Development Stagnation – A Discussion of Teams v Clubs

Mark Bignal delves into how he feels about the state of Development in the UK.

I’d like to start a well needed discussion about what I believe to be a factor limiting the development of the sport in the UK: how we are focusing too much on developing Ultimate teams, and missing out on the benefits of developing Ultimate clubs.

For clarity, I’ll be using the following definitions here:

Team – A team usually consists of one squad (sometimes two) and is only focused on providing a single type of opportunity: whether high, mid or low level competition, or even those for social players, beginners and juniors, etc.

Club – A club aims to create more than one type of opportunity for their player base.

Recently, I was approached by EuroZone with a few questions about my club, Reading Ultimate, and how we are preparing for WUCC. Among them was a question about what, if any, pick-ups we’ll be getting. EuroZone’s emphasis on pick-ups shows the problem that the sport needs to discuss. There are too many teams interested only in only the short-term gains (qualifying for or winning Nationals/Euros/WUCC) and too few clubs interested in long-term development.

At the UKU’s AGM, a disappointing trend was highlighted: the number of memberships at club and university level has stagnated over the past three years where a few years ago, memberships were growing healthily. The GB junior scene highlights the situation, with the majority of the GB boys selected from a handful of schools, whilst GB girls didn’t even send a team to Euros last year. Now, I’m aware it’s not all doom and gloom: more teams are entering Tour than ever (equating to ~100 more players on the scene), Men’s BUCS (university) leagues have more attendance, and there’s talk of a Women’s BUCS league starting up.

What players want from our sport will fluctuate throughout their careers. The team focused structure predominant in our sport means that they need to change team frequently in order to get what they want. Any point at which players have to stop playing with one group, move to a new one and start again risks drop-off, and so with players needing to change teams more frequently, we will see more players stop playing altogether.

BritDisc has been populated in recent weeks with posts about trials and winter open sessions, which are great recruitment tools. Yet, when these teams select their squads for the year, they will also be turning down plenty of willing players. What happens to these unsuccessful players? No doubt some will move to another team, and some will retire, or not play at all.

I feel that we, as a sport are not progressing at the rate we should. By being focused only on our team, and how to improve that team, we encourage teams to turn people away and yet also to pick up players for challenging tournaments. We make people focus on only developing first teams, at the expense of developing second and junior teams (who could develop into the first team a few years down the line). And we promote a way of thinking (and a business model) which will never challenge the best.

So it is time to discuss pick-ups. Pick-ups serve their purpose. However, I’m not talking about when teams are low on players and get some extras in to help with numbers. I’m talking about pick-ups made to strengthen a squad, who are selected over players who already exist in the team. Such additions provide artificial short-term growth of a team, but are usually selected over someone who may have more long term potential who would benefit from extra development opportunities. Instead of growing that player, you risk alienating them and pushing them away. Colony, Australia’s best team, have just confirmed they’re picking up Jimmy Mickle for WUCC. I may be wrong (he may move to Australia for all I know), but this seems like a short-term gain and Colony seem to be big enough to be able to use a better long-term solution than Mickle. There are long-term gains from selecting such a strong pick up: gaining their valuable experience, increasing training quality and promoting the club. However I don’t see these outweighing the problem of alienating future generations and not providing them with actual playing opportunities.

RU Hat 2017. Photo by Sam Mouat.

Club Development

Ultimate is in a lucky position to have plenty of sports to look at when it comes to development and providing greater playing opportunities. Look at your local rugby, football or hockey club: can you name a sports team that only has one squad? Even Premier League clubs have development and youth squads, and most of them are now aligned with women’s and girls’ teams too. The development teams are designed to create future players for the first teams. Their focus is on the long-term development of players of the future (and therefore saving money). They understand that having these teams are necessary for long-term survival. Why then, is this club-based approach so rare in Ultimate? It’s worth noting that local clubs have a huge amount of volunteers at their disposal to run and support the club. Ultimate is currently lacking this workforce.

So which business model works best? Long term, which team or club is more likely to survive? A team that recruits players whose main interest is playing at a certain level and therefore relies on consistent Tour/Nationals results (for example Wessex disbanding after their second season because they didn’t finish as high as expected so players went elsewhere), or a club that creates a sense of belonging with players wanting to play throughout their career and ability? Now, a second question: which is more likely to perform at the highest level? I’d still bet on the club, it might just take a little longer.

