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Interview with Phill Drobnick

Preparing a team to compete is at the heart of what a curling coach does. It demands as much dedication to the sport as any player position. The challenge of coaching is extensive, as it usually incorporates all aspects of the game. One important (and arguably the most challenging) aspect is something called "team dynamics."

To learn more about team dynamics, I recently spoke with Phill Drobnick, coach of the 2010 US Mens Olympic Curling Team. Aside from coaching, Phill plays lead on Team George, the 2011 US Curling Championships runner-up.

R: I’ve heard you say that "team dynamics" is your favorite aspect to coaching. What exactly is team dynamics, and why is it important?

P: My definition of team dynamics is pretty simple. It centers around a team’s ability to make a commitment to each other, and how they work together at achieving a common goal.

R: So, a team’s working relationship? How they function and communicate with one another on the ice?

P: Exactly, but it extends off the ice as well. The individuals on a team each have different lifestyles, families and may often be in different spots in there lives. But when they step onto the ice, the four individuals have to become one unit. This is what team dynamics is all about. It’s about bringing all team members together, regardless of the differences in their lives, to achieve that common goal.

R: I’ve heard that having assigned roles in this relationship is important.

P: Yeah, as you know, each member has a position that they play. They can have many roles that are assigned to them while on the ice. In order for a team to be successful, each member must first understand what their role on the team is.

R: What if a player doesn’t agree with their assigned role, or is generally unhappy with his/her position on the team?

P: They need to agree with it to be successful. If each team member has committed to a common goal then they need to be willing to do their part. Once a decision is made by the team, each member has to be willing to live with it. When a team does this, they will start to function like a well greased engine and things will start to get a lot easier.

alternate textPhill delivering a stone at 2011 US National Championships

R: Teams are often made up of players with different levels of talent. How important is player talent in terms of having a successful team?

P: A certain amount of talent is necessary to win at high levels of curling. However, you can have all the talent in the world but if the four players are working as individuals and not as one unit, success will be hard to come by. Each player has to be respected for what they do on the ice or off the ice for the team. Each player needs to be heard.

R: Is it important for teammates to be able to relate to one another off the ice? Or can the team be "all business" and still succeed?

P: In my opinion it can be both. Sometimes, team members are good friends. Other times, players just view each other as teammates. I have seen it work every which way in curling.

Phill discussing strategy with his juniors team.

The Howard Brothers from Canada were very successful playing together. They had a very good relationship on and off the ice when they were dominating the world curling tour in the '90s. Now fast-forward to 2006 when Russ Howard joined the Gushue team and they qualified for the Olympics. Brad and Russ were in very different spots in their lives. Russ was much older and had been around the block a few times. When they traveled they didn’t spend a lot of time together. At times they didn’t even get along that well. They had a goal of winning an Olympic gold medal, so when it was time to hit the ice they had to trust each other. They knew each team member would be doing everything they could to help the team win. They were confident each player would play their role and if someone didn’t, they had an understanding that they would call the team member out on it. This is very common in competitive curling teams. Even the juniors team I coached that won a World Championship had two team members that were not friends off the ice. However, when they stepped on the ice they put everything aside and functioned as one unit. It is about respecting your teammate’s ability, and knowing that when the pressure is on, you will be able to count on them.

R: In regard to team chemistry, what are some common problems you’ve seen teams (national and/or club level) run into over the years?

P: Most of the problems that I see regarding team chemistry happen when players feel that they are better then the position they are playing. They will try to skip the game from the front end. They can also put doubt in their skip’s mind. On the other end of the spectrum, many times you will see a skip that is not willing to listen to anyone else on the team. This can create problems with team members feeling like they are not heard. Each team is going to have a different system that works for them. Problems arise when someone on the team is not staying within the systems.

I would also note that it is very important for each team member to have the same commitment level and want the same things out of their experience. Any time you curl competitively, it costs money, time away from work, time away from family, and can be very stressful at times. If a person is going to enjoy doing that, he needs to be competing with guys that are willing to do the same for him.

R: How important is it for a curling team to have a coach? At what point should a team start looking for one?

P: I can’t stress enough how important a coach is in curling. Especially for those teams that are looking to move from a recreational/club to to a competitive team. This holds true for mens, womens, and most importantly juniors. Having someone there to give feedback will make each team member better.

Phill stands with his team after winning silver at the 2011 Karuizawa Championships in Japan.

R: In my recent interview with Dean Gemmell, he states that finding a good coach is important. How does this relate in terms of team chemistry?

P: Well, chemistry is important when trying to find the right coach for a team. Each coach has a different style. You have to match up the team's style to the coach’s style. Players should think about what they expect from the coach and discuss these expectations openly. A coach should think about how he/she can best communicate with the team. A coach needs to figure out how to motivate each player. It is as important that the coach is part of the team unit as anyone. If a coach is not sure how to get through to the team, it can make his/her job very difficult. I‘ve had this happen in the past. There are just some athletes out there that don’t like to have coaching.

R: A lot of teams on the club level do not have a coach to manage their team chemistry. What do you recommend for a team that doesn’t have a coach, but wishes to improve their team dynamics?

P: Good question. The best way to do this is to use self-assessments and team-assessments. The players on the team would have to be willing to receive feedback from each other. Being very open and honest with one another is difficult at times, but it can be done. It all goes back to what the team’s goals are. If they have committed to do everything they can to improve, they will figure out a way to give each other feedback in a constructive way.

-Richard lives in Schenectady and is a member of the Schenectady Curling Club.-

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