Development Stagnation – A Discussion of Teams v Clubs

Mark Bignal delves into how he feels about the state of Development in the UK.

I’d like to start a well needed discussion about what I believe to be a factor limiting the development of the sport in the UK: how we are focusing too much on developing Ultimate teams, and missing out on the benefits of developing Ultimate clubs.

For clarity, I’ll be using the following definitions here:

Team – A team usually consists of one squad (sometimes two) and is only focused on providing a single type of opportunity: whether high, mid or low level competition, or even those for social players, beginners and juniors, etc.

Club – A club aims to create more than one type of opportunity for their player base.

Recently, I was approached by EuroZone with a few questions about my club, Reading Ultimate, and how we are preparing for WUCC. Among them was a question about what, if any, pick-ups we’ll be getting. EuroZone’s emphasis on pick-ups shows the problem that the sport needs to discuss. There are too many teams interested only in only the short-term gains (qualifying for or winning Nationals/Euros/WUCC) and too few clubs interested in long-term development.

At the UKU’s AGM, a disappointing trend was highlighted: the number of memberships at club and university level has stagnated over the past three years where a few years ago, memberships were growing healthily. The GB junior scene highlights the situation, with the majority of the GB boys selected from a handful of schools, whilst GB girls didn’t even send a team to Euros last year. Now, I’m aware it’s not all doom and gloom: more teams are entering Tour than ever (equating to ~100 more players on the scene), Men’s BUCS (university) leagues have more attendance, and there’s talk of a Women’s BUCS league starting up.

What players want from our sport will fluctuate throughout their careers. The team focused structure predominant in our sport means that they need to change team frequently in order to get what they want. Any point at which players have to stop playing with one group, move to a new one and start again risks drop-off, and so with players needing to change teams more frequently, we will see more players stop playing altogether.

BritDisc has been populated in recent weeks with posts about trials and winter open sessions, which are great recruitment tools. Yet, when these teams select their squads for the year, they will also be turning down plenty of willing players. What happens to these unsuccessful players? No doubt some will move to another team, and some will retire, or not play at all.

I feel that we, as a sport are not progressing at the rate we should. By being focused only on our team, and how to improve that team, we encourage teams to turn people away and yet also to pick up players for challenging tournaments. We make people focus on only developing first teams, at the expense of developing second and junior teams (who could develop into the first team a few years down the line). And we promote a way of thinking (and a business model) which will never challenge the best.

So it is time to discuss pick-ups. Pick-ups serve their purpose. However, I’m not talking about when teams are low on players and get some extras in to help with numbers. I’m talking about pick-ups made to strengthen a squad, who are selected over players who already exist in the team. Such additions provide artificial short-term growth of a team, but are usually selected over someone who may have more long term potential who would benefit from extra development opportunities. Instead of growing that player, you risk alienating them and pushing them away. Colony, Australia’s best team, have just confirmed they’re picking up Jimmy Mickle for WUCC. I may be wrong (he may move to Australia for all I know), but this seems like a short-term gain and Colony seem to be big enough to be able to use a better long-term solution than Mickle. There are long-term gains from selecting such a strong pick up: gaining their valuable experience, increasing training quality and promoting the club. However I don’t see these outweighing the problem of alienating future generations and not providing them with actual playing opportunities.

RU Hat 2017. Photo by Sam Mouat.

Club Development

Ultimate is in a lucky position to have plenty of sports to look at when it comes to development and providing greater playing opportunities. Look at your local rugby, football or hockey club: can you name a sports team that only has one squad? Even Premier League clubs have development and youth squads, and most of them are now aligned with women’s and girls’ teams too. The development teams are designed to create future players for the first teams. Their focus is on the long-term development of players of the future (and therefore saving money). They understand that having these teams are necessary for long-term survival. Why then, is this club-based approach so rare in Ultimate? It’s worth noting that local clubs have a huge amount of volunteers at their disposal to run and support the club. Ultimate is currently lacking this workforce.

So which business model works best? Long term, which team or club is more likely to survive? A team that recruits players whose main interest is playing at a certain level and therefore relies on consistent Tour/Nationals results (for example Wessex disbanding after their second season because they didn’t finish as high as expected so players went elsewhere), or a club that creates a sense of belonging with players wanting to play throughout their career and ability? Now, a second question: which is more likely to perform at the highest level? I’d still bet on the club, it might just take a little longer.

Let’s put this into an example: Clapham (I’m sure they won’t mind). They aim to create the best high-calibre squad to compete at Worlds. Clapham have done extremely well based on a ‘recruit the best players in the country’ process (their success is due to a lot more than that; training, dedication and positive culture come to mind). Clapham’s appeal is based on their culture and results: they’re consistently the best by a comfortable margin. They also benefit from the First Mover Advantage (they weren’t the first but were not far off). The problem is that teams that are trying to beat Clapham are copying their business model without their FMA. National results for the last 17 years prove that it doesn’t work. I can see two options:

  1. Wait for Clapham to slip up and let that gap be breached (I don’t think Clapham are planning to do that);

2. Change business plan: become a club, get juniors, develop players, create a desire to play for you and with time, they may well be dethroned.

This is what I strongly believe. We need our sport’s culture to change. We need to stop being solely driven by our personal, short-term goals. We need to think about the long-term impact of our short-term actions. We need to be selfless. Imagine a four layer pyramid for growth with the lower layers supporting the upper: ‘Foundation’ as bottom layer, then ‘Participation’, ‘Performance’ and ‘Elite’ at the top (google Sports Development Pyramid for many visualisations). Our ‘Foundation’ level is small, and so our ‘Elite’ is even smaller. Where do we invest our time? I’d say invest in our foundations, and then the elite will grow. This process works both on a club and national level.

Here is a list of actions I feel many teams need to take:

  • Change mentality to create scope for growth in your team (now called a club).
  • Allow all players to attend club training (you can create training divisions within your own club to cater for different abilities).
  • Get club members to buy into long-term club culture.
  • Select pick-ups when it suits the long term benefits of your club (usually needed when adding an extra squad) and not at the detriment/alienation of current/future core players.
  • Take personal short-term goals that don’t contradict with long-term club goals.
  • Take the steps to allow juniors into the club (don’t you wish you started this sport at 14?).
  • Take selfless decisions for the club that won’t come to fruition in your playing lifetime.
  • When retiring, don’t retire from the sport, retire from playing and give back to your club (committee, coaching or volunteering). I’m so jealous of other sports with their non-playing volunteers.

By changing our business model we can even dream to take on the Americans and their own FMA.

In this article, I’ve assumed everyone believes that positive growth will benefit the sport. I’ve only really touched the subject of players wanting to play at a high level. I’ve negated, as we often do, all the other thousands of players who just want to play because they want to enjoy the sport, stay fit, socialise, etc. Again, I refer back to the pyramid. The bigger the base of players, the higher the pyramid can rise and the better our elite becomes. I have stated my opinions, and the things I believe our sport needs to do to help that pyramid grow. I want to start a discussion and have definitely missed some arguments so please, carry on the debate.

As a disclaimer, I do not speak on behalf of Reading Ultimate. Since some will think I am doing so: Reading Ultimate is far from perfect. It has made many mistakes and will make many more as it grows and learns from those mistakes. It’s trying, as other clubs, to juggle many needs and that is difficult. We’ve yet to crack the junior and recreational scene.

Feature image by Sam Mouat of Reading vs Black Eagles at EUCF 2017.