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Some thoughts on how to win at wheelchair curling

Anyone who has sat in a wheelchair and pushed a 40 pound curling rock 40 yards down a sheet of ice designed to prevent it traveling in a straight line, knows how difficult it is to hit the target, even one as large as a 12 foot diameter circle. Add in the pressure of competition, and the obstructions of previously thrown stones, and there is every reason to praise any shot that comes close to its intended destination.

There was praise aplenty at the 2007 World Wheelchair Curling Championships in Sweden. WCF vice president Kate Caithness and world champion skip turned Internet TV commentator Frank Duffy both noted how performance had improved over the relatively short time wheelchair curling has been played internationally.

Player statistics, however, show shooting percentages on a good day still hover around 50%. The improvement at the Worlds in Sweden was more evident in team parity than in top individual performances.

The reason is uncomplicated. If you take a game that relies on sweeping for precise performance, and then remove the sweeping, you remove much of the precision.

This neednít matter to us as spectators caught up in the spectacle as we await and applaud successful shots. As skips and coaches and administrators though, we need to build our understanding of the game on the likelihood that even elite wheelchair curlers will miss half the time. Despite the brave talk about how wheelchair curlers must become more precise than regular curlers, imprecision is built into the structure of wheelchair curling.

This understanding should influence how we play, how we coach and ultimately how we allocate resources to develop the game.

It is a short but often deceptive step from watching a shot made, to believing that with enough practice and preparation and resources, it will be made consistently. Skills will improve with increased resources, greater fitness, improved technique and dedicated practice Ė up to a point; a point that may already have been reached by the better teams.

The structure of the game places a ceiling on skill, and additional resources have so far been shown to have only marginal effect on performance. Playing a 6 end game is always going to be a bit of a lottery. The question is what can we do to ensure we hold enough tickets to have a reasonable chance of winning?

A first step is to stop modeling wheelchair curling on the regular game. This is difficult as coaches, and most skips, inform their strategy and tactics by their understanding of regular curling. They call a recognizably able-bodied game, guards and come-arounds or tap-backs, and hope their team executes.

What happens if we accept that for structural (rather than skill) reasons, wheelchair curlers are likely to miss half their shots?

Here are some ideas.

If you are selecting, pick a team where every member can guarantee you two rocks in the house. The temptation is to assemble a squad of the best available athletes, intending to coach them to all-round excellence. While at some level that will be possible, it may not be useful or even necessary. Not every player needs every shot. This is particularly true at lead. If you start the game with two stones in scoring position, particularly against opposing leads unused to hitting, you have a huge advantage. If your lead can throw either turn, or a takeout, thatís a bonus but not why they are on the team.

Call the percentage shots. What is the point of throwing a corner guard if you have a very low expectation of a successful come around? What is the point of putting any stone outside of the rings, where it is unlikely to score? Why not put it in the rings and in potential scoring position, where any attempts to hit it are likely to fail half the time?

The person throwing 4th stones must be able to draw. If more games are saved with a draw than are won with a hit, a skip who canít draw throws 2nd or 3rd.

Allow for imprecision. Itís risky to rely on hitting to compensate for weakness at the draw game. Perfectly executed hits are great, but flash on a hit, or discover too late that a hit-and-stick is just as tricky as a draw, and you are in big trouble against a team with rocks in the house.

Consider having a five person team, as explicitly mandated in the WCF rules. Players can be substituted in and out at any time for any reason, so have a 5th player with a specialty, a high percentage draw or a guaranteed to hit the broom take-out, and use them for situational shooting.

Play the percentages. Call the shots most likely to be made, not the ones youíd most like to see made. Base your shot calling on the demonstrated skills of the person taking the shot. Avoid wishful thinking. And remember, if itís not in the rings it isnít going to score.

With money pouring into the sport in anticipation of podium success in 2010, the pressure is on to find useful ways to spend it. The current thinking in Canada is that professional preparation may improve shot-making 10-15% by 2010, which would be a significant advance if true. My own feeling is given the way the game is structured, additional resources may not improve the precision of play. We may not be able to train our way to guaranteed success.

We are all feeling our way in a very new sport. A new strategic approach that recognises and allows for an inevitable lack of precision may be the way to a gold medal.

Eric Eales

March 20, 2007
Kelowna, BC

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