BEIJING (AP) — Rocks and ice, meet mobile devices and big data.
The 500-year-old sport of curling is sliding into the digital age at the Winter Olympics, with modern technology helping teams sift through game stats and performance data to maximize their chances at a medal.
Major pro sports like baseball and football have increasingly used data analytics to identify undervalued players and better inform coaching decisions. Now curling — a sport more often thought of as a pastoral pastime played by amateurs with dad bods and day jobs — is also turning to number-crunching.
“Data is king,” said Nigel Holl, executive performance director of the British curling team, an early adopter of curling tech.
“The only advantage we can possibly have is: Can we learn quicker and move faster than the opposition and get an advantage in?” Holl said. “And data is a key part of how you can move faster and be ahead of the game.”
In curling, teams take turns sliding 42-pound rocks down a sheet of ice toward a scoring area. Players furiously sweep the ice along the way to help speed up the stone or curl it around an opponent’s on its way to the target.
The intricate 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 the players real-time insights into the best shot to take.
During play at Beijing’s Ice Cube Olympic venue, the British coaches punch game stats into their tablets and other devices that have been preloaded with match data for their curlers and the opponents.
The British and U.S. teams also employ performance analysts who sit at the end of the ice sheet filming the action for match intelligence. The goal: to get a better picture of each side’s strengths and weaknesses — information that can be relayed to players during breaks.
“It’s the future,” said U.S.A. curling’s director of coaching, Phill Drobnick. “It’s doing everything you can do to give ourselves that little bit of an edge.”
The U.S. curling team has been filming matches for years, but Drobnick said now it’s wringing more information out of video to help with tactics for each play and to scout out the opposition.
“You’ve got to use the information that’s out there to try to give yourself the best chance to win it,” said American John Shuster, a five-time Olympian and the reigning gold medalist.
“We have stuff on all that — analytics — and you try to use it to the best of your ability,” he said. “Honestly, since we have that involved and I’ve been kind of at least knowing what it says, I feel like it’s put us in a position where we’ve got some wins.”
Canada, a curling powerhouse, also uses video and data analytics, team spokesman Kyle Jahns said.
“It’s common for teams (not just Canada) to collect this kind of data not only at the Olympics, but other events in order to create game plans that will be most efficient at international events,” he said by email.
An Olympic curling match has 10 ends, like innings in baseball. Teams throw eight rocks apiece in each round. Much of the in-end strategy involves protecting one’s own rocks from an opponent’s takeout, but the end-game management often centers around the significant advantage of throwing last.
For example, even in a tie game entering the ninth end, a team will often intentionally miss — and score zero points — to retain the last rock advantage, known as the hammer, in the 10th.
This has long been routine curling practice; now players have the numbers to back it up, along with more complex strategic decisions.
In a round-robin match against Canada on Tuesday night, Shuster went for a harder shot that would yield multiple points rather than an easy draw for one, citing statistics showing that forcing an extra end — overtime — in which the opponent held the hammer would be of little value. NFL coaches have become more aggressive about going for it on fourth down based on similar statistical analysis.
Under a recent rule change, curling coaches can now meet with their players between ends and discuss the data insights. Previously, coaches could only consult during a halftime break or during the single time out a team is allotted.
The British team, one of just two to reach the medal round in all three Olympic curling disciplines in Beijing, uses data analytics platform Tableau to present the information in a more easily digested visual form.
“They’ve got 20 seconds to get information across to an athlete to influence the game,” Holl said.
It’s got to be “obvious and intuitive” so the coach can relay it to the athletes in as little as one syllable, Holl said.
Some purists scoff.
“I think there’s a place for it, but I think analytics in a lot of situations, it seems to be trending towards overuse,” said Canadian Brad Gushue, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist.
“We try and use a little bit of it,” Gushue said, “but still go a little old school and use that instinct.” ___
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen is in Beijing covering Olympic curling for the third time. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jgolen. AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan writes about technology from London and is covering a range of Olympic stories in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/chanman.
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