Closing the gap

Canadian Ultimate, Clapham, GB, highlight reel, Japan, Kapow, Rhino., USA Ultimate

David Pichler questions how large the gap between the Big Three and the rest of the world actually is.

In the last 2 weeks, USA Ultimate teams went 36-0.  4 golds.  Dang.

GB teams were competing in all these divisions which Team USA won.  Our medal count wasn’t quite as prolific as our American counterparts, every returning player’s suitcase was a little lighter than hoped.  Most, although not all, medals went to the countries in ‘The Big Three’.


By The Big Three I am refering to USA, Canada and Japan.  These three nations seem to dominate when it comes to medals at the major international events.  In recent years GB have had the focus and talent to push these nations close but never seem able to make the leap from challengers to champions.  Why are these countries ever elusive to us?  That question can be best answered if we look first at what’s getting us in with a shout to begin with.

Players

Our players are good enough.  Did you see Joe Thompson in that Canada game?  Sam Bowen?  Our U23s boys went to toe to toe with the best Canadians and they stood out.  And this isn’t a recent phenomenon, are you aware that a now retired Fire player played on DoG for 4 seasons?  DoG!!!  I’m sure you know Justin Foord casually picked up for GOAT in October (copycat) to play USAU Nationals where they came 6th.  UTI have beaten superstar teams from every country at Paganello, our Mixed Masters Beach team took gold at WCBU in 2011.  We produce good players.  Our best can rival the best anywhere.


Fitness

We are, oh so fit.  I started playing for Chevron in 2005 in time to compete at EUCC in Rostock.  The fitness we were doing then was shuttles.  50m shuttles one day, 100m shuttles later in the week.  This regime did not leave me feeling that fit.  Four years later when training for the World Games every person on that team was in the gym doing squats, deadlifts, hang cleans, split squats, step ups etc etc.  In Taiwan Team USA thought we were the most physical team present.  This attitude, through the GB set up, has trickled down to the top clubs, through the A and Women’s tour and beyond for anyone who wants to improve their game.  I am confident that the GB U23 Open team could beat several teams on fitness alone.


Skills

I think a myth about players for ‘The Big Three’ is that to a man they can all throw pitch length, into wind, backhand break hucks.  Perfectly.  Some of them can.  Most cannot.  In fact, the throwing ability across all but the very best US teams (Revolver, Ironside) will vary across the roster.  You’ll always have athletic D monkeys not comfortable breaking a mark.  In fact, watching the US and Canada U23 Open teams I’m surprised how little they actually do break a mark.  Sure they post up big hucks or money lead passes in tight spaces, but their conversion rate is not 100%.  Far from it.


Since I’ve been playing the old guard has bemoaned the focus on fitness at the expense of skill development and execution like a your Granddad complaining that things were better in his day (they weren’t.  Where’s your iPhone, Gramps?).  I don’t think we’re a million miles off the top teams in this regard at all, but there is a difference which we will get to.  However in terms of ‘can you break a mark, can you throw an nice huck, can you hit the open side 100%’ we’re pretty close.

Club Competition

Clapham are big fans of travelling to US tournaments for a full weekend of hard games because it’s more than they can get at home.  Really?  Yes.  And you know what, they pick more Ls than Ws.  Against the big teams at least.  A cursory glance at recent results domestically would show that Clapham need to travel in order to get a good game.


Chevron beat EMO 15-3 at Tour 3.  That game was 2 v 3 in terms of where the teams finished.  Clapham beat Chevron 15-5 in the final of Tour 2.  Fortunately sport is not a zero sum game, three weeks later Clapham squeezed out a sudden death win on Chevron at Tour 3 despite being down most the game.  What does this tell us?  Probably only that Clapham is the best club team in the country on any given weekend.  If you look outside the top 2 at Tour you’ll see an ever shifting miasma of teams beating each other.  Fire slipped to 9th with their 2nd team overtaking them two Tours in row.  Devon bounce in and out of the top 8, giving close games to everyone on Saturday.  Manchester play up from B Tour at Tour 1 to 10th at Tour 3.  DED came 4th on Tour last year but never finished in the top 8 this year.  Last year EMO came 5th at nationals, this year 3rd on Tour.

However when you look at where GB U23 Open players come from, 9 from Chevron and 5 or 6 from Clapham, this second tier of strong competition really has a limited effect on the players actually representing GB.  At full open level, it’s easier to count the players not on Chevron or Clapham than to list those who are.

But club competition is not everything.  Buzz Bullets won WUCC in 2006 despite having a relatively shallow domestic competition.  Japan came 5th at WUGC, their lowest finish since 2005 for any Open Women or Mixed team.

I think from this we can conclude that club competition is useful in producing a world beating national side, but not essential.  Don’t forget that GB clubs dominate in Europe, a Clapham v Chevron final in Frankfurt with Fire also in the top 8, 2010 was the only time in the competition’s history a British team hadn’t been in the open final and GB holds reining European Club Championships in Women’s and Mixed divisions.

