Notes to Self: Five Weeks of Lessons Learned as a Beginning Skip

“Once upon a time…”
-The Narrator
Into the Woods

I’m hesitant to write this blog. You see, I’ve been skipping curling teams for only three months of my life. Only five of those weeks have been at Windy City Curling. And when you play a sport often called “Chess on Ice,” it lends a weighty feel of value to the strategy of the game, most of which rests on the shoulders of the skip. So while I feel qualified to write advice columns from personal experience on how beginners can get better at various technical or emotional aspects of curling, the strategy elements I often prefer to leave to the experts who have way more knowledge than I do.

And yet, given that I’ve already written a blog about lessons I learned spending five weeks at WCCC as sub, to not write about the incredibly fun five weeks I just spent playing, learning, and growing as a skip would almost seem to be a disservice to my team. What they helped teach me was how to take a lot of “technical” strategies I’ve learned so far (placing guards, drawing into the house, which way to curl a shot, when to call a takeout, etc.) and put them all together into a coherent plan.

So while I leave teaching the technical basics to better men and women, I’m instead going to share a few nuggets of basic beginning skip wisdom that occurred to me while I spent all those ends standing in the house at the shooting end of a sheet, putting it together.

When thinking of a fun way to structure these lessons, I found it rather difficult to organize my bullet points into concise lessons. But then, I had an idea on how to do it. But in order to explain my thoughts accurately, I’m going to need to preface this blog with a confession: I love musical theater. There. I’ve said it. My secret is out; laid bare for all the world to see and judge.

Okay, maybe that’s not such a big secret, but it is relevant.

You see, one of my favorite musicals is a whimsical little show written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine called Into the Woods. (There’s even going to a filmed Disney version of this show coming out this Christmas.) Mashing well-known classic fairy tales together into one fun plot line, this show’s characters all have to travel into the woods (get it?) to make their wishes come true. At various points along the way, they all sing a few medleys about various lessons on life they’ve learned directly to the audience (for example, “Careful the wish you make. Wishes come true, not free.”)  As I was recently listening to the cast recording, it hit me: These lessons are perfect metaphors for how I want to convey what I know to other budding curling skips.

So grab your cloaks, your torches, and your brooms, we’re off to begin our journey.

“The harder to get, the better to have.” (Not really.) – This first lyric is the only one I offer that is NOT a lesson. It’s actually a warning. It’s sung by Cinderella’s Prince, a vain cad who openly admits to women, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” He spends the whole show pursuing that which he can never have because, for him, it’s only about the pursuit. Don’t be Cinderella’s Prince. You should have a plan for each end from the onset, but you only have eight stones within them to direct. Why waste them on idle pursuits? When you lay your plans before you, you have to be adaptable. If you spend the entire end chasing a plan that’s falling apart because you can’t roll with the punches, you’re never going to make your wish come true. Which brings me to…

“Sometimes the things you most wish for are not to be touched.” – Follow the wisdom of The Witch instead. Recognize potential traps and pitfalls to your plan, for none is perfect. Be they warts, shelves, divots, or slants in the ice, or a team member having a bad shooting day, or an opposing team’s stones blocking your path… there are many ways to find yourself in a bind. If you can spot trouble ahead that stands between you and your goal, you can anticipate it and adjust accordingly. And no, there is nothing wrong with changing things on the fly, making a new plan, and suddenly calling a different game. In fact…

“The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.” – Little Red Riding Hood was taught well. It’s easy to get caught up in a game against another skip where both of you fall into the common trap of constantly throwing stones down the same path on the sheet. I mean, after all… the first stone was a success, why won’t the next fifteen? Only, the next thing you know, it’s a minefield of rock out there and all of it lies in the same general area. Instead of falling into this trap, if it’s not too risky (and you have a stone or two to afford), try playing to the other side. Try testing a new line, or a different curl. See what potential wonders or horrors lie in our ever-changing arena ice. You won’t know what’s out there if you don’t try, right?

“Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup.” – Jack’s Mother never was the kindest regarding her son, but she makes a valid point: Know what you and your team are capable of, and know your own limits as a player. Unless you’re one of the World Class Curling Elites, you likely will have very big holes in your game to work on that your opponents can exploit. The tools in your arsenal will be limited. And that’s okay! We’re all still growing as players together, no matter what our roles may be. Just remember: hubris and vanity are potential traps. Everyone wants to be able to make a “TV Shot” and save the day, but this should be on an as-needed basis only. As a skip, you do not have to be the hero all of the time. In fact, if you’re calling a great game and your team is making every shot you call, you ideally should be leaving the easiest shots for yourself to make, NOT the hardest. If you’re having to ride in on your Teflon steed and play the Knight in Shining Granite all the time (always a very risky endeavor), the problem may not rest with your team, but instead the path you’re always taking your team down, Charming. (Personal Note: This one was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, personally. Admitting that the fault was not in the stars but within me, took a lot of bitter-tasting pride to swallow.)

