Ryan King sweeping away curling myths as GB go in pursuit of gold
The popular notion of the sport may be that it's a simple matter of sliding a round stone down an ice rink, but at the top level it's a lot more complex than that. To slide the stone accurately down the rink, to do so time after time under pressure and to get your tactics right as well, requires a lot more than just a little bit of practice.
Which is where King comes in. A full-time strength and conditioning coach with the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, he can apply his knowledge to any sporting activity, but of late has been hard at work with both Great Britain teams.
In tandem with other coaches from the Institute, he has planned a comprehensive programme designed to ensure that Eve Muirhead, David Murdoch and their colleagues have every chance of bringing back gold from Vancouver, where the Winter Olympics begin today. "The misconception is that it's a sport for the sedentary," King explains. "And it totally isn't. We work with physiologists and physiotherapists on our programme to help us understand what it actually is to deliver a stone and then chase it, sweeping. Then when they stop sweeping they need to recover quickly because they might be throwing the next stone."
The basic idea behind the programme is that the physically fitter our curlers are, the more accurately they will be able to perform, and the more able they will be mentally, too. With around three hours a day playing time in Olympic competition, any physical weaknesses soon become apparent.
With an appropriately tailored schedule of gym work, every member of the squad can minimise those weaknesses. "Look at someone who doesn't train," King suggests.
"As they deliver the stone the coaches talk about them wobbling. As they get stronger you're hoping they maintain better posture throughout the delivery.
"To win a gold medal in a curling competition you'll be playing maybe a one-and-a-half-hour game, twice a day, for eight to 11 days. The better aerobically trained you are, the better you will be at making those hard shots and the right decisions at the end of competitions.
"So the players need good aerobic fitness. If they don't have that they will tire more quickly and are less likely to make the right decisions.
"On top of that, more so on the girls' programme, some of them struggle with some of the heavier hits through the house. They need to be strong through the legs to deliver – that gives them more stability as they slide.
"The tonnage the guys lift is greater because they're stronger. At the moment the girls probably have a greater need to increase their basic strength so that their stability and their ability to play harder shots is better. And we want to help them with their sweeping ability so they can sweep their last stone as well as they do the first."
With the sport having had its origin in rural communities, many curlers have traditionally been pretty fit thanks to the physical labour they perform. If he has that strong background to build on, so much the better, King reasons. If not, he knows how to rectify the situation.
"Coach David Hay firmly believes that the physical labour curlers have tended to do historically means they have been quite physically robust. Where there's a deficit we address that, and when curlers become more robust they pick up fewer injuries because they're stronger."
For King and his colleagues the real test is about to come, but they have faith in what they have done so far, and have seen no evidence that other countries have prepared their teams any better. "The programme was planned two years ago and we're coming to the fruits of all the work we've done," he explains.
As a sports scientist, he is accustomed to reading papers outlining the latest specialised work in whichever field he is currently engaged in. What fascinated him when he began looking for reading material about curling was the lack of such papers, which meant that he and his colleagues have in essence drawn up their programme from scratch.
"We're fairly confident that in curling we're ahead of the curve," he says. "There's no research in curling. When I started the programme I looked at the literature. There was nothing.
"Everything you're doing is actually pretty front-edge. It's exciting for the future."