Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Hiatus


Due to other commitments, the No Stones Left Unturned blog will be on hiatus until further notice. Thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed the blog thus far. Hope to be back soon.

-Bobbie

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Proposed Changes to the High Performance Program


Author’s note: This blog is the fourth & final in a series discussing how USA Curling qualifies athletes for major events and suggesting changes for the qualification processes to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of U.S. curlers.


In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard yet, Team Shuster won the gold medal in men’s curling at the 2018 Winter Olympics. A HUGE congratulations to them! I admit that I doubted they would make it to the playoffs when they were hanging out at 2-4 in the round robin, but the run they had was absolutely incredible and a testament to their talent, heart, and work ethic.

Given that Team Shuster is a part of the USA Curling High Performance Program (HPP) and they won Olympic gold, it would seem like that medal is a huge victory for the program… but is it?

I would suggest that it is not. Further, I would suggest that Team Shuster’s winning the gold only proves what I have been suggesting over the last few blog posts – that the USA Curling system needs to change, especially the HPP. Given my recent blogs about USA Curling's Championship Qualification Process, it is clear that a new direction must be taken in order to preserve and continue to grow the sport of curling in the United States of America. Otherwise, there is a huge risk of losing all the new folks who Team Shuster inspired to try curling as well as the curlers who have been around for awhile and are fed up with the status quo.

Presently the HPP program is set up wherein the USA Curling HPP, led by its director, Derek Brown, picks athletes who will be a part of the program. “USCA [United States Curling Association] has developed a High Performance Program ('HPP') to support athletes who have demonstrated the capability to be elite international athletes with potential to win medals in international competition.” (2015-2016 USA Curling HPP Athlete Agreement). Part of the way the athletes are chosen is through an athlete combine, where curlers essentially show up and put their skills on display for the HPP staff. “The Athlete Combine is one of several key components used in determining members for the High Performance Plan. Athletes apply to be considered for the Combine and receive invites to attend.” (Athlete Combine, USA Curling, n.d.). Curlers are “assessed and selected on an individual basis by HPP coaches, who may also directly recruit athletes.” (“HighPerformance Plan proposal outlined”, USA Curling, 2014).

The HPP proposal, which was designated for 2014 and beyond, mentions the following as it relates to self-formed teams:

Men and Women – self formed teams
·       Access to funding may potentially be available through either winning Nationals or placing top 6 at World Championships, depending upon program resources available.
·       Access to HPP knowledge and staff resources will be offered as practical to athletes not in the HP Program.

(USA Curling High Performance Program 2014-15 onwards AS PROPOSED, 2014, USA Curling). I believe this is the wrong approach to use with self-formed teams. And Team Shuster is the perfect example of why.

As Slate recently noted,

John Shuster was already a three-time Olympian and the most successful American curler in history when he applied for the U.S. high performance program after the Sochi Games.

He didn't make the cut.

So Shuster approached a couple of the other spurned candidates about putting together a foursome of their own.

"He said, 'Hey, let's form our own Team of Rejects and see what we can do,'" U.S. second Matt Hamilton said.

And here is what they did: They won the U.S. championship, beating those selected instead of them, to force their way into the program that directs funding to teams with the best chance of success. They won a bronze medal at the worlds, another national title and then finished first in the U.S. Olympic trials to earn a spot at the Pyeongchang Games.


And, the StarTribune, a Minnesota paper, described how

Four years after the fact, John Shuster could still remember every detail. “They did the first athlete combine right here,” he said, looking around a room at the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine. “I’m 15 feet away from the spot where USA Curling said, ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”

More than anything, Shuster said, he recalled the exact wording of the 2014 news release announcing the roster for USA Curling’s new high-performance program. Director Derek Brown said he picked the 10 players who gave the U.S. the best chance of international success looking forward. That did not include Shuster, the Chisholm native and former Duluth resident who had skipped two Olympic teams and won a bronze medal with Pete Fenson’s foursome in 2006.

“When I saw that quote, that’s when I decided that was not the case,” Shuster said, with a wry grin. “And I was going to make sure that was known. By winning.”

In late December, Shuster sat in that same room, as the skip of the U.S. team for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Just as he vowed, he proved USA Curling made a mistake when it rejected him. Shuster rededicated himself to being the best male skip in America, then assembled a team of equally driven athletes who have rolled to top-five finishes at the past three world championships.

