lucky ones) that your definition works to a lesser degree! If I accept your definition, then will you consider mine? Strategy is the shot called after considering a variety of factors in light of a pre-determined game plan which results from an overall philosophy. Ooh, heavy eh! They keys to the definition are the four components; shot, factors, game plan and philosophy. I have yet to have a team include philosophy in its working definition of strategy and I feel it is the corner stone of a sound strategic plan. Do you think that Russ and Glenn Howard would have played together all these years if they didn’t agree on “how the game is to be played”. If they should ever go their separate ways (heaven forbid) my guess is that part of the reason will be philosophical differences. I said earlier that I would explain the statement that a game plan should be unique to a team. Every team is different. Each player brings to the team a unique set of talents and experiences. That alone makes each team unique. The strategic plan for each team should reflect that. If you’re using someone else’s plan it’s eventually going to break because it’s theirs not yours! Your team can’t play like Sandra Schmirler’s or Mike Harris’ even if you could make all the shots they can. You’re a different mix!
The merit of strategy then is the consistency that exists among those four components. Given that, step three revolves around philosophy.
Philosophy is a general statement of how the game should be played. It can be stated in a sentence or two. When I ask teams to state their philosophy the one I usually get (especially from the male teams) goes something like this; “We are very aggressive all the time. If there’s a speck of dirt on the ice, we’ll draw around it”. Sure you will! Then when you take a look at a shot chart for one of their games it is quite evident that they are much more defensive at times. Be realistic. How do the four of your want to play this game? If there ever was a time for agreement among the four of you, it’s NOW! Can you imagine how awkward it must be for a team to play when one or two of the players don’t agree with the style of play the team is using? Like another natural human byproduct well known in curling circles, it happens! More frequently than you think, this sort of thing never gets discussed. How can you build a game plan on that?
There are a set of factors which drive a game plan. Most coaches and players agree on a set that we in the Canadian Curling Association know by the acronym FESRAI. Stop reading here and see if you can name all seven (no, I can count the letters and I agree that there are only six but I think there should be seven).
Well, how did you do? Were you able to name something for each letter? Here are the correct answers (along with that seventh one).
- F- free guard zone rule
- E – the end in play
- S- the current score
- R- last rock advantage
- A- the relative abilities of the players on each team
- I – ice conditions
- (N) – the number of stones remaining to be played
There is no doubt that the “F” of our acronym is living on borrowed time. We have used the F.G.Z. rule long enough that by now it is part of everyone’s plan and we don’t have draw attention to it. The end in play is critical because it is our “game clock”. Obviously one will play somewhat differently if there are two ends to be played than if there are five or six. In the same light, one will perhaps employ a different plan if one is winning by four than if one is losing by that score. I can hear some of you out there now saying that the end and the score really are in concert with one another. You are correct! Of course they are. You might very likely play the same with a four rock lead as with a four rock deficit because it’s early in the game. It depends what your team’s philosophy is on that matter. The team with last stone advantage is likely to be on a different plan than the team without it although under the f.g.z. rule some would argue that perhaps that is no longer such a great difference. What’s your philosophy? Occasionally the relative abilities of the teams will be a factor but in most instances, exploiting a perceived weakness or avoiding a strength on the opposition can be risky since it can alter your focus. The ice conditions frequently plays a role especially in brush placement by the skip. I know many skips who say that they know the shot to call, what they’re not sure about is where to place the target and what weight to call for. I will deal with both those issues later in this article. Fortunately Canadian curlers are blessed with the best ice conditions on the planet. With all the expertise that is available, no club should have to put with less than very good ice. If you feel that your club is one of them though, then get your ice technician off his/her _ _ _ and tell him/her to call your provincial association. Good ice is a phone call away! Now that (N). Many times the shot called is called precisely based upon that fact that there are a specific number of shots to be played.
In that regard, I submit that there are three times in an end that are significant. Test time again. Before reading on, what do think they might be? Wrong! I haven’t had anyone get all three yet. Oh, excuse me, I now have one, sorry!
