Primer on Curling Strategy & Tactics





Primer on Curling Strategy & Tactics










Graham Sinclair

Frank Van Ryckeghem





Edited by Merv McBride                                                      


Manotick Curling Centre 2023


This guide is an informational piece for new or inexperienced skips in the game of curling, and maybe not a bad reminder for more experienced skips. It talks about basic skipping theory and reviews proven tactics in the game. As you probably already know, curling is a relatively easy game to learn but difficult to master. Learning delivery and sweeping techniques is ground zero and essential to winning games. However, there is another aspect of the game which requires some attention. The entire team should understand the strategies and tactics in “calling shots” that the skip is responsible for, but it is essential for the skip. On the theory that none of us is born with an innate knowledge of curling (or life for that matter) and the fact that we have welcomed many new members into the club through the Learn to Curl programs over the last few years, this guide is intended to help you learn the successful strategies and tactics that have been proven over the years and generally accepted as sound. The traditional method of learning the game is to join a team with a grizzled old skip and observe his or her wily ways until you feel confident enough to try skipping yourself. That may not work if the supply of experienced skips is low. This primer is no substitute for years of experience but it may help with understanding the game if an experienced mentor is not readily available. This primer is intended for a “club” level team, not for the elite curlers that you see on television. Theirs is a different world, which most of us will never participate in. So, assuming that you have that rock-solid slide and silky, pure, release point under control you may want to take a few minutes to gain or refresh your understanding of why some shot calls are a good idea and why some are not.

About the Authors

The information gathered here is the work of two people some of you may know. Several years ago the then Curling Operations Director of the club, Tersh Doe, was looking to extend the teaching of the Learn to Curl program. He asked one of our most experienced and successful skips, Frank Van Ryckeghem, to put together a Basic Strategy guide for some of the newer skips in the club. Frank’s observations and comments are included here.

In November 2018, Graham Sinclair delivered a PowerPoint presentation on Advanced Strategies at a well-attended seminar at the club. Those who had the opportunity to attend learned a great deal about how the game could be played successfully. Graham has a wealth of experience at the elite level of curling. His insights are here for the adoptive skip to use.

This edition of ongoing education, Primer on Curling Strategy & Tactics, is a summary of Graham’s and Frank’s collected wisdom. Their advice has been collated and edited in a new, different format for the members of the Manotick Curling Centre. The goal is to help you pick up, or rekindle ideas and to help you be more successful while increasing your enjoyment.

As editor of this Primer on Curling Strategy & Tactics, I accept responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations in the text. Regrettably, neither Graham, Frank nor myself accept responsibility for the success or failure of your on-ice play.



Styles of Play - Strategic

You have choices in your approach to the game which can change throughout the match and depend on the situation you face. You may start with a Probing style but switch to either Defensive or Offensive styles if things do not go as planned – do they ever?

Aggressive or Offensive Style

  • Includes lots of draws, come-around shots, freezes, centerline guards
  • There are lots of complicated situations with many rocks in play
  • Shot-making is imperative. Finesse shots will be required.
  • This style will present opportunities to score multiple points or give up multiple.
  • It may be a good strategy against weaker opponents
  • For the team with the hammer, the corner guard can be an offensive weapon to build an end for a multiple score.
  • Aggressive play is more frequently used if in catch-up mode, especially in later ends
  • It is riskier, it can backfire! It is not for the weak of heart!

Conservative or Defensive Style

  • In a defensive style, you may draw into the four-foot without the hammer; or draw to the wings of the house, with the hammer
  • There are more takeouts and throwing into the rings with no cover
  • Think open and simple game
  • Often used if playing a more skilled team or if ahead on the scoreboard.
  • This style is not recommended if you are behind by several points. In that case, any guard regardless of colour is your friend.
  • This style is easier to execute and will likely result in lower-scoring games.
  • Difficult ice conditions may dictate a defensive style.

Probing Style

  • This is the middle ground between Aggressive and Defensive styles
  • Flexibility is the idea here: be patient and adapt to the situation. Be prepared to accept some risk when opportunities present themselves.
  • Probing style can be the best of both worlds but it does require that your team can throw all the shots. It involves waiting for the right opportunities.
  • The probing style is more defensive without the hammer and more offensive with the hammer.

All of these strategies can be the right strategy depending on your team and your opposition’s skill level, the score, the end, where the hammer is, the ice condition and the number of rocks remaining. Lots to think about! A skip should never go to sleep in the house.

All strategy is subject to the execution of the shots. If your team, or you, can not make a shot reliably it may be best to consider a shot that you can make. Elite players put in a lot more practice hours than we do.

Putting it into Practice – Tactics

You have decided how you would like to play an end or a game. Now it’s time to throw some rocks and win the end. You are faced with many options. How to choose? – well let’s break it down a little.

