Clown Tent

by | December 14, 2011, 6:15am 0

Andrew Fleming sticks out his tongue. - Photo by Scobel Wiggins

Clown Tent is a team philosophy that shifts the nature of responsibility in an unconventional direction.  Clown Tent is incredibly flexible and powerful, but also really dangerous.  When it goes wrong, it can go really wrong.  When it goes right, though, no team experience is better.  Today I want to look at the history of the idea and the philosophical underpinnings of it.  Next week, I’ll continue with practical applications and questions.

At the beginning of my career as a leader at Carleton (94-95) and extending up through my first stint as captain on Sockeye (98-99) I was very much a devotee of a style of leadership and team philosophy dubbed Brown Shirt.  (I know the name is inappropriate, but it got used and stuck.)  Simply put, Brown Shirt says ‘it’s the team way or the highway.”  The classic example of this is the team that has a very rigid offensive structure without room for individual innovation, creativity or flexibility.  You run the cuts as they are designed.  End of story.  But during my second stint as captain of Sockeye (01-03), that philosophy was put under pressure and eventually gave way to a new idea, the Clown Tent.

In 2002, Sockeye was far from the juggernaut it would become.  Since the success of the three silvers in 95, 96 and 97, we had failed to make Nationals twice and even there, never farther than quarters.  It was a painful, frustrating experience.  In 2002 though, we began to turn the corner.  We went to Worlds and finished 3rd, upsetting Jam and Furious to win the bronze.  The catalyst for these wins was a defensive squad that was very unconventional; it didn’t follow the rules.  Much of the credit for this should go to John Hammond.  Certainly the most creative defender I ever played with, John would do things that were unexpected and unpredictable.  Usually, this would lead to some sort of broken field mess that Roger Crafts and I would try to clean up by poaching, switching and directing traffic.  It was incredibly effective, but there weren’t clear rules.   In describing it to then rookie Giora Proskuroski I said, “John’s going to do something crazy, Roger’s going to poach, I’m going to try to find the missing guy.  You just cover your man.”  The Friar Tuck of this whole mess was Luke Smith, whose giant white mop would serve as the visual inspiration for the name Clown Tent.

Chase Sparling-Beckley smiles after a score. - Photo by Scobel Wiggins

Move forward two years.  Looking back, the 2004 championship has an aura of inevitability about it, but at the time it was far from inevitable.  The team was still stinging from an awful ending to 2003 (both at Regionals and Nationals) and while we were much more talented (having added starters Chase, Nord, Burkhardt and  Keith Monohan), we really struggled to find a cohesion as a team.  As late as ECC, the new young talent was considering walking out and making their own team.  While we were winning more than we had, it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t pleasant.  Roger and I had a conversation that had a small part in bringing the team together and a much larger role in the development of the idea of Clown Tent.  Prior to 2004, Sockeye had been very hard on each other internally.  In mid season, Roger and I decided that wasn’t going to work with the new guys and that the two of us in particular were going to have to lay off.  We continued to be as hard on each other as ever, but softened our tone with the new guys.  Essentially, we started treating each person differently depending on what they needed to be happy and effective.

These experiences (and many others) slowly cohered into the philosophy of Clown Tent which has been one of the foundations of Fugue since 2009.  Although the idea is sometimes vague and hard to define, I think it can be described best as a freedom of responsibility.  As a player, you are responsible to the team to help it win.  How that is going to happen isn’t set in stone, but is essential that it does.  Another lens is trust.  You trust that your teammates are doing the best that they can, while knowing that what they do isn’t necessarily going to be what you do.  The Clown Tent idea, which initially began on the field, has since spread to the track and the huddle and the van and every element of the team experience.  Surprisingly, it has been most powerful completely off the field where it has worked to resolve prickly team dynamics and created a team unified in purpose (if not in action.)

Next week: Successes and failures.  Dangers and pitfalls.

Feature photo of Jamie “Idaho” Arambula by Scobel Wiggins

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