So what is it?  What’s the missing ingredient?  We have superstars.  We are athletic.  Our throwing and skills are getting better and our club season is the envy of a continent.  Something’s missing.

First of all, know that other teams have been here before.  John Hassell said of GOAT before their break out year in 2007 ‘I nearly gave up because we could smash the teams around us and then got beaten soundly by any of the big teams.  It happened time and time again.’  He also said of games against GB opposition ‘They were always close, but we (GOAT or Canada) were always able to make little adjustments that would take something away and we’d get the break or two we needed.’

As an opponent, as someone on the outside looking in, it feels like The Big Three have a bank of experience, a hidden silver bullet in a golden gun, that we just can’t quite seem to manage.  Where do they get it from?

Clapham at ECC 2009 against Johnny Bravo. Photo courtesy of Justin Foord.


Train Together, Win Together

‘From May to October Rhino trains 3 times a week; 1. Tuesday nights.  2. Thursday nights.  3. Saturday and Sunday.  And we have a team fitness session once a week.’  So echo the words of Matt Melius, captain of Rhino.  How many guys at training?  Does Rhino always have enough for 7 on 7?  Yes.  Weeknights always, weekend 20-25 players.


This dedication is rewarded with 2 weekends off in July, one in August.  Weekends, not week nights.

What happens if a player doesn’t show up for 2, maybe 3 weeks?  ‘They don’t play.’  Rhino came 10th at Nationals in 2012, having not been in a looooong time.  Are Rhino unique in this regard?  No.  Revolver run a ‘humility ladder’ on the Monday after tournaments.  As a team.  It doesn’t count as a team practice.  They hit the gym in their own time as well.  They cleat up as a team as often as Rhino.

GOAT train three times a week.  I attended a practice on a sunny Thursday one August in 2010 and they had over 20 guys there.  They weren’t there to see me.

Clapham train twice a week; Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings.  They have a roster of 32 players and when my club trained next to them on Balham common 2 weeks ago Clapham had 16 players present.  Chevron train once a month.

Over the winter my club team Ka-pow! booked rubber crumb pitches to allow us to train whatever the weather.  From January to April we had 53 hours of team time.  Rhino would match 4 months of Ka-pow! time in little over 4 weeks.

Buzz are a semi professional outfit, Bunka Shutta will hire anyone who makes the team (or so the rumour ran in 2008), and Bunka Shutta players are entitled to time off work each day to train.  On Bunka Shutta provided fields.

From looking at this, for me the clear difference between GB teams and The Big Three is we don’t take it seriously enough.  Which is a strange thing to say.  Most of the best players in this country are already training 3-4 times a week, but only 1 or 2 of those actually involve playing Ultimate.  The rest revolve around hitting the gym or the track.  Both are worth while training devices, in substitution for Ultimate, but aren’t better than actually playing.

But I’m also struck not just by the frequency, but by the timing.  Club ultimate runs, maybe, for 5 months of the year in the US.  All teams have trials after the university season.  Here, clubs train year round.  It’s no wonder attendance for even the top teams can be variable when it’s a constant commitment.

There’s no way Clapham could cut a player who decides to skip training for a couple of weeks to do other things.  Certainly not one of their stars.  Likewise I think, with Tour starting in late May/early June, clubs would be fearful of missing out on the best players if they ran trials after Paganello.


But clearly upping the frequency of training to match the best teams in the world while maintaining the year round training calendar is not practical for an amateur sport.  Which means if GB clubs and country want to win.  If they want to make it The Big Four, we must change not in the way our clubs train, but how often?

What do you think? Comments always welcome! DP @ tSG.

6 thoughts on “Closing the gap

  1. Great article, Dave. I think in addition to what you have mentioned is the way sport is bred in North America, for instance.

    Rising team-based athletes are, from a very young age, exposed to an ever increasing amount of tactics within explosive based sports (A.football/Basketball), which are primary sports in North America. I believe that this also contributes to how well adjusted they can be on the field in terms of spatial awareness and being tactically astute (by identifying and making those tiny adjustments and performing them well, individually, for the win).

    Too often I have been in huddles in the UK and for GB when what is discussed is more motivational ('come on' etc etc) and not neccessarily enough tactical advice which can change a game.

    Think of this comparison as the amount of tactics employed by sports such as American Football and Basketball and what kids are exposed to from a young age in North America… then compare it to the Great British staple tactic of, at best, 4-4-2.

    Dav
    Chevron

  2. The lack of intense training might very well be the root cause behind what I'm about to suggest…

    My opinion of the direct reason for losing is a bit simpler:
    We don't cultivate handlers/game managers in the UK.

    Out top clubs put a huge emphasis on big plays and superstar moments. But where are the upcoming Si Hill/Colonel/Stu Mitchell/Steve Vaughan etc? Players who know how to control the game when the other team gets two breaks in a row.

