Club or Country Part 1 – Game to Go

Clapham’s Ollie Benjamin provides his viewpoint on the question at hand…
As 2014 moves on, there is a great sense of anticipation, excitement for what can be achieved this club season. Clapham showed dominance in 2013, taking Tour, Nationals, a strong Chesapeake appearance, and for the first time defending Europeans. A good prep year, paved nicely for Worlds in Italy next week.

The core of this team has emerged out of a 2008 transition year when the likes of Rob Alpen, Alex Bowers, Matt Woods, Sam ‘Scando’ Webber, and Adam Holt moved on.  Slowly we rebuilt the squad through new leadership of Colin Shaw, Marc Guilbert, and myself. We brought in JJ Howell, Justin Foord, Richard Harris, Cian O’Morain, brought back Si Hill, and slowly year on year have firmly re-established ourselves as the leading club in Europe.

Ollie gets high at WUCC 2010 in Prague. Photo courtesy of Tom Styles/BlockStackTV.

Slovakia (EUC ’11), Japan (WUGC ’12) and Colombia (WG ’13) as the international GB open destinations have come and gone with encouraging and yet sorrowful showings. The underlying question for club and country is: ‘how can we be the best?’. How do we create the environment that nurtures and innovates the best players, the best team. Our aim, my aim, has always been to play at the highest level, able to compete with the best of the American teams, the top 16, their top 8 and their top 4. Nationally the question begs of how can GB break and beat that top 3 (America, Canada and Japan).  

So what are the required conditions? Depth, Skill, Experience, Flexibility, Resilience – these are the words from current and former club captains at Clapham – they should resonate with those with ambition of greatness.  I am entering my 12th or 13th year as a club member for Clapham. Players come and go; London life is busy. As we (I) grow older, priorities shift, jobs become more demanding, and families emerge.  In amongst this, how do we create the best game in Europe, and how do we build that game, week on week into a system capable of producing a world beating team?  

As the necessary conditions are interpreted by subsequent GB programs, teams will thrive and fall. However there is one condition not listed in the above which might prove a useful discussion point for the GB community. It’s a condition that is wholly absent from the British and European scene at its highest level. This is the the ‘game to go’.  Jim Parinella references this in his ‘Why I’m Still Around‘ piece for Skyd and am sure that many an American and Canadian player would appreciate and understand the importance of those ‘games to go’; what they mean for individual players and what they mean for the team.  

The game to go is what got me hooked. I had the priviledge of playing ultimate in Santa Cruz during the 2001/2 season. I had returned from 18 months abroad in Germany having picked up the sport through the Goettinger 7, and later Wall City in Berlin.  Upon the prodigal son’s return, I was fortunate enough to earn a place on a team coached by Idris Nolan (Jam) and Dan Dewey (Condors) whilst being captained by Sammy C-K and Jeremy Cram (Sockeye). We had a short roster, but it was talented. We battled incrementally throughout the season always working towards Regionals – towards the game to go.  That season, Stanford were runaway favourites and the eventual winners at Nationals. Our northwest division had two places, which having lost to Stanford early on the Sunday of the Regionals meant the back door beckoned. We beat Berkeley and Washington pitting us against an Oregon team lead by Ben Wiggins and others whose names never quite stuck.  I didn’t know who he or they were, I was simply told as a D handler to not let him touch the disc. Off I went. We won the game 15-13. A huge upset. We played out of our skins – it was the stuff of heroes. We made Nationals, where we sucked, but for me it didn’t matter. We won our slot to a closed party, and that meant and still means something big.

I am recounting my small story because it’s part of what shaped me. It’s a format that encourages a level focus amongst like-minded teams.  It creates an annually repeatable camaraderie and a team environment that, if strong enough, makes you believe you actually can defeat anyone (or in my case, if not everyone, at least take the 2 seed). And the thing is, I don’t see this very often over here – with the exception of 8-10 games played with Clapham and 3/4 with GB, the do or die points have been few and far between. They do appear in the great games – queue vs. Flying Angels in 2005/2011, but they are not nearly enough.

So, where am I leading – have you guessed?  I suggest a structural change that allows the team who wins Nationals to take on the helm of representing GB.  They decide who leads the club, who is part of the club, how often they train, what they eat, where they sleep. The one who wins that game to go decides.

