Club or Country: The Third Way

Chris Baker provides another approach to the Club or Country debate…

Question. Is it better to send the most competitive team possible to EUC and WUGC as GB Open – even if this means a single club team – or is it better to put development first, and bring together players from clubs around the country, who would then trickle down their experience, improving the level of the sport across the board?

Chris (#77) celebrating with his team-mates after their victory at the European Championships in Frankfurt this year.

It’s a staple of long car journeys, airport lounges and GAIA tents the world over. And whatever the answer, it is usually coloured by team allegiances and past personal experiences.

However, one thing both sides seem to have in common is the idea that GB has a central role in the development of players and clubs – whether by sending back skills and ideas to club level, or by providing a greater challenge to one club in particular, seeking to put the UK on the map and dragging other UK clubs onwards and upwards by way of their increased quality as Tour opponents.
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I would argue that this isn’t the case. In line with Boyle’s argument about Ireland, and how its clubs are suffering from the demands of the national teams, I believe that the GB project is a ‘nice to have’, but can often be an unwelcome distraction to the true, grassroots way in which we’re already starting to push ourselves up to the level of Australia, Japan, Canada and even the US. Since the UK is roughly to the US what Ireland is to the UK, in terms of player base and step in top-level, there are lessons we can learn from their current experience. But there are also several pointers emerging from the last two seasons that strongly demonstrate how a club-first model for Ultimate in the UK will enable the sport to make real progress.
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This year, two teams have had particularly successful years in terms of development and progress – EMO and Clapham. Both achieved unprecedented results at both Worlds and Tour. As a Clapham player, I am certain that this was attained by training together 3 times a week or more, as a club, with almost every player in attendance at every practice, giving us the ability to train at full intensity and with plenty of 7 vs 7 time. EMO I believe have followed a similar model. But equally, Chevron, Fire and Brighton have all stepped up, integrating a core of regular players, becoming safer with the disc, using space more effectively and just generally being better.
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Additionally, most players in Clapham are in agreement that the visits the club makes to the US every year are central to our ability to compete at the level of their top teams. Our trip to the US Open in July didn’t yield any particularly impressive results in itself, but every player came back knowing the pace and physicality of the game, and the team itself was able to gel at that higher level and learn as a unit how to compete – something which so nearly gave us a place in a Worlds semi-final, and saw us beat the best of the rest.

So what happens next? Based on the 2011-12 cycle, it will go something like this. Trials will take place for GB in November, with players from top Open clubs trying out for Open and Mixed. Training squads will be formed. Players will commit to GB, training every other weekend, and will probably play at Tour through a need to gel and essentially build a team from scratch, with a new set of tactics and its own identity. Clubs will lose players for tours and practices – people simply can’t be in two places at once. GB Open will probably visit the US, as might Mixed, those players prevented from attending again with their clubs by the twin Frisbee nemeses of money and holiday entitlement. Rinse and repeat for year two, culminating in WUGC, a tournament that will be very difficult to actually win, but still of lower quality overall than the club equivalent just gone by, or any number of US invitational tournaments.

All the while, the club scene (at least for the top clubs) goes into semi hibernation. Sure, there will be highlights such as Nationals and Euros, but crucially there will be a large player base whose development will necessarily be overlooked by their clubs’ top players, who simply don’t have the time, energy and money to put into their club the way they have over the last couple of seasons.
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Here’s the alternative. Players from the top clubs begin the season as they have the last two with club goals being established, and time and money being allocated for a season plan. Clubs should seek out opportunities that will make them better both as players and as a team, whatever their level. It would be fantastic to see other UK clubs make trips to America (even if not to a top tier tournament), but if budgets simply don’t stretch that far, one or two good quality European tournaments would go a long way. Either way, there would be much more chance of this happening without GB trainings, travelling, kit and so on to get in the way. The most important thing is that teams are continuing to build on what they’ve achieved over the last two years, without momentum being lost. I believe that with this emphasis on club focus, the UK can get 3 clubs into the Semi Finals of EUCF, and achieve something special at WUCC further down the line.

So what about GB? Well, playing for your country is special, and it’s important that any player who wants to represent their country gets a chance to do so. There should be a try-out, and there should be a team. But it would by nature be a ‘pick-up team’ of the best players, perhaps operating similarly to the Juniors/U23s model (minus Tour attendance). I realise the way these are run have their detractors, but in this context where we are prioritising development through clubs, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. After all it’s what football, rugby, basketball in the US, and many other sports do.
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The point is that we’re always fighting on two fronts, and just as we start to get the upper hand on one, we switch to the other, leaving the first to drop away. If development is the priority, we should be focusing on putting clubs first, the method that surely achieves the greatest results for the most clubs and players. By forming a super club – as that’s what GB becomes for two years, every two years – while hoping for a trickle down in quality to club level, we eliminate our most powerful tool in the development of Ultimate in this country: team building.

Keep an eye out for one more piece in this series later in the week!


2 thoughts on “Club or Country: The Third Way”

  1. Nice article. It’s great to get a compromise viewpoint as balance.

    One issue I have:

    “All the while, the club scene (at least for the top clubs) goes into semi hibernation. Sure, there will be highlights such as Nationals and Euros, but crucially there will be a large player base whose development will necessarily be overlooked…”

    Truth is, this isn’t the case. The non-GB players on Clapham / Chevron / etc benefit hugely from playing Tour without their top players. European clubs 2012 saw an all-UK final (Clapham vs Chevron) for the first time ever. Pure coincidence that it came in the same season that GB Open achieved their highest ever finish? I doubt it. Given that Clapham were able to beat GB that year – without all of their GB players – I’d suggest that regularly evening up the field is better for development than merely throwing all of your best players in one club and staying there for years.

    The idea of a genuine pick-up team – closer to what Team Canada did in 2012 than either the “true club” approach of Revolver or the “true country” approach of GB – is an interesting one.

  2. I enjoyed this article. I think it is probably the viewpoint I agree with the most.
    Who actually makes the decision about how national teams are run? What can I do as a UKU member to change the current system?

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