Monday, March 9, 2015

Same Athletes But Different Team

The 2015 Tim Hortons Brier was a notable one for a variety of reasons. It inspired not one, but two postings by yours truly, both based upon on ice incidents, one somewhat negative in nature ("Dealing With On Ice Issues") and the second the exact opposite ("The Culture of Sport"). Both illustrated the adage that sport doesn't build character, it reveals it!

This posting is about still another aspect of the Brier in Calgary that I'm sure curling fans found most interesting and once again, what played out in the Brier holds a lesson for all curlers. Those of you who watched the Brier will know what I'm going to talk about today by the title. Of course I'm referring to Team Canada* and its decision to shuffle its back end midway through the event. The athletes involved were John Morris and Pat Simmons. I've had the pleasure to work with both athletes, more with Pat than with John. They have very different personalities and those differences played a prominent role in the decision to switch playing positions and responsibilities.

Without going into a lot of details suffice to say that Team Morris (the first "Team Canada" at a Brier) struggled out of the gate and that would be putting it mildly! One must remember that this Team Canada came about due to 3/4 of the team winning the coveted "Brier Tankard" last year in Kamloops, BC. When that last stone came to rest, there must have been something of a mixed reaction among the team members. One emotion certainly was one of joy. It just won the Canadian Men's Curling Championship. But, it meant the team would be coming back and that's where the mixed emotion came into play as skip Kevin Koe had announced before the Brier that he would be leaving the team and forming another (which he did and won the AB men's championship to be Team Alberta at the Brier). That meant he was giving up a number of opportunities that come with a Brier title, not the least of which is the right to return as Team Canada. Add to that the announced desire of one of the players to "hang them up", at least for the foreseeable future.

Then there's the whole funding issue. If the team members are to receive the funding to continue to train, well, they need to continue to compete at a high performance level. Kevin Koe still gets that type of funding even though it's with different teammates. Bottom line? The team needed to continue to compete but it needed a skip. Enter, stage right, the aforementioned John Morris who had crossed over the Rocky Mountains to play with another excellent curler with exactly the opposite personality from his, Jim Cotter. With his BC teammates' blessing, Johnny "MO" was anointed as skip of Team Canada and just to put the cherry on top of the cake, along with John came his dad Earle, who retired from coaching Rachel Homan's team (are you keeping up with all of this?).

So, with this new lineup and coach, the team donned the red and white garb of Team Canada with much fanfare and anticipation. Oops, someone forgot to tell their early round opponents that this was one of the favourites and there were more l's than w's as a result. And that's when it happened and full credit to John Morris as it seemed that the switch with Pat was his idea.

The first inclination was for John to continue his skipping duties but with Pat delivering stones 7 & 8. Sources tell me that the mild-mannered Pat Simmons indicated that if he were to deliver the last stones, he wanted to assume all skip responsibilities. That might have been the genius in all of this as Pat plays a very different strategic and tactical game from John. That's not a value judgement. That's just the way it is. John agreed and assumed Pat's third responsibilities. But, and here's where I feel the change made the most difference, it put John's outgoing personality in the best place possible on the team. John's a great communicator and in his "gate keeper" role between skip Pat and front end Nolan & Carter, he injected a dynamic that energized the team. Pat, well, he just curled up a storm and did so with a more conservative approach that seemed to fit the team well! It was a simpler approach and perhaps left the opposition scrambling somewhat, anticipating John's more aggressive style.

As I write this on the western shore of Hudson Bay in Rankin Inlet (can you say c-o-l-d?) Team Canada has pulled off a feat that will forever be etched into the historical record of the Brier. The team's 2-3 record after five games gave rise to some jokes about Team Canada's possible participation in the pre-qualification portion of the 2016 Brier in Ottawa. Well, that's not happening, at least not for the 2016 event, as the Team Canada march to victory from fourth place in the standings was remarkable, especially considering the opposition and the fact that they started each playoff game without the benefit of last stone advantage and had to take stones their opponent did not want, proving once again, it's not how you start, it's how you finish!

I've already stated what I feel were the differences in the team and as usual, I write about what happens on the high performance scene such as the Brier or Scotties, as these athletes and their teams are the role models for the elite curlers of the future and for recreational curlers trying to be better. The lesson here is a demonstrative reminder that when a team has only four members, the choice of teammates and where they play is critical! I've said this many, many times before. Curling does not exactly have a stellar history when it comes to teammate selection. Oh we're decidedly better than we were 10-15 years ago but it's never a bad idea to choose teammates wisely.

Even though on the surface, curling seems for all intents a purposes to be a shoot-two-brush-six (or four or none) format but it's much more complex than that and much more dynamic than that. As the season progresses, your team might consider if it has everyone playing the position that gets the most out of each teammate resulting in the best performance possible.

When it comes to an important competition, I'm quick to say that your value as a teammate is more important to the performance of the team than your value as a curler. One of the messages I send to the 28 junior teams who assemble to decide the national junior champions when I get to speak to them all at the players' meeting prior at the start of the event is this, "If you want to focus on a task that will pay the greatest dividends do everything you're able to make sure your teammates have a great competition! Each of you is the expert at knowing precisely how you can make that happen. You know what to do, just do what you know!"

For many years, as I've described the importance of team dynamics on a curling team I've stated that on a curling team, everyone contributes 25% of the effort but does so 100% of the time. I can now add that you maximize that effort when you play a position on the team that allows your qualities and skills to have the greatest impact.

John Morris saw that the team needed a change and knew why. We all saw the results which is a clear illustration that none of this is possible unless the team has four players who put the performance of the team before personal accolades. This might be especially difficult for junior curlers who might feel that way but know that parents want him/her to play a certain role on the team, not for their son or daughter, but for their own gratification.

I can relate in instance where a team bound for the Winter Olympics was misaligned. In my opinion, the team would have performed significantly better if the players had shuffled the deck somewhat. The skip was the best shooter on the team but also by far the best brusher. The third, by the same measure was clearly the best strategist and tactician. But, the father of the skip would not hear of my suggestion to have his son play anywhere else on the team besides skip as he wanted the team representing his country to be skipped by an athlete with his surname. So, the team remained aligned as always and the team never won a game! It would have been the same players, but a very different team!

If you wish to excel, performance must come before any other agendas one might have, either personal or imposed by others (i.e. family and/or friends).

* One of the more defining moments of my 2015 Brier experience came, not in the Scotiabank Saddledome but in "The Purple Heart Lounge". The PHL is the somewhat more sedate twin of the famous "Brier Patch". On this particular occasion in the PHL, the MC was conducting one of his "Up Close & Personal" interviews. The team being interviewed was the team representing Prince Edward Island". Since it was between afternoon & evening draws, the PHL was packed with what I would argue was a very good sampling of hard core curling fans, the type that would place the Brier on their calendar to make an annual pilgrimage. The group that through ticket sales, souvenir purchases, restaurant meals & hotel reservations, are the reason the Brier exists as we know it.

In the course of the Q & A session, the topic de jour turned to the new format of the Brier, which saw this PEI squad survive the first ever Brier pre-qualification round. Finally the MC got around to the "Team Canada" entry. He turned to the crowd and asked, "How do you feel about a Team Canada in the Brier?", clearly anticipating an enthusiastic show of support.

The silence, and I mean the hear-a-pin-drop silence, was deafening!