Monthly Archives: February 2014

True North Strong and…Different

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games are officially in the books and well, wow.  Once again Canada has come out of the Winter Games looking like a powerhouse of winter sport.  The accomplishments of our athletes at these games cannot be overstated but we should take a moment and reflect on this phenomenon because you see, it wasn’t always like this.

It’s worth looking back a ways, all the way back to say, the Nagano games in 1998.  In those games we considered ourselves a winter Olympics type country sure but how did we fare?  We won women’s gold in curling and men’s silver.  Six gold medals for our athletes and a total of 15 medals overall.  All in all, this was considered a respectable showing, not amazing and not unduly disappointing.  Four years later in 2002 we had what I’ll call a “similar” showing by capturing 17 medals in total, 7 of them gold.  Nice, nothing spectacular but…respectable.

As Canadians we tend to have a very particular attitude about these things.  We strive for respectability and except for a very few areas, we are rarely inclined to take the risks required to push for something beyond that respectability. We don’t want to step on toes and we don’t want to look bad in our attempts.  Generally, we are satisfied looking “good enough” for the most part.

Fast forward to July 2, 2003.  Suddenly, good enough, isn’t.  On this date Vancouver was awarded the rights to hold the the XXI Olympic Winter games and suddenly, we were going to be hosting the world.  Now, we had done this before.  In 1988 Calgary hosted a very successful Olympics.  Successful in that we didn’t mess anything up.  Canada won a total of 5 medals in Calgary, none of them gold.  Everyone else had a great time, we smiled and waved, thanked them all for coming then moved on.  From a competitive standpoint, we barely showed up.  Privately, this hurt.  It hurt our pride to host the games and barely be there when it came time to hand out medals.

Vancouver had to be different.  This time, as a host nation we weren’t simply going to host the games, no, we were going to show the world what this nation could do.  February 2004 saw an unparalleled meeting of the Canadian sporting minds.  Canada’s 13 winter national sport organizations, Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Sport Canada, WinSport Canada and VANOC all met to develop a plan that would become known as Own the Podium.  The goal was no less than being the top nation at our own Olympic Winter Games in 2010.  We had six years and one Olympic Games to work on our plan and so it was game on.

New approaches to sport in Canada were pushed.  Funding for coaching and athlete development went up to levels never before seen and what did it get us?  In 2006, just two years after the initialization of this project, Canada captured 24 medals in Turino, including our first men’s gold in curling.  Suddenly the nation was awakened.  Seven more medals than we had in the previous Games.  No longer were we seeing the Olympics as a hockey tournament with some added events, no, we saw the games as a stage where we could show the world what Canada was truly made of.  We had shown off our “True”, “North” and “Free” parts long enough, now it was time for the “Strong” to show through.  We discovered something else in Turino.  We discovered as a country, that though we are for the most part comfortable with our image as a congenial people, we also very much enjoyed the image as “winners” and fierce competitors.  We came, we saw, we won and we liked it.

The results from Turino stoked a fire for Canadians.  The country got behind the leadership of the Own the Podium project and we all started to believe that maybe, just maybe, we really could win those Vancouver Olympics.  Funding continued and so did the efforts of coaches and athletes across the nation.  Getting there and looking good wasn’t good enough anymore.  We wanted more.

Vancouver was a triumph for our nation.  We hosted a fantastic event but that wasn’t the sole goal.  We stormed the games.  We won 26 medals with more than half of those (14) gold and we truly showed the world what Canadian strength is.  Still, we were very much in danger of reveling in our own success.  We risked patting ourselves on the back and simply saying, “job complete, well done.”  Within the curling world there was much speculation and consternation about the potential drop in  funding levels post Vancouver.

What we saw however was that Canada as a nation liked success.  We enjoyed being successful and rather than ramping down Own the Podium, we kept it up.  We kept working towards the next opportunity to show what Canada had to offer.  And that’s where the everything changed.  We started out trying to make a big splash at our own Olympics but discovered that we were comfortable in our role as champions and weren’t all that eager to give it up.  More than that, we all truly started to believe in ourselves.  Sochi showed this belief. The vibe from Russia was different, even from Vancouver.  In 2010 we were somewhat surprised at ourselves.  Pleasantly surprised for sure but wow, look what we did.  In Sochi, we expected it more.  We had more faith that our champion athletes would succeed against the best in the world.  In curling, for instance, Jennifer Jones and her rink were the class of the field.  They stormed that tournament.  For the men, I personally fielded any number of questions from friends asking “what was wrong with the men?”.  I found it easy to tell them all to relax, to have faith.  Brad Jacobs was the best we had to offer and our best is THE best.

Post Sochi, things are different.  Canada has swagger.  We have a new belief that we really (honestly) are the best and finally we feel no need to apologize for it.  This country has been on a decade long journey to get here.  What we need to do is recognize how we got here, thank those athletes who put us on top and then get back to work.  The world is going to be coming after us and for the first time in a very long time we’re ready to to say “bring it”.



It WAS My Team…

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?