I know plenty of curlers who, when asked by someone what the sport of curling is like to play, will answer, “It rocks.” (Yes, these people exist, and I love them. Don’t act like you’ve never made a terrible curling pun before.)
Similarly, there’s a bit of a running joke amongst my nerd-friends and I who love playing tabletop role-playing games (RPGs): we apply phrases from our game to real life situations. (i.e. – “I figured out how make the VCR stop flashing twelve: plus-five to ‘Cunning’.” “Who still has a VCR?” “I command you to Silence!”)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with RPGs: basically, each player creates a fictional character to portray that exists in a fictional fantasy or sci-fi world. They will then, with their friends, go on quests or missions; the entire time role-playing ‘in-character.’ To keep the game fair, all characters have Stat Sheets that outline to the players what each character is or isn’t capable of doing.
All new players start out at the same basic level, and have to assign points to their “stats.” For example, if you wish play a warrior, you might give extra points to your character’s “attack” or “defense” stats. If you want to play a rogue or a thief, you’d throw those points into the “Cunning,” “Agility,” or even “Lockpicking” stats, and so on and so forth. As the game progresses, players often achieve goals that “Level Up” their character (moving from Level 1 to Level 2, etc.), where more points are earned to be applied to these varying stats. The higher the level, the more points earned, and therefore the stronger the character.
I have friends who have started to hit the gym who view their weightlifting progress in these completely nerdy (and/or geeky) terms. “I started out only being able to bench 75 pounds. After Leveling Up a few times, I’m now benching 125.”
Within most RPG games, once higher levels are achieved and varying stats are increased, they can never be decreased until the character dies. That’s what makes the joke work.
As anyone who has ever objectively started a career, hobby, or passion knows: this is not the case in real life. If it were, adages like “two steps forward, one step back” wouldn’t exist because none of our learned skills would ever degrade over time without constant maintenance, practice, or care. And yet, there is something motivating and appropriately analogous to measuring life in terms of “Leveling Up.”
It breaks down the steps of progression into smaller, more attainable blocks. Using it allows someone to turn a seemingly-impossible goal into a slow progression of achievement. It celebrates the little victories along the way, while refusing to view minor setbacks as “total losses.” But where the analogy lacks is that, unlike in an RPG, real people don’t often start the same hobby at the same skill level, nor progress at the same rate.
Take curling, for example (which is apropos, given that this a blog for Windy City Curling). Everyone (more or less) starts out curling at a Learn2Curl, where they are taught how the game is played. But rather than getting to assign their own stat points to various skills and abilities within the sport, life has taken the summation of their existence so far and already done that for them. Some people begin with better “Balance” than others, while some come into the sport with a pretty solid “Sweeping” rating, others have a solid “Cunning” rating and pick up the “Strategy” better. The kicker is that the exact abilities of any given player are not definitively quantifiable, nor are they ever constant.
For the players that survive the tutorial into actually joining a club to continue on with Curling, more observations will be made to define in which stats we need more effort or focus. Some of us will realize we need to work on our “Posture,” others “Weight Control,” and others… well, any number of other stats you can think of. And as we improve and consistently work on our abilities, we will see progress.
But, as I said, just because a stat or ability increases, it isn’t automatically retained for life. In fact, it’s a constant struggle to even ourselves out across the board. When one goes up, another might dip down. As we focus on “Weight Control,” we may actually focus on this so much that we neglect our “Line of Delivery,” which may suffer. That’s normal.
Luckily for most of us, these stats never go down so much that they’ll completely wither away into oblivion. Sure, we may have a moment’s worry of, “I never used to struggle with my line until I changed how I come out of the hack when I was focusing on my weight…” but this is often followed with, “So how do I fix my line with my new delivery technique WHILE still retaining weight control?” As we progress forward in search of an answer to this question, eventually a connection is made, our game improves, and we “Level Up.”
But that’s the technical side of the game.
I’ve done a lot of reading on the sport of Curling. (More than I care to admit, I say with humor.) And yet, in all of my research and asking around, I noticed a trend: everything put into print about this incredible sport of ours – with rare exception – fell primarily into two categories: 1.) Literature on the “Curling Greats” who changed the face of the game with performances at a pinnacle of the sport in whatever point in time they played, or 2.) Knowledge and advice for people who were ABSOLUTE newbies to the sport (aka – this).
There’s a third category that is, in my humble opinion, sorely lacking: 3.) Moving past the ‘Newbie Gains’ into the realm of ‘Mid-Gainer’ (if I may steal a few terms from weightlifting – which, no, I do not do).
Allow me to explain in RPG analogy: All Curlers begin somewhere in the Level 1-5 range of overall skill. The game is new and exciting. There’s a whole world of possibilities just waiting to be explored. As the beginners get the absolute basics of the sport down pat, their natural talent allows them to quickly “Level Up” into the Level 6-10 range as being able to consistently make simple draws, guards, and hits settle into the body. Before long, they’re in Levels 11-14 as they understand the concepts of why Skips are picking their shots. They’re getting a natural sense of when they need to sweep or not sweep – without even needing to hear the call.
But then something happens.
All the while they’ve been flying up through the ranks, having fun, and getting better, they’ve also been talking to players who’ve been around for a few years, or watching international curling matches streamed on YouTube, or whatever the case may be. And then, right around Level 15, a revelation: they understand the scope of the complex skill and intricacy that exists in this sport. Something ‘clicks’ and they can intellectually ‘see’ the level of finesse required. Not only that, they realize they have the potential to achieve that skill and finesse. They may only be a Level 15, but the distance from where they are to where they want to be seems much more quantifiable – even if that endgame is Level 100.
