Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Mine Field of Play Downs

The curling world is abuzz this week (especially that part of the curling world known as "the centre of the universe" [aka southern Ontario]) with the demise of one of the elite men's curling teams in the nation at the regional level in its quest to compete for yet another provincial title. It isn't the end of the road in this populous province as those who  qualify for regional play, regardless of the outcome, get a spot in what's known as "The Challenge Round", a last chance attempt to qualify for provincial honours.

The dilemma for this team is one of timing. It has a spot in "The TSN Skins Game" which just happens to coincide with the aforementioned last chance event. What to do? What to do?

I'm here to report that as of this scribbling, the team has decided to fore go fame and fortune (well, at least some potential fortune) and continue on the road to the "Tim Nortons Brier" in Calgary but even though I admire that decision, this is not an editorial on the decision, it's to deal with how an elite curling team with talent coming out of its ears and experience beyond measure, got it into regional play down and lost twice!

For want of a better term, I'm going to refer to this elite team as a "Grand Slam Team" as that's the competitive environment in which it plays. In other words, its opponents are primarily the relatively small group of elite teams in the curling world. They play for large dollars most all the time! They don't go to your local weekend or one day fun spiels. Not that they are nose-in-the-air arrogant about playing with us regular folk, in a manner of speaking, ironically enough, they can't afford the time as those big money events consume a lot of it and they have jobs & families too.

And therein lies one of this team's self inflicted wounds. For a variety of largely understandable reasons, all the teams they play, well, play the same way. And that my friends is why so often a team like this finds the sledding at play downs tougher than it might have expected. The teams it meets there, don't read that "Grand Slam" playbook and don't play the way this team's opponents do! Oh, yes, and by the way, teams that sign on for provincial/territorial play downs are pretty good curlers who for reasons known only to them don't play in the same events as those elite teams. The comfort level of play from a strategical and tactical perspective has been removed for the elite teams (see more about "strategy & tactics" below). On the other hand, those local play down teams watch carefully as the elite teams play in those televised events and as a result, the play down teams pretty much know exactly how the elite teams are going to play, something of an advantage I would suggest, in some cases, a significant advantage.

Then we come to what in my estimation is the second most important reason elite teams struggle in play downs. It's the ice!

Trust me on this, the ice technicians that make the ice for those large money events make ice that the play downs teams will seldom, if ever experience. I call it "pampered ice" and have referred to it many times in my scribblings. It's, well, different from curling club ice and playing on it is why those who aspire to playing in the Grand Slam type events regularly, don't play up to their talent level as they become accustomed to the nuances of such a sheet of curing ice. If play downs leading to provincial play were played on pampered ice, any of the advantages local play down teams might have would be so much pebble water. Now that many provinces and territories use arenas for their final play down stage, and in may cases employ those same ice technicians, any elite teams that do survive the mine field of play downs, do very well and return regularly to the Brier & Scotties.

I can hear the naysayers even before I hit "publish", "Well, if those elite teams are so good, why can't they make the adjustment to local ice conditions?". Good question and here's my answer. In many cases they can & do but in some instances, the differences between pampered and curling club ice are so different, it can play a significant role in levelling the playing field. If you are still skeptical on this ask any local play down bound team if they would choose to play an elite team on regular curling club/facility ice or in an arena on pampered ice and if you get a response that they'd rather play them on pampered ice, let me know so I can hurry to my local convenience store and buy a lottery ticket and then check for that second blue moon in the sky.

Local play down teams aren't stupid, they know that curling club ice is the great equalizer not just for the differences referred to above but for another reason. Many of the shots elite teams can play because of the pampered ice upon which they play, they simply can't play on curling club ice and the shots curling club ice does allow them to play, they must play them somewhat differently. In other words, it's the elite team that's taken out of its comfort zone. That team must make the changes. The local play down team does not and again, don't forget, as stated above, they are really good players in their own rite.

Then there's the attitude thing! What's that? What attitude thing? It's this! That local team is playing with "house money". It's the more dangerous team as its expectation of victory is very different from that of the elite team. All the pressure is on the elite team! How embarrassing it would be to lose to the local team! As the local team prepares to play that elite team, it bands together and in many cases plays a very simple style in a let's-stick-together-and-play-for-one-another environment. It realizes its  only chance is to trust the skills the team has, singular and plural. Trust, if you've read my blogs and my coaching manual (A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion) is a powerful weapon, very powerful!

Now, put all these factors together, mix them up and you get the situation the Canadian curling world is buzzing about! I was not surprised at the news about this elite team's struggles in play downs and feel somewhat for them as I consider them friends and know how hard they have worked to become one of curling's elite and much of that work is useless given those ice conditions.

Many provinces & territories have adopted a format whereby the defending champion moves directly to that province or territory's final stage. Make no mistake, when an elite team wins its provincial/territorial championship knowing it does not have to make its way down the play down trail the following year, it's a huge sigh of relief!

So what's the lesson for your team? I feel there's one for sure. Don't be predictable! It's somewhat of an occupational hazard for the elite teams but it doesn't have to be for you. There's a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is your plan, for a game, an end or a shot. But in many cases, there are a variety of ways you can execute that plan. That's tactics. Don't get stuck in a rut and employ the same tactic all the time. Use a variety! Make your opponent uncomfortable when it sees it plays your team next. Leave your opponent in a constant state of wonder (i.e. "I wonder how they're going to play this shot?")!

And to my friends is they enter that Challenge Round, good luck, you may need it!


  1. So, why not separate the two, let the WCT have all there events, have there own championships (import players, no rules) and let the club players a chance to a play down for OCA championships.

  2. I made that exact statement once "the shit hit the fan", the time has come, but exactly how it is done is the problem. The Brier has to stay as a event open to the club team, even though it is a long road,much like a local qualifier winning the US Open, but the chance is there.

  3. One other huge factor that you did not mention Coach Bill is the rocks. There are many shots made at the Grand Slams that simply cannot be made at the club level due to the lack of "liveliness" of the rocks. Where they are used to getting a certain roll hitting the rock 1/2" off center, they may have to hit 1 and 1/2" off center to get the same roll. Big adjustment. And triples, etc that are routinely made due to the liveliness of the rocks just are not possible in a club environment.