How Can Non-US Teams Close the International Gap?

The UK's Clapham Ultimate at the 2013 Chesapeake Invite.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire —

I wrote an article after I returned from the 2012 World Championships about how the UK could go about learning from other nations. Given the dominance of the USA in all competitions in 2013, which only continues the general theme over the last five years, it got me thinking about whether the international community could pick the brains of top US players & coaches.  So I reached out with the following question:

“What should other nations do in order to close the gap between them and the USA?”

Lou Burruss:

Grow.  There are a lot of short term and team-specific strategies that nations can use, but there is no getting around the fact that the US has a much, much bigger pool of talent.

Jolian Dahl:

I would say the defining factor in the US is youth development — and not purely high school but the explosion of college ultimate in the last 20ish years.

Find out who knows a lot about how to encourage collegiate competition. If other countries develop the college game, they will have a larger group of die hard players who are both willing to pay to play ultimate and make enough money to do so.

Bart Watson:

Other countries need to develop more depth in their top teams.  At any given time there are approximately 10 US open teams that are globally elite, giving US teams not only repeated top competition, but a variety of styles to play against at the highest level.  Few other countries have more than two top teams, so even if they get to play top-flight competition, they’re only doing it against a particular team and style.  I think this makes US teams more adaptable and better prepared for the variety of international competition.

Ben Wiggins:

The problem: Other countries can’t throw and catch.

Obviously, every country has someone that can physically perform each catch and throw needed in the sport. That is one meaning of ‘can’: That it is possible to be done. But in sports, and especially sports with learned skill movements, ‘can’ means something different. It means ‘can perform the action consistently enough to win plays and games’. I literally can throw a forehand 100 yards. But I need about 15 tries to get it to work, so sports-wise this is something that I cannot do consistently enough to win.

I’ve seen this at every level, so it is clearly not an international issue. People watch Dylan [Tunnell] throw a big hammer on Youtube, and they go out and work on their hammer so that they can possibly throw the same 50 yard flat shot to the far corner. But they only complete it 1 out of 4 times. Dylan will hit that over and over and over and might miss 1 out of 10 if there is no defensive pressure. He can. They can’t…even though they can.

Bart is right on about depth. One of the biggest reasons is that much of North American teams’ time on task is practicing against themselves. Throws and catches with strong defensive pressure have to occur in every scrimmage. If the Revolver top 7 drop a couple of discs, the Revolver next 7 probably kills them in that scrimmage. So they get better.

Back in the good old years when my team used to kick the asses of anyone, our O and D team scrimmages were never won by more than a point, and a single player on either side having a bad game typically meant curtains for that side. If your team doesn’t have 24 players that can consistently catch and throw under pressure, then you don’t have the impetus to learn in practice. Heck, if the other team is going to turn it under any kind of pressure at all then your best strategy might rationally be to jack it as deep as possible and play 14 seconds of defense.

And if you have to go to an international championship to get that pressure, then you aren’t going to be as ready as teams that see it every day. No strategy will replace it.

I’ve won some international events, and sometimes, a lot of us are thinking: ‘These games would be closer if the international teams didn’t just hand us a short field every four points or so’.

In 2004, the US boys were down at half in the semis to Finland. Finland called 4 timeouts on the goal line in that game, and dropped or threw away the ensuing possession after every one of those timeouts. US wins, 19-16. Throw and catch under pressure (and, to simplify, I have been completely ignoring marking and tracing and the defensive fundamentals that are equally valuable).

I think Jolian’s point about youth Ultimate is strongly connected in obvious ways to what I am saying.

If you can’t magically grant yourself 10 more great players to scrimmage against, then you need to practice pressure cutting and pressure throwing in whatever way you can. You need to do this past the point of feeling comfortable, past the point of physically enjoying it, and almost definitely past the point of pride; it is way more fun to practice a new play or a new zone D than to run the same or increasing hard running and throwing and catching drills. I know that there are international teams that assume that North American practices are all strategy and highlights and playing and tuning team stuff. They are shocked at how much throwing and catching we do in practice. ‘Why should we practice those? We already CAN’.