The naïve instantly look to the facts. Clapham has won Nationals 13 years in a row, meaning we should be GB, is that right?  Well, yes. I think so.  The team who wins Nationals is the best in the country – full stop.  We have proven this year on year, but have not made the leap to being world beaters.  Why? Well aside from not having enough depth, skill, strategy, there is one reason – and it boils down to simple scheduling.

GB years are a nightmare. They distracts the team’s best players, take them away from I don’t know how many weekends. They drain money, time, etc., and what if that was all invested into the team that won Nationals?  Might that not mean we train more often? Play in more tournaments – and over years, might we not progress more quickly?  We can define the frame for how it might work. The victorious team might elect to take on 5 outside players, or they might keep the squad the same.  Tryouts might be a bit fiercer, and maybe quarterfinals, semis and even finals at Nationals might be that much tighter.

There are lots of ingredients needed to make the leap. The game to go is one element that I know has impact, so why not give it a go – what’s to lose? This country has lots to offer. The upcoming players are serious, as are the senior ones. The mix is right, our members just need to take a leap.

Coming tomorrow – a different perspective from Mark Penny of Chevron Action Flash…

18 thoughts on “Club or Country Part 1 – Game to Go”

  1. I don't really understand this article at all. I'm not saying the author is wrong, I just don't understand a lot of his points.

    1. Maybe Clapham don't have a game to go in the UK because they are so good but many other teams do for Nationals or Euros.

    2. How does a game to go instil a belief that “you actually can defeat anyone” that other formats don't? The best teams still end up playing the best teams every year.

    3. Is the team that wins Nationals really the best team in the country? If Chevron won Nationals this year would he say the same thing? I'd be surprised. I think we'd hear, “but Clapham were so much better and consistent at Tour, this was a 1 off surprise upset”.

    4. Personally, yes I want Clapham to do well against the best clubs in the world but I think it's pretty funny that someone so invested in Clapham presents an argument for Clapham representing GB because it benefits Clapham.

    5. How is allowing the best team in the country (presumably Clapham) to spend MORE time training together and selecting the best players from external clubs going to make quarters, semis or finals tighter? Nevermind the fact that since Clapham are highly more likely to win and represent GB, they are naturally going to draw the best players from other teams at the start of the qualification season.

  2. Some good points here. I'll stay firmly on the fence but provide an insight into what I understood from Ollie's piece. I think his driving point is that if our Nationals finals carried with it as high a bounty as the right to represent GB for the winning club, such a huge incentive at the top would have a knock-down effect, and pull the very best from all UK clubs as they strive to become 'that club'.

  3. One problem with letting Clapham represent GB is that it would draw in even more of the best players. The last few seasons have seen Clapham grow to become untouchable in the tour, at the expense of the other top teams (who have lost valuable players to Clapham). This actually hurts Clapham as they have no local competition, and have to go further afield to get challenged.
    The situation in the US is different, they have a far greater depth of good players, and the distances involved with selecting a team USA from the whole country would be ridiculous.
    I can see the temptation of sending Clapham to represent GB, and I suspect that they might even perform better than a 'selected' squad, but is that more important than raising the overall level of UK ultimate?
    Another benefit of the 'selected' squad is that it brings together the top teams and helps quell animosity between them.
    And anyway, Clapham use the GB squad (and the World Games squad) as a recruitment exercise 😉
    I'm looking forward to seeing how well they do in Italy.

  4. If Clapham automatically become GB, then the competition will get even less for them as they become even more dominant as more and more of the best players go to them.
    How will this benefit Clapham or GB? The competition level will be lower and a game to go as advocated for will become easier and lose relevance.
    How many players from the most successful GB Open squad (ever?) in recent memory at WUGC in Japan played on teams other than Clapham? Would the GB squad have gone one better if they were all Clapham players?
    I understand the logistical arguments as Ultimate players already spend so much time training and playing tournaments.
    But I think the best way to improve the chances of the national teams is to improve the overall spread of quality across the country and thus drive competition, and I've been really impressed this season with the growing strength of regional based teams.

    Lastly, there is an underlying message (perhaps unintended) that the final of nationals is meaningless, or that whoever goes up against Clapham doesn't try as hard as them or would try harder if the opportunity to represent GB was up for grabs which I find ridiculous.

