Club or Country Part 3 – An In Depth Analysis

In this contribution to the discussion Sion Scone tackles this contentious issue with impressive depth. The article first approaches the various pros and cons of the two systems, then theorises how such a change may actually be implemented before looking at past results to predict the potential for future success.
[Note: Throughout this piece, the shortening ‘TGB’ will stand for the traditional all-star approach that has historically been used for GB teams. ‘NGB’ will stand for any hypothetically proposed new GB model.]


In Ultimatum 2012, Jaimie Cross wrote an article called Geographical Bonus, which explored the idea of abandoning the focus on traditional national squads and instead focussing on development within clubs. Nearly two years on, we look at the pros and cons of such an approach, what it could mean for UK Ultimate as a whole, and whether or not a UK club team would do better than previous GB teams. 

Part 1 – Advantages of the NGB model

Improved teamwork developed through more hours training together. As Jaimie already said, “extended familiarity and trust built over years of training with your team-mates week in week out”. A TGB team will tend to struggle against established clubs, even if the overall standard of player in those clubs is lower, because of the lack of familiarity which the TGB team is generally still working out but the clubs excel at. A NGB model would benefit greatly in this area, removing one potential hurdle. TGB teams tend only to hit their stride during the week of their major competition, which is probably too late in many instances.

No issues integrating players: less likely to have two players with the same role; the problem of moving someone out of their preferred role; or the problem of integrating players who have never played together before.

The team atmosphere will be stronger as a result of increased hours spent together. Even a NGB model club would need to have dedicated team bonding in a non-ultimate context if they want to get best results; one of the TGB teams had their squad taking part in dance lessons as part of a team bonding exercise, for instance.

More honesty, less likelihood of harbouring hidden animosities between TGB team mates who are normally rivals; it is no surprise to find that players that have been part of “unsuccessful” TGB teams of the past tend to blame the players who came from other clubs. Jaimie’s article in whole could be seen as a case in point. There may, of course, be some animosity towards the NGB leadership from players who have been forced to leave their favourite club just to be part of GB. So called “personal” issues can also be resolved, resulting in the elimination of personality clashes etc.

Tactical Depth
More chance to develop tactics; more repetitions of their offence and defences, allowing them to try more things. Most TGB squads have to spend two years training yet only have one or two defensive and offensive looks, when realistically they would need to be adaptable enough to cope with a variety of playing styles if they want to succeed on an international stage.

Lower Commitment
Many who could not afford the time or money to travel to monthly, centralised TGB training sessions would in fact be able to commit the weekly local time commitment, so there would be an additional source of players for NGB.

Part 2 – Disadvantages of NGB

If a single UK club represents GB – with or without “ringers” – then it is highly likely that anyone who would have previously tried out for TGB would attempt to try out for NGB, subject to geography, making a mockery of the idea of a “club” team.
Lack of Competition
Competition has been lauded by Jaimie as one of the key aspects of developing mental strength. The likelihood of NGB encountering competition on Tour is pretty slim, which means NGB would be highly unlikely to get any competition at all without travelling outside of Europe. There is a natural argument therefore that Tour will not offer any opportunities for developing mental strength. Of course, whether the NGB club requires Tour for competition is another matter, but the fact remains: if regular competition is vital for the development of mental strength, then reduced competition will remove any opportunities for this development. As Jaimie says, “diminished competitiveness means that the top teams/players play many games where the final result is a foregone conclusion and so there is not significant pressure”.

Devaluing of Tour
Lack of competition devalues the Tour; will the Tour even be worthwhile for a NGB club? The Tour has been repeatedly referred to as the reason that the standard of ultimate in the UK is generally above that of other parts of Europe, but if the NGB club gets more out of their regular practices than they do from Tour, then why bother going on Tour at all? This has a knock-on effect for the entire UKU population, who then get no opportunity to test themselves against the cream of British ultimate; the draw for international teams will also be far less. It will become increasingly difficult for players to break into the NGB team without such devices for improvement, and there is a strong argument that the overall quality of play in the UK will decline as a result.

Sliding Standards
Who is looking at developing individuals? My experiences of coaching GB over the last three years showed me that clubs generally are failing to develop players’ skill levels and tactical knowledge. If the NGB clubs never get any competition domestically, then it could be relatively easy for their standards to decrease. A lack of competition at practice would practically guarantee any strong player a spot at WUGC, for example, so what is going to force one of the leaders to attend practice? Without the regular yardstick comparison against other domestic teams, progress is not going to be simple to measure.  

