BEIJING (AP) — Rocks and ice, meet mobile devices and big data.
The 500-year-old sport of curling is slipping into the digital age at the Winter Olympics, with modern technology helping teams sift through game stats and performance data to maximize their chances of winning a medal.
Major professional sports like baseball and soccer are increasingly using numbers to identify undervalued players and better inform training decisions. The analytic trend today is curling, a sport more often seen as a pastoral pastime played by amateurs with dads and day jobs.
“Data is king,” said Nigel Holl, executive director of performance for the British curling team, an early adopter of curling technology.
“The only advantage we can possibly have is: can we learn faster and move faster than the opponent and gain an advantage?” said Holl. “And data is a key part of how you can go faster and stay ahead.”
In curling, teams take turns sliding 42-pound stones across a sheet of ice toward a scoring area. Players furiously sweep the ice along the way to accelerate the stone or wrap it around an opponent’s en route to the target.
The complex strategy – successful teams must plan several throws in advance – has earned the sport the nickname “chess on ice”. And that strategy is now driven by data and technology that gives players real-time insight into the best shot to take.
During play at the Ice Cube Olympic venue in Beijing, British coaches entered game stats into their tablets and other devices which were preloaded with match data for their curlers and opponents.
The UK and US teams also employ performance analysts who sit at the end of the ice cap to film the action for match intelligence. The goal: to get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each side, information that can be relayed to the players during breaks.
“It’s the future,” said American curling coaching director Phill Drobnick. “He’s doing everything you can do to give us that little edge.”
The U.S. curling team has been filming games for years, but Drobnick said she’s now extracting more information from video to help with each game’s tactics and to scout the opponent.
“You have to use the information available to try to give yourself the best chance of winning,” said American John Shuster, five-time Olympian and reigning gold medalist. “I feel like that put us in a position where we have wins.”
Canada’s Curling Power also uses video and data analytics, team spokesman Kyle Jahns said.
“It’s common for teams (not just Canada) to collect this type of data not only at the Olympics, but at other events to create game plans that will be most effective at international events,” he said via email.
An Olympic curling match has 10 innings, like innings in baseball. Teams deliver eight stones each in each round. Much of late game strategy involves protecting one’s own pebbles from an opponent’s blows, but late game management often centers around the significant advantage of throwing last.
For example, even in a draw going into the ninth inning, it has long been smart strategy to intentionally miss – and score zero runs – to hold on to last-rock advantage, known as hammer, in the 10th.
Now players have the numbers to back that up, along with more complex decisions.
In Thursday night’s medal round game against Great Britain, with a fairly easy chance to score a run and tie the game, the United States deliberately threw the ninth-end hammer into the side of the sheet – and gave up a point to fall behind by two – in order to have the last rock in the 10th.
“I know it sounds funny and you don’t realize, like, ‘Why did they do that?'” American Matt Hamilton said. “But sports are analytical now. We all know the numbers, where your wheelchair curler – who doesn’t watch it year after year, and every championship – might not necessarily realize it.
NFL coaches have become more aggressive in going for fourth down or for two runs after a touchdown, based on similar statistical analysis.
The British team, one of only two to reach the medal round in all three Olympic disciplines of curling in Beijing, uses the data analytics platform Tableau to present information in an easier-to-digest visual form.
It needs to be “obvious and intuitive” so the coach can convey it to athletes in as little as one syllable, Holl said.
“They have 20 seconds to relay information to an athlete to influence the game,” Holl said.
Some purists scoff.
“I think there’s a place for it, but I think analysis in a lot of situations seems to tend to be overused,” said Canadian Brad Gushue, an Olympic gold medalist in 2006.
“We try to use a little bit of that,” Gushue said, “but keep it a bit old school and use that instinct.” ___