Free Guard Zone (FGZ)

  • An opposition rock can not be removed from play until the 6th rock of an end is thrown
  • That opposition stone can be moved to one side by throwing your rock to “tick” one side of it. This is a difficult shot but the reward is high if you succeed in establishing two corner guards instead of one center guard, assuming you have the hammer.
  • You may promote the opposition stone into the house where it can be removed on your subsequent shots.
  • An opposition stone in the FGZ can be run back into a stone in the house, as long as the FGZ stone does not leave play. A rock that is struck in the house is “fair game”.
  • A stone of your own which is in the FGZ in a position not favourable to your strategy can be removed. This is often a good idea in the late ends when you are trying to protect a lead but the early stones act as guards (for both teams).
  • The FGZ is used to score points. Corner guards provide cover to go around if you have the hammer while keeping the centre ice open. With the hammer, and if things haven’t gone as you would like, you will want the centre ice unobstructed to draw the four-foot with your last rock and save the end. Be very careful about going around a corner guard if you do not have the last rock. That is where your opposition wants you to play and clearly to their advantage.
  • Without the hammer, try to establish FGZ rocks on the centre line. This reduces the size of the scoring area for the hammer team, making that last draw more difficult. It may also provide an opportunity to bury one on the four-foot where the hammer team can not get at it.
  • The aggressive play is to go around an opposition centre guard instead of setting up a corner guard if you have the last rock. This will probably make things “messy” so be prepared, but it does put the pressure where you want it – on them!
  • Where, exactly, those FGZ rocks are is important! A close centre guard is more useful at closing down the scoring area than a long guard. A corner guard outside the eight-foot is less likely to guard a scoring rock than one covering the eight-foot.

Play the End You Are In

  • Generally speaking, ends 1 & 2 should be more defensive while you learn the ice and your opponent's capabilities. The mid-ends can be conservative or defensive – what did you learn? In 6 & 7 position yourself to win the game and finish it off in the 8th.
  • Defensive play is called for if you are up in score by 3 or more in mid-ends or positioning your team in later ends.
  • More offence will be required if you are down by 3. It is important to score in the next end after giving up a big end. Even a score of one with the hammer can keep your team “in the game”.
  • If the game is close a more probing approach while waiting for opportunity is the best course.

Who has the last rock?

  • With the last rock, you should try to keep the centre of the ice open to allow yourself to score if your other tactics have not worked out. You can afford to take more risk and use corner guards or opposition rocks behind the tee (freezes), with the hammer.
  • Without the last rock, you want to play in the centre of the ice to either steal a point or force the opposition to score only one point. Reducing the size of the scoring area increases the probability of forcing your opposition to one point.
  • Occupying the control zone in front of the house and the top 12-foot with your rocks will increase your options when things get sticky. If the control zone is occupied by opposition rocks, they have options. Sometimes replacing an opposition guard with one of your own avoids the opposition's tap back.

Assessing Ability

  • Realistically assessing the ability of your players will help you to play shots with more success. We can not all make the fabulous shots of elite curlers. Think in terms of which turn my player throws best or is this the right place for the broom for my player’s comfortable hit weight.
  • Also, assess the other teams' strengths and weaknesses. Is there a turn they prefer or a quirk in the ice they don’t seem to recognize?

Ice Conditions

  • The skip must be attentive to all rocks thrown by both teams to learn the characteristics of the ice. Pay attention to the line, weight, and release of the player. Call ice at the tee line – moving forward or back from the tee line changes the target. A big advantage of calling from the tee is that it acts as a ruler allowing you to measure how much it is curling and also make sit easy to remember how much ice you took on previous shots.
  • Ice that is running straight favours freeze shots, runbacks, and tap-back shots. Swingy ice favours come around shots.
  • Ice conditions can change during a game with later ends being slower and/or more swingy.

How many rocks are left?

  • If the end is not shaping up in your favour, consider the “bailout shot” to limit the damage. The bailout shot is normally an up-weight shot to remove multiple guards and open up the center to give the team with the hammer an opportunity to score at least one point. This change in tactics mid-way through an end is sometimes the most prudent thing to do. Avoid the big end by the other team.
  • Consider the setup shot. You do not always have to be shot rock. This is often a corner freeze or placing a rock in the control zone in front of the house to be used later.
  • Always be thinking – Do I have the last rock? What’s the score?

A Word About Risk

  • Often there is more than one option for a shot
  • The best shot might not always be the “right” shot
  • Think 3 shots ahead. If we make this shot, what will they do, and what will that leave us?
  • Consider which shot has a more acceptable plan B
  • Do a risk analysis. What if we are light, heavy, wide, or narrow? What could go wrong? What would be acceptable (Plan B)?
  • You will need to consider the level of difficulty as well. Do we know the ice? Have we played the shot before? Are we confident we can make this shot?
  • The score will often dictate the acceptable level of risk. Consider all the options, if the best 2 options achieve the objective – Pick the easiest one!


What Should I do with the First Rock of an End?

  • Without the hammer

o   Down in score – throw a center guard

o   Up in score – draw the four foot

  • With the hammer

o   Down in score – throw a corner guard

o   Up in score – hit an opposition rock or draw in the house to the wing

Let’s wrap this up

So there you have it…a basic approach to curling strategy and tactics. Of course, there is more than one way to make this work and you will find your way to be innovative. There is much more to discuss as the competition gets tougher and the tactics become more advanced but that is not the mandate for this primer. Using the strategies and tactics above should help in planning and executing a successful game. We hope that making use of some or all of these methods and maneuvers will improve your skipping skills and enjoyment of the game. Good Curling!



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