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.


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