We had the opportunity to sit down with Team USA’s head national coach, director of coaching at USA curling and Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission board member Phill Drobnick after he returned from the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
As an Eveleth native, Phill Drobnick has ice sports in his blood. The Drobnicks have a storied tradition at the rink, dating all the way back to 1945 when Drobnick’s grandfather won the first ever Minnesota State High School League hockey championship with Evelith. Both of his parents played hockey, curled, and served as Drobnick’s role models throughout his life.
Like his parents, Drobnick curled and played hockey throughout his childhood but decided to focus on curling in the seventh grade. “I thought I would pursue curling because I thought of the possibilities of being able to represent your country, being able to play with your friends and travel a lot,” Drobnick added.
His decision to concentrate on curling paid off at a young age, earning the 2000 Junior National Championship title and taking him to Germany to represent the USA in the World Junior Curling Championships. Drobnick then qualified for the 2001 Olympic trials as the youngest competitor, where he tied for second.
After stepping away from the hog line for a few years to focus on his degree, Drobnick returned to the ice in a new position. “By the time I came back, I was asked to start coaching in 2006 with one of our junior teams that had had some success but were looking for a change in coaching,” Drobnick explained. “The team’s philosophy on asking me was they wanted someone younger that could relate to them easier, instead of having someone older that maybe did things the way they’ve always been done for a really long time.” The change in coaching certainly hit the target for that team, who went on to win the 2007, 2008 and 2009 United States Junior Curling Championships, as well as winning the 2008 World Championship.
Despite Drobnick’s obvious success as a curling coach, he expressed that he was fairly unfamiliar with the craft when he started: “I had experience instructing and teaching people how to curl but not really the coaching aspect of it… I jumped in and used some of my old coaches to help guide me through it and kind of did a lot of on the job training.” Drobnick expanded on the important distinctions between instructing and coaching, noting “just teaching someone how to curl is taking them through the basics… Coaching is setting up team systems and setting up tactical plans and end plans and game plans and working through the team chemistry.”
Building up an elite athlete is no simple task, and curling’s training process looks a lot different today than it did 30, 20, and even 10 years ago. “The first year it was an Olympic sport was 1998. That changed our game as we knew it,” Drobnick remarked. Since joining the winter Olympics, curling has seen a bundle of rule changes and a keen emphasis on the physical and mental side of the game. “Back in 2000 when I went to the Junior World Championships, we all kind did our own little stuff to stay in shape, but we didn’t have a sports psychologist. We didn’t have a trainer with us. Now, I mean our junior team– they’re so much better athletes than we ever were… It’s really changed the way the game is played.”
Drobnick has witnessed curling’s transformation first hand and is excited to see the sport moving in a positive direction: “People are starting to take notice of curling. They’re starting to want to try curling. And the best part is, in our sport, they can do it on a recreational level.” Publicity is everything when it comes to expanding small sports. Fortunately for curling, its community is exceptionally tight-knit. Everyone from coaches to top athletes are devoted to growing the game.
This year Drobnick returned to the Olympics for a third time as a coach in the Beijing Olympics. “This year was obviously different with Covid and obviously some of the human rights things going on with China, but I think for the most part athletes were able to put everything aside and enjoy the opportunity to represent your country.” Although the 2022 games took on a different tone than years past, Drobnick remained in good spirits: “Any time you can put the red white and blue on and have those three letters on your back, it’s an amazing feeling to be able to go, whether its a world championship or the Olympics, and represent your country. I believe we’re the greatest country in the world… and we have some of the greatest fans and people supporting us every step of the way.”