March 06, 2009

Thoughts on the Vernon Report

In the March Scottish Curler magazine which has just been published (see here) I speculated on what the Vernon Report would contain. I based this speculation on a number of conversations with those who had already seen the report or knew of its content - the report has apparently had a wide circulation, both official and unofficial, prior to today's release. Reading the actual report today though has been a sobering experience. As those who read the blog know, I don't often editorialise here, but I think most who read my ramblings will expect me to say what I think of it. So, here are some observations.

In discussing the 'interaction between the coaches and team before arriving in Vernon', Michael Nicholson notes that, "None of the five members of the team had worked with Rhona Martin as a team coach. None of Gail Munro, Lyndsay Wilson and Anne Laird had worked with Derek Brown as National Coach. Karen Addison and Lynn Cameron had worked with Derek Brown as National Coach. The team did not meet as a team with the team coach, the national coach or any other coach prior to arriving in Vernon." Was that important? Nicholson concluded that it was, in relation to the events which happened later.

I was saddened to read of the breakdown in relationships within the team between Karen and Gail. Karen had been a key part of the team's success in the 2007-08 season. But the team had been together for just one season, and it had been success all the way. They had not had the experience of losing together! A World Championship is not the place to be experiencing this for the first time. As Karen herself says in her statement, "It is a high-pressure environment competing at that level." The cracks that appeared within the team are described in excruciating detail in the report. Sad to read.

In many cases in the report I am left somewhat mystified about what actually happened in specific situations. Of course, this is often the case in a court of law, when different witnesses have different versions of events. Nicholson is always careful not to take sides. The phrase though he uses often is, "I consider that ............. contributed to the team playing 2 games with 3 players." To take just one example here, consider the following passage which discusses what supposedly happened during a timeout in one game: Whilst on the face of it the version of this event advanced by Derek Brown, Cate Brewster and Nancy Murdoch is inconsistent with Rhona Martin’s version of the event, in my opinion, having considered the information available to me and on the balance of probabilities it appears more likely to me that the language chosen by Rhona Martin to describe to the other coaches what she described as Gail Munro being “dismissive towards” her may have been mistaken by those that she spoke to as being language used by Gail Munro to her. I did not consider that Rhona Martin was being untruthful in her statement to me in that regard. This, therefore, appeared to me to be an example of poor communication among a number of the coaches. I consider that poor communication contributed to the team playing 2 games with 3 players for the reasons that follow in this report.

'Poor communication among a number of the coaches'! Worrying indeed.

I speculated in the magazine that at Vernon, the team's play was under intense scrutiny with video analysis and reporting of playing statistics, by the 'support staff', and that Lyndsay in particular would not have been used to this. Indeed. It just illustrates the gulf between the teams that have such 'support' and those that have not. I can just imagine Lyndsay's feelings as a video of her falling was replayed over and over again. I thought coaches were supposed to install confidence in players?

Now, I am of the old school which believes that a team revolves around the skip, and he or she is the key to the team. And so it is difficult for me to read about the team debriefs where discussion is about benching the skip. Curling has become like football where players can be pulled off or replaced on a coaches' whim. And at Vernon we had coaches who had not worked with the team before. It is clear too, that it was the National Coach Derek Brown who saw himself in charge and 'pulled rank' on team coach Rhona Martin.

I can understand Derek's dilemma. He holds three different positions. He is Head Curling Coach at the Scottish Institute of Sport where he is in charge of the programmes for Scotland’s elite curlers, a group of which Gail Munro and Lyndsay Wilson have not been part. He is the Royal Club’s National Coach, in charge of the teams representing Scotland at World Championships, and he is British Curling’s Performance Director, with responsibility for Olympic aspirations. He obviously was looking at Olympic representation all the time. If the Scotland team did not gain enough points at Vernon, then there might not be a GB team at the Vancouver Olympics, and part of his reason for existence would disappear. I asked in the magazine if this 'clouded his judgements in the need for care and consideration of a team unused to the pressures of competing at World level'. Did it? I leave it to others to decide.

