Strategy & Tactics 101

There is no area of our sport which has caused more discussions (usually involving salt & pepper shakers and/or drinking glasses on table tops following games) than “strategy & tactics”, although I dare say most of the discussions would have been described as only “strategy” discussions. I rarely hear the word “tactics” so let’s deal with that first.

Strategy is/are your plan(s) whereas tactics are the actual shots you’re going to play to execute the plan(s). Knowing that, through participant observation I can say with confidence that strategy is usually not the problem. It’s tactics! Teams generally make good plans. But, frequently teams try to execute the plan(s) with shots that are less than appropriate or, for some inexplicable reason, they abandon their plan. It’s much better to have a plan that doesn’t work than no plan that doesn’t work!

So there’s my first piece of advice to recreational curlers. Make sure your concern is directed at the root of the problem. If your plans are flawed then deal with them but I’ll wager that most of the issues are with the tactics employed to execute the plans. Allow me one illustration.

It’s the third end of a ten end game. The score is tied 1-1. Your team has last stone advantage and the opposing team, on its first shot of the 3rd end places it on the centre line at the top of the 4′ circle. At that point, you have two “strategic” choices. You can ignore the opposition stone or you can use/deal with it. Once that decision is made, you’ve entering the world of “tactics” because now you have to call a shot. Let’s assume you’ve decided, for now, to use/deal with that stone. You have a variety of tactics at your disposal. One of them is to hit that stone and roll out (I can visualize the rolling eyeballs of most readers as I sit here at my computer). Right, that tactic just doesn’t make much sense when end, score and last stone advantage are 3rd end, score tied 1-1 and your team has last stone advantage. About the only reason that tactic might be appropriate is because you feel you don’t have a handle on the ice conditions to employ another, arguably more appropriate tactic. Perhaps your lead is struggling with the down weight shots but is really good at takeouts. OK, I get that! But I hope you see where this is going.  The tactic of a hit and roll out is very likely not the most appropriate tactic. Hitting and rolling to the side of the house, drawing to the stone, drawing around the stone and tapping it behind the tee line all seem better tactical choices.

I used the “p” word enough in this post so let’s deal with plans next and they can be subdivided into game plans and end plans.

A game plan is simple. It’s a decision by the team (not just its skip) as to how the team is going to “start” the game and you have three choices. You can start the game pursuing a scoring opportunity, protecting against an anticipated scoring threat or you can be flexible and wait until a scoring opportunity arises and choose shots that take advantage of that situation OR if a scoring threat rears its ugly head, play shots that deal with that scenario. If you choose the third approach you better have a skip who can tell the difference between a scoring opportunity and a scoring threat, an easy task perhaps in the warmth of the curling lounge that often becomes more challenging in the cold air of the playing surface! A game plan is a general approach to start the game.

An end plan is a decision to “start” the next end, you guessed it, pursuing a scoring opportunity, protecting against an anticipated scoring threat or positioning stones carefully waiting for a scoring opportunity or scoring threat to emerge. End plans are more specific than game plans simply due to the fact that an end plan reflects the current situation.

You’ll notice the word “start” in both game plan and end plan. The “start” for your plan may not materialize. You might wish to start the game pursuing scoring opportunities but your opposition deals with them so effectively that you find yourself unable to accomplish the plan and in fact, realize that YOU are the one who has to deal with scoring threats so you do just that. The same might occur with an end plan. You might decide to protect against an anticipated scoring threat but find that you play very well with your upweight shots and with a miss or two on the part of the opposition, you find that in the latter stages of the end YOU have the scoring opportunity and decide the time is right to pursue it.

The point is this. A plan need not be “rigid” and if you see both game and end plans as ways to “start”, you will have all the flexibility needed to make the plans work FOR you, not AGAINST you!

Game plans result from a team meeting, or an exchange of emails, some time before the game begins. If it’s a face-to-face meeting, it need only consume a few minutes. Heh, we’re playing (insert team here) on sheet (insert ice here) and our current skill set is (insert team skill set here). Taking those into consideration, we believe it’s prudent to (insert game plan here). Easy, but does your team take those three minutes to agree on a game plan?