  5. We would want our best team to go. That would be from the first player to the last. By all means having the leading captains decide all the decisions but not as one club. It also doesn't give the opportunity for possibly highly talented players who could change an international game for the good not being able to go because they can't afford to relocate. (all hypothetical)

    Another point is say this time Clapham wins nationals, they get all the money and time and preparation invested into them for worlds but then nationals before the worlds after that a different team wins. So it starts all over again and alot of these players will lack international experience at the highest level because Only the clapham players got experience. At least with it being a team pick of just the best players there would be a mix of players who have international experience and new players and time and money would be continually invested the right way

  6. 85% of the players in the WUCC squad that went to Japan will tell you that training in Loughborough was incredibly time-consuming, financially diminishing and not exactly 'fun'.

    Having 30 players travel from all ends of the country every other weekend for 6 months is in-efficient. So much time is spent travelling, learning new plays, learning new principles, learning your new teammates strengths and weaknesses. None of this would be necessary if the Nationals winning side would take on the spot as GB. If the team that win nationals, want to take another 5 players from other clubs then so be it. That just means 5 players need to be integrated instead of 25.

    The underlying question is… Do people want GB actually want to win a European title, a World Title, or do we just want to make it collection of the best players from all over the country. In most cases the better team will always beat the better collection of players.

    A depleted Clapham beat GB at Tour 2 in 2011.
    Clapham beat GB at Tour 1 in 2012.

    So why pile time and money into making the GB team as good as Clapham. The GB Team needs to be the best TEAM that GB can produce, not the best collection of players.

  7. I think the point has entirely been missed here. The point is sending the best team we can get together and eliminate issues with training schedules and cost. How can a team that meets once a month truly become a world beating team?

    It would be an interesting experiment to see if this is actually a good solution to the problem both posed by how does our national team become better? And how do we raise our national scene to a worlds standard? (which it is far far away from). The answer is contact time, no team can take itself seriously unless they are at minimum meeting as a team on a weekly basis (including a GB team going to Worlds). By putting an emphasis on Nationals as a selection for the base of a GB squad then one would hope that teams who want to represent GB would train more frequently together and with a more professional attitude to fitness. Currently there are only a 3 teams at present that do this Clapham, Iceni and Nice Bristols. Just because players want to win National and try hard once they get there doesn’t mean that they have a high chance of doing so, it is the hard graft week in week out that mean games to go are won by the likes of Clapham. In the past 13 nationals Clapham have won I can think of 5 where Clapham haven’t had the most talent nor necessarily the best offence but they came out champions as they were the best team. And this is what we are talking about, sending the best possible team to represent as a GB squad. Truthfully for this to happen there would have to be changes as how teams are selected and the re-introduction of geo boundaries would help. I wouldn’t know how you would approach Euro’s in this matter and whether it would be the same deal.

    At the moment all GB teams are self-funded, a GB year costs circa £2k to £3k per player which limits some players from attending. Surely a team that trains together would open up the international scene to more players as the cost would be far less?
    From what I have seen on GB squads of the past is the hardest thing to get around is player’s pre-conceptions of how to play under different regimes, integrating new players together and dealing with ego’s. This rarely happens in a squad that is as close nit on the club scene and is one less thing to deal with.

    To the points about Clapham sucking talent away from other teams this simple is not true and a very short sighted view on the issue at hand. Players come to Clapham as they are tired of their present teams not training together or putting enough effort in to raise their game. Clapham provide a structured base for players to develop rapidly and get exposure on the international scene more frequently. If teams trained more frequently I am sure their player retention would be much higher.

    Whilst I love Clapham it would be amazing to see other teams winning National simply as I want the UK scene to get better, and this is what it is all about. If making GB is the end game then so be it, if another team does it then fine!

  8. There are lots of reasons for or against this proposition, so I am going to focus on your argument about games to go.

    The problem is that in your analogy to US ultimate, Clapham isn't your college team, Clapham is Stanford. Stanford (in that case) didn't have to play in the game to go because they were the clear favorites. Adding a qualification for worlds doesn't add a game to go where there wasn't one, it just adds a game to go FOR CLAPHAM where there wasn't one. Other teams still fight for a spot to Euros or Nationals and definitely are in games to go. The difference is now you are on the favorite team, not the team that has to work for that goal anymore.

