Development Versus Winning: The Importance of Pitch Time

Sophie Edmondson starts off the new Discussion section with a look at squad sizing and its implication for player development…

Looking back over last season, something that’s puzzling me is something I’ve not given much thought before now. Perhaps it’s because 2013 was my first time at the helm of a club team. This is the first time I’ve realised just how important squad size is. On the surface the topic of squad size sounds pretty dull but it has lots of layers to it. No doubt there are lots of teams and individuals out there that have different experiences and opinions on what works best.

I write from the viewpoint of the women’s division on the UK domestic tour and at xEUCF 2013. I haven’t done a ton of homework collecting stats from each team about who played when and where, nor have I acted upon the knowledge that Iceni significantly shortened their lines in the final at Europeans last year. I’m sure had I done this a few home truths would be revealed both statistically and anecdotally but that’s still up for discussion.

At the LLLeeds Ladies AGM last year it was clear that 2013 was going to be a fresh start and the drive for new players was a priority. Turns out there’s a lot of female frisbee talent in the north and luckily trials were packed out. In summary: we settled with a squad of 22 which quickly went down to a tour team of 17 through unfortunate injuries and drop-outs.
Leeds Women at London’s Calling 2013. Photo courtesy of David Sparks.

We finished 4th at Tour and at Nationals and came 15th (last) at Euros. We went to xEUCF with 12 players. In Bordeaux we didn’t play a team with fewer players than us and we didn’t finish in the same bracket as any of the other UK teams. In fact we didn’t actually win a game (story of my 2013 life) but I’m confident in saying this was one of the best tournaments I’ve played in from the perspective of being a “team” and in terms of players’ development.

We lost in part due to the lack of playing experience and in part due to legs. With a bigger team I think we could have won a game or two. At the start of last season, xEUCF wasn’t even on our radar so we had no expectations about taking titles; LLL were in that well-talked about “development season”.

What baffles me though is that Tour, Nationals and European Champions Iceni were arguably in a development year too. They held weekly winter sessions open to all, then took a squad big enough to field two teams at tours 1 and 2, giving a large number of London based players regular quality weeknight practices with coaching and game play.

So is the question really about development versus winning? Yes.

At xEUCF Iceni’s large squad had 27 rostered players and they went on to win. I’m not going to dispute how good winning feels but I get the impression there is some contempt among some Iceni players who went to France but didn’t get a proper jab at the final.

Would it have been better for Iceni to focus on using the whole team, as evenly as was feasible, and let everyone have a shot playing in a European final? I’d argue that the only way we can develop women’s ultimate is to do precisely that. A team works hard together to get to the final and then all players contribute on pitch in the big game.

Easier said than done; if we want women’s ultimate in the UK to improve in line with the rest of the world we need to empower the new talent we’ve just spent a season nurturing. That means even amounts of pitch time in the biggest games of the season. Possibly for Iceni that can be achieved by moving towards a more possession rather than their current yardage based style of play and potentially by taking a slightly smaller team to xEUCF.

Their opposition in the 2013 final was U de Cologne, a relatively fresh team on the circuit who were joined by the formidable force of former European champions Sara Wickstrom and Susanne Theimer. They rocked up with 17 players and came second. If it was all down to legs then surely Iceni should have panned them, right? Perhaps I’m underestimating both the powerhouse that is Cologne and the combined experience within Iceni last year but I’m definitely not underestimating the power of pitch time for player development.

Perhaps my initial assumption that Iceni were in a “development season” this year is wrong.  If so, that may explain why despite already qualifying for 2014 World Clubs they still shortened their lines in the final of xEUCF. I don’t know the ins and outs of who got more/less pitch time and the reasoning behind it but it would be interesting for someone to shed some light on the topic.

There’s a risk that some people may interpret this article as an excuse for some Iceni-bashing, ignoring the themes at its heart. But I’ve noticed, since moving to London earlier in 2013, it’s obvious that there’s a real buzz about women’s ultimate here at the moment and it’s something to be harnessed.

I strongly believe the capital has space for two strong geo women’s teams.

I wonder what would happen if Iceni took a smaller squad at the beginning of a season and if this would add fuel to the development of the women’s scene in London. Many cite Iceni’s established geo-ethos as a reason to trial as it enables regular well-attended practices. Surely that’s what almost every team is striving for but can’t always deliver.

With a more even distribution of geo players across – still distinctly separate – London teams and a combined closed London women’s practice, could we achieve the best of both worlds: quality practices and more of the ‘tough game’ pitch time? Other benefits would include: pushing the skills of more players already near the top of their game, creating better contact between clubs and potentially forging connections in preparation for future GB teams.

