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Data analytics sweeps into the curling arena

Ontario Skip Rachel Homan talks with third Emma Miskew as they take on Manitoba during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The coach of Rachel Homan's curling team is a clinical psychology student who believes in the power of numbers.

When Ontario is on the ice at the Canadian women's curling championship, Adam Kingsbury is perched on the coach's bench at the home end with spreadsheets on a laptop in front of him.

Data analytics in sport, popularized by the baseball book "Moneyball", have infiltrated curling. The philosophy is large swaths of numbers can be crunched in a myriad of ways to build projection models.

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"I believe that our gut and our intuition often lie to us and will tell us things about a moment or a situation that's not always true," Kingsbury said. "When we collect multiple observations about what's happening out there, there's a lot of interesting things that we can do with the power of numbers to better inform decision-making."

So Kingsbury's role is less about giving advice to Homan on 'What shot shall we try here?' and more about extrapolating from data the information to help her make that decision.

"Adam is kind of pushing a different envelope and working on the mental side of the game," Homan explained. "He's tracking things for us, making sure we're ready and getting as much information as he can."

Curling is tailor-made for analytics. There is a sea of statistics easily accessed online and stats have become more sophisticated over the years.

At this year's Scotties Tournament of Hearts, for example, one can see on Curling Canada's website that Homan was 82 per cent successful throwing 15 raise takeouts using an in-turn in the preliminary round.

Having someone crunch numbers to determine your team's strengths and weaknesses, and also the opposition's, can be a valuable tool in a game.

Lead Lisa Weagle said Kingsbury provided each member of the team with a scouting report on themselves halfway through this season.

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"When we were looking at our gap analysis, we needed a guy like Adam," Weagle said.

Also, if the data indicates someone on the opposing team isn't strong on a particular shot, why not force to her play it, if that is an option?

"When you notice that there is a 15, 16, 17 per cent difference between certain turns, that might tell you something," Kingsbury said.

But his analysis also incorporates elements that might not seem obviously measurable.

"With data, you are limited only by the questions that you ask," he said. "What happens when you play two games and you have to play the very next morning and you've only had four hours of sleep? What happens when you forget to eat a proper meal?

"Data will help us see if the things we're trying to work on are actually working."

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A PhD student at the University of Ottawa, Kingsbury's thesis is on fine-motor skill performance under pressure with putting in golf as his subject.

He plays in three curling leagues because "I am absolutely in love with this game."

Kingsbury's education makes him adept at asking questions to gather data. He points out his role is not that of a team sports psychologist.

"I'm here as a coach who has a fascination with data and performance landscape in general," he said. "The training you receive in applied psychology is heavily involved with learning how to do behavioural analytics.

"All you need is a spreadsheet and asking the right questions."

Both Kingsbury and Homan's team see analytics as a useful tool, but also say it can't compensate for weaknesses in relationships and fitness, which are crucial to winning titles.

"There's still an art to curling," Weagle said. "It's not all about science and math.

"If you play well and you go out and make your shots and you take care of your jobs, more often than not you're going to come out on top on the scoreboard."

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