    What Clapham needs badly is for other teams to get on your level so you can get more reps in with stronger teams. If Clapham itself wants to compete with Americans, you need more experience playing against defenses that will shut down your first options (like at the US Open) so you can learn and adapt. I think your proposal will actually weaken that because right now the other non-Clapham GB players get some good experience playing with you guys once in two years and if they lose that Clapham will just sit at the top comfortably and seem like an insurmountable mountain for those on other club teams.

    The argument that “A Clapham Player” makes where you think sending a Clapham team would be stronger than a national team is a different (and I think more valid) argument altogether.

  9. There seems to be an argument that non-Clapham players need the GB experience to grow and so raise the level outside of London. They don't have to play for GB to get that experience if more teams were to travel (yes $$$). Bristol playing in Boston is a great example.

    The domestic level could keep rising whilst sending a better 'team' (with very talented additions) against the Americans, Canadians and Japanese – who all send a club team to represent their nations at Worlds.

  10. ^^ This post hits the nail on the head for me. Many people have simply interpreted the message of this article as “Clapham will be GB”. What the article says is that the National Champion's will represent Great Britain, which changes (increases?) the motivation for nationals, with the aim of increasing the level of competition domestically. Granted, if your aim is to represent GB, it also changes player's motivations towards playing for the team they think are most likely to win Nationals. I can't see how this wouldn't somehow funnel elite players towards Clapham, at least in the short term. Changing to this format would be premature.

    For the time being, as I understand it, there are few teams (if any) who are in a good position to train multiple times per week with a large majority of their roster present, or without missing key personnel (coaches, captains, big cogs). As Pichler pointed out in his excellent article on “Closing the Gap”, one of the big things that is setting top UK teams from the big 3 (and Clapham, from the rest of the country) is a simple fact of contact and training time. I can completely believe that players move towards Clapham out of dissatisfaction with their own teams and the desire to train as a unit week in week out (although I am sure that is not the only reason). But I can also believe the that a majority of teams in the UK are not in a position to orchestrate that kind of training because their players are spread over a very wide geographical area. London has the largest and highest level talent pool, hands down. Clapham draw the cream of that particular crop. If you created a talent-per-square-mile metric, the London area would win by a furlong. Other teams that confine themselves to a small geographical area in order to train regularly make sacrifices in terms of personnel in return for long term development, and I think that teams that are heading in this direction are finding continued and sustainable success.

    I think Ollie's suggestion has some merit, but if the aim is to force other teams to step up their game in terms of training (because it seems unlikely that they will do it via recruitment), I don't see how that can take place until a greater number of high level teams take a fixed geo-team approach, and/or raise their expectations of training commitment. And I don't see how that can/will take place until the UK player base is much larger and more evenly spread, so a team can afford to cut a good player if he is not able to attend training, and replace him with another good player who can.

    If this idea were put in place tomorrow, it will have come too soon. I don't think the climate is ready for that kind of change. 5-8 years from now? Maybe. Long term international success ultimately rests on grass roots development, junior success and generally getting larger numbers of people participating in the sport (which also means losing less players; how many players fall of the radar when Ultimate becomes impractical to balance with the demands of life/work/family?), and raising the level of ability across the board. Promoting increased participation and ability at all levels should be at least on a par with promoting elite development. I think having GB athletes on teams across the country to share their experiences and expertise does more for this goal for the time being than keeping them confined to one team/locale.

  11. Paul,

    I think the fact that Clapham picked up Baron, Ollie G, Parslow and for a time Pichler (and maybe others I don't know about) from other teams in the year preparing for WUCC does not really seem in line with your statement that players move because they are tired of present teams.

    I'm sure there are players that come to Clapham because they want more, after all Clapham is a great team. I would be surprised however, if you counted the players each year if you did not find in World's years that Clapham drew more top talent from other teams. Additionally, let's not forget that the very fact that you pull the top players allows you to demand better training and more effort to raise game, where other teams can't. Clapham have done great stuff and you've helped put together a great club but let's not pretend that any other club can immediately pick up everything you are doing and run with it. Stating that other teams should just train more seems to be misunderstanding the situation.

    As for “A Clapham Player”, let's not gloss over the fact that a GB team who doesn't train together multiple times per week also finished above you at OT3 in 2011 and both parts of a split GB team finished above you OT2 2012. Arguing that Clapham is stronger is cool and if UK Ultimate really wants to work short term and win a medal, that's a good argument because maybe they are but you tried to paint a very misleading picture with your post and that's just disingenuous.

