BEIJING – Stones and ice, meet mobile devices and big data.
At the Winter Olympics, the 500-year-old sport of curling is slipping into the digital age, with state-of-the-art technology that helps teams sift through game statistics and results data to maximize their chances of winning a medal.
Major professional sports, such as baseball and football, are increasingly using data analytics to identify underrated players and better inform coaching decisions. Now curling – a sport that is often seen as a pastoral pastime, played by amateurs with parents and daily work – is also turning to crunch.
“Data is king,” said Nigel Hall, executive director of the British curling team and one of the first users of curling technology.
“The only advantage we can have is: can we learn faster and move faster than the opposition, and gain an advantage?” Hall said. “And data is a key part of how you can move faster and be ahead in the game.”
In curling, teams take turns gliding on 42-pound stones on the ice toward the scoring zone. Players fiercely sweep the ice on the way to speed up the stone or roll it around the opponent on the way to the goal.
A challenging strategy – successful teams have to plan a few throws in advance – has earned the sport the nickname “ice chess”. And this strategy is now driven by data and technology that give players a real-time understanding of how best to do it.
During the game at the Ice Cube Olympics in Beijing, British coaches enter game statistics into their tablets and other devices on which match data has been pre-loaded for their curlers and opponents.
The British and American teams also employ performance analysts who sit at the end of the ice sheet and film the action to reconnoiter the match. Objective: To get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each party – information that can be passed on to players during breaks.
“This is the future,” said U.S. curling coach Phil Drobnik. “She’s doing everything you can to give yourself that little advantage.”
The U.S. curling team has been filming matches for years, but Drobnik said it is now extracting more information from the video to help with tactics for each game and explore the opposition.
“You have to use the information you have to try to give yourself the best chance of winning,” said American John Schuster, a five-time Olympian and current gold medalist.
“We have materials on all of this – analytics – and you’re trying to use that to the best of your ability,” he said. “Honestly, since we have this relationship, and I at least know what it says, I feel like it put us in a position where we got some victories.”
Team spokesman Kyle Jans said Canada, which is a curling power plant, also uses video and data analytics.
“Teams (not just Canada) typically collect such data not only at the Olympics but also at other events to create game plans that will be most effective at international events,” he said by email.
The Olympic curling match has 10 ends like a baseball serve. Teams throw eight stones in each round. Much of the ultimate strategy involves protecting your own stones from the opponent’s takeaway, but control at the end of the game often focuses around the significant advantage of throwing the latter.
For example, even in a game that draws into the ninth end, the team often intentionally misses – and scores zero points – to maintain the last advantage in the stone, known as the hammer, in the 10th.
This has long been a common practice of curling; players now have the numbers to back it up, as well as more sophisticated strategic decisions.
In a round-robin match against Canada on Tuesday night, Schuster went for a heavier shot that would have brought a few points rather than an easy draw, citing statistics showing that the extra end – overtime – in which the opponent held the hammer would result in having little value. Based on a similar statistical analysis, NFL coaches became more aggressive in fourth place.
Under a recent rule change, curling coaches can now meet with their players during breaks and discuss data. Previously, coaches could only consult during a break or during a single time-out allotted to a team.
The British team, one of two that advanced to a round of medals in all three Olympic curling disciplines in Beijing, is using the Tableau data analysis platform to present information in a more easily digestible visual form.
“They have 20 seconds to convey information to the athlete to influence the game,” Hall said.
“It has to be‘ obvious and intuitive ’so the coach can pass it on to the athletes in just one lineup, Hall said.
Some purists are mocked.
“I think there’s room for that, but I think analytics in a lot of situations seems to tend to be overused,” said Canadian Brad Gushu, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist.
“We try to use it a little bit,” Gusha said, “but we still go a little old school and use that instinct.” ___
AP sports writer Jimmy Galen is in Beijing covering the Curling Olympics for the third time. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jgolen. AP Business writer Kelvin Chan writes about technology from London and covers a number of Olympic stories in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/chanman.
More AP Olympics: /hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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