One is the start of the end. That’s when the plan for the end MUST be established. Hint; while the stones are being removed from the sheet following the last stone of the end, have your third and skip meet to decide on the plan for the next end. It will greatly comfort the skip to bounce the idea off a teammate plus the third can relay the message to the front end. The next critical time is exactly half way through the end. By that time, sufficient stones have been played so that the complexion of the end is evident but there are still enough stones to be played to alter the plan to react appropriately to it (there’s that “N” again). The third key time (and this is the one curlers miss) is when there are three shots to be played. I have played for about 40 years and over that span of time I have noticed that when there are three stones to be played (drum roll) one team will play two of them (cymbal crash)! So often skips try to gain a particular advantage for their last stone but I would submit that the point in the end when there are three stones left is a more critical time for both skips. The same is true for ends. The end to control is the penultimate end. Not the last end!
The heart of the matter is the game plan. But, what does a game plan look like? Let’s take stock of what we’ve accomplished so far. We have everyone on board in terms of philosophy. We also have an appreciation for, and an understanding of, the factors which drive a game plan. Now it’s a matter of combining the two. Most curlers would agree that of the six (or seven) factors, the three that play a dominant role all of the time are (excluding f.g.z. rule) end, score and last stone advantage. A combination of those three will dictate the plan. In other words if you’re up three in the fourth end and you don’t have l.s.a. (last stone advantage) then a particular plan should be incorporated. The following plan is an example. It was the one that we created as a result of the first ever “workshop”. It was a first plan. It was revised many times. It is not to suggest that it is the way all teams should play (we’ve been down that road haven’t we?). I submit it only as an example. Please notice though that the offensive, defensive and steal plans all have names. I feel that’s important! It indicates ownership.
University of Waterloo Game Plan (circa 1992)
THE GOLD PLAN (offense)
- The opposition can only place stones in one of four locations,
a) in the free guard zone
b) in the house in front of the tee line
c) in the house behind the tee line
d) through the house
If a) draw around (regardless of the guard’s position relative to the house and the center line)
If b) draw towards it (not necessarily a freeze)
If c) tap it to the back of the house (to set up a jam)
If d) establish guards of our own (probably corner guards)
- Direct play to the sides of the sheet.
- Use hack to board weight to remove opposition guards to keep our stones in play.
- Keep lots of stones in play!
THE BLACK PLAGUE (defense)
- Try to play the end in the house.
- Sense the danger guards pose. If there is ONE guard and ONE opposition stone in the house, peel the guard first.
- Play the first half of the end very carefully. Use full takeout weight to remove stones.
- In the latter half of the end, use offensive tactics to steal if the opportunity affords itself.
BONNIE & CLYDE (straight steal)
- On the first stone of the end (ours), place a short center line guard.
- Regardless of the position of the second stone of the end (theirs), place a long center line guard.
- Continue replacing those vertical guards.
- Don’t go in too early (third’s second stone)!
That proverbial nickel referred to gets another workout. This time I wish I had one for each time I have heard a team “grumble” about the type of shots the team employed (usually in a losing effort). It’s the old “low vs. high percentage shot” routine. Exactly what makes a shot a high percentage or low percentage shot? There are many factors. Some are more obvious than others. They include, the talents of the player about to play, the talents of the player to follow, the portion of the ice over which the stone will travel, the difficulty of positioning the brush for the shot (calling the ice), the amount of room for error (in terms of weight or line) etc. This takes us back to that definition of strategy which frequently revolves around “maximizing a team’s chances to win”. Well, when I hear that, I quickly ask exactly how that is going to occur. There is usually a lot of silence. There no longer need be! In this step, place ALL the shots your team plays well in a column on that sheet of paper. Notice that I said “that your team plays well”. One person doesn’t make a shot, it takes four people. Sure, someone must send the stone on its way. But, someone must have weighed many factors to select the shot. Two brushers had to judge the weight and possibly brush the stone. The results of that judgment and brushing then had to be assessed and some critical last second decisions made prior to the stone coming to rest. I believe those “someones” add to four. That’s why statistics should always be viewed as team stats. It’s not your lead’s shooting percentage, it’s the team’s percentage on its first two shots of the ends. Allow me to pose a rhetorical question then. Does your team play its best shots almost all the time? Upon analysis, many teams would be amazed at the percentage of the time it calls shots it doesn’t play very well! If that team doesn’t keep track of the shots it plays, it’s difficult to do that! It’s something like the adage we have all heard in school as a justification for studying history. Those who don’t are doomed to repeat its errors. That’s never more true than in curling!