End plans can be accomplished by having the skip and third/mate meet (while the stones are being removed). Taking end, score, last stone advantage (and perhaps momentum, ice conditions etc. in consideration as well) you choose to “start” the end playing “green” (pursuing a scoring opportunity), “red” (protecting against a scoring threat) or “yellow” (positioning stones carefully, waiting to see what arises, a scoring opportunity or scoring threat). When the end plan has been decided it’s relayed to the lead and second. Everyone is one the same page!

But before game and end plans are examined, you need to know, from a “strategy & tactics” perspective, the type of team you are. My colleagues and I say that each team has “strategic DNA” and it’s embedded in the collective desires, experiences and skill sets of the members of the team. In other words, due to the parameters mentioned in the previous sentence, there will be a way the team wants to play and hopefully with the skill set to do just that. And that should be an important part of the selection of teammates. Please, when you are selecting teammates, find out how they feel the game should be played from a strategy & tactics perspective before you have them sign on the dotted line! I don’t care how good a curler they are from a technical point of view. If they are a square peg being inserted into a round strategy & tactics hole, it isn’t going to work! Choose someone else!

From a “strategy & tactics” perspective, there are three types of teams, offence first, defence first and blended attack. An offence first team will tend to gravitate toward the selection of a tactic that promotes a scoring opportunity whereas a defence first team will have a tendency to see a situation and play a shot that keeps a scoring threat at bay first. A blended attack team relies on its ability to see the potential in a scoring opportunity and the danger in a scoring threat and move quickly and seamlessly to deal with it.

There was a time in our sport when an offence first team or a defence first team could play that way, game-in-and-game-out. That is no longer the case! Even the most aggressive (offence first) team will employ its defence first game on occasion and the same is true for a defence first team. It will obviously take advantage of a scoring opportunity by using its offence first style of game. Blended attack teams will move from offence first to defence first and back again dependent on the situation.

I have referred to end, score and last stone advantage a number of times in this post. They are the big three factors that influence both strategy and tactics. There are others which play a role from time to time but end, score and last stone advantage are always factors. It’s an art on the part of the skip to weigh the factors accurately. I can’t tell a skip how to do that, only to make sure they always consider the relevant factors.

There is no “risk free” style of play. An offence first team risks its opposition taking advantage of the scoring opportunity created by your offence first approach (you always provide stones in an offence first environment that can be used by ether team). Sometimes you’ll get burned and that’s why an offence first team must be resilient. A defence first team risks missing scoring opportunities in its desire to protect against potential scoring threats. They will play in many close, low scoring games. That’s why a defence first team must be patient. Blended attack teams rely heavily on assessing the situation accurately and responding appropriately. A blended attack team that misreads the situation can be in a heap of trouble and since they will place that burden on the shoulders of one player primarily, they must be willing to move into defence first or offence first mode at a moment’s notice so the team dynamics on that team must be unshakable!

On my “strategy & tactics” PowerPoint presentation, I have two slides that I tell recreational skips they need to remember and only those two slides. They come from two transparencies back in the day when I was an instructor for the Ontario Curling Federation, the forerunner of Curl Ontario (there were dinosaurs roaming Ontario at the time). Here’s what they indicate;

When you have last stone advantage, play to the sides of the sheet. When you don’t have last stone advantage, play to the centre of the sheet. When you’re winning the game, play in the house. When you’re losing the game, play in front of the house.

If you combine the messages from those two slides, it’s all you need to know about strategy & tactics!

Be wary of the strategy & tactics you see on television employed by our most elite teams. Their skill set is likely so different from your team’s skill set that the style of play you see them employ will not work very well for you. Another distinguishing factor is the “pampered ice” upon which they play. It’s so unlike curling club ice in that it’s not forgiving. Yes, you can make a lot of shots you can’t even imagine you could even think about on your curling facility ice but the precision required to do so might just be off the charts for your recreational team. In “A Pane in the Glass: A Coach’s Companion” the article is entitled, “The Dangers of Learning About Curling Strategy By Watching TV“(p.169).

By the way, APITG:ACC makes a great Christmas gift for the curler/coach/instructor on your list!

Before I leave you today to watch the final games on TV from Brantford, ON, I will leave you with this thought, suggested to me by Roz Craig. You win a lot more games by making the “wrong” shot than you do by missing the “right” shot!

It’s always about making curling shots!

Contact me if you’d like to explore this topic with me further (