Since he was left off that first high-performance roster, Shuster has shed 33 pounds, vastly improved his fitness and strength and had a second son with his wife, Sara. By beating Heath McCormick’s team at the Olympic trials in November, Shuster became the first American man to make four Olympic curling teams.

His foursome — which includes Tyler George and John Landsteiner of Duluth and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wis. — quickly made good on its goal of showing USA Curling that they could compete and win internationally. They captured the U.S. championship less than a year after forming, defeating teams that were part of the high-performance program that turned Shuster away.

They now belong to the program themselves, on Shuster’s terms. When they were invited in 2015, he insisted they would join as a unit, or not at all.


The HPP staff has the ability to change team lineups, and has previously done so on more than one occasion, and such changes obviously affect team chemistry. One of the biggest take aways

As noted in previous blogs, there is a lack of depth in American curling, especially on the women’s side. Aside from the suggestions already given, I would also propose the following changes:

Split the budget for the HPP program to include 45% of assets to supporting teams that are willing to travel to the international stage. These funds, which could be awarded as grants, would go toward airfare and other monetary needs that individuals and teams may need in order to get to an international competition. By doing this, any folks who may be unable to afford such a trip (especially on a semi-regular basis), but are great curlers, will have the opportunity to prove that they are great and will be able to show USA Curling that they deserve to be a part of the HPP. 

The HPP proposal mentioned earlier states that “[a]ccess to funding may potentially be available through either winning Nationals or placing top 6 at World Championships, depending upon program resources available.” I say, let’s take out those specific qualifiers and broaden the pool of potential elite curlers. Obviously, there needs to be some criteria; the HPP should not fund any random team that might embarrass themselves on the national or international stage, but requiring a team to win Nationals, or have a top 6 finish at World Championships is wildly limiting. 

A team like, Team Birr, for example (who came in second at the 2017 Men’s National Championships ) or Team Potter (who was second at the end of round robin play but lost to Team Roth in the semifinals at 2017 Women’s National Championships) who has shown they can compete with the designated HPP teams would be deserving of such funds. These are just two examples, but I am certain there are plenty more such teams out there in the country; they are just being passed over and/or they are not putting themselves out there because if you can win Nationals and not go to World Championships, what’s the point? (And, yes, I am aware that the standards were recently relaxed, but USA Curling has indicated “the intention that the qualifying criteria will be tightened up once again as USA Curling looks ahead to preparing teams for future world championships and the 2022 Olympic Games” (USA Curling relaxes the World Team Qualification Process for 2018, USA Curling, 2018). 

The next 45% of the budget would be used to support the HPP teams and individuals. This will be evaluated annually and will provide support to the current HPP folks similar to how the HPP presently works.

The final 10% of the budget would be used for administrative costs of the HPP. 


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 Part 1 of this series, Changes to USA Curling World Team Qualification Process, a Step in the Right Direction, discussed the recent changes that USA Curling made to the World Team qualification process and the disconnect between what those who play the sport and those who are responsible for governing the sport see as being necessary to compete at a high level. Part 2, Problems with USA Curling’s Championship Qualification Processes, discussed the unclear requirements for USA Curling national championships. Part 3, Proposal to Adopt the Championship System Used by USA Fencing (with Appropriate Modifications for Curling) proposed adopting a system similar to that used by USA Fencing as a way to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of U.S. curlers.


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This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Proposal to Adopt the Championship System Used by USA Fencing (with Appropriate Modifications for Curling)

Author’s note: This blog is the third in a series discussing how USA Curling qualifies athletes for major events and suggesting changes for the qualification processes to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of U.S. curlers.


The present championship system that USA Curling uses leaves a lot to be desired. As such, I propose adopting an approach like USA Fencing’s system, which largely uses a points system to qualify for events in conjunction with a centralized event registration platform that also tracks team and individual fencer rankings. With a few modifications, I believe that a similar system could be used within U.S. curling.