The exercise of recording the shots a team plays well is a very revealing one for a team’s coach. If a shot is not on the list but a team desperately wants it to be there, it clarifies the focus for the next several practices.
One of my University of Waterloo varsity women’s teams gets all the credit for this step. The team was having, let us say, something less than a banner year. One particular part of their game plan with which the team was having considerable trouble was a “tap back” when the opposition drew into the house but in front of the tee line. In this situation we would have last rock advantage. The plan was to tap the opposition stone back into the back half of the house to set up potential jams. This was a good plan BUT, the team didn’t play that shot very well. We played it so poorly that on occasion we would crash them through or worse, be short and guard the stone. Our stats revealed that we were playing that shot quite frequently. We stopped playing it and simply reverted to a takeout, which we knew was much less offensive but more successful. The change in our won/lost record was significant and we worked hard in practice to improve our weight control and before the end of the season, the tap back was back on our list and our game plan was altered accordingly.
Now that repertoire of shots on your sheet must be orchestrated into a game plan!
The shots on your list are now identified as either OFFENSIVE and/or DEFENSIVE. These designations are a window to the team’s philosophy. The same shot on the list of three teams may be regarded as offensive by one, defensive by another and both by the third. The difference depends upon each team’s philosophy.
From the offensive shots, an offensive plan emerges. Likewise for the array of defensive shots a defensive plan shall evolve. I can’t tell you how to use the array of shots at your disposal. That’s up to you and your coach. And, the plan will change! Shots will appear and disappear from your list on a continuing basis (see the previous step). Therefore, this step must be revisited regularly!
You will discover that three plans are required. One for offense, one for defense and one for a straight steal. I would submit that one of the problems that plagues teams revolves around defending. No, when you don’t have l.s.a., you don’t have to play the end from the start to steal. I contend that is what gets many teams into so much trouble. Therefore, your defensive plan should be different from your steal plan! A sound defensive plan WILL have an element of offense. A sound defensive plan keeps the offensive opposition hounds at bay!
Earlier I said that a game plan is something of a composition of those FESRAI(N) factors. This is what a partial game plan might resemble:
- early ends, score close, with last rock advantage – OFFENSE
- middle ends, down, without last rock advantage – DEFENSE
- penultimate end, score close, with last rock advantage – DEFENSE
- last end, one up, without last rock advantage – STEAL
Before continuing, I must give credit for this whole game plan idea to my curlers while I was coaching at the University of Waterloo. At a practice I was approached by one of the athletes on the women’s varsity team. She had a most unusual question. The precursor to her question was the viewing of a professional football game on television.
“Bill, when a team scored a touchdown late in the game, I noticed that the cameras panned to the sidelines where the coaches were huddled around a clipboard. After scanning a sheet of paper on the clipboard, they quickly made a decision to try a two point conversion. What was on that sheet of paper?”
I explained that late in the game, such a decision would have to take into account a variety of factors, notably the point spread and the time remaining. To aid in the decision, several likely scenarios were written on a sheet of paper with the decision for each scenario predetermined. Then, all the coaches would have to do is consult the sheet and do what it said.
At the next practice, this same athlete ran up to me with her own sheet of paper exclaiming that my “football explanation” had given her an idea. She and one other team member had broken the game into (now get this) twenty-eight separate sections. For each scenario (end, score, last stone advantage) they had suggested either offense, defense or steal. I might add that the last end was itself broken down into ten separate possible situations. Our “practice” that night was one of the best we had and we didn’t set foot on the ice! The entire team contributed to a lively discussion about how each scenario should be handled. I did a lot of sitting with my mouth closed (unusual for me), listening. What had transpired was empowerment. And, they did it themselves! Of course, I took most of the credit for this wonderful stroke of coaching genius. When the session ended, they wanted to know if it was OK to take our “game plan sheet” with them onto the ice in the next game. Yikes! But, what the _ _ _ _, if it helps, why not? It did! And, it wasn’t long before “the sheet” went into the pocket of the skip “just in case” and ultimately into my pocket “just in case”.
