Two teenagers gesture with their brushes at forty-pound chunks of polished granite sitting on coloured ice rings. The time clock is running down: every second counts, but so does every shot. For the TV broadcast, both curlers are wearing microphones and so we can hear their conversation, fast becoming an argument. The skip has one idea for his last shot of the end; his third is pushing another, hard. When the extended discussion-cum-fight is done, it is the skip’s choice that is played — and made, as it turns out. Steve Laycock’s team clinches the Canadian Junior Men’s Championship en route to their 2003 World Championship.
Strategy discussions are the new normal in curling. Those of us of a certain age remember — rightly or wrongly — a simpler time when skips called the game and everyone else pretty much did what they were told. After all, who else was in position to see what the ice was doing? Who else was watching all the shots, looking for signs of weakness in their own team, the better to neutralize them, and in their opponents, the better to capitalize on them? Moreover, in a less collegial society overall, calling the shots was just understood to be the skip’s job.
By contrast, today it’s rare to watch a curling game on TV without hearing skips offering players a choice of shots: What do you like? When the skip has a call in mind, it’s common for them to suggest it and ask for an opinion — often prompting an I don’t hate it, in return, which passes for agreement. The call decided, players are offered their choice of weight (how hard they want to throw the rock), and the skip calculates the ice to give (the horizontal distance between the broom and the desired stopping point), based on that throwing preference. This collaborative tendency is at its height, of course, in big games: provincial, national and world championships, and the finals of the newer big-money spiels.
Shot-calling by committee is a natural outcome of higher stakes. With more to win — or lose — skips assemble high-powered teams. Some Canadian men’s teams now boast former junior champion skips as thirds: Steve Laycock plays with Saskatchewan’s Pat Simmons; Johnny Morris plays with Alberta’s Kevin Martin. These once-and-future skips often look less than comfortable as second bananas. When a team is in trouble, strong thirds can cross the line, going from offering their skip a sounding board to pushing their preferred option. Many leads and seconds also study the game’s nuances and speak up emphatically when they’re not happy with a call.
The overall result is ample, maybe even excessive, discussion about strategy. Should we blank this end to retain last-shot advantage? If we guard now, what shots will that leave our opponents? If we draw in, should it be behind cover or should we split the house? How can we plan our game so that we don’t play to the opposing team’s strengths?
It isn’t that execution gets no attention. Goodness no: higher stakes drive increased sophistication in this realm too. Is that raise-double-takeout possible? Let’s look at all the vectors and the amount of drag we expect from each rock. Should we leave that biter in play or remove it to eliminate the in-off option? Let’s consider the opposing skip’s preferred shooting style and turn. Have the ice conditions changed since the fifth-end break? Let’s consult with the front end, charged with tracking ice conditions and making on-the-spot sweep/don’t sweep decisions based on the rock’s momentum. Is there an obvious way this shot could go wrong? Let’s develop a Plan B and decide how to communicate it, real-time.
Of course, at some point, after the strategy has been decided and the shot details figured out, someone has to actually throw the rock. This aspect of the game deserves its share of attention too. But with all the chit-chat throughout the game, not just in crucial ends, more and more games seem to be going down to the wire on the time clock, leaving little time for careful shot making in the ends that need it most.
As Steve Laycock’s third pushed his preferred shot in that junior championship game, he came up with what he clearly thought was the deciding argument, the key weakness of the skip’s option: If you miss that shot, we’re giving up two. Laycock retorted, No matter what shot I miss, we’re giving up two. Indeed: sometimes the failure to be guarded against isn’t strategic or even tactical, but simply operational.
Thirty-some years before the Laycock team won it all, a crowd waited with varying degrees of patience as a skip dithered through her options in a women’s playdown in a small southern-Alberta city. First, the call: draw or guard? That decision made, she settled into the hack, ready to throw her rock. No, she was out of the hack, to adjust the broom placement microscopically. Back down the ice; in the hack again. And out again. This time, they changed the shot. Just as it seemed settled — finally — there was one more trip back up the ice to tweak the broom.
With time on their hands, the crowd — which included other competitors — talked-out the options knowledgeably. A local curling icon–a senior lady of Scottish extraction–sat silently through all the backing and forthing at ice level. When someone turned to enquire what she would do at this juncture she wasn’t surprised: she was used to being recognized and having her opinion solicited on curling strategy. Without even turning her head she growled, I’d throw the bloody rock.
Within the unknown time remaining on our own time clocks, we too must find the balance between doing the right thing, doing the thing right, and doing anything at all. Maybe we can overcome our own dithering by remembering, sometimes, to just throw the bloody rock.