Dominate and Develop: How USA Ultimate Stays at the Top

by | September 2, 2015, 8:00am 0

Originally posted in the UK’s The ShowGame

Ultimate is now a global sport, as evidenced recently by recognition from the International Olympic Committee. However, one country has more of an effect on the global ultimate community than any other. It’s the ultimate equivalent of the Premier League; everyone watches their championships and many of their players are well-known in ultimate communities around the world. It’s so dominant that their closest neighbours, who might well be the second-best ultimate nation around, regularly visit to compete against the best. That country is, of course, the United States of America.

In the past month, the USA has shown just why they dominate the ultimate discourse so much. They have had championship games for the only two professional ultimate leagues in the world, the MLU and the AUDL, they have had the Pro-Elite Challenge, which forms part of the USA ultimate Triple Crown Tour, and in the All Star ultimate Tour they have had a team of the some of the most talented young female players in the world touring the country to showcase the very best in Women’s ultimate.

As well as that, they emerged from the recent World Under-23 Championships in London with two golds and a silver – and were disappointed. The sheer volume of quality players and tournaments that the ultimate scene in America possesses far outstrips any other country in the world.

USA U23 Women taking Silver and Spirit this summer in London. Photo by Kevin Leclaire of UltiPhotos.

There are many reasons that people cite for this – they have the biggest ultimate community in the world, they have players come to the sport from a variety of other sporting backgrounds, and they have a higher level of competition to play against, to name a few – but talk to the players themselves and there’s one thing they all agree is making a huge contribution to their dominance; the amount of players that spend time developing the sport and the next generation of players.

Start ‘em young

Jonathan ‘Nutt’ Nethercutt won the Callahan Award as the best male player in College ultimate last season. He also captained the University of North Carolina Darkside to the College National Championship, and was the main handler on the United States under-23 mixed team that swept away the competition in London this summer. This is his third season with Raleigh’s Ring of Fire, the open team who finished third at USA ultimate Nationals last year. As well as these playing responsibilities, he has been studying, training, going to the gym, and finding some spare time to have a social life. Despite all of these demands on his time, Jonathan also gives up a minimum of ten hours every week to coach, and often it’s more than that, he explains:

“I have a few different coaching positions, some paid and some voluntary, and I actually missed one because I was at Worlds in London. I help out with under-15 throwing camps and under-19 CUT camps but one is going on while I’m playing here.

Outside of the camps, I coach middle school ultimate in the triangle area in North Carolina, which is Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. That’s a paid position; it’s about two and a half hours in the afternoon five days a week for about three and a half months.

I’m also an assistant coach at a high school in the area, the Carolina Friends School, in the spring for about four months. That’s a full practice two or three days a week. I’m coach for the North Carolina under-19 YCC team too, which is two or three hours, three times a week for a six or seven week period leading into the Championships.”

YCC stands for Youth Club Championships, the main tournament for players in the USA before college. There are five divisions; under-16 Boys and Girls, and under-19 Boys, Girls and Mixed. The North Carolina team that Jonathan coaches has reached the final of the under-19 boys two years in a row, winning last year and finishing runners-up in the 2015 competition earlier this month.

The Championships, held every year in Blaine, Minnesota in the north of the country, began in 2005 with 17 teams across the three under-19 divisions. This year the tournament was expanded to three days so that games could be staged between 71 teams across five divisions in two age categories, with winners coming from Boston (BUDA in the under-19 boys) to Seattle (Seattlesaurus in the under-19 girls). The rapid development of a vast network of young players has had a huge impact on teams all over the United States. Jonathan gives a good example:

“This was my third year coaching YCC, and the Darkside team that won Nationals last year had 11 or 12 of the guys I have coached playing alongside me, so that was a pretty cool experience. There’s another five or six of them going to UNC this year.

It creates a good pipeline for UNC but a tonne of those kids are going to North Carolina State, UNC Wilmington and other schools in the area. Having these players coming through helps us out as much as coaching helps the kids out.”

Khalif getting up in the U23 Mixed final. Photo by Christine Rushworth.

Khalif getting up in the U23 Mixed final. Photo by Christine Rushworth.

Jonathan’s teammate on the under-23 Mixed team, MLU player Khalif El Salaam (Seattle Rainmakers), coaches the under-16 boys team from Seattle, Olympus, that walked away with the YCC Championship. He started coaching in his final year of high school and has been coaching at under-16 level for three years now. Khalif tells us:

“We take kids who are 14, 15 and sometimes even younger. Seattle has won the under-16 boys tournament for the last four years in a row.

I think what we do really well is that we take the high ultimate IQ that we have as coaches and we teach it to these younger kids. They’re able to get really, really good at a young age and that definitely helps their development.

We try to get the kids into the sport early and teach them the right things. We teach them offensive and defensive strategy, decision making on the field but also how to stay spirited.”