The positive affect on the won/loss column was rather dramatic. From “the plan” they realized that they weren’t playing the shots that made them successful (thus the evolution of Step Six). When they identified those shots as either offense or defense (hello Step Seven) “the plan” literally fell into place. But, we still had one lesson to teach ourselves!
Although we all left that practice with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, none of us realized how dynamic a game plan is. I alluded to this earlier. Athletes change. If they didn’t, we coaches would be out of a job. The list of shots in Step six, should constantly change in a positive direction. As shots get added to your list, the plan will change. As competition improves, the plan will change. As skill levels improve, the plan will change. As athletes mature, the plan will change. As your coaching skills improve, the plan will change. As experiences are lived, the plan will change. Are you getting the message? THE PLAN WILL CHANGE!
Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag! This workshop approach to strategy was not my idea at all. My athletes deserve all the credit! The teacher was taught and the lesson has been learned!
I initially made two promises to you. One was to show you how to develop a game plan for your team. The other was to show you how to repair it when it breaks. I submit that if you revisit “the workshop” on a regular basis, you will not have to repair it very often. But, if you should, trace your steps.
- In other words, go right back to your philosophy. Does everyone still agree with it? You might discover that you don’t have to go much further.
- If all are still on board, then examine those FESRAI(N) factors. Ask yourselves if one or two of the factors are getting too little or too much attention.
- Is that list of shots your team plays well, accurate? Are there some shots which should be removed or added? Are you playing some of the shots on the list offensively when they would be better suited defensively and vice-versa?
- Look at that game plan. Have you considered all the scenarios you should? Is it too detailed and inflexible? Is it not detailed enough? Do you need more direction?
- And, of course, the two BIG questions, are your three plans sound and are you incorporating each at the correct time in the game?
If all of these questions are answered, in sequence (that’s the key), there is only one thing left to do. Call the shot!
The title of this article is RISK vs. REWARD. Give credit to Gerry Peckham (high performance co-ordinator for the C.C.A. and friend) for that term. It is very appropriate. After all that we have said and done, there will still be one or two or possibly three shots that will be consistent with “the plan”. How do you choose the right one? Let me suggest some criteria, the first and most important being “risk vs. reward”:
- In many situations, a shot that is risky for a variety of reasons will reap the greater(est) reward. On the other hand, although the rewards are less handsome, another shot or shots of higher likelihood of successful completion might be better. I can’t tell you what to play. I can only urge you to weigh the “risks vs. the rewards”. If you play the risky shot and it doesn’t work out, well that’s the way the pickle squirts. The point is you weighed the relative risks and rewards. So often a shot is called, with disastrous results, with the aforementioned never considered.
- Ice! Where do I place the brush? I have two pieces of advice here. One, if you are not a card player, start now! A good card player must recall the cards that have been played. A good skip, in terms of calling the right ice, must recall shots that have been played. If you do, this task is made much easier. Second, get help. All members of the team should be watching every shot. You’re not alone out there. If you’re not sure, ASK! I am always impressed by our best skips in terms of how often they call down to the shooter regarding the placement of the brush. “Do you like this ice?” “How much do you want?” “What do you think about this ice?” “Would you like a little more?” “Do you want a little less?”
- Let the opposition help. Watch their shots very carefully! I’m not speaking in terms of the shots they attempt and the results, but rather the line of delivery for each of their shots and how they are released. Don’t pay much heed to the position of the brush. The actual line of delivery is much more important!
- Weight! What weight do I ask for? A timing system with diligent timers will help greatly. As with line, watch and time all opposition stones as well as your own. Keep the weights simple. A complex set just makes it confusing for your players. Stick to the basics. It’s an easy game. We make it difficult and calling for ten different weights only adds to the difficulty. If you make all the easy shots, you won’t have to play many hard ones!
You will read many articles written by some of the finest tacticians in our game. Neil Harrison (currently the lead for Ed Werenich) comes to mind as one person whose opinion on strategy I respect greatly. There are many others. The framework that I have provided here does NOT supplant those articles. It merely places them in context for your team. By all means, read all that you can about strategy. Discuss it. Observe it. Listen to what television commentators have to say about it. But make sure what they say is right for your team.
That’s a wrap, but before I close I want to say one more thing about strategy. The most important component is PRACTICE! I don’t have a plan for that 50% shooting percentage, sorry!
Enjoy working with your athletes.