Bonding Opportunities
It would be a mistake to overlook the bonding effect of weekends spent together; a TGB model tends to throw people into hotel rooms and social occasions, which has a far better effect on team building than simply going home straight after a practice.

No Development Cycle
The NGB club is not going to be interested in taking on fresh players in the years of EUC / WUCC. This is in stark contrast to a TGB team, which removes players from their clubs during the two year cycle, forcing those clubs to develop more players in order to field teams. Despite Jaimie’s assertions that this will “primarily hinder the development of a club’s non-GB players”, I believe the exact opposite is true; former bench-warmers are forced to step up, get more pitch time at training and plenty more exposure at tournaments. This is where the “nerve-shredding competition” that Jaimie referred to comes in; inexperienced players representing their club against a bitter rival. Case in point: Clapham finally regain the European gold in 2012 after a season where they missed their GB players on Tour; the non-GB players in Clapham had a season of playing in big games behind them. They had stepped up to the plate and shown their abilities, and the club benefitted as a result. If losing top players can be a useful mechanism for developing strength in depth across a squad, then the loss of this development mechanism needs to be replaced with something else.

The addition of new players thrown into the mix of a TGB model every 4 years helps to create a melting pot. In 2007-08, the Fusion influence gave added emphasis on the fast break, something previously absent from GB Open. A single club team is more likely to be inflexible (sticking to one style of play) than a TGB model which can draw upon the experience of multiple playing styles. This also serves as a way of the top players from across the country sharing knowledge and skills. Without this knowledge sharing, there could be a real loss of potential.

Measuring Stick
A TGB model also provides a way of getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of players who are normally rivals from the perspective of being their teammate. As a result, players in a TGB model get to return to their clubs early on the season with a way of measuring how strong their rivals are going to be, and this gives them a way of making adjustments if they are required. This will be absent under a NGB model.

Passing on Knowledge
The TGB model has had a great effect on clubs in terms of the filtering down of tactics, good habits, fitness & training knowledge, including drills and experience in general that the top players in the country can then take back to their clubs & local community. If a single player from a small-ish club – let’s say ranked somewhere between 4-8th in the UK – makes the GB team, then they are able to take that information back & use it to educate another club by proxy. This will be lost entirely with a NGB approach, which could lead to the overall weakening of the UK club scene.

Brummie (front row, far right) with the rest of the GB Open Silver Medal Squad of Sakai 2012. Photo courtesy of

Part 3 – How would it actually work?

Impact on UK Ultimate as a Whole

If competition is the best mechanism for improvement, then the best possible scenario for the development of players in the UK is to have 8 or more clubs of equal strength, so that every single game comprises pressure and develops mental strength. The result of years of competitive play would be a larger pool of elite players than currently exists, and would more closely model the club scene in the USA. It is my personal view, however, that competition alone is a poor mechanism for improvement. The real improvement takes place in the months of training prior to competition, and the competition itself performs the act of fine-tuning the machine crafted over the course of a season. Without an athletic team with strong throwing skills, no amount of competition is going to close the gap. Competition allows a team to stress test its abilities, not develop them.

For the individuals currently playing for the clubs likely to act as the NGB team – assuming they are eligible to represent GB –  the NGB model is a clear win. For their team mates who would normally not make the NGB cut, it is also a win; unless, of course, they cannot commit to playing at WUGC. What happens to these players? Do they get kicked out of their club, or do they take the place that would otherwise go to someone who could play at WUGC? What about foreign players who are not eligible to play for GB? Would their clubs be kicked out?

How Will it Actually Work?

