Thursday, 12 May 2016

#TBT - 5 Misconceptions of Curling - published on in September 2014

As I sit down to write this blog the sports headlines are littered with racist owners, videos of vile domestic abuse incidents and drug arrests. Outside of the unveiling of the stops on the Rogers Hometown Hockey tour (shout out to my hometown of Brandon, MB which is stop #8) there is not much good out there.

I am here to change that. I figured with the lid lifting on the World Curling Tour for the 2014/2015 season this month I would take a few minutes and debunk a few misconceptions about curling and curlers in general. I will try to put a lighter spin on some of these to brighten your day.

The majority of the readers here on the GSOC website will already know the ridiculousness of a few of my points, but I am hoping that through social media this information will get to some non-curling aficionados and their eyes will be opened.

#1 No we do not sweep our kitchens or garages for practice
I was often asked this at my old firm by a few managers higher up on the food chain. At the time I was fairly new so being the good employee I was, and someone who didn’t want to get kicked down the corporate ladder by calling their superior an idiot, I just smiled and provided a sarcastic “yeah all the time”. 

The art of sweeping has come a long way in the last 6-8 years with actual scientific research being performed on sweeping. It has led to the advent of new brush heads and curlers watching tape of themselves sweeping in order to change techniques to improve their ability to affect a shot.  

Teams take sweeping very seriously in an effort to find any advantage they can obtain in order to win just like any other high profile sport. It is actually an insult to think that brushing up some dirt off of your floor is all you need to do in order to improve.

Besides like most men out there, I have a high powered leaf blower to clean out my garage. Why would I clean my garage by manual labour when I can have air flowing at 200 mph do it for me?

#2 We don’t yell “Hurry Hard” throughout our everyday lives
I know “Hurry Hard” is the expression that most everyone associates with curling. I know that many stakeholders in the game use it to draw interest in the sport through their marketing. But to answer your questions; no I don’t yell at my kids to “Hurry Hard” to do their homework. I don’t yell at my dog (aptly named “Brier”) to “Hurry Hard” to go fetch the tennis ball. And I definitely do not yell “Hurry Hard” at my wife for any reason whatsoever.

Besides yelling “Hurry Hard” in curling means I probably threw it tight or dumped my in-turn, it’s not exactly something I am proud of out there. I prefer when I just get to say “clean” or “don’t fall on it boys” to my sweepers … it means I probably made my shot.

#3 – No you can’t pick up curling this fall and be in the Olympics in four years
I normally do not get to irrationally angry at sports talk radio. They are paid to have opinions (they don’t have to be my opinions … I get that) and they are paid to try to stir up interest and controversy.

But in February I remember listening to an American radio station on my satellite radio and being angry at a former NFL QB (he of the sparkling 63.2 lifetime QB rating in the NFL). Mr. Kanell decided to tell everyone that he felt like he could start curling this year and be good enough in four years to represent the United States in 2018 in Pyeongchang.

Sure you are athletic Danny, sure you may be able to pick up the sport to some extent if you had the time and desire to try it, but here’s an idea. Try to make 17 or your first 19 shots and then throw your 20th knowing if you miss your team loses and it is looked at as your entire fault. Let that marinate in your brain while you sit in the hack. Then come back and tell me that you were right and curling is easy.

None of this takes into consideration learning the strategy of the game, which guys who have played at the highest level for 20 years still discuss on a regular basis. Nobody has the magic secret, it is not that easy.

That type of idiocy to suggest that curling can be mastered in such short order is mind boggling to me coming from a former professional athlete, someone who should know how hard every sport is to conquer at the highest level.

So stick to being a talking head for College and NFL Football Danny, we’ll stick to trying to compete in the Olympics.

#4 – The ice is bad for both teams it should affect you the same way
Before the pitchforks come out I am not going to say that whining and complaining about the ice conditions is a good thing. I know many fans hear the comments about the “ice being garbage” on the live microphones and they hate hearing it, so I am not saying you should give us curlers a break on that one.

I get it … we GSOC players are spoiled by playing on ice like what Mark Shurek provides us, but what I am here to say is that when a team says that the ice conditions were difficult it probably just means that a facet of their game was taken away. It isn’t so much that players can’t make shots it is more that they can’t trust what the ice is going to do so they are less willing to try the harder shots.