When it comes to the qualification of athletes for USA Fencing national championships, fencers can receive points for placing well in certain sanctioned tournaments such as Regional Open Circuit competitions (ROCs) and North American Cups (NACs). Aside from earning a certain amount of points, fencers can also qualify by placing well in certain events and upping their ranking (NOTE: Fencers are assigned rankings from “A” through “E” and “U,” with “A” being the highest ranking, “E” being the worst, and “U” being unranked). This approach ends up functioning as a two-tiered system where the average fencer is able to achieve success and, if they actually do really well, would then be eligible to compete at an elite level. It also encourages the average fencer by providing meaningful achievements that are within their reach, which (may) ultimately lead to bigger and more prestigious achievements as skill level increases – to the ultimate goal of representing the USA at the highest level: the Olympics.

In fencing, there are different weapons (i.e., foil, epee, and saber) that fencers can compete in. Fencers are also divided into divisions for each weapon based on skill level. Fencing divisions include: I (elite level), IA, II, and III. Within the divisions are age categories. The different weapons divisions are an apt comparison to the different disciplines of curling (men’s, women’s, mixed, mixed doubles, etc.). With the exception of Division I (which is held in April), all national championships are held at the same time in the summer (at “Summer Nationals”). This assists fencers in knowing when major competitions are going to be held each year and allows for proper planning. It also allows fencers who qualify in multiple divisions to only need to make one (or two trips at most) over the year in order to attend national championships. The Academy of Fencing Masters has created an amazing diagram, which gives a great rundown of how the qualification process for fencing Summer Nationals actually plays out: CLICK HERE FOR THE DIAGRAM.

Aside from having centralized National Championships across the divisions, “[t]he Regional Open Circuit (ROC) is designed to promote and develop strong regional tournaments for the Open/Division I-A fencer who seeks competitive opportunities beyond the local and division levels but below the NAC Division I level. Other competitive opportunities in the ROC tournaments are provided for Veteran (40 & Older) and Division II (C, D, E or U) fencers.” (http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Fencing/Events/About-Tournaments/ROC-Tournament-Organizer-Resources). There are similar regional competitions for younger fencers (Regional Youth Circuit (RYC), Super Youth Circuit (SYC)), as well as the North American Cup (NAC) tournaments, which are “a series of tournaments organized by USA Fencing (Y10, Y12, Y14, Cadet, Junior, Div I, Div II, Div III, Vet Open, Vet Age, Wheelchair, and Cadet/Y14/Junior/Senior Team). For Div I NACs, athletes must meet the criteria for a “C” or better classification at the time of their entry. For Div II NACs, athletes must meet the age and classification criteria (“C” or lower classification) at the time of their entry. For Div III NACs, athletes must meet the age and classification criteria for a (“D” or lower classification) at the time of their entry.” (2017-2018 USA Fencing Handbook, pg. 17).

If we were to apply this system to curling teams, a hypothetical team, the “Smith Rink,” could start out unranked and work their way up to Division III. Even with lineup changes, once they earn enough points as a team, they could attain a level where they could either choose to remain in Division III, or move up to Division II where they could begin to challenge for higher level events. This would continue to progress until the Smith Rink is ready for Division I play.

Another takeaway from fencing that could benefit curling is the use of individual rankings. While the ranking of teams is vital, tracking individual performances would also be beneficial in curling. For instance, when the Smith Rink enters USA Curling sanctioned events, they could be tracked as a team and individually in a way that is similar to the way that CurlingZone.com and the World Curling Tour track player statistics and use Order of Merit points for teams. These rankings would fluctuate based on competitions so that individual teams and players will be cognizant of the events and skills required to be successful. Thus, if the Smith Rink were to beat the #1 team at a regional division tournament, they would gain a higher ranking, but the #1 team may or may not take a tumble in the rankings depending on how well they did overall at the event in question.

When it comes to individual rankings, the members of Team Smith may or may not have outside accomplishments that would influence their rankings. For example, if Sebastian Smith, the hypothetical skip of Team Smith, had competed in juniors at a high level and/or had success playing a different position on another team prior to skipping the Smith rink, he would have a higher ranking than Seth Second, the hypothetical second of Team Smith, who had limited success at local club funspiels prior to joining the Smith rink. Additionally, the top four ranked individuals in a division may be able to comprise a team, but if they do not have any team chemistry, they would likely not be able to perform as well and all of their team and individual rankings would suffer.

