Selecting a U.S. Olympic Curling Team
Curling is in an interesting place right now.
2014 is an Olympic year, and in an Olympic year, people watch. When the NBC Sports Network was showing Curling, it was the most watched Cable channel in the U.S. -- not the most watched sports channel, but the most watched channel.
If you were following the TV schedule before the start of the Olympics, you probably noticed that NBC added coverage as the ratings came in. Curling is hot.
It has to be said as well, we were all disappointed with our results in Olympic Curling.
Immediately after the Olympic Bonspiel, the popular press went after Curling, and how teams are selected.
They criticize Curling as being a "Social Sport" where activity centers around a Curling Club and play is as much off the ice as on.
For those who play, you see it in the easy banter inside a team during a game. You certainly see it when both teams sit down together after a game, often with a nice beverage.
It's a system that works in Canada, with 1.2 million curlers -- the available pool of truly talented curlers is so great. A Skip invites three people they know to come and join a team, and they make a run for the Olympics.
It doesn't work in countries like China, with maybe 300 Curlers total.
This is where the "High Performance Programme" comes into play.
In a sport like Bobsled, you can take a good pilot, then go outside the sport to Track and Field or Football and select someone for strength and speed, and you have a 2 man team. If they each do their individual jobs well, their sled reaches the bottom of the hill fastest.
The High Performance Team Managers assemble a pool of talented individuals, train and evaluate, and then hand-pick their teams. For two-man, you pair a great pilot with a great brakeman and expect good results.
It's a little different in Curling. Every player has an important role in every single shot. You need a Skip to see and call great shots, who knows what each of the other players can do well. There is physical skill, and a lot of strategy going into each shot, each end, and throughout the game.
Each of the other players has to understand what the Skip wants. If the Lead is shooting, they should be aiming just a litle bit short, and the Second and Vice need to be ready to refine the shot -- to polish it to perfection.
They need to do that for 8 rocks per end, and for 10 ends. At the Olympics, they need to all work together for the nine-game round-robin, and into the final games.
It takes a while for a team to really "gel" -- for each player to know what their teammates are thinking.
If the team selects itself, the odds are better that the team will play to the best of their ability as a single unit.
It also sticks to the social traditions of Curling. It honors the Culture of Curling that is so important to those of us who play the Roaring Game.
So how do you improve the results? Do you hand-pick teams?
I think we do. I also think we need to allow teams to be self-organized.
Our High-Performance managers have to recognize and use the social aspects of Curling -- they need to hand-pick "friends" so the High-Performance teams get along well and play as a unit, and they need to be ready to change people around if the team looks awesome on paper, but can't stand each other. Giving self-organized teams a shot at being Team USA means the High-Performance teams can't relax, that they have to work hard, or go home.
We need a playdown system that selects for great performance week after week, and we need to send our athletes to as many elite-level competitons as possible.
We also need more great Leads, Seconds, and Vice Skips. It's true that the Lead rocks set up the whole end, that the Second advances the strategy, and that the Vice can set up the Skip to dominate the end.
We've got some great players, if we want to win at Worlds, and at the Olympics, the best of the best can't all be Skips.
Most of all, we need to remember that this is a social game, and being a social game isn't a liability, it's a key asset if we want our teams to excel at the peak of our sport.