“The slotted spoon CAN catch the potato.” – Jack’s Mother never gave her son a high-powered sniper rifle, but she did keep a basic axe around that ended up being perfect for him to use when cutting down pesky overgrown beanstalks. The same applies to you and your team. So you have holes in your game. Who cares? We all do. So your team’s arsenal is limited. You know what that means? Basic though it may be, you still have an arsenal. You may not be able to consistently make freezes, double takeouts, and runback angle raises, but you CAN put a stone into the house. Your Lead CAN place a guard. Your Vice CAN knock some stones around and give you a takeout. See what you’ve got at your disposal, and utilize it. You can’t be a trick-shot or a sharp-shooter if you don’t know the weapon you hold in your own hand. When you learn what heat your team packs, use it and use it full-force. In the words of Star Trek‘s Nero: “Fire everything!”  Your natural raw talent is a great place from which to go and grow.

“You may know what you need, but to get what you want, better see that you keep what you have.” – This one from the Baker’s Wife is rather straight-forward. She and her husband are questing to collect things to make a potion that will help their wish come true. Along the way, they gain, and then lose, some of the items. As ends progress and games play out, points will be gained as shots will be made and missed. There should always be a part of your brain that is constantly weighing risks versus rewards of the strategy and game you’re calling. Sometimes the safest route isn’t the most exciting, but while no curling match was ever won in one end; matches certainly have been lost in one. Always be aware of the marathon you’re running, and try not to sprint to the finish lest you drop something major getting there. And yet…

“Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” – Cinderella only had one night to decide if she was going to risk everything and go to the Prince’s Ball. When the moment is there to steal an extra point or two (or more), to stop an opposing plan already in-motion, or to turn the tables to take back the offensive – sometimes, you just have to go for it. But (unlike Cinderella) weigh the risks! Think where in the game you are (last stone of the first end? second stone of the last end? Do you have hammer? etc.). And if the chance to strike while the ice is hot lies before you, and you won’t be giving up too much if things go awry, then by all means slide through the door opportunity opened for you before your opponent’s next stone slams it shut.

“The mouth of a wolf is not the end of the world.” – As Granny can tell you: sometimes bad things happen. You’re on the ropes and in a major bind. Sometimes damage control is all you can do. It’s not ideal, but recognizing when you’ve been bested in an end by superior foes, as I stated up above, is the best way to prevent total loss. There is nothing wrong with giving up one point, if it means you stopped yourself from giving up two or more. That unto itself can be a small victory. (And, Hey! You get Hammer next end…) But always remember that you are leading a team. I wrote on this lesson before. You are the leader in more ways than just calling strategy shots. Your behavior, demeanor, personality, encouragement, compassion, praise, calm, and cool are also going to help lead (and, if need be, rally) your troops to free you from the belly of the beast; your outward anger, frustration, ranting, raging, and furious ravings are not. So don’t be That Guy. No one wants to be on That Guy’s team.

“No knot unties itself.” – The Mysterious Man is trying to right his wrong, but he can’t do it alone. Tying in with the last lesson (no pun intended): when things are going wrong, you are allowed to look to your own team for guidance. Some of my favorite moments on the ice so far have been those where I’ve looked to my Vice and admitted, “I have no idea what to do.” Or simply explaining my thoughts and then asking, “What do you think?” Being a part of a quick and creative brainstorm session with a teammate who often has their own unique take on things is one of the best ways I’ve learned about curling and grown as a Skip. I’ve had shots so obvious pointed out to me that I’ve actually laughed out loud at how I missed seeing them. And I usually didn’t see them because I was so focused in the tunnel vision of following “My Plan” (which was then promptly thrown out) that I was blinded to other alternatives. Sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes and an outside opinion from someone who is NOT a thought-voice in your head. It’s amazing what wonders you can aim for (and sometimes pull off) when you work with each other as a team.

“No one is alone.” – Which brings me to the Finale, sung by the cast. In every curling adventure, there are four of you out there on that ice. You have three allies at your side who are prepared to ride the pebble with you from one end to the other and back again. They are three-dimensional beings with their own strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, emotions, wants, and desires – and it’s your job to help them get their wish. As long as you make every effort to properly lead them, and respect their efforts while doing so, your team will do everything to the best of its ability to properly answer your call to arms. However, you must always remember that there are also four other people on that ice with you who are trying to see to it that your wish never comes true. Your wish of victory directly conflicts with theirs. Given that the tide of an end can ebb and flow in the course of a single shot, your opponents must be respected at all times and never underestimated, not only because they’re people you’re going to be broomstacking with later, but because they are fellow players of this awesome sport. And this is, after all, just a game.

Besides, you never know when you’re going to find yourself lost in the woods and up against a giant. Or, worse, his angry vengeful wife. 😉

-Eric 🙂

(Eric Reithel is a guest blogger who has never been camping, despite what all this talk of forestry and wooded areas might have you believe. If you want to invite him to go camping into the woods, or to just read his much more truncated, non-lyrical musings, you can follow him on Twitter @TheCraftyCurler.)

1 reply
  1. Guy Scholz
    Guy Scholz says:

    Curling is a mythical sport….11/10 again…great blog eric….the insights given are not just for newbie’s but are a fresh reminder for the already committed lifer’s….


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