Cara Crouch:

My initial response to your question was pretty much what Jolian said regarding lack of college and youth opportunities leading to less of a skill base during prime playing years, which Ben then elaborated on; the correlation is strong in my opinion. A lot of the skill work Ben referred to, that many US players benefit from, is from the thousands upon thousands of throwing reps, drills, and chances to make mistakes in low stakes games that are available to college players. Super athletes that come to the game past college, due to lack of previous playing opportunities in school, are often entering onto club teams with higher stakes tourney and practice play, and are expected to improve at a faster rate because of it to catch up for lost time. Point in reference: One of the best players on Showdown, Shelby Kuni, won an NCAA soccer championship in college and therefore came to Ultimate in her mid 20s. She’s an insane athlete and can complete any throw in practice or drills, but struggled to consistently complete them in games. I imagine that many international players are suffering from a similar fate, minus the NCAA championship ring. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of 4+ years of the chance to simply make mistakes.

Turns out that we (Showdown) too (sometimes) have trouble catching and throwing, stemming (I believe) from fewer and weaker college programs and meager youth opportunities. So this is something I’ve already pondered when trying to help get Showdown into US finals for the past few years. Similar basic problems, different scale.

Regarding how to create more frequent and meaningful competitions among colleges and youth programs that encourage the creation of more college and youth programs, Michelle Ng is doing wonders for US women’s college programs in terms of combining education with competition, check out Without Limits for more details.

What Should Other Teams Take Away from This?

My own thoughts, from the perspective of Great Britain, are that I think that, at our best, we can match all US team’s qualities: athleticism, knowledge, experience etc. The way that we consistently fail is simple throwing skill, and the ability to consistently execute those throws under pressure. I’d like to see a consistent method of throwing that is taught at youth level in the UK. Currently, there are very few people teaching ultimate to children in the UK who are — or have been — players at a high level (there are some exceptions, Matthew Beavan of GB & Chevron is one). In fact, many of the teachers that run ultimate programs approach UK Ultimate to find out about the sport because they have never played before. We have no way currently to teach the art of throwing, either to coaches or players, in a consistent manner. I think this is something that the US and Japan in particular excel at; every year there are a dozen Callahan nominee videos that show off a range of throwing talent that would put those players in the top 10 throwers in the UK, and even relatively weak Japanese teams have exceptional throwing skill. They are clearly taught well, and consistently. I feel this is a key weakness for Great Britain in particular.

All of the US players I have worked with as a coach had a tremendous depth of knowledge, like they’d all gone to the same ultimate frisbee academy. They all knew how to guard handlers in a given situation, how to generate space as a handler, and the precise factors involved in executing deep throws consistently. I think that in Great Britain we do have this knowledge, but it’s all tucked up inside people’s heads; you need to go and talk to the best handlers to find out what they do and why, rather than everyone being educated well on the basics of ultimate. That’s a real development task if we want GB to compete.

For the better club teams, having pressure during every drill is vital to improving. I hear people claiming that they are planning to have a turnover free practice, but I think well designed drills should make this extremely difficult to achieve. Everything should be difficult at practice. As the SAS* say, ‘train hard, fight easy’, i.e. training should be more difficult than the real thing.

Burruss’ Super-Team Idea:

Lou came up with one of the most innovative ideas: Attempt to use the loose USAU regulations and the Canadian immigration laws to bring some top European talent into the USAU championship series.

Canadian super team. The US club scene is the most demanding in the world and playing at this level of competition is essential to personal growth; there’s only so much you can gain from beating The Canberra School for Orphaned Boys 15-0. The idea is to use the looser Canadian immigration laws to put together a team to compete in the US series. While this is probably limited to Commonwealth citizens (and I’m not 100% sure on the immigration law), this would be an option for the GB and Australian players, two of the nations that have a shot at taking down the US.

In summary, according to some of the top US talent, other countries should focus on:

  • increasing their player base

  • developing high school & college level ultimate further

  • achieving greater parity between top teams, rather than relying on one or two super teams

  • achieving highly consistent throws, rather than relying on occasional brilliance

  • scrimmages with strong defensive pressure at every practice

  • drilling with focus & pressure beyond the point of boredom

  • ensuring individuals get the opportunity to play in low stakes competitive games – possibly outside their club – if they lack experience in higher stakes games

Special Air Service.  Not Scandinavian Airlines

For more coaching tips, Flik has a library of detailed drills for ultimate, practice plans and theory to learn more about ultimate. Train Better. Play Better.

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone

    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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