In principle, it’s simple; just award the right to represent GB to the club that wins Nationals. In reality, there may be some questions that need to be addressed. What would happen if a “super team” were formed that removed one of the currently established teams like Iceni or Clapham from their spot as representatives of GB? Would that change the viewpoint of those arguing for (or against) a NGB model? If Chevron – a team that has players spread across the country and does not train weekly – were to win the right to represent GB, then many of the arguments in favour of a sending a geographically close unit cease to exist. This means that, if being able to train locally and/or regularly is key to the decision of whether to adopt a NGB model, then would teams that do not meet this criteria be prevented from representing GB? Would they then, in turn, be prevented from playing at Nationals? Likewise, when a team wins the right to represent GB, what is to stop its captains from cutting their entire team and replacing them with superstar pick up players, with the same overall effect? Either the ability to train locally and/or regularly must be ignored in the decision to adopt a NGB model, or the UKU must police the representative clubs to ensure that they are indeed meeting a certain level of criteria; some kind of service level agreement would be required. Do the NGB teams need to train weekly? Twice per week? How many players must be at each practice to get the benefits of training regularly? While I doubt that Si Hill is going to turn up with a register to any practices, some further thought is clearly required before implementing such an idea. Of course, we could trust clubs to do their own job, but that adds an element of the unknown and a lack of overall control for the UKU; bear in mind that World Games qualification is based on the overall results of Open, Women’s and Mixed, so if one has a poor result then it has a knock-on effect for the entire country.

Currently, the UKU requires prospective GB managers to complete an application form, which is then assessed by a committee to ensure that the most qualified leaders are in charge. What if a club wins nationals yet the leadership wants to step down, or leave entirely? The end result could be a club representing GB which is very different to the one that qualified. It is not only playing quality that is likely to be affected, but also the team’s approach to SOTG. Given some poor scores for TGB teams at 2012 – and some recent high scores for UK clubs – perhaps this is one area where NGB teams might excel; consistent leadership and team attitude over a number of years can really bring a team together. It is entirely possible for the outcome of this to be a team with very poor spirit, but this doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

What About Beach Teams, or the World Games Team?

The UKU is just starting up a regular beach championships, so this could be a useful testing ground for a NGB model. What about World Games? The TGB model has never resulted in a win over the four top nations (USA, Australia, Canada, Japan), but then very few UK teams can claim to have beaten any of the best teams from those countries anyway. Should a NGB model be adopted, and if so, how would it be awarded? Should the winner of Mixed Tour be the GB World Games team?

Part 4 – Will it Work?

Looking Back

Can we use data from previous WUCC events to see how UK club teams may have performed were they to represent GB at WUGC? By taking the results from any one division and assigning a nation ranking to the top ranked club from each country, we can get an indication of how the TGB v NGB model may fare.

The following table shows results for the highest placed UK club team at the last three WUCC. The first number shows the ranking by nation; this should represent how UK clubs might fare should they enter WUGC. The number in square brackets is the actual finishing position for that club at that championship, while the number in rounded brackets is the number of clubs that played in the respective division that year. So, for example, in 2002 WUCC Open division, the highest placing UK club team came 11th out of 39 clubs. Three countries (USA, Canada, Japan) had clubs which finished higher, so the nation ranking is 4.

4th [11th] (39)
4th [5th] (21)
6th [10th] (48)
4th [12th] (24)
5th [8th] (18)
6th [14th] (32)*
7th [15th] (40)
7th [15th] (40)
5th [13th] (40)

* indicates that Leeds finished highest at WUCC 2010, yet Iceni were National Champions in 2009. The overall national ranking would be unchanged; Iceni finished 17th

How does this compare to results from the last three WUGC events?


Of course, these comparisons are rudimentary and over-simplified; it could be easily argued that the WUGC results reflect stronger overall teams than the WUCC results do. For example, Japan rarely perform well in the Mixed division at WUCC (nation rankings 4, 7, 7), yet do much better at WUGC with a national team (8, 2, 3), an indication that a national team model is successful for them at least. However, the data for UK teams are inconclusive; TGB gets a single medal compared to zero for NGB. Average results are incredibly close too, across all three divisions; identical for Open (although NGB model on an upwards trajectory), with NGB slightly outperforming TGB in the Women’s division, and TGB model slightly better in the Mixed division.

One interesting result that stands out is the performance of Iceni in 2009 – Tour winners, National & European Champions – yet finished 17th  at WUCC, below 3 other European teams, including one other UK based club, LLLeeds. This is clear evidence to suggest that strength one year might not be replicated, especially if a number of players are to retire at the end of a season.

Looking Forward

Assuming a NGB model were adopted for 2016 WUGC, here’s my predictions of what we might expect to see based on the current squads:

Open. Clapham have won Nationals for the last 13 years and show no signs of stopping after a dominant 2013 season that ended in their second consecutive European title. They undoubtedly have the strongest club roster in a number of years, and show enormous promise heading into WUCC 2014. However, I would have said something very similar regarding their squad in 2010 when they fell far short of their semi-final aspirations. This time around they began building their squad a year earlier, which has given them a fantastic platform to work from, and all they need to do to is maintain momentum. How would they fare at WUGC?

