Mixed Doubles From An Athlete’s Perspective

My guest blogger to day is Hans Frauenlob from New Zealand. Hans and I go back several years when he played on the National Men’s Team for NZ. He and his teammates would stop into the National Training Centre in Calgary, AB en route to that year’s World Men’s Curling Championship for several days of training. In 2006 Hans and Co. wore the black and sliver of NZ at the Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. 

Now that there are 50+ candles on his birthday cake, Hans is a competitor at the World Senior Curling Championships. This year in Fredericton, Hans skipped his NZ side to a very well-deserved silver medal and all the while, as you’ll read below, competed in the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships. More than once Hans was seen running from one ice surface to the next to compete in one or the other competitions. Hans put his fingers to keyboard to record his thoughts on Mixed Doubles from his very unique perspective.

I encourage you to comment on Hans’ ideas for the future of MD. Many feel there’s a real chance that MD might be another discipline in the Winter Olympic Games programme. 

I recently had the honour of representing my country (with my teammate Natalie Campbell) at the 2013 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships.  My congratulations and thanks go to Wayne Tallon and the team in Fredericton for running an absolute first-class event.

Mixed Doubles is a really interesting new format of the game. It’s much more fun to play than fours. You’re actively in every shot as a thrower, sweeper, line reader and strategist, and the situation can change massively from shot to shot. Things happen fast. You have to be fit! My thanks go to Natalie for introducing me to this great new form of the game!

Unfortunately, it is as boring as hell to watch as a live spectator. Fans at the arena don’t really get involved in the game – they don’t really know how yet. Strategic choices are limited, and as a result shot selection choices are limited as well. This deficiency must be fixed if our dream of seeing Mixed Doubles as a medal discipline at the Winter Olympics is to be realised. We have to get the fans involved with the game.

It all reminds me a lot of the days pre-Free Guard Zone. It’s too predictable and repetitive. The doubles shot choices (especially the first one) are limited and obvious – and even great execution of the same shots over and over again can get boring (remember 2-1 games and eight ends of peeling guards?). Fortunately, like the FGZ, I believe a rule change could improve the spectacle.

I have a proposal that I believe could really improve doubles as live spectator sport, with the bonus of making it even more fun as a player. It involves opening up the scoring zone, and requiring more strategic choices to be made than need to be made right now.

I propose that the stationery stone of the team with the hammer be placed at the back of the four foot circle on the centre line, rather than at the back of the pin on the centre line (the current rule). 
I’d like to explain my proposal, and the reasons behind it.

Like many, I’m relatively new to doubles, but I’ve played fours for years. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in a lot of international events in arenas with live spectators.

In my experience, there are three main things that really ‘light up’ and engage a live curling crowd:

1. A big scoring shot with takeout weight

2. A lot of screaming and great sweeping (usually leading to a big scoring shot or an end-turning shot)
3. An opportunity to second-guess strategic options shot to shot
Unfortunately, Doubles suffers relative to fours in all of these areas. Let’s examine why:

1. The big weight scoring shot

In fours, the ‘big shot’ is usually something like a double takeout, and after the shot is complete, it is immediately obvious to the crowd that the throwing team has scored a bundle. The crowd knows, and goes wild.

In doubles, the ‘big shot’ usually also involves some weight and repositioning some stones. However, when the shot is being delivered, there are almost always four or five stones in and around the four foot. So when the shot is over, it’s often not immediately obvious that the shot was successful. The area around the pin is so crowded it is usually only the player at the tee who actually knows who scored. So the chance for the crowd to immediately roar their approval for a great shot is lost – they just don’t know what the result was!

2. A lot of screaming and great sweeping

Of the three areas, this is the one with the least difference between the disciplines. But there is just something different to someone sweeping alone to seeing a two person sweeping machine in full flight.

And when a draw shot in doubles needs both sweepers, no one is screaming line calls, so something is audibly missing from the shot for a spectator.

3. An opportunity to second-guess strategic options.

This is a big one.

A current, and legitimate, criticism of Doubles is that the same shots are played time after time. As a spectator in fours, the choice of the first shot of an end for the team without the hammer is a genuinely interesting choice. Draw into the rings? (trying for a force) Centre guard? (challenging – maybe trying for a steal!) Long centre guard? (wow interesting, maybe trying to stack two guards, gambling big for a steal!)

In doubles however, there is only one shot choice for the first rock of the end for the team without hammer. Every time, it is a freeze-tiny bump to the opponents stone placed at the back of the pin. This is usually followed by a series of small taps, bumps and freezes, and before long, the button area resembles a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour!

At this point, the fan in the stands has no idea at all what a ‘good shot choice’ would look like. This isn’t because they don’t have knowledge of the game.. its because they just can’t see the stone positions and angles well enough to know what the options actually are! Its too busy in the button area!

The net result – there is little ‘between shots’ buzz in the crowd as everyone in the crowd plays skip and makes a shot choice for the player on the ice. I know that I’ve never missed a shot from the stands!

Taking this opportunity for input away from the crowd makes them less involved in the game.
Worse – it is lazy strategically. There is only ‘one way’ to start an end. This is bad for the game – there should be choices demanded of a team, and consequences to those choices.

I believe that there is a small adjustment to the rules of Mixed Doubles that could address all of these deficiency areas.

A Possible Solution

“Open up the scoring area, and also require the team without hammer to make a genuine shot choice, by positioning the stationary stone of the team with the hammer on the centre line at the back of the four foot circle”.

This change would now require the team without the hammer to make a genuine shot choice! If the team is playing for a force, they might freeze the opponents shot in the back of the four foot – but the team with the hammer would still have the full button available. If the team is playing for a steal, they maybe try to bury biting the top button. The ‘response shot’ by the team with the hammer could then either ‘commit the end’ to the button area (by making a play to the stones in the four foot, which might guarantee a score of one but no more) or slightly open up the end by repositioning the stones a bit (which should leave two clear paths to the button and the four foot/button area ‘more receptive’ to hits or run-ins later in the end).

My belief is that this change would result in:
– slightly lower end scores (fewer 1s, 4s and 5s, more 2s and 3s)
– more hits to score multiple ends, with immediately clearer shot results for fans
– new strategies for the early shots of an end, serious strategic choices to be made, more reward for great execution, greater penalty for poor execution
– more shot options ‘mid-end’ (set up for a run-in/in-off? wedge another rock in there? split a stone top eight foot?)
– easier for fans to relate to what is happening on the ice

I would be really interested to hear what other curlers think of this idea. Doubles in the Olympics would be absolutely awesome for our sport – but if we can’t engage the curling fan, we’ll never get there.