Sunday, February 01, 2009

some thoughts about curling

(Thinking about making this an article for TCN.)

Back when I was coaching a competitive curling team, the team wasn’t winning, and I wasn’t sure how to turn the ship around. I asked Ed Lukewich, a former world champion, for some advice. He told me the story about a time when his team was on a losing streak. “So I sat them all down, and told them to make more draw shots.” Then he laughed and said, “Really. If they don’t make more draw shots, we weren’t going to win.”

I related the story to the team, and the smiles and sarcastic comments actually brought them closer together.

Flag of City of BismarckImage via Wikipedia

Going to Bismarck, North Dakota taught me some things about myself, my team, and US Curling. The first is that I’m not in competition shape. I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally. I made some mental errors in just about every game, and those ended up costing us points and even games.

As a team, we can throw the rock with people, but we can’t manufacture game shape. Curling in the eastern Unites States in a city without a curling means that it’s hard to get games together. Before the eastern qualifier in Boston, our team played a grand total of 15 games together. In a deep American field, where teams are traveling to Scotland, and playing the Grand Slams, the notion that a team that has played 15 games together can win is really an insult to the caliber of teams at the event.

We think we can play the game, but can we really play the game at this level unless we play it at this level? The mental mistakes are without question due to the lack of game play. And it doesn’t matter how many draw shots one makes.

We were just as good as any team there, and yet we weren’t. We didn’t communicate as well as a Pete Fenson did (and he didn’t qualify). We didn’t grind as well as a Craig Brown. We didn’t finish like Shuster or Birr. But we played as well as them. We were in every game, even when we made mental mistakes. But as the mistakes piled up, the frustrations piled up, and the amazement that making shots doesn’t actually translate into winning more games. Fact is, it isn’t the draw shots a team makes that helps them win, it’s how they react to the draw shots that are missed that makes them win.

When teams have a history of playing together for more than 15 games, they have an ability to pick each other up. To point to times when things looked dire, but turned out well. To notice tendencies, or tells, in teammates, and know the right thing to say to get them back in the game. Play nine or ten spiels with a team in a year , and you’ll get a good feeling for the kinds of things that need to be said, when to say them, and how to say them. 15 games isn’t enough to learn all that. It’s not often long enough to learn the names of the teammates wives and kids.

Even though teams go by the name of the skip (a practice I think is as ridiculous as it is old-fashioned), curling is a classic team game. Each shot in an end is meant to build on the last one. Half of the shots a player throws are meant to be built on, while the other half build on a previous teammates shots. Individuals on curling teams are often not long for the team, unless there’s a tremendous amount of success (missed draw shots break up teams that don’t play like teams).

I was originally planning to write an article about the draws we had at both our regional qualifier and the second chance challenge round. About how in regional qualifier our draw was Wednesday at 8:00am, Thursday at 8:00am, Friday at 8:00am, Saturday 8:00am, 3:00pm, 7:00pm. I’m not making that up, but that’s not the reason we didn’t qualify for the trials in Boston, and the draw isn’t the reason we didn’t qualify in Bismarck, North Dakota at the second chance challenge round.

We didn’t have the greatest draw in the history of curling, but losing teams always complain about the draw.

We lost because we’re four guys from the east coast with lives. We’re chasing a dream that is achievable to part-time players that get on a run, and overcome the inevitable mistakes we’ll make that are so glaringly obvious with reflection that they are a little embarrassing.

Don’t let this come across as a knock on the team. We played great, and I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of the way they played, about how hard they swept, and about how positive they stayed. But the simple reality is, we’re not in game shape as a team. And that really was the thing responsible for the result.

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