Thoughts on Mixed Doubles Curling

So, Mixed Doubles curling has made its debut as a full Olympic sport this year, and the first medals have been awarded. Team Canada — Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris — won the gold with a dominating 10 – 3 win over Switzerland. I watched most of the draws, which obviously for me focused on Team Canada. One thing that’s interesting (at least to me) is that the team they beat to make it to the Olympics was Val Sweeting and Brad Gushue … both of whom I’d rather watch than those two (although it’s not like I actually dislike them either). Ah, what could have been. Then again, Val Sweeting has a tendency to falter under pressure, so maybe they wouldn’t have won if they had made it.

It’s certain that the two of them wouldn’t be as good at sweeping as Morris and Lawes, who are incredibly strong brushers, and one thing that was obvious is that sweeping is incredibly important in mixed doubles. You generally only have one sweeper, and the general practice was to have the thrower hop up and sweep their own rocks while the other player called the line from the rings, except on some shots. With only one sweeper, that sweeper is going to have to be really, really good at it to hold the line or make it curl, and it’s likely that you aren’t going to be able to get away with having a weaker female sweeper, so both players are going to have to be good at sweeping. This also might meant that skips aren’t going to be as good at mixed doubles as, say, thirds are — both Morris and Lawes are or have been thirds for a significant part of their curling careers — since thirds both have to sweep and make the big and finesse shots. Skips don’t tend to be as good at sweeping as thirds are, just because they don’t have to do it as often and in as important circumstances as thirds do. Sure, you can get skips who can really sweep, like Rachel Homan, but still you aren’t going to say that she’s better at it than her third Emma Miskew is, and she isn’t that much better at the big shots to make going with the skip the better option. And most skips don’t sweep as well as Homan does (for example, Jennifer Jones often looks downright awkward when she has to sweep, as she had to once playing mixed doubles at the Continental Cup).

Another thing that is interesting is that Canada sent a team that was formed out of existing curling teams that didn’t make it to the Olympics. Lawes and Morris had only played 22 games together … counting their games at the Olympics, and obviously the games they played together in qualifying. Joan McCusker commented on the coverage that they were the most accomplished curlers in the field, but that the other teams had a lot more experience playing mixed doubles and, in general, playing together in mixed doubles. And other than the first game, Lawes and Morris ran the table, and ended up beating every single team in the field at least once. This might suggest that it’s more important to have strong curlers than it is to have an experienced mixed doubles team … which is not something that people who would want mixed doubles to become a respected sport out of the shadow of curling would want. If you can take the best curlers from the four-person team game and have them beat the best mixed doubles team most of the time, then mixed doubles isn’t that different from four-person curling in terms of skill set and there’s no reason for curlers to dedicate themselves to the sport.

Another thing that was interesting is the “power play”, and how the typical strategy is to use it to try to generate more offense and big ends. For those unfamiliar with the game, in mixed doubles the ends start with rocks in play: one belonging to the team with hammer at the back of the four foot, and a center line guard belonging to the team without hammer. If the team with hammer invokes their once-per-game “power play”, the guard moves over to cover the corner, and so does the rock in the rings. Since this is what regular curling teams use to set up multi-end games, it would seem that this would be used to generate big ends. Except … I never saw it happen. The most I saw was 2, I think, and there were a number of 1s scored which is absolutely not what you wanted out of that. To make things worse, there were a number of large ends scored without the “power play”. And it seems to me that this is going to be the case, because without the “power play” what you usually ended up with was a very crowded button area, and if you manage to get a few convenient misses — and in mixed doubles there are a lot of misses — you can end up with a lot of your rocks crowded and frozen together with no way to move them and no way to bury or freeze a rock to stop them from counting. With the “power play”, however, you can’t pack a lot of rocks under the corner guard without leaving a draw or freeze that can cut down how many rocks of yours will count at the end of it. So it seems to me that its best use is defensive: you put on the “power play” when you really don’t want the other team to steal on you and you want to make sure that you score at least 1. The “power play” draws the play over to the edges, which usually leaves you some kind of shot to get 1 if you need it, and starting with one buried gives you a decent chance to get 2. So it’s a good thing to use like Lawes and Morris tried to use it: in the last end if you are tied or even down by 1 with hammer, since you’ll probably get at least 1 and have a good chance of getting 2, which is all you need. On the other hand, without that “power play” if you are the team that makes the convenient misses you could end up giving up a steal, and potentially a steal of a bunch. So I’m not sure that the “power play” is really doing what they want it to (although it is claimed that it can be used defensively, but most teams use it offensively when they are far behind and need to generate some offense, and it seems like it hampers offense more than helps it).

So, at the end of the day, as this was my first real, concentrated exposure to mixed doubles, what did I think of it? I think it’s … okay. It does have faster moving ends than four-person team curling … but that’s because the teams throw three less rocks. And there’s a lot more scoring in mixed doubles, but that’s only because there are a lot more mistakes in mixed doubles than there is in four-person team curling. The games are shorter which means that if a game starts at 7 pm I can easily watch the whole game before having to go to sleep, but that’s not that much of a benefit for me — although I fear that it’s a big benefit for broadcasters and a lot of other people. In general, I find the games to be far more reactive tactical games than the rock-by-rock tactical games of four-person curling. Play is almost always right around the button and not in the wings at all unless the “power play” is on … and that also happens to be, in my opinion, when the play is most boring. Shots are missed a lot and so there’s a constant readjustment based on the miss they made or the miss you made that they capitalized on. This makes it hard to plan out sequences and play them out, adjusting accordingly but keeping an overall strategy in mind. So to me it loses the thoughtfulness of four-person team curling and replaces it with an “anything can happen!” excitement.

Ultimately, I think I could enjoy watching mixed doubles … but I don’t want to see it replace four-person team curling, which has the elements that I really like and are the elements that get me watching curling in the first place.

Next up are the men’s and women’s four-person team events.

One Response to “Thoughts on Mixed Doubles Curling”

  1. Thoughts on the Canadian Mixed Doubles Championships | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I watched mixed doubles curling in the Olympics last time around, and thought it was okay.  What did I think of it this time?  About the same.  Because of the […]

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