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September 18, 2009

Team Work And Medals Go Hand-In-Hand

Our columnist and veteran pairs driver Larry Poulin agree that an improved team philosophy could improve our international results.

Monday morning quarterbacking is a favorite American pastime. Now that the 2009 FEI World Driving Championships in pairs and pony driving are over, it’s human nature to look back and analyze what went right and what went wrong. (see "Stafford Stands Out At FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships" and "Dutch Go For Dramatic Double Gold In World Pair Driving.")

Pair driver Larry Poulin, a veteran of 10 World Pair Driving Championships, announced earlier in the year that he would be hanging up his competitive driving whip at the end of 2009. His final competition will be at the USEF National Driving Championships in Lexington, Ky., in October.

Many of Poulin’s fans believed that this year he had his best shot ever at an individual medal driving Natasha Grigg’s pair, Wiley and Rivage, plus Dusty, a Morgan gelding belonging to Alan Aulson (borrowed due to an injury to Cody, Poulin’s marathoner).

Poulin, now home from Kecskemet, Hungary, took time to reflect. In fact, he placed sixth in dressage, 25th in the marathon and went into cones standing 10th. It’s happened to the best—he drove the 13th set of cones backward and was eliminated. Not only did his error affect his personal score, but it also dropped the team score from a probable fifth place or better to 12th.

Now that Poulin is “no longer in the game,” he’s taken time to reflect on what he believes it takes to win team medals. His observations are not only from his personal experience on 10 teams spanning 20 years but also from the friendships he’s made and conversations he’s had with members of medal-winning teams from other countries.

His comments aren’t sour grapes but a deep desire to see U.S. teams win medals.

A Team In Practice

Championship teams are selected from a pool of talented individual drivers, driving many different types of horses and ponies. But once they’ve been selected, they’re no longer individuals but members of a team.  Poulin said that in the past, in most cases, drivers have been a team in name only, not in practice. And this situation, he believes very strongly, must change if team medals are the goal.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation Driving High Performance Committee is charged with producing selection criteria, choosing the teams, funding and overseeing the logistics of sending humans, horses and equipment thousands of miles with an ocean separating them from the championship site. It’s no easy task.

“Once the team has been selected,” said Poulin, “there must be a cohesive, strict plan in place. There should be requirements, not guidelines as now, which few follow, put in the selection criteria.”

Poulin admitted that he’s been guilty in past years of not wanting to follow the guidelines, but he’s not alone.

Using the German team as an example, Poulin explained that the team travels together to their training camp, something he concedes may not be possible because the physical distance between our drivers often prevents them from shipping to Europe from a common site. But once all are in the same place, training camp must be mandatory for everyone—no exceptions.

All drivers should plan to arrive at the same time. A week should be spent in camp with three outings a day for each competitor, directed by the team coach, who also must be there the entire time.

Poulin believes the coach should be the director of the team and, by extension, the camp. He shouldn’t ask: “What do you want to work on today?” The coach should be familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of his drivers and have watched them throughout the selection process. He should direct the training.

And, there should be one coach for the entire team, not personal trainers for each driver. “The goal is to create a team, not promote a bunch of individuals. All for one and one for all,” said Poulin.

Team spirit is important for morale and success, and too much individualism prevents cohesion.

The horse inspection is the first opportunity to show in front of the jury. It’s a part of the competition, and Poulin believes it should be taken more professionally and seriously. Other teams arrive in team uniforms—everyone, not just the driver or designated jogger.The person jogging must be fit, able to keep stride with the horses, and present a professional impression. Overweight, stumbling, huffing and puffing, jiggling does not make a good first impression. The goal is for all horses to pass. The team should practice before the inspection and in training camp, with the assistance of the team veterinarian and the coach.

Just as the coach should be present throughout training camp and the competition, so should the team veterinarian. Poulin believes the horses should be inspected daily, especially during the competition after each phase.

It’s incumbent on the team coach to help the drivers warm up before dressage according to what each requires. Some drivers require a long warm-up period, while others do not.

The marathon is where teamwork is absolutely essential. All good information should be shared. The coach should lead a joint hazard walk with the competitors as a group and again separately. At a World Championship, it’s not a competition “to see if we can out-drive our teammates,” said Poulin. “We’re competing against drivers from other countries not each other.”

If a driver or coach has a different idea, it should be shared with everyone.

Communication is another essential element in making a successful team. During the marathon, it’s important that information from the veterinarian regarding the condition of the horses and starting times of the drivers after the rest halt be communicated to the coach and chef d’equipe. Information from the end of E, regarding any problems on course or in the hazards, needs to find its way back to the drivers who are yet to go.

With the final cones competition often the decisive factor in a World Championship, more practice should be scheduled at the training camp. And if the opportunity is available on the championship grounds, practice there is important too.

Each day the chefs d’equipe meet with the organizing committee and bring information back to their team. Poulin believes that a mandatory meeting of all drivers with the chef d’equipe be held each day for the dissemination of this information instead of relating it piecemeal to individuals.

All For One

World Championships offer many social gatherings, and most countries attend together as a team, often in team uniforms.

I attended the 1995 World Pairs Championships held in Poznan, Poland. That particular year, the American Driving Society (of which I was then executive director) and the Carriage Association of America (Jill Ryder was executive director and also organized the tour that I, along with 40-some others, joined) hosted a social reception for all of the countries. At the appointed time, Jill and I stood ready to welcome our guests. To my recollection, every country arrived together as a team with one exception—the U.S. team.

Does it really matter, you might ask?

It’s hard to tell, but a look at the countries that dominate the driving sport might indicate that perhaps teamwork does play a part. Our drivers have great horses and ponies. They have access to some of the best trainers and coaches in the world. The one thing they don’t have is the opportunity to compete weekly against their European competitors, and this is an important component.

Do our international team members have an obligation to those who support them by making financial contributions either directly or through the several fundraising arms that feed into the final pot? What is the total cost of a team medal?

Since World Driving Championships were first held in 1980, the United States has brought back four team medals–one each for the singles, pairs, fours and ponies. The pony drivers lead the way individually, with a gold and bronze for Suzy Stafford and a gold for pony pair driver Miranda Cadwell. Singles driver Fred Merriam earned a bronze, and team driver Chester Weber earned a silver medal. It would be interesting to do the math and find out the actual cost of each of these medals.

If teamwork can mean the difference of even a few points, that small number may be the difference between a medal and fourth place. Isn’t it worth a try?

Poulin’s thoughts and my contributions are from his personal experience as a team member and my observations of those teams that frequent the medal podiums. They’re not meant as personal criticisms or judgments of current or past participants of U.S. teams, many of whom are long-time friends as well as competitors.

With age comes wisdom. We should all take advantage of every opportunity to learn from those who have been there. 

Ann L. Pringle, currently the editor of The Driving Digest, was executive director of The American Driving Society for 20 years and editor of their publication, The Whip. She currently splits her time between Metamora, Mich., in the summer and Southern Pines, N.C., in the winter. She began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

 
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