Picking Canada’s bobsleigh teams: It’s all about performance, stupid

Picking Canada’s bobsleigh teams: It’s all about performance, stupid

Think the pilots choose? Think again, says head coach Todd Hays

By Todd Hays for CBC Sports
October 25, 2017

Todd Hays is a former U.S. pilot, Olympic silver medallist, and current head coach with Canada’s national bobsleigh program.

He is also a former coach of the Jamaican bobsled team, a former Toronto Argonaut and a former pro kickboxer. In Todd’s Players Own Voice, he helps the rest of us understand the inner workings of Canada’s bobsleigh teams, what the duties are and how the teams are chosen:

Todd Hays shares some insight on Canada's bobsleigh teams. (Submitted by Dave Holland/Bobsleigh Canada) Todd Hays shares some insight on Canada's bobsleigh teams. (Submitted by Dave Holland/Bobsleigh Canada)

CBC Sports: What exactly is the role of a brakeman or brakewoman?

Todd Hays: It's a pretty simple task, really, but very complex as well. Basically, their job is just to accelerate the sled off the line as fast as possible. That’s it. Use human power to accelerate the sled from zero to fifty metres as fast as they possibly can. You can kind of equate it to a Winter Olympic 50-metre dash. So you think about the one-hundred metre race in the summer. That’s pretty easy to grasp. You just run from here to there. The complex thing is finding a way to run it faster than everybody else.

Timing stats are key to placing brakemen or women. Their speed is obviously, really everything. It’s all about the numbers for these athletes. And of course, it's a very fine margin we are talking about. Every step counts. So we know, as we pick the team, it is about 99 per cent … well let’s actually say 90 per cent about performance.


And the other 10 per cent?

TH: Team dynamic or experience plays a role too, of course, and especially when it becomes…when two athletes are very, very hard to distinguish between. There can be two who are just literally hundredths of seconds apart. On any given day, if you pushed four times, the results will be 50-50 on who’s fastest — literally, that close.

So when it comes down to those things, you have to think about the intangibles: veteran status, how they perform under pressure, their experience in high-level international competitions, how they work with that particular driver throughout the week of the race week or preparation. So those factors certainly do come into play as well.


Do drivers decide who gets in the sled?

TH: That depends. Some teams, drivers have more say than others but right now Canada is trying to relieve the burden of that on our drivers and let the coaching staff pick who they're going to be sledding with — so that the drivers are not burdened with that additional mental task. We are trying to ask them to just concentrate on the track and the particular task at hand for them. But of course the driver, we’ll ask them, if it is in fact incredibly close between two athletes, we’ll just ask in that case: is there someone you feel you like you work better with? That you have a better feeling about? Those types of things. But at the end of the day, it's really almost all about performance.

Kaillie Kaillie Humphries, front, and Heather Moyse, back, have provided Canada its greatest moments on the track. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press) Kaillie Kaillie Humphries, front, and Heather Moyse, back, have provided Canada its greatest moments on the track. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Even when we look at last-minute changes, like the men's four switch the night before finals in [the] Sochi [Olympics]. You know, these tasks become even more difficult when two drivers are very, very similar in their driving as well, and have been comparable throughout the season. Sometimes you get to a track or event that one driver just seems to be picking up that track better than the other, so you just can tell the times or see it in the video on the track, you can just see that one driver is clearly better than the other, based on what you're seeing throughout the week, because of the difference in the times and the video information.

And at that point, if you are unsure, if one driver is inseparable from the other, it's tough to make that kind of call. But when one driver is obviously better than the other, at that point you have to do what's best for Team Canada, and try to put the best guys and women with the best drivers as well.


Canada and the USA don’t always take the same approach to deciding who’s in each sled. I don't know exactly where the U.S.A. is on that right now but in the past it's been done relatively the same way. Performance stats lead the decisions. I can't speak for what it was for Tom [De La Hunty, former Canadian bobsleigh coach] in Sochi. I don't know what their criteria was. In the past I know some nations have had the driver pick the crew, and the driver determine who they want? 

Canadian pilot Justin Kripps, front, was part of a last-minute team change at the Sochi Olympics. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press) Canadian pilot Justin Kripps, front, was part of a last-minute team change at the Sochi Olympics. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

And then there are other nations that go with full coaches’ discretion. Sometimes there's a bit of in between. And the U.S.A. and Canada kind of go back and forth with that. I don't know where the U.S.A. is right now, but I do know where Canada is: the coaching staff will take responsibility for those kinds of decisions.

Cutting people when we know they have been giving it their all for a couple of years that certainly is the worst part of our job. Many of these athletes have been training for multiple quads!  Multiple quadrennials, eight years of doing this and nothing else, and then it comes down to a few hundredths of a second. That’s a very difficult task to have to explain to somebody that their Olympic dream, in fact, won’t be coming true, and someone else will be taking their spot. That is a very difficult task. But we try to message them early on, that this is a highly competitive situation, and we have to simply put the best people in the sled at the opportune time. They know that.

And obviously that also keeps them driving and pushing forward and trying to continue to get themselves better on a daily basis. It’s like any sport. It’s highly competitive, day to day. We all understand the risks and the rewards, of course, and that’s why we continue to do it.


Everybody knows what they signed up for. And that's generally pretty clear up front. But at the end of that day, certainly nobody’s going to be happy about the decision and that always is tough, but of course you have to look at the other side of the decision.

There’s a person who is very, very happy and thinks the coach is a genius, versus the person who now thinks that coach is a total idiot. There’s no middle ground there. 

Unfortunately, that's what we all signed up for.


Right now, it looks like there’s four potential brakewomen (Heather Moyse, Melissa Lotholz, Cynthia Appiah, Phylicia George) in the mix for Team Canada.  Everybody is curious as heck. How’s that decision going to be made?

TH: The thing to understand is that is an ongoing process throughout the season. So we don't always do head-to-head competitions. Throughout the season we'll kind of work from an averaging of the field. After each race, we'll take the top-10 nations and average out where we fit inside of the top 10. How are we comparing to the international average?

So sometimes you'll be X amount of hundredths of seconds above the average and sometimes you'll be X amount below the average, and so throughout the season, by simply doing the mathematics, by trying to keep this as completely unbiased and professional as possible, we just try to let the math work itself out. And at the end of the season, as we pick the Olympic team we just try to pick the women with the best results and the men and women that we feel like are going to give Canada the best opportunity to win medals.

It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

(Large photos by Getty Images and Canadian Press)

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