Let’s put this into an example: Clapham (I’m sure they won’t mind). They aim to create the best high-calibre squad to compete at Worlds. Clapham have done extremely well based on a ‘recruit the best players in the country’ process (their success is due to a lot more than that; training, dedication and positive culture come to mind). Clapham’s appeal is based on their culture and results: they’re consistently the best by a comfortable margin. They also benefit from the First Mover Advantage (they weren’t the first but were not far off). The problem is that teams that are trying to beat Clapham are copying their business model without their FMA. National results for the last 17 years prove that it doesn’t work. I can see two options:

  1. Wait for Clapham to slip up and let that gap be breached (I don’t think Clapham are planning to do that);

2. Change business plan: become a club, get juniors, develop players, create a desire to play for you and with time, they may well be dethroned.

This is what I strongly believe. We need our sport’s culture to change. We need to stop being solely driven by our personal, short-term goals. We need to think about the long-term impact of our short-term actions. We need to be selfless. Imagine a four layer pyramid for growth with the lower layers supporting the upper: ‘Foundation’ as bottom layer, then ‘Participation’, ‘Performance’ and ‘Elite’ at the top (google Sports Development Pyramid for many visualisations). Our ‘Foundation’ level is small, and so our ‘Elite’ is even smaller. Where do we invest our time? I’d say invest in our foundations, and then the elite will grow. This process works both on a club and national level.

Here is a list of actions I feel many teams need to take:

  • Change mentality to create scope for growth in your team (now called a club).
  • Allow all players to attend club training (you can create training divisions within your own club to cater for different abilities).
  • Get club members to buy into long-term club culture.
  • Select pick-ups when it suits the long term benefits of your club (usually needed when adding an extra squad) and not at the detriment/alienation of current/future core players.
  • Take personal short-term goals that don’t contradict with long-term club goals.
  • Take the steps to allow juniors into the club (don’t you wish you started this sport at 14?).
  • Take selfless decisions for the club that won’t come to fruition in your playing lifetime.
  • When retiring, don’t retire from the sport, retire from playing and give back to your club (committee, coaching or volunteering). I’m so jealous of other sports with their non-playing volunteers.

By changing our business model we can even dream to take on the Americans and their own FMA.

In this article, I’ve assumed everyone believes that positive growth will benefit the sport. I’ve only really touched the subject of players wanting to play at a high level. I’ve negated, as we often do, all the other thousands of players who just want to play because they want to enjoy the sport, stay fit, socialise, etc. Again, I refer back to the pyramid. The bigger the base of players, the higher the pyramid can rise and the better our elite becomes. I have stated my opinions, and the things I believe our sport needs to do to help that pyramid grow. I want to start a discussion and have definitely missed some arguments so please, carry on the debate.

As a disclaimer, I do not speak on behalf of Reading Ultimate. Since some will think I am doing so: Reading Ultimate is far from perfect. It has made many mistakes and will make many more as it grows and learns from those mistakes. It’s trying, as other clubs, to juggle many needs and that is difficult. We’ve yet to crack the junior and recreational scene.

Feature image by Sam Mouat of Reading vs Black Eagles at EUCF 2017.

14 thoughts on “Development Stagnation – A Discussion of Teams v Clubs”

  1. Really good article raising lots of good ways of going about implementing the change which is likely necessary to grow the sport as a whole in this country. I have always been impressed with the work being done by Brighton, Reading and Glasgow (to name a few) at growing regional ultimate, and coming from the now defunct Limited Release which flirted with the Wessex program before eventually pretty much folding (no club exists in Southampton now as far as I know), I have definitely seen the benefits first hand of going with Club over Team.

