#SideLinesU23 – Playing the Long Game

Sean Colfer talks to the Austrian Open Coach, Michael Zellinger about the team’s history leading up to London 2015

To say that Austria have exceeded expectations in this tournament would be incongruous with their results in recent seasons.

Their team defeated Great Britain in power pools in Toronto 2013 before GB’s victory in the later replay left them seventh. Their senior team finished 14th at London Calling in 2014. That finish masks how well they did – some of the best club and national teams in Europe, including Clapham, Viksjöfors, two French Open teams and Bad Skid, were also at that tournament.

Their Junior teams have also been making an impression, with their under 20 women seeded first and their men fourth at European Youth Ultimate Championship in Frankfurt this August. Clearly, despite a relatively small Ultimate scene, the Austrians are on an upward curve. Their strong showing here, including a win over Great Britain, a decent game against the USA squad and a gut-wrenching sudden death loss to Japan in their quarter-final, is yet more evidence that Austria are on the rise.

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Photo courtesy of Deepthi Indukuri

A factor in their continued development is the full recognition of Ultimate as a sport by the Austrian government. What this means, in practical terms, is that they receive funding in order to fuel the development of the sport in the country. Coach Michael Zellinger explains:

“The first year we were recognised was 2012, so it’s been a little while now. What it means for us is that we are supported financially by the government, to the same level that every other sport that is recognised is funded. On top of that we get extra funding for European and World Championships. For this tournament we had about €8000 for the team, to pay for fees and fields for preparation and stuff, and about €3000 for coaching as well. It doesn’t cover everything but it makes a big difference, especially for some of the guys who have tight budgets as students. It means we can make sure all our best players go to tournaments.”

That funding extends to other areas too, as Michael credits much of the progression to the “great work” being done at club level.

“We started a funding programme about six years ago to develop youth coaches, so we are developing coaches as well as players. The clubs have worked very hard and nearly all of the players here this week have come through this programme.”

Their current under 23 team enjoys a cohesion very rarely seen at this level. Nine of the players here were also in Toronto two years ago, while captain Thomas Mitterer was also in Florence for the first under 23 championships.

“They have played together for so long that there is great homogeny there. The guys who weren’t in Toronto also overlap with some players from under 20s, so nearly all of them have played together before. We could have been even stronger. There are four guys who were in Toronto who could have come this week but they have been injured this year and are going to Copenhagen [for the European Championships] in a week, so they haven’t been allowed to play. The guys we are missing are really good, they would have made a difference.”

That familiarity has clearly bred confidence and comfort, something that has shone through in the challenging moments they have had here.

“They are very confident. The guys have played together a lot, but they haven’t had much preparation time. The schedule is so full this year because of Euros – some of these guys have played eight consecutive weekends and have that next week as well.”

Michael himself has coached the team for around three years, having been persuaded by the team to return after Toronto. Mitterer said of their coach:

“Our coaching ‘staff’ only consists of our coach, friend and team manager Michael Zellinger. He has been coaching the team since Toronto in 2013. In 2010, the team under-performed due to the fact that they had no-one to guide them through the preparation and the event itself. It took us players some time and nice words to convince him to be back patrolling the sidelines this year but in the end, we think its good for him and good for us as well.”

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Michael Zellinger with the Japanese coach post-game. Photo courtesy of Deepthi Indukuri

For his part, Michael has been trying to take the pressure off his players and allow them to express themselves. His familiarity with the players has had a big impact on how much they trust his guidance:

“I was playing with more than two thirds of the team in Toronto, either in my club or internationally, and on this team I have played with half of them and against the rest. It helps a lot because they know that I know them well, and confidence in the coach is really important. What I try to do is keep them away from other things. I’ve told them not to look at the stats or the scores or who we’re playing, just play the game, go game to game, and let me worry about the rest. It’s a distraction. My job is to keep the team focused on the game and to help them play their best game.”

Austria have performed well this time round, and Michael sees a bright future at both under 23 and senior levels:

“Our under 20s are very strong, and six of these guys will be able to come back for the next tournament. All of the work that has been done and all the young players, they are making a difference. Our aim is to keep pushing, and we will see how far we can go, see what happens.”

The Austrians went on to fall to Japan in the most excruciating circumstances in the quarter-finals, after coming back late in the game but nevertheless being unable to escape defeat in sudden death despite having the disc for the win. However with all of the work going on behind the scenes at both a club and national level, this nation, like this team, will keep pushing. They, and we, will see how far they can go in the lead up to World Championships in London next year.

[Feature image courtesy of Deepthi Indukuri]

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