Also for those outsiders to say “well both teams have to play on it” I have this to comparison to draw. Say you have a basketball game and one team has a 6’4 point guard and four guys between 6’9 and 7’3. They face a team with a 5’10 point guard and four guys between 6’3 and 6’9. In order for the little team to have a chance they are probably going to have to make a bunch of three’s early to get the big (probably slower) guys outside so they have some room to maneuver and get closer to the basket (where higher percentage shots are available) to win.

Now take away the three point line. What incentive does the big team have to go outside to protect against the long (lower percentage) shots? The little team is going to get boat raced since they do not have any avenue to attack the big team with. The behemoths’ will sit back and swat everything that comes their way on defense and have a steady stream of post-up baskets at the other end.

The same goes for ice conditions. Say two teams are playing and one is excellent with finesse and the other team is not great drawers but they are exceptional hitters (we can all figure out teams that fall into these categories). If the ice is straight then the finesse team can’t draw behind guards, or freeze on rocks behind guards. It is much easier for the hitting team to win right since the finesse team has nowhere to hide? That is what teams mean when they discuss ice conditions. The best ice gives everyone a chance to play the way they would like to, to trust that every shot is available. The bad ice eliminates a large portion of the shots available.

(It does bring up the need for teams to adapt their strategy when ice conditions are not great and not just complain, but that is a topic for another day).

#5 – Curling is Canada’s game only
This topic is not really light hearted or one I can make fun of. It is just the truth and something we as Canadians have to accept, even if we don’t want to give up our sacred hold atop of the curling universe.

Sure Canada has the most curlers in the world and we probably always will. But like most sports borders are falling. Teams from across the globe are getting better and trying to steal Canada’s throne atop the game. Countries are sending over multiple teams to compete on the World Curling Tour in order to improve not only their current top teams, but create a pipeline of successful teams and players.

Look at last year’s Players Championship in PEI which named teams based on the season’s results. The men’s draw had 3 of 12 teams from outside of Canada and the women’s draw had 4 of 12 (not to mention that the Swiss teams that were in PEI were not the Men’s World Bronze or Women’s World Gold Medallists). These teams are no longer cupcakes that we get to pad our records with; they are tough competitors and here to take our championships.

The sport is growing and becoming worldwide and that is a good thing. Non-traditional curling countries can bring fresh new ideas to the sport which will help growth. But the true benefit to the growth of the game is the competition. It is what drives teams to get better and we have seen that in curling over the last 10 years. The World Curling Tour is truly becoming the WORLD Curling Tour and we are all better for it.

How I Started Blogging

Recently I was going through a folder I have on my computer with some of my past writing. It was strange to read some of the past posts and it got me thinking about when I started to write about curling. It all started out of necessity, somebody needed to write something.

For a few years we had been discussing the need for a website. As a team we were reluctant to take it on, around 2010 there didn’t seem like much end game to having a team website. Most team sites, particularly curling team sites, outlined a schedule and profiled each member, done with a build your own template online. That’s it. One click, quick two minute read through, and then no real need to come back for another visit until next year to check the updated schedule for the season.

So in early 2011 when we finally decided to create a team website, we discussed what we wanted to see and how we could continue to drive traffic after the initial click and view. First of all we hired a website building company here in Edmonton, Pixel Army, to create our site. They understood how to make the site visually appealing which helps drive traffic. We wanted our site to be a destination for curling fans, a place where visitors flocked which we could then use to impress our current and potential sponsors. We wanted to prove that we had some pull in the sport.

When we went through the site building process I proposed a “blog” section. I thought that this could be our way to “provide content” that brought fans back, keep from being a one click and never return site. I always signed the blogs “-Nolan” at the end as originally I thought all of the guys would want to write. Turns out I was the only one and to be honest I didn’t mind, I started to enjoy writing for the first time in a long time.

I started blogging quick hits about our upcoming events and other happenings with the team, nothing with too much teeth. I enjoyed writing about our team and when I started tracking page hits on Google Analytics I was surprised by how the posts were doing. The numbers wouldn't have been a blip on the radar for your average national sports site, but the average day at the beginning on saw 15-20 page hits without a post and between 500 to 1000 with a post.

After a year or so of writing I began to get fans coming up during autograph signings, or at curling clubs with similar comments “I really love your writing” “Thanks for updating and writing about the team it is very cool to see the perspective of the curlers”. Fans seemed to love the ability to read the comments of an actual athlete, who is still in the competitive arena. We see that now with the advancement of social media and websites such as the Players Tribune. Fans love hearing directly from the athletes in addition to the usual media coverage. In the past, athlete writing was often only done at the end of a career, an accumulation of stories from a long retired player with the help of a ghost writer. Now athletes are reaching out while playing, often writing on their own, and the fans are eating it up. Curling has been no different.