Development isn’t just about coaching and improving, it’s about tournament experience and knowing what it takes to be a cog in a bigger machine. More pitch time means more contribution to your team’s efforts and more experience playing different opposition. Some hold the viewpoint that if you’re fully engaged in your team you can be just as engrossed in a win when supporting from the sideline as you would through playing on pitch. In my opinion sideline can never be a substitute for feet on pitch and hands on disc. The UK’s performance at the top for both club and country will only continue to improve if we seek to give our players the chance to match up, train with and compete against the toughest opposition possible.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below, or even better submit a response to

6 thoughts on “Development Versus Winning: The Importance of Pitch Time”

  1. Lots to think about in here. Development vs Winning has been a subject on my mind for a while. Nice to hear that is a constant struggle to find the balance throughout the whole Ultimate World and not something that I just struggle with to weigh up. However, in my context; a University team, I find the balance even more difficult. With the constant influx of players and outflow of experienced players, it's easy to keep a development focus all the time I find. In the macro sense of Ultimate, this is great. I suppose ego comes into it at a University level…

  2. Presumably it depends whether Iceni had a one-year development plan, or if they were looking further ahead when last year's team was initially selected. There could, theoretically, be players who are more likely to make the Iceni 2014 squad having spent a season there already, who may not be in the same situation now had they played elsewhere last year? 

  3. Can the argument be made that players had a full season to develop before the xEUCF final? If there isn't something to work towards, something to achieve, than the drive to develop personally is often diminished. Having trained for a season, competed in Tour, UK Nationals and the early stages of xEUCF, I believe that any club would be perfectly justified in making any personnel decisions they felt provided the club with the best means to achieve, what I would assume was, one of their primary goals for the season.

  4. Nice piece, Eddie!

    One thing that I think really sharpens the tradeoff that you're discussing between winning and development is the difference in both intensity and attention between training and tournaments. The better your practice scrimmages, the less development relies on pitch time against other teams. In my favourite seasons (highly correlated to ones I've most improved– at something– in) practice was as intense as tournaments, and often tougher, as my teammates were more challenging than (most of) my other opponents. Where training is a bigger part of what it means to be on a team, there's also much more to the idea that you don't need pitch time to make a contribution to your team's success: your role may be to show up all season long and challenge your starters at training so that they have that feeling when they get on the field, that nothing the other team throws at them will be as tough as what YOU served up at practice. Outsiders may give credit to the starting 7 but you and your teammates will know that they're basically as good as you've made them.

  5. Great article. It's nice to hear someone challenging the “powers that be”. I didn't follow Iceni domestically too much, but I would say that taking two squads to Tour shows that they realise the importance of pitch time for player development.

    As for shortening lines in a major final, you have to remember the motivations of each team member might be different. Let's divide the team into three groups: “been there, done that” players who have several European titles under their shirt and quite frankly would be happy to give up their own pitch time for the good of the squad; “happy to be there” players who are playing at their first ever big tournament and would love to just get a single point in the final; and the “up and coming” players who have spent a few seasons at the club, are recognised as strong players but have not yet achieve superstar status. I think for the third group, winning is far, far more important than development. They've put the effort into to develop (in their minds at least), and now they want medals. Don't forget that some people are attracted to the likes of Iceni purely so they can get their hands on bling, and if the club fails to deliver then they risk losing some great players.

    Personally, I have long believed that it is worth losing a game in the early part of the season in order to give much needed experience to a younger player. Blood them early and build them up. The first time I played offence for GB was when we were 11-4 down in a Worlds semi final, which, in hindsight, was a terrible idea. By intentionally benching your stars in some of those Tour games (where you could win 15-3, but instead use the bottom of your roster and win 15-10), everyone is getting experience of performing *when it counts*.

    As for whether London can sustain two strong women's teams, I would say that right now there are not enough players of sufficient quality to have two elite level teams, but that without two equally strong teams, UK womens ultimate may become stagnant compared to the rest of Europe. It may require some short term pain in order to get the long term gain. It is also worth noting just how quickly the womens game has progressed in the UK, and with some strong leaders and good coaching, I could easily envision another club usurping the title.

  6. Thanks Eddie! It's a really good question. To add another perspective, we're happy to share how Nice Bristols have approached this.

    We try not to focus on the choice between development and winning. Development has always been high on our agenda and we believe it's integral to our success. For us, winning comes from improving how we play, both individually and as a team. Winning is the bonus, and we've been fortunate to have more and more of these bonuses over the past few seasons.

    When we were faced with a number of players retiring (aka having babies) a few seasons ago, we had to recruit. You could say these were “development seasons”. We strengthened our links to uni teams, held open training and now regularly get good numbers to training. We didn't hold trials and only selected our 2 teams once we got close to Tour. Our 1st team has had a consistent core, but we've consciously rotated in new players to gain experience. Some of these players are now part of our core, and we've got more coming through. We've also capitalised on connections between some of our newer players, for example the U23's.

    At tournaments, regardless of the game we don't call lines beyond ensuring we have enough handlers and cutters. If you're on the team, we trust you to do your best for the team. We also agree that pitch time is fundamental to players improving, especially when it comes to 'big games'. Consequently, you're more likely to be thrown on the pitch than off. Giving this opportunity to players has been integral to our improvement. Our squad has strengthened, the experienced players have been kept on their toes and the whole level has gone up. Would we win more if we didn't do this? Maybe in the short term but definitely not in the long term and, either way, we would rather every player shares the glory.

    With Worlds this year we've offered places to anyone who played on the 1st's last year and helped us to qualify. The result is we only have a few places to fill. We want wins but we still know this will depend on every player improving so, as with previous seasons, we won’t be shortening our lines. For us a shortened line just means every player being under 5ft 4 (and yes, we can pretty much field 7 in that category).

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