Jonathan regales us with tales from the 2019 World Mixed Curling Championships, including the thrilling finishes to the Gold and Bronze Medal games, how the Nigeria and Kosovo teams came to be and whether or not he’s now motivated to return. We also discuss the difference in the World Curling Tour between now and 20 years ago and we give Jonathan the opportunity to respond to all the mean things we said about him while he was away.
Toronto curler and Hong Kong men’s skip Jason Chang joins the show to help us preview the 2019 Pacific-Asia Curling Championships. We discuss how he came to represent Hong Kong, the growth of curling in the region and sort out the favorites and sleeper picks for this year’s tournament, taking place Nov. 2-9 in Shenzhen, China.
by Jonathan Havercroft
In the first blog post in this series I introduced definitions of strategy and tactics and said that most teams focus on tactics and neglect strategy entirely. Today I want to expand on some basic strategy concepts by defining what I mean by offense, defense, and probing strategies.
In many team sports – think American football, real football (that’s soccer Ryan), baseball, basketball, and hockey – it is obvious which team is on offense and which team is on defense. The team on offense possesses the ball or puck or is at bat and is trying to score. The team on defense is trying to stop the other team from scoring. In case you are confused, the fans usually help out by chanting DE-FENSE!
One of the ways curling is different is possession does not dictate who is on offense and who is on defense – strategy does. It is also possible in curling for both teams to be on offense at the same time, and it is possible for both teams to be on defense at the same time. So how do we tell who is attacking in curling and who is defending?
A simple rule of thumb is by looking at how you respond to your opponent’s stone. Somebody once told me that there are only three things you can do to your opponent’s stone – you can eliminate it (think take-out), you can use it (think freeze or come around draw) or you can ignore it (think guard).
Each of those options points to a strategic stance. If you ignore your opponent’s stone, then you are trying to generate a scoring opportunity for yourself on a different area of the ice. This is what I mean by offense.
If you use your opponent’s stone, you are trying to counteract their shot by positioning your stone in a better spot. This is what I mean by probing.
If you eliminate your opponent’s stone, then you are trying to stop your opponent from scoring. This is what I mean by defense.
I spoke last time about team plans, game plans and end plans. When a team identifies its team strategy they should decide if they are an offense-first team, a defense-first team or a probing team.
An offense-first team will play more draws than hits and will be comfortable with lots of stones in play. They also need to be comfortable with giving up big ends because an offense-first strategy leads to more scoring for both sides.
A defense-first team will play more hits than draws and will be comfortable with few rocks in play. They also need to be patient and comfortable grinding out close games, because a defense-first approach minimizes the scoring opportunities for both teams.
A probing team will try to use their opponents stones to generate scoring opportunities, but they will also bail on an end quickly if the situation begins to look disadvantageous. They play opportunity curling, looking for chances to take advantage of an opponent’s mistake, but also looking to minimize the opportunities they generate for their opponent. Probing teams have to know when to switch from offense to defense, and how to recognize opportunities.
My advice to club-level teams – especially teams just starting out developing their team strategy – is to develop either an offensive-first or defensive- first strategy and then try to develop a probing strategy later on. There are a few reasons for this.
Offense-first approaches and defense-first approaches are fairly simple to learn. At their extremes they can mean either “hit all the opponent’s stones” or “keep drawing to the button no matter what.” At the club level, both of those strategies can be devastatingly effective. I would actually encourage your team to try either of those strategies for an entire game or two and see what the results are.
Once your team is comfortable playing offense and defense, then you can begin to add probing to your approach. Basic probing strategy involves attacking your opponent until a predetermined bail point in the end and then either deciding to continue to attack or changing your strategy to defense.
For example, at the start of an end you could agree with your team to probe until the 5th stone of the end (when the free guard zone ends) and then assess the situation. If your team is in a favourable position (e.g. you are sitting shot rock behind a guard) then you will keep attacking, But if you are in an unfavourable position then you will switch to defense.
I said last time that most curling teams are all tactics and no strategy – by which I mean they focus narrowly on selecting a specific shot rather than thinking about how their shots fit into an overall plan. The advantage of deciding to be offense-first, defense-first or probing is that the strategy dictates what shots you should select.
The tricky part is sticking to the plan. But I do believe that if you as a team agree to a plan before each game and before each end and stick to that plan, you will do better than if you fall back into the tactics-first approach.
