Beating Team USA

The grand prize of international ultimate.

Team USA won every gold medal on offer at WUGC 2016 earlier this year. It’s been said for years that “the gap is closing” (between USA and the rest of the world) and there was even a hint of evidence for this statement being true when Japan’s U23 Women’s team won gold at U23 World’s last year (in a seriously exciting game to watch!). Also, the year before that at WUCC 2014, Clapham took Revolver to double-game-point before this happened.

But team USA still won everything at the senior world championships.

It’s difficult to see the US (or a North American club team) not taking gold in a senior world championships in the near future. So what should the rest of the world be doing to try and stop this?

A big reason for USA’s dominance

Of course, every country which sends a team to worlds is trying win gold. However, it doesn’t seem likely that the gold is going to come from anywhere but the US unless the entirety of the ultimate community in each country gets behind the idea of creating the greatest national team it possibly can.

To create the best possible national team, each country needs to develop a club scene which creates the best club teams possible. This is what the US has done so well.

Here in the UK the top men’s team is Clapham, and the top women’s team is Iceini. In recent history, these two teams have won UKU Nationals and club Euro’s. This is a problem because these teams now have to travel to North America to face teams that really push them hard (although the European club teams are getting closer). Our domestic mixed scene is more closely fought with several top clubs fighting to win nationals, but none of these teams have managed a euros win.

For a country to produce the highest level ultimate it can, that country needs several elite level club teams which are all pushing each other and forcing each other to get better. (Note: competition to generate improvement works in sport. Not so much with public services…).

If most of the best players are all playing for one team — and attracting more top players to play for them — then no other teams can develop to a point where they are challenging and pushing that team further. This means the team has to travel to international events to get tough competition, and that doesn’t happen too often. All the while, the North American teams are busy pushing each other and getting stronger and developing unbeatable national teams.

What can the rest of the world do?

The reason why the North America has such a well developed and competitive club scene is simply because they have enough people playing to the sport across the country to do so. Therefore if other countries are going to one develop teams to rival top North American clubs, those countries will need to get more players playing the sport.

Firstly, get more people playing ultimate.

Spreading the sport of ultimate is a worthy cause regardless of the motivation (helping ultimate’s Olympic chances, giving otherwise unsporty children/young people an alternative to traditional sports, spreading the SOTG ethos amongst communities…) but without more resources other countries are going to struggle to match the US for talent.

However, there is a limit to the number of players a given country can produce; so on top of this countries need to develop a way of playing the game to counter the North American play style.

Secondly, develop a style of ultimate to counter the US.

The only country which looks like it has any chance of taking down a US team at an international championship event in the near future is Japan. The primary reason being that Japan seems to be developing a style of ultimate to deliberately counter the traditional “be more athletic” mantra of North American teams.

The Japanese teams have by far had the best disc skills of teams at worlds events recently. On top of this, they play a style which cannot be beaten by athleticism alone. Defenders have no time to get a layout block on the tight inside break shots, and discs are often floated out into space just in front of the receiver in such a way that the defender can’t see the disc or is simply not positioned in such a way to be able to make a play.

Of course, Japan have yet to come up with a defensive style which shuts down what the US offense wants to do, despite also being the world leaders on defensive innovation. The real key to beating the US surely lies in a revolution in defense.

ultimate is a very new sport compared to every other traditional field sport, so the strategy is still constantly developing. The US play style has barely changed in recent history up to variations on how exactly players are isolated in space.

Most countries around the world seem to try and copy this broad North American style rather than invent their own as Japan has done. As with growing the sport domestically, it is not easy to invent a revolutionary way to play ultimate; but unless change can be forced by making the top teams have to adapt to beat new strategies, it’s hard to see the best teams being beaten any time soon.

I really do not want to see an American Football style situation where the USA aren’t allowed to send a team to the world championships because the tournament is for amateur teams and the USA have pro-Football. (Which is yet another reason not to like the pro leagues…).