Inside Curling: Pressure mounts on China to do well in home Olympics

China skip Qiang Zou makes a shot against Sweden at the Men's World Curling Championships in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The 2022 Beijing Winter Games are only 10 months away and the Chinese curling program is feeling the heat heading into their home Olympics.

Broadcast analyst and coach Mike Harris -- who has worked with teams in Switzerland, Scotland and China -- was a guest on the latest episode of the Inside Curling podcast with Kevin Martin and Warren Hansen. Harris discussed the challenges he faced with the higher-ups of the Chinese program when it came to differences in coaching philosophies.

While the Chinese program focused on volume and throwing more rocks in practice, Harris believed that would only take them so far and curling is a far more subtle sport than that to succeed among the elite.

“When you get to the top seven or eight teams in the world, everyone can throw the rock well, everyone can throw the six-second peel, everyone can draw to the button, so it comes down more to the finesse parts of the game including strategy,” Harris said. “Spending time in the classroom is really, really important and seeing how you're supposed to play in certain situations. But again, it's not a black-and-white solution in curling because every end of every game is slightly different. ... It was a hard-fought battle and I'm not 100 per cent sure that they've overcome that in China where the solution still seems to be to throw a lot of rocks.”

Harris has also worked as a golf professional and drew comparisons in the way he coaches curling and that sport where he stresses quality over quantity.

“It’s not important to throw a thousand rocks. What I’d rather have them throw: 10 rocks where we talk about the situation," Harris said. "You’re not just pitching rocks down the sheet. You’re throwing rocks with meaning and I do the same when I was teaching golf. It’s important to have meaningful swings. Make a meaningful swing on the driving range. Don’t just stand up there and hit balls. That really doesn’t do anyone any good.”

He added: “You’re trying to teach them how to react to misses and makes but that’s far easier said than done. Yes, you can watch videotape after videotape of big important games, and hopefully, you do pick up a few things but at the end of the day it's like any sport, you learn far more from your losses in tough situations than from watching it on a video screen.”

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball to the curling season with the majority of fall and winter tour events either cancelled or postponed. A hub city bubble was formed in Calgary for the top events including Canadian and world championships plus two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments.

Having the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier serves as a huge advantage for Canadian teams as they’re “battle-hardened” according to Harris and their champions are then well-prepared to take on the world’s best. Other countries lack that depth and teams are either selected to compete in the worlds or only have a handful of other teams to face for their national championships.

Harris explained the benefit that China has is funding where their athletes are full-time curlers and they can pour their resources into coaching, training and facilities plus travel expenses to send their teams to North America for the entire tour season to compete week after week. Unfortunately, the pandemic threw that plan out the window.

Qiang Zou skipped China in the world men’s curling championship last week and finished at the bottom of the table with a 2-11 record, tied with South Korea and Netherlands but technically last based on draw-to-the-button totals. Next season will be critical not only for the Chinese program but also for the sport with a huge potential reach for curling to grow in a country with 1.4 billion people.

“They would have learned so much playing these top teams and now the whole year’s gone by and their back is going to be against the wall when they come to play in their home Olympics,” Harris said. “They do feel the pressure. ... The athletes are well taken care of, they’re paid for their time and the amount of practise they put in but there’s a huge expectation to perform well, especially at home and I know they’re starting to feel it.”

To listen to the full episode of the Inside Curling podcast, When Worlds Collide, CLICK HERE.

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