From my gut feeling, I think that by 2016 they might be capable of beating Canada, and their results from Chesapeake indicate that they might be able to get close to USA, but I can’t see them winning that game. GB were not capable of defeating Japan in 2004, 2008 or 2012, and I don’t see that changing by 2016, despite Buzz Bullets ageing roster. The Japanese skill level and method of training their younger players is far superior to ours. In 2012, GB Open showed that it’s perfectly possible to get a medal despite losing to USA, Canada & Japan, so a fortunate draw could easily give Clapham a finals berth. What I don’t see them doing is being strong enough to defeat Australia, Sweden, Colombia and still having the legs to win the games against USA, Canada & Japan. I predict a few losses in power pools, and then whether or not they get through quarters is entirely dependent on the draw; Japan or USA is a nightmare draw for Clapham, who would want to play Australia or maybe even Canada. Sweden would be a bit of a dodgy matchup too, either team could win. Bronze would be a great performance, and I would predict them finishing between 3rd-6th.

Women’s. Iceni have stuttered a few times domestically – notably losing the Nationals final to Leeds in 2010 – but have generally done so while playing with split squads in order to increase their depth. They have shown their ability to win tight games with back-to-back European titles, winning in sudden death from D in 2012. However, watching these games you’ll very quickly memorise the same names doing everything for Iceni, same playing almost every point. This is simply not possible at the elite level, and so I don’t see Iceni capable of defeating any of the top four until they increase the depth of their squad. Their top few players are easily capable of holding their own against the best in the world, but they won’t be able to generate breaks using their current second string of players, and they will need to as their O line is far from perfect. I would predict losses to USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Colombia, with a finish of 6th-8th; I don’t see any of the other European nations catching up unless Iceni slow their pace, which is unlikely.

Mixed. Definitely the hardest to predict, as the National champions change most years. The Mixed division shows that “super teams” loaded with stars from Open & Women’s teams are easily capable of winning the entire thing, although there has been a shift towards dedicated mixed teams with Bear Cavalry’s recent victories; how much the fact that Open, Women’s and Mixed Nationals are now all played simultaneously has to do with that is unclear. What is clear though is that a team is capable of winning the European Mixed title with little international experience, with very few of the players having represented GB at the senior level. It is my gut instinct that any such team would perform very poorly against elite opposition, and I’d predict a finish somewhere between 8th-12th at WUGC.

Conclusion – Which is Better? NGB or TGB?

Even missing some of the best players in the country, the overall NGB team is likely to be better in the short term than the equivalent TGB team. But there will be a knock-on effect which will decrease the strength of future UK programmes. There is little evidence to support the idea that a single ‘superclub’ would drag up the clubs underneath them. Case in point, Skogshyddan, the once-dominant Swedish club, faded and finally collapsed, the end of almost 20 years of incredibly strong Swedish ultimate (Sweden won Worlds in 1992, and got Silver in 1984, 86, 90, 94, 96, 2000). Sweden still doesn’t have a strong domestic scene, although I have no doubt that the Borg will be back… . There is plenty of evidence, however, for strong national teams where there is a tradition of strong domestic competition; Australia is an excellent example of a nation that does better than GB in almost every division, and they do so with a ‘traditional’ national team despite their much larger country size. Japan is a slightly skewed example in the Open division – Buzz Bullets are semi-professional – but their women’s teams have a lot of domestic competition (3 teams in the top 6 @ WUCC 2010). As previously mentioned, the Tour was responsible, 10 years ago, for enabling GB to get to the position it is in today of dominating Europe. Do we really want to move away from the model that is the envy of Europe?

In my opinion, the NGB model might do better in the short term than the TGB model has. However, I sincerely believe that it will have a long term negative effect. Interestingly, the UK club with the strongest claim to take over the national duty – Clapham – would have to attempt to replicate the best result by any senior GB team, the Open silver medal in 2012. No mean feat – for either NGB or TGB – and while this may be an unfair measure, comparisons are natural. As long as the UK does not have a structured approach to player development, the emphasis is on those players who have international experience to feed that information down. As such, having players in many clubs gaining international experience is vital to the development of the UK club scene. To remove that would be a catastrophe.

Keep the comments coming and let us know what you think. We would be more than happy to publish more full length pieces on this subject, get in touch if you would like to make a submission at the usual address:!