Additionally, under the suggested ranking system, only USA Curling sanctioned events would count as ROC events. Clubs and/or regional/state curling associations (e.g., MOPAC, GNCC, etc.) would be able to register their events for this status and that would, in turn, encourage more participation and spieling throughout the regions. All events would not award the same number of points, however; instead, the number of points awarded would be dependent upon the strength of field of each event. By doing this, curlers could decide if it was worth participating in certain events where it may cost prohibitive. This would also allow the lesser events to be bypassed in favor of events with a higher strength of field. Moreover, there would likely be events were the field was limited to teams of at least a certain ranking or within specific divisions. Such events would allow elite curlers to face off against each other, and others would allow lower ranked teams to obtain higher rankings.

While a full review of USA Curling’s selection process will take place again in the summer of 2018, the intention is that the qualifying criteria will be tightened up again as USA Curling looks ahead to preparing teams for future world championships and the 2022 Olympic Games (see USA Curling’s Press Release, "USA Curling relaxes the World Team Qualification Process for 2018" [last accessed Dec. 30, 2017]). As such, this article proposes a new way to better elevate the sport of curling through more focused merit based selections and increase the level of competition. With the end result of USA Curling’s tightening the qualifying criteria, it is my hope that they consider this proposal in their role as elevating the sport of curling within the U.S. Additionally, this proposed system would fulfill the desire of USA Curling, and the U.S. Olympic Committee for both growing the sport and continuing to sustain international competitive excellence.


To be continued….


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The next blog in this series will suggest alternate uses for High Performance Program funds. Part 1 of this series, Changes to USA Curling World Team Qualification Process, a Step in the Right Direction, discussed the recent changes that USA Curling made to the World Team qualification process and the disconnect between what those who play the sport and those who are responsible for governing the sport see as being necessary to compete at a high level. Part 2, Problems with USA Curling’s Championship Qualification Processes, discussed the unclear requirements for USA Curling national championships.

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This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Problems with USA Curling’s Championship Qualification Processes


Presently, the current USA Curling system has multiple national championships, including, U18 Nationals, Junior Nationals, U.S. Nationals, Wheelchair Nationals, Club Nationals, Senior Nationals, Mixed Nationals, Mixed Doubles Nationals, Arena Nationals, and the Curling College Championship.

On September 11, 2017, USA Curling sent out an email with the subject line “Volunteers needed in Vegas for 2018 World Men's Championship” to its membership. (See Email from USA Curling to Membership (Sept. 11, 2017)).  Towards the end of the email, there was a section about upcoming playdowns where it asked “Are you ready for playdowns? Sign up today!” and provided links about how to register for 2017-2018 playdowns. Going to the registration page in the email (hereafter, “Registration Page”) takes you to a page that explains qualifications for all national championship events (except Arena Nationals). Arena Nationals will not be discussed here as it was not listed on the registration page.

Until this email, I had never looked intently at the registration requirements for championships. I found it interesting that the qualification systems varied so widely when all events are national championships in their respective fields. For example, Club Nationals, U18 Nationals, and Mixed Nationals require playdowns based on geographic regions (i.e., teams must win a playdown for the region that their club belongs to—Mountain Pacific, Dakota Region, etc.). (See Registration Page). However, Junior Nationals use a qualification system that involves four events (which take place in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Massachusetts). “Four (4) qualifying events will be held (Berth bonspiels), with two women’s and two men’s teams advancing from each event. . . . Teams may enter as many events as they wish. Teams (and individual players) will be ineligible to play in any successive qualifying event if they have secured a berth in a previous berth qualifier to Junior Nationals. Teams do not need to have the same team members for each event. Teams may reconfigure with different players for each event.” (Registration Page).

For Wheelchair Nationals, “all wheelchair curling athletes who have demonstrated the ability to play regulation curling games are encouraged to register . . . Athletes will register into the bonspiel as individuals (no team entries). Size of teams will be determined based on the total number of event registrants. All teams will be developed using a draft system in which current members of the National High Performance Program will serve as skips and select their teams.” (See Registration Page). And, the Curling College Championship “is designed to find the best college curling school in the nation. Sixteen schools will be invited to participate in a split round robin followed by a championship round, and one will take the single national title.” (Registration Page).