    It’s also a great step towards what I think would be an even better structure, which would be to establish a similar thing to what is seen in some Ultimate hubs in the US, where “teams” can exist outside of club structures, but interaction between players at all levels still takes place because the overarching competitive structures are in place (like spring/summer/fall/winter leagues), and leaders in the communities are able to contribute to development in other ways (coaching schools, running clinics, etc) in addition to their Team commitments. Brighton to me seem the closest to achieving that next step of building a “Community” from a club (teams all play under different names, though they retain the Brighton prefix), as even though London has a larger (I think) player & team base, traditionally higher performance, and many of the things I associate with the US ultimate hubs (non-playing coaches, skills sessions, teams through the full range of skill levels and divisions, Summer League, etc) there seems to be little/no overarching structure, no aims to grow the player base other than “players will move to London because it’s London”, little development work for players not on Team/Club rosters, and few processes being put in place to change that (as far as I can see).

    Though I think we may still a long way off the same “community” culture seen in US Ultimate hubs, the trend seems to be heading in that direction (paid coaching positions at universities, Ultimate being taught in the school curriculum, etc).

    Anyway, interesting and well written first discussion topic of 2018! Thanks!

  2. Oh, and “When you retire from playing, don’t retire from the Sport” I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Part of the problem is there isn’t the number of non-competitive tournaments there used to be. It’s hard to keep less competitive players in the club when they train all year and only have the opportunity to go to maybe a couple of non-competitive outdoor tournaments a year (I’m not including tour.)

    I think there is starting to develop a mentality (especially at uni level) where the main thing that matters is results. It’s hard to think of many teams that will just go out there and have fun without caring about the end result. I know the number of teams going to tour has stayed about the same for the last couple of years but it’d be interesting to see if the number of clubs entering has changed to look at the diversity in the community.

    On a side note I’d like to see Spirit Nationals where the 8 most spirited teams at tour go to nationals. If it’s meant to be the UKU showcase tournament it’d be good to highlight the best aspect of the sport rather than just showcasing the highest level.

  4. First of all I’d like to caveat all of what follows by saying thanks for such a great article and I agree with the general thrust of its main points. However, I feel like it trivialises and overlooks many of the challenges in cultivating this kind of cultural shift, both at the team level and as a community nationally. I should also acknowledge that I am a little out of touch with the UK ultimate scene of late, so forgive any erroneous generalisations I might make.

    The article seems to assume that the reason more teams don’t adopt a club/community based approach over the here-and-now success one is simply a lack of will to change. While this might indeed be the case for some teams, I think there are a number of teams who would take this road if only the wider systems and processes of the scene didn’t make it so difficult, and often unrewarding. There are a range of factors outside of an individual club’s/team’s control that affect whether a club approach is a viable option for them. A few that I can think of quite quickly are:

    1. The transient nature of teams’ success
    This is a chicken-egg argument I suppose, so I won’t expand upon it much. The main point is that teams’ success is so heavily dependent upon the talent they can draw, and that talent is highly mobile. In the mid table particularly, teams rise and fall based on their personnel, not their approach to sustainable club development. This relates to…

    2. The fact that the player base is young and geographically mobile
    I think I’m right in saying that the player base consists largely of 20-somethings who move around a lot to suit their career/life goals. This means that a commitment to a team is often inherently a relatively short term commitment (in club development terms).

    3. The lack of local/regional coordination of the player base and teams
    Some player-hubs appear to do a good job of coordinating the large numbers of players in their area into a manageable number of clubs/teams that complement one another and provide options for local players. Other areas, even ones with a very large player base (*cough* London *cough*) do a less good job of this, and there are more and more teams all the time scrabbling for the same (stagnant) player base. How many teams train on clapham common (or in/near SW London)? I can think of at least 6 teams who have hosted session that area so far this winter. Would some of these teams be better off coming together under the same umbrella to form a bigger “Club”, given that they essentially compete for the same groups of players? Yes, absolutely (IMHO). But to the best of my knowledge there is not enough communication among the leadership of these teams to facilitate such a shift at the present time. While that’s the case we cannot expect “teams” to clubbify themselves on their own, as they cannot achieve the critical mass to make a success of it. What’s more, would the top teams be prepared to take the short-term dip in performance while the dust settles? And that brings me neatly on to…

