How Should We Restructure Youth Ultimate?

Youth ultimate's growth has left it at a crossroads.

YCC 2015 Medal Ceremony. Photo: Alex Fraser --
YCC 2015 Medal Ceremony. Photo: Alex Fraser —

Amidst the spirited discussions on Nationals format and officiating, it’s good to remember the success USA Ultimate has had in promoting youth ultimate. Membership is up, girls’ ultimate has spread from Seattle to the rest of the country, and we’re even seeing teams form at junior high schools. That growth, however, brings its own set of challenges.

The current youth format is, for lack of a better term, a boutique structure. To this point, numbers have been small enough that providing accessible opportunities could override other concerns: the school/club distinction, player eligibility, qualifying tournaments — all of these could be finessed in the interests of growth. Nevertheless, as described in a recent commentary by Kyle Weisbrod — one of those who helped create the current system — the system is creaking under the weight of so many new players. Looking ahead to 2030, it’s clear that we need to make changes.

In response to this positive situation, USAU created a task force to propose a roadmap for future development. As a youth coach, organizer, and parent, I appreciate the task force members donating their time to find solutions, but I also hope the player/organizer community has a chance to engage with the task force and weigh in on a wider discussion.

To that end, I’d like to lay out several issues that I hope will be addressed.

Youth Format: School, Club, League, or All of the Above?

For those who don’t follow youth ultimate, the basic conundrum is how to handle the school/club/league distinction. In an adult context, the split makes sense: there are three (generally) separate populations. Club is for competitive players, a college division gives younger players time in the limelight and to develop, and recreational leagues offer opportunities for casual players.

This is not, however, true in the Youth division. With only a few exceptions, youth club (YCC) players also play or played on a high school team. Similarly, outside of a few large-market boys teams (I think Raleigh, for example, had 70+ boys try out for their U19 YCC team) and those who couldn’t travel to YCC for family or financial reasons, the overlap between USAU-sanctioned summer league and YCC team was nearly complete. As a result, the logic and necessity of the school/club/league split is not obvious.

The Task Force is tentatively proposing creating a tiered system that separates youth players into entry-level (who have opportunities in local leagues) and competitive-level (who have opportunities with travelling club teams) groups. The current high-school team based regional championships will be phased out in favor of high school state championships and youth club regionals. The national championships (YCC) will be divided into two tiers and only club teams that participate in the various regional championships will be eligible for the top tier.

Taken together, these changes would produce the following schedule for youth ultimate: a spring high school season culminating in state championships, then a summer of sanctioned leagues and club regional (July) and national (August) championships.

Questions About The Proposed Format

1. Should USAU continue to require attendance at sanctioned summer leagues to participate in youth club tournaments?

In theory, requiring communities to organize sanctioned leagues promotes inclusivity, but I’m not sure that it does in practice. Organized pickup that welcomes all comers without a signup date or fees seems far more inclusive. A league, on the other hand, would seem appropriate when a community has a critical mass of youth who want the more competitive atmosphere of a win-loss record.

In fact, I wonder if tying YCC participation to a league is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. As it currently stands, the league is a pro forma requirement; I doubt the league in which my children participated was the only one where YCC-bound players routinely skipped league to make time for club practice. As the player population grows, why don’t we let organizations create leagues for youth who aren’t going to YCC so they have a competitive outlet too, and let the YCC players focus on their game.

Not only that, but the sanctioned league requirement raises its own set of policy questions: how many teams/games/players makes a league? A small community with a dozen high school boys could field a team for YCC; if they divide themselves into three teams and play one 3×3 game a week for a month or two, does that qualify as a league? If it does, then, really, what’s the point of the requirement? If it doesn’t, how do you justify excluding those youth players from YCC because they live in a small community?

All that said, my own experience organizing a local U14 league (our high schoolers play in the adult league) made a believer out of me. We allowed parents to play too, so it wasn’t purely U14, but having a league of their own really did make a difference in the kids’ enthusiasm for competitive ultimate and even the attitude they bring to pickup. I don’t know what that says about the best way forward, but I think we need a more systematic discussion of what we mean by and expect from local youth leagues.

2. Is attendance at a regional tournament how we want to divide the tiers at YCC?

Based on the adult model, it seems natural to use regionals as a qualifier for nationals. Nevertheless, there are important differences between youth and adult competition.

Youth tournaments don’t just require players to travel, they require a retinue of adults to make the same trips. If that wasn’t enough, July and August are exactly when most families plan vacations, and when many kids are away at camp or something similar. In other words, competing in YCC’s top tier won’t always be about quality of play, it will depend on whether enough players’ families organize their summers around USAU’s schedule. Is that the best — or even a realistic — model for growth?

There is also the financial issue. Tournaments are expensive. Bid fees now routinely push $300-$400. Programs like Raleigh or Minneapolis that can expect tournaments to be held in their backyard may be okay with that, but for those of us who have to pay for travel, hotels, and eating out at every two-day tournament we attend, it adds up to quite a bit more.

This will affect the quality of competition. In 2015, our girls’ team, for example, went 9-1 at USAU sanctioned tournaments, including victories over the teams who placed 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at 2015 Southerns. We didn’t attend Southerns, even though it was held only an hour away from home, because our small team couldn’t afford the $400 bid fee (or maybe $300, I forget) for a weekend. This is especially true after we’ve just paid to travel to our state championship and were saving for YCC. In short, the proposed scheme sounds like selecting for ability to pay, not ability to play.