The qualification process for Mixed Doubles Nationals “depends on the number of entries. The USCA format formula described in Section II (7) of the Championship Rules will be used. As soon as possible after the sign-up deadline, teams will be notified of the specific format, and the beginning and ending dates for the competition.” (Registration Page). But, unlike in some of the other qualification overview sections which link to the 2016-2017 Rules of Curling and Competition handbook, there is no link to the “Championship Rules.” As such, I ran a search for the phrase “championship rules” on the USA Curling website, and the results brought up this page: http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Features/2016/October/25/Championship-Rules-Book-now-available which suggests that the Championship Rules book is the same as the Rules of Curling and Competition (see also http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Events/Championships-microsite/Inside-the-Championships/Rules). However, when one views Section II (7) of the handbook, that section deals with uniforms. (see Rules of Curling and Competition, pp. 23-24 [last accessed Oct. 4, 2017]), so it is unclear exactly how Mixed Doubles Nationals are run. With many of the high performance athletes showing sudden interest in participating in Mixed Doubles, it is odd that the requirements or qualification are, as of yet, unpublished.

Lastly, for U.S. Nationals, the qualification process involves a combination of awarding spots based on Order of Merit points and the use of a “Challenge Round” playdown. “[The National Championship Team selection playdown system is not geographically based. The National Championships field will be ten teams providing there are at least fourteen entries. If there are thirteen or fewer entries then the National Championships field will be eight teams.” (Registration Page). In the event that there are ten teams, “[f]ive Nationals spots will be awarded to the top five Order of Merit (OOM) teams. . . . Four National Championship spots will be determined at a single Challenge Round event. The remaining Nationals spot will be awarded to a High Performance Program Discretionary Selection.” In the event there are eight teams, then “[f]our Nationals spots will be awarded to the top four Order of Merit (OOM) teams. . . . Three National Championship spots will be determined at a single Challenge Round event. The remaining Nationals spot will be awarded to a High Performance Program Discretionary Selection.” (See Registration Page).

As we saw with 2017 U.S. Nationals, there is a serious lack of participation in the U.S. Nationals Challenge Rounds. The women’s Challenge Round only had six (6) teams competing, and the men’s Challenge round had thirteen (13). (see http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Features/2016/December/30/Nationals-Challenge-Rounds-begin-next-week). Why is this? Why do more curlers not want to compete at U.S. Nationals? Is it because winning Nationals no longer guarantees that the team will represent the USA at World Championships? Or, is it because, even if a team has a strong showing (like winning silver) at U.S. Nationals, they still may get overlooked for a HPP team when it comes to deciding who goes to Olympic Trials? (see, e.g., how Team Birr was overlooked for an Olympic Trials spot, but ultimately won a spot at the Trials after filing a right-to-play grievance).

It is clear that the current system leaves a lot to be desired and can be confusing to curlers given the amount of dissimilarity amongst the various national championships. Therefore, I propose adopting the system used by USA Fencing in order to determine what curlers qualify for national championships as such an approach would likely satisfy the goals of increasing participation in the sport up to, and including, the highest levels as well as growing the sport and continuing to sustain international competitive excellence.

(To be continued….)


Author’s note: This blog is the second in a series discussing how USA Curling qualifies athletes for major events and suggesting changes for the qualification processes to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of American curlers.


The next blog in this series will discuss specifics of my proposed changes to the current curling system based on the one used by USA Fencing and Part 4 will suggest alternate uses for High Performance Program funds. Part 1 of this series, Changes to USA Curling World Team Qualification Process, a Step in the Right Direction, discussed the recent changes that USA Curling made to the World Team qualification process and the disconnect between what those who play the sport and those who are responsible for governing the sport see as being necessary to compete at a high level.



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This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Team Birr Wins Hearing, Headed to USA Curling Olympic Trials

The first article of this blog, A Tale of Three Teams: Clarity Needed in USA Curling's Discretionary Pick Process, was about the slight against Team Birr wherein they were not given a discretionary pick to participate in the upcoming Olympic Trials and how that decision appeared to be nonsensical given the recent history of USA Curling's use of the process. It also discussed the upcoming hearing that Team Birr was going to have, appealing the decision.
Well, that hearing was held on September 21st, and Team Birr announced via their Facebook page that the decision is in and they are headed to Olympic Trials! For all the reasons discussed in my previous post dealing with the issues involved, I am pleased at this outcome and that justice was done! Congrats to Team Birr, and best wishes to all the teams attending the Trials!

Hiatus

Due to other commitments, the No Stones Left Unturned blog will be on hiatus until further notice. Thanks to everyone who has read and enjo...