I know I appreciated all of the positive comments. I was often genuinely surprised that many liked my writing style. I figured it was pretty cool that I could write coherently and people enjoyed it. Not bad for an accountant who hated Language Arts and English in school.

In the third grade my teacher at Valleyview Elementary School in Brandon, MB reached her end point, she was sick and tired of reading about hockey, baseball and pro wrestling. So when report cards were sent out and parent teacher conferences were held she informed my parents that she was going to forbid me from writing any more about sports. I needed new topics to write about. What other topics were there to write about? I subsequently checked out of LA class.

I always laugh when I think about that story and where I am now in the curling world. Many know me as the “writer guy” and when high level events happen in our sport I have fans and fellow curlers sending me messages saying “when are you going to write on this topic?” "Are you sharpening your pen?" I genuinely enjoy sitting down with a curling topic in front of me, my thoughts in my head or in a notebook, and then opening a word document and working through them all. I often have it setup as:
  • What is it? What is the issue? 
  • So What? Why is that an issue?
  • Now What, is there a solution? 
I often wonder that if I was encouraged to continue to write about sports during my formative years, and my papers were graded on my writing ability not my topic of choice, that I might have been drawn to that career path. I was such a stat head that I might have still ended up in the numbers world but I will never know.

Nevertheless I now am the “writer guy” in the curling world although I am not alone, and I love it. Other athletes are writing for sites likes Curling Canada’s, TSN, Sportsnet, the Curling News and that is a win for the fans. The more ideas that we can share as athletes the better in my opinion. Even touchy topics, such as the recent #broomgate situation, should be discussed in the public by athletes. We are stakeholders in this game and we should be able to express our thoughts and be a part of the discussion. The current landscape of instant outrage and vitriol means many don't want to speak out. I for one think it's okay to have an opinion on issues and express those thoughts. The caveat, that many struggle with, is that you need to be open to other ideas and discussion, that's what drives growth. Many just take a stand and name call those who don't stand on their side of the fence. Simply stating your opinion and not moving off the topic is counterproductive to growth. I was happy to be one of the curlers who help create the discussion and love listening to ideas, I think it is healthy.

I am not going to be in the heat of the battle anymore, so my ideas and thoughts on the game might dry up. That or I might have ideas, but without being on the ice I might not have the knowledge required to provide opinions as I have in the past, who knows. Only time will tell. 

With being shut down soon I figured I would post some old blogs as Throwback Thursday Blog's on here from time to time. I have most of my archive other than some of the old posts. I do have a few but don't have the one I wrote right after devastating 2012 Brier final and 2013 provincial final losses or the Godfather preview I did for the 2013 Brier, those three I'd love to have back. You can check here for some posts in the future, see if my writing style has improved or weakened, and do it all in the name of killing time at work!

My post today is one that I wrote for the Grand Slam of Curling and was published on their site in September 2014. I cover off the 5 biggest misconceptions of curling, including sweeping topics. Quite funny to read that piece of the post and think of where we have landed in the 20 months since with sweeping, all with the backdrop of the upcoming Sweeping Summit around the corner with the goal of solving some of the issues that face our game. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Brass Tax of the Sweeping Summit

This month the World Curling federation will be conducting the first ever Sweeping Summit to attempt to solve the "broom gate" issues that hung over the past curling season. It isn't an overstatement to say that the 2015-2016 season will always be known as the broom gate year, this type of thing happens when your sport gets unforeseen exposure in places such as the Washington Post, NY Times and Steven Colbert's late night show. 

Here's what I hope happens during the summit; for all the testing that will be performed on various fabrics and inserts, I hope we get down to the brass tax and answer the question "what do we want sweeping to do in our game?" The WCF recently issued an online survey that asks for input on that very question. I think it is a very important survey as the principle of what sweeping in curling should be is what needs to be answered before the broom head construction or sweeping technique questions can be solved.