Then, another revelation: “I have no idea how to get myself there.” And right there is where a wall exists. (At least, there is for me.)
As a player, I’ve recently realized that while my Natural Talent has carried me this far, this is as far as that train goes. I’m at the end of that line; dropped off at a junction where my next options are either, 1.) happily staying place in Casual Curler City, 2.) getting frustrated, giving up, and taking a return trip back to Normal Life on the Quitters Express, or 3.) progressing forward to who-knows-what on the slow-moving Hard Work Highway.
Where skills and levels were once gained quickly, suddenly the gap between Level 15 and Level 16 seems more like a pole vault instead of a hop, a skip, or a jump.
Not only that, but here’s where I have found further frustration and discouragement: When I was a Level 1 watching the Olympians, I just tended to view what they could do as something on a higher plane of existence far beyond anything I could ever achieve. There was no way I could quantify their skills because I lacked the vocabulary and experience to do so. Now that I feel I’m sitting around Level 15, I have enough knowledge in my head to know that those elites aren’t on a higher plane; they’re traveling around in the exact same world I am. They’ve just been doing it so much longer, and traveled far and wide on countless quests and missions, that their stats and abilities place them at that 100th Level. And what once was a great big world of possibility for me now seems like an overwhelmingly large landscape too vast and wide to ever fully explore or visit.
I mean, if the experience gap between Level 15 and Level 16 is a pole vault, the gap between Level 15 and Level 100 feels like the Grand Canyon. You can see the other side, which is where you want to be, but how do you build a bridge over the Grand Canyon? When viewed with this perspective, to say, “It’s humbling,” is putting it mildly.
And yet – for as small as I feel – I feel as equally (if not, more) encouraged to keep going. How? Because those Level 100’s that I once thought played this sport on a higher plane I realize now throw stones in same world I do. Sure, I may not know any of them personally, but I do know quite a number of other higher-level players solidly sitting anywhere from Level 30 to Level 70. And those folks have been there for me this entire time, always offering their advice, their wisdom and their encouragement. I trust that wisdom because they all had to get there the same way I will: Hard Work, Practice, and Dedication. And let’s be honest: these things are really easy to put in when your passion for something is strong.
Not only that, I get to play with some incredible fellow curlers who are in the same place as I; Comrades-in-Brooms to share in the adventure who inspire me as I watch their progress and improvement week-after-week. Yes, getting to where I want to be may seem like a Grand Canyon’s width away – but at least I can now see the other side. Where there once was a false self-imposed planar separation, there now exists only a distance I feel I can progressively reach. Sure, I don’t know how to build that bridge yet, but I know enough things now to feel like I – or any one of us – can.
And who knows? Perhaps one day one of us, too, will be over there with those elites. Until that day, I’m going to keep practicing – building my bridge one piece/one Level at a time. And as I figure things out, put two-and-two together, or even have a new suggestion to try, I’ll jot it all down in this blog – from one beginner to another.
Because I have only found one author so far who, like me, has made an attempt to fill this vacant information gap: Gabrielle Coleman. Having written two incredible books, Break Through Beginner Curling and Introduction to Curling Strategy, Gabrielle has done a fantastic job of taking her personal experiences and converting them into as much practical curling knowledge for the Beginner-Shooting-to-Become-an-Intermediate as anything I’ve ever read. I highly recommend them.
And yet, despite what has clearly been an exhaustive and impressive effort on her part, with the rate that the sport of Curling is growing (especially here in the United States), it’s not enough. There are too many of us at this stage in our game, and we all learn in too many different ways for just these two books to be a catch-all solution. For the number of experienced Level 30+ players out there in the Curling World, how multiple plans-of-attack designed to help Teen-Leveled players move into the Level 20’s don’t already exist is surprising to me.
So I’m offering a challenge to anyone out there reading this blog who may be higher up in their game than I: Help us.
I hear all the time that Curling is growing. The Olympics are driving the number of participants of this sport through the roof. New clubs (be they paper, arena, or dedicated) are popping up all over the place. The USCA is implementing a High Performance Training Program to hunt down players with potential and then hopefully hone their skills enough to make them the next wave of Level 100’s by the time the South Korea Winter Games roll around. Everyone wants to keep this snowball rolling and growing. All of this is fantastic!
But now that you have us first- and second-year curlers hooked on your awesome sport, we need more than baseline introductory guides and details on the “greats” we hope to possibly one day be. Heck, even if our goal is simply to enjoy League Night and not be the weak link on the team, there’s no means out there for us to find that will help guide us to that end.
So to you Level 30-and-Above players out there, we need you to remember the struggles you faced back in your past – technical, strategical, emotional… it doesn’t matter what – and we need you to articulate how you moved past them. Then share that with us in a guiding and advisory way. You were us once. You knew as little then as we do now. The difference? You acquired wisdom. Sure, you may not have all of the answers (Lord knows I sure don’t), but I’m willing to bet that you have enough to help. I would love to know what those answers are, and something tells me I’m not the only one.
(Eric Reithel is a resident blogger for Windy City Curling who, because he is a teenager in Curling Skill Level and maturity, prints out inspirational quotes and song lyrics that he hangs on his wall at work for motivation – much to the chagrin of his employer. You can ask him what they are, or anything else for that matter, on Twitter at @TheCraftyCurler.)