The question of how to divide the tiers is a hard one, and perhaps the Task Force’s proposal is the best way to do it. Nevertheless, when I look at the roster of Task Force members, I see representatives from the big programs–the ones with the size and organization to ensure spots in the top tier–but not representatives from smaller programs–the ones who likely to be excluded. I doubt this omission was intentional, but it seems to me that USAU should give more diverse perspectives a seat at the table as it decides.

3. Who is eligible to play in youth tournaments?

One of the unique features of the current youth system is the lax eligibility rules compared to other USAU competition divisions. I’m not as familiar with the boys’ division, but in the girls’ division, regulations about school team membership are rarely enforced. USAU’s decision to break up the Chapel Hill-based SAGA club after two years of competing against school teams is the only case I’ve heard of. According to the Task Force’s recent survey, the eligibility rules may be tightened, possibly to the point where USAU demands registrar’s verification for all players.

The key issue here is what to do about players who attend a high school that doesn’t have a team. According to the Task Force, the summer league requirement will recruit a pool of new players, so what happens to those who wish to continue playing but do not have a critical mass of players at their own school? Presumably, we can agree that giving them playing opportunities during the school year is a priority, suggesting they be allowed to play on other schools. On the other hand, the four different school-based teams that sprung up after SAGA was banned reminds us that pushing youth to create new school teams can also pay off with future growth.

The current system gives USAU wide discretion here, and it’s worked well so far, but as numbers grow, should school-based teams be allowed to pick up players from schools without teams?

4. Should college freshmen be playing in the youth division?

Current eligibility rules specify that players may attend YCC if they are 18 or younger on June 1; this means that many college freshmen are eligible. Last year’s boys’ final, for example, featured many college players on both sides. I know my daughter is looking forward to that extra year of YCC eligibility, but is letting college students play in youth tournaments really best for the division?

For what it’s worth, the current rules are a little different from WFDF U19 eligibility as well. Does that matter?

5. How do we coordinate high school states and club regionals?

Most states hold their high school championship events in May or June; the proposed schedule puts youth club regionals in June or July. Given that the school year dictates that any high school championship can’t be moved much earlier, and the need to hold YCC during the summer so students can travel limits how late that tournament can be pushed, there seems to be very little room to space youth events out a bit more. As mentioned above, this creates cost and travel issues, but that’s not the only problem with this calendar. In the proposal from the Task Force, either club teams have a month to go from zero to regionals or youth players could end up simultaneously practicing with their high school team and with their club team.

Adult players who compete in multiple divisions have more time, college players going to club sectionals have several months to focus on their club teams, even AUDL players have more time between the end of that season and club sectionals. The proposed youth schedule labels club regionals as “championships,” but are they really going to be “tune-up” tournaments instead?

There’s also the health issue. USAU recognizes that youth players’ growing bodies are at greater risk by spelling out special restrictions on play at tournaments, but there are no such restrictions on practice. Can we safely expect 17-year olds to practice for more than one team, not knowing whether each teams’ coach will account for the other coach’s demands? On the other hand, can we realistically tell clubs in a competitive environment not to practice until after high school state championships?

6. More broadly, does the school/club distinction really make sense at the youth level, at least for the next 15 years?

High school sports are as American as apple pie; building them into youth ultimate feels natural. Nevertheless, if the Task Force is willing to seriously rethink the youth format, this question is worth asking.

If Weisbrod and the Task Force are right about their emphasis on youth leagues, then high school-based ultimate may not be the best way forward. For example, if local leagues are the best point of entry for new players, make autumn–a natural time of new beginnings for youth–a season for maximally inclusive leagues. Make spring the regular season for youth club. If teams form around unofficial school teams, that’s fine, but they don’t have to. This makes high school eligibility rules irrelevant, letting everyone compete, no matter what the situation is at their school. It also solves the scheduling conflicts and potential health and safety risks.

Simultaneously, it may bring about the Task Force’s stated goal of year-round opportunities filled by different players. Letting elite youth gravitate towards adult club in the fall will let newer players do more at youth league.

One interesting side effect of this will be that U19 teams will be in peak form as the adult club season approaches Sectionals. When Raleigh’s U19 girls team played in a women’s tournament this summer, they had fun and won several games; I imagine Triforce would have a good time giving quite a few men’s teams a run for their money. Once school starts, though, those players are busy helping mentor rookies and rebuilding their high school teams. With that pressure off, we might see more of them entering adult tournaments like the Seattle Fryz do, perhaps alleviating the declining number of teams at sectionals noted by Tiina Booth and helping the top youth teams get better.

Final Thoughts

Maybe getting rid of school-based competition is a bad idea, though it does seem to be the logical conclusion of the Task Force report. Maybe it will turn state championships into predictable non-events like many adult club sectionals were this year. Maybe leagues won’t actually recruit new players the way they are supposed to. I don’t know, but we shouldn’t take school-based competition as a given just because that’s what many other sports do.

The past fifteen years have seen explosive growth in youth ultimate, to the point where the old competition format no longer works as well as it should. Among the Task Force’s recommendations are many that should receive consensus support, like their call to ensure that youth teams get proper coaching. There are also recommendations that deserve a wider discussion, like the format for competition. Hopefully that discussion will find a way to continue youth ultimate’s success for the next fifteen years.

  1. George Ehrhardt
    George Ehrhardt

    George Ehrhardt coaches a girls high school team in the mountains of Boone, NC.

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