    4. The fact that humans en masse are inherently bad at delayed gratification
    In my experience, driven, motivated, ambitious players (the kind you would like on your team), are keen to play at the highest level they are capable of NOW, not in five years time. While this might be a short-sighted view (a separate debate), I believe that is an accurate depiction of many young players. I also believe this is the advice many coaches (or indeed peers) would give to a player (“Gain experience at the highest level you can”) in order to develop. Our country is small and well connected enough that players can represent a team at the opposite end of the country to their home if they choose (another debate), so there are few incentives to train with a team that is “below” your level, even if it is local to you. If my (hypothetical) team makes a commitment to long term development but it hurts their short term success and the top players have a better alternative on the table, I can trust that over time they will take it, especially if we don’t achieve success quickly. What is stopping them? (besides integrity, loyalty, a sense of the greater good and all those other nice things that are desirable but ultimately unrealistic to expect in people en masse). Club loyalty is not strong enough and the barriers to jumping ship are so low.

    The result of this is that teams/clubs can set out with a long term plan, and ultimately just feed their talent up the chain. When the goal is to develop a higher performing team/club, this can all feel a bit unrewarding. I believe this is a problem at all levels and why the top 8 open teams at nationals are pretty stagnant (6 teams have featured in the top 8 at nationals every year for the last five years) and the top two are pretty much locked out. While not wanting to down-play the hard work these top teams do, their ability to recruit the top talent is still their ace card, and that comes from their success, the promise of attending Euros/Worlds/making GB etc. No matter how friendly and welcoming I make my club’s culture, I cannot compete with that (until I achieve some critcal-mass of talent/success, which is not easy). Which brings us on to…

    5. The competitive system rewards short term peaks in performance
    The 2017 season has epitomised this. Understandably, individuals and teams at the higher levels want to play at worlds. We can trust that teams and players (in general) will do what they can to maximise their chances of achieving that. I’m sure many players quickly realised their best chance of getting to worlds was to play in the mixed division, which resulted in a significant spike in the standard of mixed this year. Compare the standard of 2017 to say 2014 when Birmingham and Pingu Jam qualified for Euros. Even that success was (IMO) opportunistic, and who can blame them! The system provides (relatively short term) rewards, for short term successes.

    You’re asking teams/players/captains to do things like “Get club members to buy into long-term club culture” and “Take selfless decisions for the club that won’t come to fruition in your playing lifetime.”, that I completely agree with. But you make it sound like these are easy, trivial things to do. I’m completely sold on the club approach in theory, I just think there needs to be more discussion about HOW to actually achieve these things in practice. And maybe that process starts at a broader level than just individual teams becoming more clubby. Anyway, your article is a start to that discussion so thanks again for that.

  5. Excellent article. Long-time admirer of Reading and its philosophy. Agree with all the comments.

    Expanding on the notes about the London scene, it’s great to see a rise in dedicated coaches and skills sessions run by generous clubs (esp in women’s). The increased engagement with uni players is a testament to their success and already seems to be paying competitive dividends.
    P.T. makes valid points, there’s still space for greater collaboration. Perhaps more scrimmages and friendly tournaments would also allow players and clubs to learn from each other without losing their identities in amalgamating together.

    London seems proportionally weakest at actively building its player base. I agree that we are often guilty of waiting for existing ulti players to drift to the city. Perhaps we should be bulling the bottom of our ‘sports development pyramid’ by recruitment of non-ulti players. Why stop at uni students? Let’s learn from Reading and look at recreational players. Spring League had some success with limited resources but there are lots of social sports organisations we could work with and/or learn from. GoMammoth, Rabble, Playfit to name a few. 1000s play in these social clubs every week. If we have already reached out and there were complications it’d be interesting to hear what they were.

  6. I suppose part of it is, that the majority of players care very little about whether Clapham and Iceni can step up and this whole Big Picture thing doesn’t cross their mind even the slightest.

    I’m generally in favour of the thoughts, and am always in favour of thinking about frisbee. But I’m not sure framing it as a developmental pyramid where a wider base makes for a potentially peakier peak will resonate that far, since I’m not sure the number of people who care about the elite teams is that big, in the grand scheme.