Do I guarantee that you will win every game? No, because at the end of the day shot execution matters the most. But if you develop a plan, then decide your shots according to that plan and then adjust the plan after each game, you will put in place a process that will make shot selection quicker, and eventually match your shot strategy with your team’s skill set.
Your homework is to meet with your team and decide whether you want to try an offense-first (mostly draws) or defense-first (mostly hits) approach to strategy and then use that game plan in the next game no matter what. Then discuss with you team after the game what you learned.
This season on Rocks Across the Pond we are going to do a regular curling strategy series. Our intended audience for this is the club curler who would like to improve their own strategy and also gain a greater appreciation of strategy for when they watch curling on TV.
Here I want to lay out a few basic concepts. My personal opinion is that curling strategy is often taught in one of two ways – either as a set of rules (i.e. “when you don’t have hammer put up a center guard”) or like chess strategy (if team A does this, then you should do that, then they will do this, and you will do that).
The problem with the rules approach is that every rule has an exception. Center guards are great, but perhaps not so great if you are leading by three in the eighth end. While curling is often called chess on ice, it is rare that stones end up exactly where a team intended. And so very detailed plans can go out the window with a strange roll or a jammed shot.
So instead of teaching strategy via rules or like chess, I am going to try to explain the general principles of strategy. By principles I mean the basic ideas behind curling strategy that will help you understand why you might want to call a certain shot, what the possible options are, and how you might choose between those options.
At its core, curling strategy is about recognizing what the options are in a given situation and then choosing the best option for your team in that context.
Let’s begin with a few definitions: First of all, by strategy I mean a plan to achieve an overall goal. In curling there are three levels of strategy – the team strategy, the game strategy and the end strategy.
The team strategy is the general approach a team will take into its games. Is a team a takeout-first team? Is it always playing to score a big end? Is the team primarily concerned with maintaining control of the scoreboard?
One thing that should jump out if you watch curling on TV is different teams have different styles. Teams playing any of the styles I’ve listed above are capable of succeeding at the highest level. One of the things that separates good competitive teams from average club teams is competitive teams put the time into figuring out what their preferred style of play is.
Lesson 1 from this post is to sit down with your team early in the season and discuss what you preferred style of play is.
The second level of strategy is the game plan. If a team knows what its team strategy is, then they should figure out how to modify that strategy from game to game.
The reasons you might modify a game strategy are numerous. The ice conditions may dictate what kinds of shots are playable. The strengths and weaknesses of your opponent may dictate that you adjust your strategy. If you are playing in a big event you may want to modify things to account for stress (either yours or your opponents). During the pre-game meeting one thing your team should discuss is how you are going to approach the game.
Lesson 2: Have a pre-game meeting and decide on your game plan.
The third level of strategy is the end plan. At a minimum, teams should have three basic end plans: a) a standard approach for when the game is close; b) an aggressive approach for when they want to try and score a big end; c) a defensive approach for when they want to try and stop the other team from scoring.
Teams can of course get far more sophisticated than this – modifying end plans for things like ice conditions, who has hammer, an opponent’s weakness and stage of the game – but at a minimum a team needs a plan for how to attack, how to defend, and how to probe. We will get more into these three concepts in the next post. The end plan should be discussed during a brief chat by the team between ends.
Lesson 3: Have a quick meeting with your team to agree on your end strategy between each end.
Most people think of strategy as individual shot selection. Most of the discussions on TV are about individual shots. Most time outs are called to debate individual shots. But in my book individual shot selection is about tactics. I define tactics as the individual shots a team uses in order to execute its strategy. Strategy is about the plan, tactics are about the execution.
I will unpack this in future posts, but for now I just want to note that most teams only think in terms of tactics. They only focus, discuss and argue about what specific shots to call in a given situation without thinking about how it relates back to the larger strategy.
In my experience that is the single biggest mistake that most teams make when it comes to strategy – they don’t have any plan about what they are trying to accomplish, so they choose their individual shots at random.
There’s a famous expression – “all tactics no strategy.” In curling this applies to the team that goes on to the ice without a team strategy, a game strategy and an end strategy. Then they end up selecting shots (tactics) at random without thinking through how all the shots fit together into a larger plan.
In my experience most — maybe even 90% — of club teams have no strategy. And most competitive teams set aside time to talk about their plans as a team, for a game and for each end. If you want to get serious about your strategy, the first step is to commit as a team to develop strategic plans.
–by Jonathan Havercroft