    Germany are brilliant at this [cultivating game managers] (see Nico, Haas etc) and anyone who's watched their U23s will agree they're likely to become a big European power in the next 3-5 years, USA have always had loads (Watson/Cahill, Stubbs – you can find at least one per team that actually does well throughout the season). Incidentally, I think that Japan's (Matsuno and Tanaki(?) [#2]) are getting too old which I'd attribute as being directly responsible for their minor drop off in the last year.

    I reckon if we'd had the athletes at the same time we had the game managers then we'd have had a shot at really competing in international competition, now we've got the athletes but a lack of focal points for them to work around. Maybe someone is coming through but it sure doesn't seem like it.

  3. !00% agree, Emo have struggled getting 14 to a Weekly practice since Tour 1 and we have 2 Teams and almost 40 players; let alone 2 or 3 sessions per week.

    I recently read the Ben Wiggins post about how he threw every single say (bar 1 or 2) for a year, again the majority of players i know would feel good if they threw once per fortnight (not including team sessions).

    Really does explain the difference.

  4. This article is a great read, and a fascinating insight from some experience across the pond. I think your point about the timing and length of the season is key. The year round commitment that Ultimate is for most players maybe prevents these shorter periods of focussed and intense training. A committed Uni player representing their team indoors and outdoors could easily move seemlessly through Uni indoors, Uni Outdoors, Mixed Tour, Open Tour, Regionals, Nationals, repeat. Maybe this is a problem more specific to developing players than elite, but one precedes the other I suppose. Incidentally, I think the lack of a real off-season is also a cause of high rates of injury at many levels, which is also something that limits potential, training attendance etc. A relatively short, intense training and competitive season, with good pre-season prep might have more benefits for elite club teams looking to find the edge. But more pragmatically, are there enough people really prepared to make such big commitments? Even for a shorter time? Given the relatively broad geographical player base of most elite teams (some exceptions), are people prepared to commit the time/expense to get to training thats an hour+ drive away 3 times a week? Would be interested to know how far the players on elite US teams travel to their regular trainings, as this could potentially debunk my argument. Or perhaps they are just more committed.

  5. Dave,

    Interesting article. I think you could take your observations further though. It seems to me that one reason we don't train much is because we don't have to. For example:

    – In many provincial towns there is only one team and they will take any player that can throw or has played before. If that guy doesn't train much, why should the others turn up?
    – In London there's a massive arms race between teams to get the best players first. If there was a better agreement between teams to start later and more social winter ultimate to keep addicts busy, then this may change.
    -Clapham still win even when they only manage mini every other Tuesday

    These examples happen because there's still not enough depth in quality players to drive the best to have to work harder. We rely more on their desire to work harder.

    It's changing though. For example, Brighton is a great example of a competitive local scene.

    Anyway, as ever, I feel that the USA are better because they have more active players. So clubs in the UK should do their bit for GB by setting up structures to ensure quality coaching and commitment in their towns. And the UKU has this as a focus. We will get a gold!

    Will

    PS It's a shame you left Australia out of this as they don't have many more players than us but seem to have successful programs and structures. I wonder what their local scenes are like?

  6. I agree with Dave Pitchler – Open teams should select players that turn up to training – problem is – not enough players – solution = encourage more athletes to join and train them (some of the athletes at the World Games had only been playing for 2 years max).

    Having played World Games I also agree completely with DT, we need to nourish/encourage leaders. We just played. Played for ourselves, played for our country but lacked that sacred bond/glue that pulls a team together – playing for each other.

    Dav, I agree but I think we do have a lot of very tactically-aware players. – That article on the World Games stated – GB are a one trick pony (huck it to the big guys), I think this translates to how GB play in all divisions. But additionally this tactical advice should come from a coach (i.e. a non-playing player). Another thing I notice is that club teams from USA, Canada and Japan have support – including non-playing people who undertake coaching and administrative duties. Too often (I think), club captains are forced to make tired, difficult tactical decisions where a coach would be in a better position to make a decision.

    Once again, it's seems to be about recruitment and encouraging people to support their local teams (even in a non-playing capacity). We need to nourish our own club teams, rising star players need to take an active interest in developing their club teams.

    If you think about lots of the successful teams you have mentioned, most of them are pretty geo. Clapham, EMO, Brighton, Devon, Iceni, Kapow, Cambridge. Looking outside of the UK, Flying Angels (Bern), Freespeed (Basel). Having spoken to Mish from Melbourne they have a pretty tight geo team structure in Australia. Its all about that by-in to train together.

    And about training all year round. Couldn't agree more. We are so committed to Ultimate Frisbee already, shortening the season would (for most players) be like giving me part of my life back.

    In summary: Recruit more players! Nourish handlers and leaders (and people to do admin for the club!)

    Issy

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