Hear more about this subject and other curling topics from Jonathan Havercroft on Rocks Across the Pond: A Curling Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and TuneIn
With the curling offseason comes the time of year when most curlers begin to think about their plans for next season. For the professional curlers – especially in Canada – the major team shakeups happened months ago. Curling at the elite level is now driven entirely by the Olympics, and so most elite teams form for a four-year cycle. As soon as their Olympic run ends – whether it is when they fail to make the trials, are eliminated at the trials, or on the podium in Pyeongchang – the teams then turn to the conversation about “what do we want to do now?”
For some, the team breaks up entirely and each player goes his or her own way. For others, they do a slight reshuffle – changing one or two players – with the goal of reloading for another Olympic run. Finally, some teams decide to stand pat, thinking it is better to stick with a team that you know rather than go hunting for better options.
The process is a fascinating. And in the age of social media it is a lot easier to keep track of who has moved where. The Curling Geek has even put together a handy curling free agent tracker for the top 20 or so teams in Canada.
But what about team changes and team formation for the rest us? What should the club or competitive curler keep in mind when putting together a team for the next season? In a certain sense the process is very similar for the grassroots curlers as it is for the pros.
1. Begin with the end in mind
The Dutch national coach once defined a curling team for me as “four individuals coming together to achieve a common goal.” I love that definition because it communicates so much in eight words. Many people just play with the first person who asks them, and then have a miserable season because the players haven’t talked about what they want to achieve, what the expectations are in terms of commitment, and how they want to achieve that goal.
The goal could be a very simple one. “We just want to have fun on Tuesday night, have a drink after the game, and maybe enter the local funspiel in March.” But I’ve seen lots of beer league teams torn apart when one player has ambitions to practice and try to win the league, and the other players are not interested I doing much more than have fun for two hours once a week. So the first step is to think through what your goal is for the season, and then find out who in you club has similar ambitions. When forming the team everyone should sit down and agree on three things:
a. What is the team trying to accomplish? Is it just for fun? If so is everyone comfortable going 3 – 17 that season? Is it to “get better?” If so, is everyone willing to put in extra work to “get better?” Is it to win something (a league, a bonspiel, a playdown, a national championship)? If so, what are the expectations from the team both on and off the ice?
b. What is everyone’s commitment level? If one player wants to practice four times a week, enter eight bonspiels and hire a personal trainer to work out five times a week while the three other players might want to enter one or two spiels, maybe practice when they can get the time, and drink beer all summer, I guarantee that team will not last long. The team has to agree on: a) what events are we going to play in; b) what are the practice expectations; c) what other things are we going to do as a team.
c. What is the team’s expiry date? Most people don’t want to talk about when a team is going to end, but I believe every team should agree on a date when they will sit down and decide what they are going to do. If you are forming a competitive team in order to enter a playdown process then the natural end point is when you are eliminated in that process (or win, but keep in mind that only one team on the planet is going to finish the year a winner in each playdown process).
Once you agree on the end point, you should agree on two other things. First, it is unethical to change teams once you have committed to a team for a process. Second, if at the end of the playdown process someone wants to leave and join a new team, nobody should hold a grudge against that player for deciding to move on to a new team. Having an expiry date for a team makes it clear when players can decide to move on and also makes it clear when players should not move on.
2. “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.”
The movie Miracle is about the 1980 gold medal winning USA Men’s Hockey Team. There is a scene early in the movie where the team coach, Herb Brooks, is assembling the roster, and one of his assistants complains that Brooks is leaving some of the best players off the team. Brooks replies that he wants the right players, not the best players.
Too often people form teams simply by trying to grab the four best players available. But there is so much more that goes into a team that just talent. At the outset a team should think about who is going to play where. To my mind the two most difficult positions to fill on a team are the skip and the lead.
Good skips take many curling seasons to develop. So if a team is forming with a new person in the house, the whole team has to be comfortable with the skip developing as both a game caller, and a last rock thrower. Leads are often the last person that most new teams think about, but in many ways good leads are as hard to find as good skips.
When the TSN Skins game was doing the all-star draft format, Ben Hebert was often the first player picked. That’s because the four things a great lead must have (excellent weight control, excellent strength and fitness to brush effectively, excellent weight judgment, and a team first mentality) is a very rare combination.
The other two positions also matter. A third has to be a great communicator, as the third is often the bridge between the skip and the front end. A second has to be a great shot maker, and a great sweeper.
In the ideal world a team would find the best positional player for each spot on the team, and everyone would get along. But in the real world, especially at the grassroots level, a team’s choices may be a lot narrower. If that is the case, when choosing teammates I think you should ask yourself two questions.
What is a player’s strengths? It is easy to focus on a club level player’s weaknesses, but if you can clearly identify what a player is good at, and then decide how the team can use that, then you are halfway to a good team.
Second, what is a player’s attitude? It is a lot easier to fix a player’s delivery than it is to fix a player’s attitude. It is far better off to choose a player with a good attitude that you will get along with, than to choose a player with a great delivery but you know you will end up hating by the end of the season.
3. Keep the Team Dynamics Wheel in Mind
The Canadian curling coach Bill Tschirhart has a concept that he calls the “team dynamics wheel.” In his experience, curling teams (and I would say all teams in my personal experience) go through four phases.
A forming stage where the team is getting to know each other, the players are very polite to each other, but the players are reluctant to communicate. A storming stage where the team starts to fight with each other and the performance starts to dip. A norming stage where the team then agrees to work what the expectations and protocols will be on the team. Finally a performing stage where a team achieves its full potential.
If you are forming a new team, then you should keep this cycle in mind, and agree to the occasional off-ice check-in to see where the team is in the performance cycle. I strongly recommend that your team (regardless of the playing level) find someone to act as a coach and facilitator.
If you are lucky enough to have a certified curling coach at your local club, your team should reach out to him or her for some help. But if there is no such coach available, then I think a knowledgeable but neutral third party can fulfill this role. What that person can help with is facilitating the team conversation when things start to go wrong.
Ideally you should have a team meeting with this person as your team is forming, and then agree to have regular meetings as a team, with your coach, throughout the season. An external person watching the team dynamics and body language on the ice can often pick up on things that the team may not notice. A coach can also often address “elephant in the room” issues that teammates may be reluctant to share with each other.
Keeping the team performance wheel in mind will also help a new team reach its potential sooner. While John Morris does not explicitly mention the performance wheel in his recounting of winning the mixed doubles gold medal, one thing that jumps out at me is his story of a crucial dinner he had with Kaitlyn Lawes where they talked through some team dynamic issues, and then went on to win the Olympic curling trials.
When I read through John Morris’s story, I can see how that team went through the entire performance wheel in days to go on and become Olympic champs. The takeaway message is that a new team should embrace each stage of the team dynamics wheel – especially the conflict that comes with the storming stage, and the subsequent working out of differences with the norming stage – to accelerate the team formation process and achieve their team goals.