My favourite team drill

“Pickup Sticks”, a drill described in Bill Tschirhart’s Drills to Die For, has become my all-time favourite team drill and in this article I’d like to share some of the reasons why.

I was introduced to “Pickup Sticks” by Bill personally at the 2010 Team Glenn Howard Fantasy Curling Camp, where Bill was one of the instructors for the weekend. Since then I’ve used the drill with my bantam, junior, University, and Little Rock teams for a variety of purposes. During my Level 3 course this past fall in Napanee, Ontario, I had an opportunity to present the drill to the other 15 coaches along with my coaching partner for the weekend, Denise Hoekstra of the Granite Curling Club of West Ottawa. Interestingly, Denise, who has coached internationally for Canada with hearing-disabled curling athletes, is also originally from south-eastern Saskatchewan; she hails from the community of White Bear Lake.

Bill credits Lynita Delaney of the United States Curling Association for this drill. I have seen variations of the basic drill (more on that below), but for the moment we’ll keep with the original description. As Bill documents in Drills to Die For, the drill begins with four stones of each colour, paired together at four corners outside the rings. Each pair of stones (see the figure at left) is then gently tossed into the center of the rings by four players simultaneously, so that they will come to rest in a fairly random set of positions. (Aside: the four players should leave their brooms on the sideboards, or backboards, rather than leave them on the ice surface as a hazard).

After the stones have come to rest, one colour or the other is going to be counting, assuming that at least one of the stones ends up in the rings. The stated goal of the “Pickup Sticks” drill is to execute a shot such that the other colour will score at least one point. Really, however, the point of the drill is to discuss the tactics surrounding the potential shot, or shots. The second figure, shown below, illustrates an example of the positions of the four yellow and four blue stones once they came to rest. Here, the yellow stone in the four-foot is counting; the team’s goal is to execute a shot, throwing a blue stone, such that blue will score at least one point.

The first thing to be done is discuss the possible shot options. Often there are both straightforward and complex shots that are possible with a particular scenario. In the diagram, I’ve illustrated two possibilities: the angle double-takeout, to remove the yellow shot stone (illustrated in black), and the tap-back raise on the blue stone resting top-four (illustrated in green). Once the particular shot has been decided, the next thing is to discuss the tactics for that shot: what weight to throw (and why), which turn to throw (and why), which way to miss to avoid giving up additional points, and what are the “Plan B’s” and “Plan C’s” for the particular shot. Finally, the team selects someone to execute the chosen shot; someone to hold the broom; and the other team members to brush. If the shot is executed perfectly, full marks to the team and we discuss the positives of the attempt. If not, then we discuss what positive things occurred, why the miss might have been avoided, and how we could improve things in the next attempt. Then we will either replace any disturbed stationary stones and re-play the shot, or separate the stones again into the four corners outside the rings to begin another scenario.

One of the reasons why I like this drill so much is that I can use it with teams of all ages:

  1. For younger bantam and Little Rock teams, the execution of the shot is really secondary; the idea is to get the team members to communicate amongst themselves about the various options. When I conduct the drill, everyone on the team gets an equal opportunity to outline the options, discuss the relative difficulty, and plan the tactics to be used. I encourage the players to debate all of the options, even if some are only remotely likely.
  2. I use the drill to identify which of the players “sees” the potential shot options more quickly, and the most effectively. There is often a great deal of variance in the ability to focus on a broad, external basis that is necessary for this drill – a primary requirement for a skip.
  3. The “Pickup Sticks” drill presents a great opportunity to discuss tactics at length, so that every player on the team can discuss and understand precisely which shot is being thrown, and with what weight and why.
  4. Sometimes the stones randomly come to rest where it is clear there is only one, straightforward option. In that instance, with older teams with good shot execution ability, I will additionally place one additional, arbitrary guard in front of the rings to provide an additional challenge by thwarting the easy, straightforward shot.
  5. With more experienced teams who have good execution skills, the drill can become less about tactics – if the players are already good at those skills and communicating the possible options – and more about executing a pressure shot “in the moment”. Pressure can come with “keeping score” in achieving the desired outcome. Pressure can also come about by having all the other players and teams on the ice stop and watch this one shot during its execution, a valuable experience in itself, particularly for a skip.


There are several ways one could modify the basic Pickup Sticks drill. Maurice Wilson of the Golden Hawks HPC and coach of the gold-medal winning Laura Crocker rink at the recent 2012 Karuizawa International Curling Championships, modifies Pickup Sticks in the following ways:

  • As a warmup, each of the rink’s four players throws two draws (one of each stone colour) to get the stones to the other end of the sheet.
  • With the eight stones, the players play a “short game” from the hack to the near rings, throwing one stone of each colour simultaneously, to set up the scenario (one stone at a time, two-against-two, would also work). With this step, not all 8 stones may remain in play, but there may be additional stones now in front of the rings that will make the final “goal” shot much more difficult.
  • Once the scenario has been established, the rink then attempts the goal shot to reverse the situation as before, and allow the opposite colour to score at least one point.
  • Occasionally it is better to select the thrower, the brushers, and the player in the head before tossing the stones into the rings, so that the player to throw the stone is committed before the possible shots are known.
  • With more accomplished teams, you could (as the coach) place an additional stone in front of the rings to make the shot more challenging.

Got a favourite drill of your own? Send it to me and I’ll post it here on the OCC site.

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