Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's Time To Rethink Pre-Game Practice

Our guest blogger today is HANS FRAUNENLOB from New Zealand. Hans and I go back to the years leading to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. Hans and Team New Zealand, as it made its way to the World Curling Federation Championships, did so on an "around-the-world" air ticket. Essentially it meant the team had to travel either east-to-west or west-to-east and had to make a minimum of three stops along the way. One of those was the National Training Centre in Calgary to spend a week with yours truly (and they lived to tell about it) with one of the remaining two obviously wherever the WCF event was being held and since three of the four (besides Hans there were Gerald Chick & Lorne de Pape) were native Canadians, the third was somewhere else in Canada so at least one of them could visit with family and friends. Sean Becker, the skip of the team, was the Kiwi.
More I think in spite of me than because of me, in the years leading to Torino, the team earned enough points to qualify for those 2006 Games.
Last year, in Frederiction, NB, Hans had the distinction of skipping the NZ entries in both the WCF Mixed Doubles and the Seniors. In fact, NZ was our opposition in the final game for the gold medal and gave us all we could handle!
Some of you may recall on this site (post of 5/2/13 entitled "Mixed Doubles From An Athlete's Perspective") that Hans suggested a rule change for Mixed Doubles. This man lies awake at night thinking these great thoughts. I believe his take on Pre-Game Practice will interest you. Enjoy, leave comments and thanks Hans!

If you'd like to hear an mp3 version of this post, go to sound and enter "coachbill" in the search area at the top. Click on "play" icon beside the title of this post and you're good to go!

Like many curlers and curling fans, I've been following the process of curlers from around the world competing for the honour of representing their country at the biggest spiel of all - the Winter Olympics.

I was fortunate enough to have that experience myself in 2006 at the Torino Olympics.  I've competed in international competitions since then, and I've experienced the growing importance of the 'Draw Shot Distance' (DSD)* factor in the game.  

Now it not only gets you hammer in the first end if you are successful (which is huge) -  it becomes a potentially important tie-breaker at the business end of a competition when all the 'DSD's' are averaged (which can give you big advantages).

I've reached the conclusion that gaining that advantage wins you more games - so it means the pre-game practice has a new purpose. 

It's time to re-think those important few minutes before the game. It's not about everyone getting a feel for the ice and finding your draw weight anymore. Forget about that. It's only about nailing that last shot draw. Nothing else should matter.

The just-completed Olympic Qualifying Event had a four-way tie for first at the end of the round robin (contesting for two places in the Games). At a Worlds we competed at in Victoria. BC in 2005 there was a six-way tie. This stuff matters. You can't afford duds. Even if you don't get the hammer - you can't afford to be full-12 foot either. All your DSD's need to be close - or at the end of the week you might find yourself playing an extra game or more, you wish you didn't have to play.

In an 8 to 10 game round robin, I figure that having the hammer in the first end 80 percent of the time probably adds up to one extra win (versus having the hammer 20 to 50 percent of the time).

In the last two years, my teams have totally re-oriented our pre-game practice routine around nailing that draw shot. We've decided that nothing else matters - and our approach seems to be paying off.

This requires a leap of faith from the front end players in particular. Back in the day, we used to assign different people different parts of the ice to deliver to, to try and get a feel across the whole sheet how much the ice was curling, in different places and at different weights. In that scenario, everyone delivered a lot of rocks.

In our new scenario, we have two different routines. One is for 'first practice' (when the ice is freshly pebbled and slower) and the other for 'second practice' (when there have been a few rocks delivered over different parts of the ice)

If we have 'first practice' - we use the eight rocks delivered away from the home end to get a rough feel for curl, and which rotation might be easier to control to be able to hit the centre line (and the pin). We make a call on the 'preferred rotation' and start to deliver a few more over the 'preferred path'.  We then push rocks back just for the last rock shooter and the rest of the practice is that person delivering the draw to the pin about 6 times in a row. Having the brushers time and follow the stone to be able to judge the carry/slide (on still-quickening ice) is really important. The pace changes literally with every stone. We've gotten pretty good at anticipating 'how much more the next one might carry'.

If we have 'second practice' the routine is similar - but we've had the benefit of watching the other team deliver stones. So the uncertainty of the pace of the ice and a preferred path is lower - you've had a chance to time some rocks and observe the curl (and importantly how much the draws 'finish' - as many last stone draws are 'missed' because of overcurl or undercurl, as they are for over or underbrushing).  So we lock in the 'path choice' earlier - but we still orient the last half of the practice time totally on the draw shooter repeating the draw shot.

There are some small trade-offs to this approach. Your front end players may have slightly less feel for weight in the first end (but I'd argue that is offset by them intently watching draw shots - and at top level competition all players should be able to 'deliver to a number' otherwise you haven't practiced enough!). As a skip, you might be guessing a bit more about curl in different parts of the sheet than you might like (but in top competitions, you have a really good idea what the ice is going to do anyways). Probably the biggest thing to work through in the first two ends is the different pace on different parts of the sheet (some paths are lightning, some are slower, due to many rocks going over a specific part of the ice).

But we believe having the hammer and a preferred position in complex tie-break situations trumps all of that. Try organising all of your six or eight minutes before the game only around making one shot. You might be pleasantly surprised how your won-loss record improves.

* The WCF term for this is DSC (Draw Shot Challenge) and it's the draw-to-the-button now commonly used around the curling world to determine the team that gets to choose the set of  stones it wishes to use to to play the first or second stone of end #1 fir a game and to rank teams that are tied going into the playoff portion of the event. It is worth noting that in that averaging of a team's DSC's, it's common practice to eliminate the team's worst distance.

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