The spirit aspect of youth coaching is an important one. While developing young players is the goal for every coach involved in YCC programmes, just as crucial is passing on the lessons in spirit that are intrinsic to ultimate. Henry Phan, another member of the under-23 Mixed team as well as Khalif’s Rainmakers teammate, summarises that approach:

“I work with two programmes; Franklin High School varsity boys and AGE UP, which stands for All Girl Everything ultimate Programme. What we try to do is do our best to make sure that their skills are polished but also try to teach them life skills outside of ultimate. Being able to negotiate with people to find a resolution, teaching them a strong work ethic, and that everything you do you have to earn because nothing is going to get given to you.

With AGE UP we try to teach the kids social justice topics as well as getting really good coaches in from the local area to coach them. It started as just a girls’ programme because we wanted to really promote girls’ sports and girls’ ultimate but eventually we started a guys’ programme too. There’s a lot of polishing life skills as well as their skills as ultimate players.”

Like Jonathan, both have coached at middle school, with both going back to their old school, Mercer Middle School in Seattle, to help develop talent.

Henry understands the importance of having good role models on and off the pitch at this age: “Having people to look up to at such a young age makes you want to continue to want to be better.”

Better never stops

Youth development is not the only place where players can improve. Many players still pick up the sport at college, and some don’t go to college at all. Eventually, if they want to continue with the sport, they will need to find a club team.

Not all of these players will make the first elite team they try out for; many will play at a regional, or even sectional, level rather than for a national powerhouse. Still, many of these players will be keen to improve at a quicker rate than they will by simply trying out once a year with elite players.

Lauren Boyle has played for Molly Brown, the premier Women’s team in Denver, Colorado and recent winners of the Pro-Elite Challenge, since 2011. She was also one of the coaches for the under-23 Women in London, as well as other teams in Colorado:

“I used to coach at a high school in Colorado, Monarch High School, for three years. Then I coached the B team for University of Colorado Kali, and now I coach their A team. I also coach a third Women’s team in Colorado. There was a group of women who didn’t make the top two teams in Colorado and came to me asking ‘how do I get better if there isn’t an opportunity for me to play?’ I said to them ‘if you cover all of the administrative stuff that needs to be done to run a team, I will come out and I will coach you. I will come out do the best I can to teach you all how to improve, to enable your journey and your strengths. That’s the time I can give.”

Lauren also takes time to visit youth tournaments when they’re on in the local area, and encourages the college students she coaches to do the same:

“Whenever there is some sort of tournament or something I’m always trying to get out there and trying to get my college girls out there to support and give back as much as possible.

It’s really all about the chain. I want to show others that I can make the time to do it even though I’m incredibly busy. I can set that example, so that it will inspire the next round of people. They see that example and think ‘well if she can do that much, I can do something.’

That’s really where I think the community grows, people believing that you can do it, you can make the time, and it’s worth it. Seeing the small improvements and the small victories makes giving back so worth it.”

Lauren is clearly passionate about setting examples for young women who want to play ultimate, and has seen a real change in how people are approaching the sport as a result of all the hard work put in by a number of people in the ultimate community. She shares Henry’s belief that role models and people to look up to play a crucial role in the development of young players as she says enthusiastically, “I think being able to watch other women do great things inspires you as a woman, because it is a case of this woman can do it, so I can too.” Lauren continues:

You can go across any national Women’s club team and you will find players that give back. Washington D.C. Scandal has players that do a lot of work, Opi Payne did a phenomenal job coaching the University of Virginia. Showdown in Texas do a lot of giving back, Riot in Seattle are giving back. I can speak very highly of the Women’s game, you can go across all these national programmes and they give back to Women’s ultimate.

There are now definitely more people who are interested in athletics respecting ultimate as an intense, athletic, fun thing to do. It’s less first-time athletes and more athletes that are excited to play. They’re excited about the sport because they see how intense and competitive it is.

A recent event that showcases what Lauren means when she talks about watching other women do great things is the All Star ultimate Tour, organised by Qxhna Titcomb. Qxhna, another member of the under-23 Mixed team as well as a player for elite teams in Boston and Seattle, spent the best part of four months organising the tour, making sure that plans, budgets, fixtures and contingencies were in place to make the whole endeavour work.

“I had the idea last summer but really sat down and started working on the first plans of a budget in January.

I spent a lot of time in May, June, and July getting players on board, securing venues, fund-raising, and purchasing insurance. This was my full-time job for three or four months. Actually, it was more than full-time when you add the hours up. Even while I was on the tour, I was working full-time to make sure that things ran smoothly.”

When asked why she put in this level of effort to pull off such an ambitious project, despite the fact that her only tangible return was the satisfaction of knowing that it happened, Qxhna’s answer showed that Lauren’s belief that providing more female role models is crucial in building the Women’s game is a common one.

“It’s simple – I saw a void of female role models and wanted to do something about it. With the mission to promote women in ultimate, it was easy to be passionate about it and make it happen!”

The result of her efforts, as well as the efforts of many other people and the time and commitment of some excellent players, was nine games of elite Women’s ultimate that were well attended and well watched, with enough highlight reel plays to spark plenty of dreams in the next generation of female players.

