Wow, Olympics huh? Our very own Brad Jacobs gets off to a slowish start then like a train rumbles through the field to get to the playoffs. Jennifer Jones, well, what can you say? The first team to go though the round robin at the Olympics undefeated! You have to love the heart both of these teams has shown throughout the qualifying process and the games themselves. Personally, they make me proud to be Canadian. Okay, enough cheerleading (go Teams Canada!!). This entry does stem from that “heart” that our teams have shown and examines a question that isn’t new in curling but does keep coming back over and over.
The “Great Britain” team (um Scotland for those of you who aren’t up on English politics) is composed of five players. The core of the team, that is the vice, second and lead all played with and exceptional skip named Tom Brewster. Tom took that team to two consecutive World Curling Championship finals which in of itself is an amazing feat. The team is relatively young but Tom was able to corral them into a curling force to be reckoned with. If you’ve been following the games and Team Great Britain in particular, you’ll see that Tom is there but he’s mostly sitting on the bench with Great Britain’s Swedish born coach, Soren Gran. The sport federation in Great Britain has decided to use this five man rotation in the games as they think it is the best shot they have at capturing a medal.
This concept of “subbing” in players or rotating them is not popular in Canada however I think it’s time we asked if the concept of the “home grown” team is actually the best model for building championship teams. The United States is in an uproar over their poor showing in curling at these Sochi Olympics and are starting to look at what can be done to improve that. There is some very good thinking going on there that includes questioning the model of the home grown team for championships.
Let’s go back first and understand what I mean by “home grown” teams. As most of us know, in curling, teams are generally formed by the players themselves. This happens in a number of ways but usually they start with players of a like mind from within a club. As they improve they may adjust line ups by casting a wider net towards other clubs or at the highest levels, other provinces. Coaches become involved with teams through a myriad of different ways but in general, teams pick the coaches. Now I love our game but this is a fairly unique situation for a team sport, particularly an Olympic sport. It’s much more common for a sporting association to have coaches ready to choose team members and assemble the teams. It’s much more common in individual sports (such as figure skating) for the athletes to choose their own coach.
As an aside, why is this? I think it’s important to think about that. I think it becomes fairly clear that if two individuals don’t get along then it’s unlikely they’ll function well as a “coach-athlete” pair. Individual competitors then take great care to choose a coach they can work with. Team coaches need a different skill set to balance group dynamics. Curling is a hybrid of these requirements. Because teams are relatively small, curling coaches are like individual coaches that coach teams.
In Canada, our counter argument to the “choose a team” model has always been that it’s impossible to create the team dynamics required to be successful with that method, and yes, we have tried to disastrous results. We say it’s virtually impossible to have a team bond to the extent required, but is this true? First, you have to decide how important this “team bonding” thing is. Curling is a small team sport making it fairly unique (small team meaning only four or five members as opposed to say, a hockey team with 20 members). Each member of this small team have a number of important jobs to do that don’t just require them making shots. They need to work to make their team mates shots as well. There are split second communications that need to be completely understood and executed. There is a level of trust and honesty that is required in order to make good decisions during a game. Can these conditions only be created over a long period of playing together? I’m not so sure.
Now, you’re asking if I’m a proponent of this “All Star” approach to building a curling team. I am not but I’m not saying it can’t work. It’s been my experience as a coach that the greatest impediment to success that most teams face is that of team dynamics. It’s incredibly difficult to find four players who can deal with each other in the heat of battle over and over. It’s not just personalities that get in the way either. Players need to have common goals, common levels of commitment and a common view towards how to achieve those goals in order to get along. If they don’t share this, eventually cracks will form that will negatively affect their on ice performance. IF there was a comprehensive process for getting into the heads of players to really get to the core of their beliefs and attitudes and IF you could find four really good players with similar enough (how similar is enough??) attitudes and IF they were all sufficiently talented and IF you could teach them to communicate effectively in a short amount of time then I do believe you could create an All Star type team that could be successful. I don’t believe there is a process that can do all of this and hence, don’t believe we are ready to implement the All Star process into our sport.
How do other sports do it then? Well, first what sports are we talking about? Let’s take Canada’s second favourite ice sport, hockey. What’s the difference there? There are actually a lot of differences but the biggest is this. In curling, we have one player who basically directs the team throughout the game. This dynamic is very unique in team sports and changes the requirements for the teams and how they work together. In curling, you have a “boss” who is also your teammate. What other sport is like that? In a sport like hockey, you have your positional requirements but any real “direction” comes from the coach. Another difference is something I mentioned before, that being team size. So you don’t like the second line left winger? Whatever, as long as he’s in position when you pass it there, it’s fine. You don’t need to make any decisions together, in fact, you don’t really even need to talk to that player to be successful. Curling is a much more personally interactive team sport.
Another consideration is the amateur nature of curling, and I use the term literally. The US is arguing that you would never let a home grown basketball team compete in the Olympics, so why would you do so in curling? Well, one factor (at least in the US) is that the basketball team is made up of professional players who are doing a job for a lot of money. Professional players of any sport approach the sport as a literal business. We curlers do not and even when money is being made in the sport, we do not yet see our game as a business. Have you ever seen a player “trade” in our sport? Now, that is not to say our curling athletes are not as committed as professional players, it’s only meant to illustrate the difference in attitude towards the sport itself. Players making six figures damn well better do what it takes to win. Amateurs are still doing it primarily for the love of the game.
So, it’s my considered opinion that curling isn’t at the point where we can make “All Star” style teams work at the highest level. The conversation is valuable however and important if we want to push the sport to it’s highest potential. We have a beautiful and unique sport in curling and its worth considering what makes it tick.
Take quick watch….What do you think?