  7. Good stuff and I agree completely, selflessness and focus on long term achievements instead of short term gains is very important. One big step Brighton took a few years ago was to decentralise the teams from the club – so the Brighton Ultimate club committee stepped back from all matters involving trials, trainings, picking players, deciding how many teams to send to Tour, doing team kit orders, and so on, and instead now focus on the foundations of the club – encouraging and developing all levels of Ultimate in Brighton by providing opportunities such as pickup / coached trainings / league events, introducing the game to beginners, and supporting Brighton teams through facilitating communication, fronting fees for developing teams entering Tour, subsidising elite teams entering international competitions, and so on. It’s freed up loads of time for the BU committee to do lots of work to positively contribute to the community, but it does require volunteers. Serious players will always sort themselves out into teams and ‘volunteer’ to do that work which directly contributes to their short-term gains.

  8. Nice article. I’ve often dreamed of a club and sport for the whole family. With lots of age divisions. I believe recruitment is the main issue and trying to get more people to take ownership of how to introduce the sport to more people and giving them opportunities to play starting off. I liked Felix’s comment so much I’m just going to copy and paste a bit of it:

    “the Brighton Ultimate club committee stepped back from all matters involving trials, trainings, picking players, deciding how many teams to send to Tour, doing team kit orders, and so on, and instead now focus on the foundations of the club – encouraging and developing all levels of Ultimate in Brighton by providing opportunities such as pickup / coached trainings / league events, introducing the game to beginners, and supporting Brighton teams through facilitating communication, fronting fees for developing teams entering Tour, subsidising elite teams entering international competitions, and so on. “

  9. This article raises a lot of good points. I think most people will agree that the sport needs to grow its base, if it’s to grow in a meaningful and sustainable way. I also have a strong suspicion that people perceive the sport as a little ‘top-heavy’; it’s too focused on the highest level, at the expense of grassroots development.

    I think if team’s followed the advice of this article, it’d be a good start, but ultimately this kind of change cannot be driven by individual clubs. As other’s have said, the focus for most clubs is on winning. They’re unlikely to want to sacrifice their own success to contribute towards the growth of the sport, at least not when no one else is doing it.

    Another question is this; why would a big club want to contribute to local development of ultimate? They can get all the pickups they need, and the only tournaments they play at require travel in any case. The proportion of teams which do nothing for their local ultimate community is a huge problem with the sport right now. How many teams at tour could say they introduced people to the sport? It seems that the majority of players find the sport at university, and almost none through a local club.

    UKU needs to follow up on the clear message sent through their strategic survey. Players don’t care about high level ultimate. They care about local teams. I might be missing something, but I haven’t personally seen anything yet to suggest UKU is moving in that direction at all. I’d be very happy to be corrected on that.

  10. Brilliant article. Agree with a lot of the sentiments and am also a big fan of what Reading have been doing; they are comfortably my favourite team to lose to (and I do it often).

    Just to comment briefly on the recruitment of players:
    In my experience, the teams that are super inclusive and do outreach to non-ultimate players also tend to be teams that NEED to in order to stay afloat and get a team together. The problem is that there are not many athletes sticking around with WeAreSuperFriendlyButBloodyHopelessUltimate. Similarly, there are not huge amounts of top tier teams that need to worry about recruiting new players to the sport. You just need to finish somewhere near the top with any team to attract the kind of team hopping opportunists we have been talking about.

    Imagine how different the ultimate scene would look if every top 8 womens, open and mixed team took on a few new-to-ultimate players a year instead of just pillaging teams below.

    Can we bring in contracts? I’d follow the transfer season…

  11. As a slight addendum to a previous comment about the stagnating player base, personally i think it is less appealing to play ultimate at a recreational level now than it was 5 years ago.

    As a player that has no grand designs on winning Tour or Nationals or any of these events, the first event i would look for is BTT. With Nationals being moved to the bank holiday weekend in August, we lost arguably the most ideal weekend for recreational players to go to a large tournament. This is a very minor example of multiple shifts over the past few years, that have slowly taken away the best opportunities for fun players to go out and enjoy themselves.

    While the best uni players will continue to play ultimate and find a club, i would be curious to know how many of the mid-level or low-level talents but highly motivated players are lost. The kind of players that are club volunteers at rugby and football clubs around the country. So while i do agree a better club culture may help support that, i also think part of the onus is on UKU to better represent the community as a whole and not just the elite.

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