Corporate curling team-building landing right on the button in California

Jose Alcala calls a shot while curling at a Google Play team-building event in San Jose, Calif.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Jay Diamond’s outlandish version of curling history starts in the year 1237 with the tale of Angus McCurling, the Scottish laird who dispatched his men to kick granite rocks across Loch Curling toward an invading force, before beating them down with brooms.

“So curling,” Mr. Diamond tells a group of nervous Google engineers assembled before him at an arena in San Jose, Calif., “was born on a loch of blood. And that is the game you will all be playing today.”

It hardly needs to be stated that none of this is true. But it makes for a stirring, if silly, introduction to a sport none of the Google GOOGL-Q workers have ever played. One recognizes curling primarily from an episode of The Simpsons. Another is about to step foot on ice for the first time. Several came expecting to strap on skates, or even skis.

Over the next two hours, though, local curlers – paid in bar chits – will guide them through the basics of sliding, spinning, releasing, sweeping and, for some, skipping.

“You’re all going to be pros,” Mr. Diamond promises.

Across the U.S., and in particular the southern states, Canada’s beer-league pastime has become a sought-after activity for companies seeking different team-building exercises. In California, that’s Apple, Meta, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco and any other number of small startups. In Florida, it’s Disney, Universal Studios and small accountancies.

Jay Diamond leads curling lessons for companies seeking different team-building exercises.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Search for “unusual corporate team-building event and somehow Google pulls up the Orlando Curling Club,” said Jim Windsor, its president. When the Florida club was launched, it followed advice from other U.S. curlers that corporate events are a must to bring in funds.

Ice time is expensive, particularly in southern states. The Sharks Ice San Jose facility charges US$1,080 for two hours on a hockey rink with uneven topography. The Silicon Valley Curling Club, where Mr. Diamond is an instructor, regularly surveys it with laser tools, creating maps that show the rises and dips – a half-inch down here, up three-eighths there. On the centre curling sheet the stone usually has to “ride the ridge” down the middle to have any chance of hitting the button.

Every San Jose curling session starts with someone spraying water over the sheets to create a quick pebbling. Rocks are stored in a meat freezer installed rink-side – a major upgrade from the days when they were chilled atop piles of snow left by the Zamboni, whose drivers the club beseeches to even out the ice.

That kind of effort hasn’t slowed curling’s ascent. USA Curling counts a growth in active curlers to 25,000 from 16,000 over the past decade. Among the new San Jose recruits is Jaclyn Pytlarz, a rock climber, runner and soccer player who raced cars in college but was looking for an activity that engaged brain and body.

“I liked that it was a lot of strategy. I didn’t totally realize how difficult it would actually be,” said Ms. Pytlarz, who works as an algorithm engineer. At a learn-to-curl event, she watched the first person in line face-plant on the ice and thought to herself: “Oh, my God. I’m going to die.” She now curls alongside Kenneth Doan, a former member of the U.S. national team for tae kwon do. “I really like to do some things as a joke,” he said. “But then they hang on.”

A group of Google Play engineers curls at Sharks Ice San Jose during a corporate team-building event.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Both of them took a quick shine to curling – and its regimen of postgame beers: Winner buys the first round, loser the second.

Ms. Pytlarz has already helped to teach one corporate event, to a farming equipment tech company. “They were so into it,” she said.

Mr. Diamond, an electrical engineer originally from Winnipeg, takes particular joy in watching corporate employees sweat as they learn to sweep. ”They all think it’s light housekeeping,” he said. “I break those people.”

Included in that group are some of the Google engineers, all of whom work on the company’s Play store. Their previous team-building events have included crafting ukuleles, making pottery and drinking boba tea. None delivered the heart rate of a vigorous curling sweep. “I don’t exert myself this much in the gym,” said Jose Alcala, a software engineer. He wiped away sweat and watched his colleagues, some crashing to the ice after slipping, others ending their slides with crumbling pirouettes.

For the Google engineers learning to curl, the sport’s synchronization of balance, physics and strategy can be a challenge for Silicon Valley types accustomed to excelling.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Team-building should “loosen you up,” Mr. Alcala said. It’s all about “not being scared to have fun. Looking silly is definitely a component of it.”

So is a bit of competition, a dynamic that is otherwise frowned upon at the tech company. “Google is super big on collaboration, teamwork,” said Si Si Lee-Warner, the senior program manager who arranged for the afternoon of curling. But “friendly competition is nice, I think, sometimes.”

Curling’s delicate synchronization of balance, physics and strategy can pose a particular challenge for Silicon Valley types accustomed to excelling. Geoff Huang is part of the Google chess club, whose ranks include national and international masters. Chess on ice offered a very different set of competitive concerns, as Mr. Huang discovered by his third tumble. “I feel the burden of the whole company resting on my shoulders,” he said with a laugh.

Curlers who work with corporate groups can muster a detailed explanation of the sport’s relevance to the office. To curl well is to navigate a frozen Heisenberg uncertainty principle of differential information – the skip and thrower can better perceive a stone’s line, while sweepers enjoy a superior vantage on its weight. A skip must be adept at formulating and then abandoning strategies as an imperfectly thrown stone slides its way toward a destination that may be unplanned. The rest of the team must decide whether they trust the skip.

And there are other parallels.

“If you’re going to have somebody fail to achieve the shot, you want it to fail well,” said David Steele, a project manager who left Ottawa for California, where he is now vice-president of the Silicon Valley Curling Club. “Some people are like, that’s a lesson in business.”

For those on their first outing, reality is less elegant. Curling is “weird” for beginners, said software engineer Saras Gupta, who described the difficulty of conceiving any kind of strategy when most shots run wild.

“It does matter a lot, being able to aim and get the other person out,” Mr. Gupta said. “And I think that requires a lot more skill than doing it for one day.”