There is a clue though in the Board's announcement today, which says, "The Board believes that events in Vernon provide further evidence that the National Coach should be an employee of the RCCC. Other sports have already made this change. We have advised sportscotland of this unanimous view and will be pursuing it as part of the post Olympic review in 2010." I read this to indicate that after this year's world championships, Derek Brown is not likely to be accompanying Scottish teams to Swift Current or Cortina.

So, did Lyndsay actually refuse to play? She says not. She got the blame initially, and has never had the opportunity to state her own position in a public forum until now. You have to plough through pages of unpleasant reading and various versions of events. Michael Nicholson says this: "On balance, having regard to all of the information available to me regarding the meeting and having regard to the general sense of what was said, I consider that Derek Brown understood that he had asked Lyndsay Wilson to play and that she had refused to play unless Gail Munro played and that that understanding was reasonable. I do not consider that Derek Brown had decided to play with three players and do not consider that he said so. I consider that Lyndsay Wilson did not understand the importance and effect of what was discussed, so that I did not disbelieve her statement that she was not asked to play and did not say that she would not play."

There is always a danger of quoting even a paragraph in a report like this out of context. You really have to read the whole story yourself and make up your own minds. What is clear is that no point did Derek Brown sit down with Gail, Lyndsay and Rhona to discuss the options for Scotland fielding a full team in the two games that lay ahead. Communication among the players and coaches had broken down completely by that point. And who should take the responsibility for that having happened? It's a sad, sad read.

So, what happens now? It will all go back to the Conduct Panel to decide. This story's final chapter has yet to be written.

I had hoped that the report would show what lessons can be learned from Vernon, so that such embarrassment does not happen again. But defining these lessons is not for this evening!

And why has it all taken so long even to get to this stage? An apology was forthcoming today. Bob Tait's statement says, "First, the RCCC was not prepared as fully as it should have been to handle and respond to this unforeseeable set of circumstances. For this, as well as any consequent stress and strain caused to all parties, the Board apologise. The Board also apologise for the length of time it has taken to finalise this."

The establishment of two groups to review Discipline and Performance is a positive step forward.

If you have a view, then the Scottish Curling Forum is where to air it.


Anonymous said...

It has been long overdue - and previously there were comments that it was right that it be held over until after the Scottish Championships so as not to put stress on Gail and Lyndsey - I feel after this long, long wait that to hold it over for another two weeks until after the current Worlds would only have been fair to the two other members of that team who are involved in this year's Worlds - Karen and Annie.

It is as Bob says, a sad, sad read - and all the more unfortunate for having been prolonged by a year, when ideally by this time things should have been sorted out and healing over.

Anonymous said...

I think this situation is particular to Women's curling and the solution will be an impossible one due to the nature of the people always involved, this coming from the female view point and endless years of coping in womens curling

Anonymous said...

Gail & Lyndsay were never asked if it was their preference to have it held back over the weekend in January at Kinross. The chairman took that decision off his own back to delay it over the weekend. Karen & Annie are not facing disciplinary action so what have they got to worry about?

Anonymous said...

This is indeed a sad and tragic situation especially when the potential for conflict to be triggered in a residential group experience with added stress and new personal relationships is predictable. How people might behave in groups over a period of time is exploited by the producers of reality T V. It is different from playing as a team member in a game of curling and then going home afterwards leaving disagreements on the ice.
Twenty five years ago I had the chance to experience how individual people can affect each other in a group living experience shut off from the world for a week. What impressed me most about that was the way in which the organisers anticipated the tension and falling out that would arise and had designed an approach to manage the conflict and retain human dignity. What depresses me from this report is the apparent lack of planning. Good management should anticipate the need to prepare in advance. The International Curling world has changed. The players who have the benefit of group preparation that involves all the participants in the trip and not just the four curlers may not always win especially with variable ice conditions but there is less risk of a Vernon experience.
And finally, did the RCCC not have a duty of care and how was that met. Having codes of ethics that are not promoted are symptoms of the gap between organisational and personal activity. Contracts are a fall back; having a shared vision is perhaps more important but participants need to know what that is.