    Additionally. one thing worth mentioning is that there are non GB players on Clapham who need to be unintegrated for WUGC. Not saying this is a big issue or by any means insurmountable, just one I haven't seen mentioned yet.

  12. I don't see these players as being “pick ups”, they still had to try out and make the squad then play the full domestic season. Clapham have tryouts every year, hopefully these players would have approached Clapham in a non-worlds year and I would hope should they fit in they would look to stay. As with any teams there is going to be a turnover of players and a look to recruit to fill in where players have left. I have been at the forefront with Clapham in saying that players playing for the team should commit to the teams future.

    I don't believe the situation was misunderstood. With anything the only way to improve is to train, when you are in such large squads it as important for the group to understand their players as much as it is for an individual to improve their skill, which requires increased contact time. This is coming from a coach that has worked with players in both environments (training once a month and weekly trainings), from first hand experience I know which works better. The current GB format is a disruption to current development as it takes key players away from their club team (and development of players) which can provide a regular practice only to provide a sub-standard training regime to represent GB! (by this I mean once or twice a month and not the quality of coaching) Where is the sense in that? This effects 3-4 teams supplying that talent (often captains and coaches) in a major way.

    Yes being in London is a great situation for providing exposure, but some players still travel circa 1hrs each way to make mid-week training sessions. The whole squad this year have been training mid-week in North London. I doubt there are many other clubs that can demand that commitment out of their players.

    On the last point it is a difficult scenario, but as you say I doubt it would be that telling, I'm guessing it wouldn't change the domestic scenario and would assist with much need squad size for training session. Clapham for instance have a squad size of 32 but only 26 selected for Worlds.

  13. I don't know everyone on the Clapham roster, so I'm curious whether everyone on the current team could qualify to play for GB? London is a very international city, and many top players do not necessarily have a GB passport or permanent residency; isn't there a limit on “international” players?

  14. Surely the reason why we thrive as a strong Ultimate nation is because of the performance at club level. By making people choose what club to play for in the hope that this would ensure their position on the national team, you are drawing players away from their club team and therefore slowing down the progression of club ultimate. How about the players who for whatever reason cannot afford to re-locate, either due to familial commitments, financial or otherwise. Would we miss out on those scattered potential superstars? A great thing about the size of our country is that players can train away from their club teams and can then bring back that experience to help boost the performance of their own club. Sure, travelling to Cov, Liecester or where ever else is a pain in the arse, but is it really too much when given the opportunity to represent the country? To centralise all ultimate ability to one location in the UK. (i.e London, as undoubtedly at the moment we are talking about Iceni and Clapham representing GB) does that not take away from our ability to progress as an overall nation? I'm coming from the stand point of a female player where having to leave a local club to be able to represent GB just seems backwards in terms of what we have achieved so far, the same could be said for the newer northern teams, NEO and manchester who are climbing the ladder and becoming formidable opponents, yet how many of them would move away to play GB. Would that happen with such a geographical centralisation of talent? I think we will only ever continue to grow and prosper as an ultimate community by supporting from the bottom of the talent pyramid, instead of focussing on sustaining the top.

  15. Considering that GB Open have consistently dominated Europe ( for the last decade) and came second in the World Championships, what exactly are we trying to achieve?

    Do we really think that Clapham would have come home with gold from the World Championships? The fact that Britney didn't select an exclusively Clapham based GB Open team suggest that, for whatever reason, he didn't see that as his best option.

    Having a GB team selected from many UK teams is an excellent way of breaking down the animosity between teams, and getting players to adapt to different tactics and captains can only be a good thing. On the other hand, I totally understand the point about Loughborough being a terrible place to have to go.

    Yes, it is expensive playing for GB, and that might eliminate some talented players from trying out, but equally eliminating all players who don't play for Clapham excludes even more talented players.

    The only beneficiarys of sending Clapham to Worlds would be Clapham, and in fact they would suffer from lack of competition due to mopping up the best players from other teams.

  16. Agreed re: the game to go. All other clubs in the UK are used to fighting tooth & nail for a spot to Nationals, in quarters, semis, final, etc… Clapham have things so easy at domestic tournaments that they no longer get the “game to go”.

  17. Sorry that practices weren't more fun…

    Simple question for you “Clapham Player”: if Chevron won Nationals and won the right to represent GB, would you be as happy with the system you're proposing if it meant you couldn't play in the GB cycle for another 4 years?

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