The one argument that I don't love has always been "well let's just go back to what sweeping has always been". To me that could be a final solution, I don't know for sure, but just asking to go back in time in and of itself is not a complete argument. Sure an issue is identified, but why is the old way better? The curling public have identified the "what" but have skipped the "so what" and went directly to the "now what". The game has advanced substantially in the past from corn brooms to rink rats to push brooms etc. We have found better ways. Simply saying "put it back to the old way because I liked it better" doesn't hold weight with me. Why did this season happen and is it wrong? Let's have the discussion about why terms like "carving" are potentially bad and something we may want out of the game. Let's see if we can achieve something more than just going back to the old because that's what we know and are comfortable with? Form complete arguments with backup and find solutions so we don't have the bickering that happened this year. 

For me a cause and effect of technology advancements that I understand and am concerned with is the lack of misses and therefore lack of offence. Misses in curling happen and to be honest they make the game more entertaining. Sure nobody wants to watch a game played by two teams firing (or misfiring) percentages in the 30s. A timely miss that occurs due to a communication error or a mental let down make for an entertaining product for fans to watch and players to play. Allowing technology to make up for those mental or physical misfires means those missed shots, particularly hits, are going to be few and far between. Teams just scratched the surface of their knowledge of what we could do out there this season, another year with too much in the sweepers hands is going to snowball the game more and more into a situation where nobody can miss a hit from board weight or less. If that's the case then why draw? Curling is chess on ice but there is a physicality to moving the chess pieces and they don't end up in the ideal placement every time. There is a happy marriage between the physical and mental struggle of shotmaking. That is what makes curling so special, misses happen and the strategy is fluid because of it. Removing the physicality and making it strictly chess is a step in the wrong direction. I have yet to see TV ratings for chess approach a million viewers.

I recently played in a Brier where a draw behind a guard was not a good shot anymore. If your guard was too close to the house a run back where at minimum contact was made with your draw. If your guard was left a little long, well a simple hack weight hit was also made 9 times out of ten. 
Average shooting percentage for top 4 players at each position during last two Briers:
Skip - 2015 84.0%; 2016 89.8%
Third - 2015 90.0%; 2016 91.3%
Second - 2015 89.0%; 2016 91.3%
Lead - 2015 92.0%; 2016 93.3%
Total - 2015 88.8%; 2016 91.4%
Are we sure that the playoff teams at the Brier got 2.6% better in one season? That is the biggest jump in percentages that I have ever seen year over year in my time in the Brier.
Offensively the games were often played in the 5-4 range. There was a game that was 2-1 entering the tenth end, this happened even with both teams throwing guards attempting to generate offence. Creating offence was hard to come by, and like any sport with TV commitments to fulfill and the money that comes from that, offence is needed. If you can't miss a hit whether it be a run back or come around takeout .. how do you get rocks in play? Fans love the discussion and strategy of the elite teams, they love thinking along with the best in the world as they navigate their way through an end or game, how much thinking and discussion goes into our game when there is one guard and both teams are playing the hit and roll game with one rock in the house?

To me here is the bare bones issue that technology has brought to the forefront this year .. margin for error. The elite players of this game (weird to think I am no longer part of that crew but I will still use the term "we" often when I talk of the elite) are supremely talented who work extremely hard at the craft of shotmaking. They put in countless hours of work at their home clubs and gyms throughout the world to find ways to get an extra inch or less out there on the ice, so they shouldn't need a bigger margin for error. Baseball never allowed the aluminum bat at the professional level even though aluminum has a larger sweet spot and lower cost to all players and teams. Professionals don't need that margin for error. Should curling's elite not be the same? 

The players have shown this year that we can use technology to move our margin for error to unforeseen levels, the jump this year was significant and will only increase. As someone who loves this game, that is the main effect that we need to control. Curlers in 2016 don't need that much of a margin for error, but anyone competing for titles in our sport will use it if it's allowed. Let's make sure the margins are small and these athletes are fighting for inches and centimetres not feet. 

To me that is the overriding theme of the sweeping summit. Let's not forget to see the forest from the trees. What do we want sweeping in curling to be? How do we ensure that sweeping doesn't become so effective that offence is too hard to come by? Those questions need to be answered first. Getting to the bottom of the effectiveness of broom construction and techniques will be an extremely valuable exercise, however I for one am hopeful we don't get lost in the minutia of construction and techniques before we ask the truly important questions. 

I think we will. I think we will start at square one and work out from there because without doing that we are doing an injustice to our sport. What happens at the Summit will lead the game into a new era of "AB" .. After Broomgate. Sure we're not curing disease but we are going to try to solve something that will define our sport. To me that's an important task.