Nethercutt and Titcomb celebrate their U23 Mixed domination. Photo by Claire Baker.

Nethercutt and Titcomb celebrate their U23 Mixed domination. Photo by Claire Baker.

Coach yourself better

One thing that all of these players and coaches agrees with is that players improve themselves through coaching, as well as helping to improve others. Jon explains:

I was captain of the UNC Darkside team last year, and I always used to tell them when middle school season was coming around that they should get out and try to coach, because trying to coach a bunch of middle schoolers how to play ultimate teaches you just how little you know.

It makes you think about things differently, and you have to break things down to their simplest form which is a more difficult job than it seems to be. You have to do it over and over again as well. It helps me learn it even better than I did, and it helps me from a captain perspective for other teams I play with in terms of explaining different concepts to different people. If you can explain things to 30 middle schoolers you can pretty much teach anyone.

Lauren agrees:

“It makes you break down why something is happening, and it makes that ‘aha’ moment happen faster because you really have to understand it to explain it to someone else. It forces you into understanding why your has asked you to do this thing a thousand times. You explain it to someone else and you actually get it, and it raises your own ultimate IQ. For your own personal journey it’s a huge thing.

I also think it’s just great in terms of spirit. We talk about Spirit of the Game within play, but I really believe there’s also spirit of the game that you need to give back to your community.”

Joe Durst was an assistant coach for the successful Open under-23 team in London, as well as a successful coach for Denver East High School in Colorado, where he won Open coach of the year in 2012 (with Lauren winning the Girls award). He has also coached in the UK with the University College London Silverbacks, giving him a unique perspective in this discussion. He, too, sees coaching as a great way to improve your own game.

“You have to think out all of the tactics and boil it down to the three points you want to instil. It’s an entirely different language than you talk to adult players who you think have this vast wealth of knowledge. You have to boil all that down into the points that you want to teach at the beginning. It helps 100%, as a player.”

Sowing success

A common understanding, not necessarily explicitly stated but clearly shared, between all of these players is that this culture of giving back to communities, inspiring young players, and keeping the ‘chain’ that Lauren speaks of going is one of the key reasons that the USA continue to enjoy such dominance at the top of the game. Nethercutt points out:

“If you have a bunch of top level talent teaching kids, you develop a lot of good habits early in the process. If you get talented players in there early with coaching it goes a long way and it helps you build a lot of really talented players. At the top level there are quite a few players that didn’t play until college but there’s players who have been playing for years and have developed great habits. I think it’s a huge reason why the USA is able to stay competitive year in and year out.”

Khalif agrees, and also believes that the expectations that USA ultimate set themselves are an important factor:

“You have kids always coming up who always want to play more. I would say that is why we are always so strong. There are things that you can’t teach, like height, the ability to jump and things like that, that allow people who join late to excel. But then there are these people who started very, very young.

To have that amount of experience and know you’ve been doing the right thing, in intense situations, getting all of those reps, it definitely makes us as a nation better than most other nations. I think that is why we are so dominant. We start very young and we have super high expectations of ourselves.”

Henry (nodding throughout Khalif’s explanation) weighs in himself to reinforce how much emphasis there is on youth development: “USA ultimate in general does a really good job of supporting youth ultimate. I mean, there’re elementary school leagues. It’s crazy!”

Joe Durst summarises the whole issue succinctly:

“This coaching is one thousand percent a big reason why the USA continue to be so good. If any other countries did this, then it would have an effect. I know there are people who do it in the UK, I’ll give a shout out to Matt Beavan and Flux.

Of course it’s a numbers game, we have more people and more players, but it’s the top instruction being involved at youth levels, the best players, that makes an effect. They’re giving back to the communities, instilling good habits and teaching the right things to young players. That makes a huge difference.”

Clearly, there are other factors at play here, as mentioned earlier. The sheer number of players in the USA dwarves the number anywhere else in the world and that ‘numbers game’ will, as Joe says, make a big difference. Still, other teams have shown that it’s possible to take the game to the Americans – Japan under-23 Women defeated the USA in London this summer, Clapham took the eventual WUCC winners San Francisco Revolver to sudden-death in Prague last year, and Melbourne Ellipsis won the US Open Mixed division this year, defeating all of their American competition. American players and teams are clearly not invincible versus international competition.

Yet what they do have is a vast number of enthusiastic and committed players who are willing to go back and teach the game to young players that keep this pipeline of talent working. Many players from the very top level of the game sacrifice their time to sow the seeds of ultimate at a grassroots level – Jonathan, Khalif, Henry, Lauren, Qxhna and Joe are all great examples of this, but they are by no means alone.

This ensures that the next generation of American players have access to great coaching, have plenty of opportunities to develop at a national level, have the support needed to meet justifiably high expectations, and have role models to look up to across the whole spectrum of the sport. With all of these advantages, the USA look set to retain their place as the sport’s gold standard well into the future. The onus is on everyone else to catch them.

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