Germany Ultimate – Europe’s Next Powerhouse Country?

written by Johan Bommie 07/01/2014
Germany Ultimate – Europe’s Next Powerhouse Country?

Note: This (very interesting!) article is written by Stefan Rekitt. More info about him below.

Mo Brücklacher at WJUC 2012 - Pic by www.f-go.us

The past few years have seen a definite rise in the quality of the German Open teams. The improvement came after a longer period where German Open teams struggled on an international level. From that point in time the development of a new, internationally successful generation took several years. The rise of these stronger German Open teams can be summarized in three key points:

·       German U20 Open team wins the gold medal at EUC in 2007

·       German national Open team takes the bronze medal at EUC in 2011

·       Bad Skid takes the bronze medal at xEUCF in 2013

2011-08-05-0894-by J.Pires

I do not actively play Ultimate any more, but I coached the German national junior team and subsequently the German national Open team for many years. From my own (biased) perspective, I will try to describe the path that led to these results. Others might come to different conclusions about the German teams and their recent results, but hopefully I can give my sense at least of their path to more competitive results.

International success in the past

As early as 2000, Team Germany was in the semifinals at WUGC in Heilbronn. Before that the German Open team was runner up in Europe behind Sweden and Finland, winning bronze at the European Championships in 1991, 1995, and 1997. The club teams from Munich and Mainz were internationally respected, but the only medal for a German club team was the bronze at EUCC 1994 when Mir San Mir from Munich tied with Red Lights from Amsterdam after the third place game was canceled during heavy storms (as far as I can remember).

From today’s perspective, it seems that the so-called “German Offense” had led to a dead end after the turn of the millennium. Back then the German style was based on a very advanced understanding of the game, but compared to other nations in Europe their athletic level was stagnant until just a few years ago. Also, there was a significant drop-off in talent when a number of experienced players retired from international Ultimate after disappointing results at WUGC 2004 and EUCC 2005. However, recent results at international tournaments suggest that the German Open teams are back on track. This development took some time and effort. The foundation was laid many years ago.

First European gold – the German junior program takes off

The gold medal that the German Junior Open team won at EUC 2007 was a game changer for the development of German youth programs, and at the same time an early indicator of future competitiveness in the Open division. Before 2007 Sweden had been the dominant force, winning eleven gold medals in the Junior Open division at prior European Championships and seven gold medals at the World Championships. With the infusion of youth talent in the mid 2000’s, though, German teams were able to (re)assert themselves as contenders.

The 2007 German Junior Open team clearly benefited from the huge talent that evolved from the youth program in the Heilbronn area. The basis for the success of the German junior teams was built after 2000 when the WUGC were held in Heilbronn. This event attracted many spectators, including non Frisbee-players and children in the greater area, and subsequently many strong juniors programs were established in the region. Inspired by these programs, more and more junior teams were founded in other regions of Germany and they all sent their strongest players to the national teams. As a result, both the Open and Women’s German U17 and U20 teams won several gold medals at European Championships over the next several years.

Development for the German youth Ultimate programs is now right where it wants to be, though clearly it takes time. Maybe the most important thing is to have junior players come back and become coaches. Indeed, since 2007 more and more former junior players have taken on positions as coaches and we already see the next wave of dedicated, well-taught junior players coming.

Today there are about 50 junior teams in Germany that compete regularly at the German Youth Championships, which take place twice per year (indoor and outdoor). In addition, there are several other junior tournaments and overnight camps all over Germany. There are also at least five regional School Championships with as many as 700 students competing at each tournament. And these kind events are still growing.

The German Frisbeesport Association is focusing on the growth of the national youth program in the long term. This year they initiated a seminar series for Frisbee instructors, targeting coaches for U14 teams, with about 20 participants forming the first official group of instructors. The aim is to be ready to launch courses for broader audiences in 2015. These courses will consist of several weekends with altogether 120 teaching units of 45 minutes each. At a later stage, more advanced courses targeting U17 and U20 coaches are expected to follow over the years.

Furthermore, for the first time, the coaches of the national teams from each division – U17, U20, U23, Open, Women, Mixed and Master – will meet in January 2014 for a weekend to discuss new approaches to improve the collaboration between the different divisions. Topics will include, for example, consistency in strategic principles and athletic fundamentals within the men’s and women’s teams to ensure that the juniors already learn what the more senior teams require.

Today, about half of players of the extended squad of the German men’s Open team have played (or even still play) as juniors. Coaches of the junior teams regularly took part or visited practice weekends and tryouts for the national Open team in the past. This will continue to be the case in the future. This is an important factor for the raise of the German Open team.

Ultimate_Flyer_Tryout_2013_H.Ryll

Original picture above by Jocelyn Trottet from LookGoodPlayGood Photography. http://www.lookgoodplaygood.org/EUC2011/Highlights/Highlights/18561438_KwcVtZ#!i=1433516133&k=kxkVN5X&lb=1&s=A

Renaissance of Team Germany aka Inside Rakete

In the early upheaval of the German Open team, only a few experienced players from previous years continued to play with Team Germany. At EUC 2007, only seven players on the roster had played at an international level before. At WUGC 2008 the team hit rock bottom in many ways, finishing only 13th. After that disappointing tournament, several changes took place.

The team leadership identified three goals to work on:

·       Raise the quality of the individual players so they could compete with opposition at the highest levels

·       Introduce new players – in particular (former) junior players – to the team for increased squad depth and internal competition

·       Raise the level of Ultimate in the country’s various club teams in order to have higher competition at club team practices, tournaments, and national championships

The leadership elected to maintain an extended squad continuously, not only in years with national team events like the EUC or WUGC but every year. There were open tryouts and clinics on a regular basis to get to know new players and to transfer national team knowledge down to the constituent club teams who sent players to national team events starting after 2008 until today.

At the open tryouts, players could qualify for certain tournaments that the national team regularly played in order to test new players in real competition. We played tournaments in Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, and even at Paganello over the years. The teams at these tournaments usually consisted of more experienced players mixed with a couple of rookies. We always tried to take about 50 percent new players with us. Even if they did not make it into the team later on, they could pass their experience on to their respective club teams and send us new players down the road.

In addition to this continuous program of training and playing as a national team, a continuous program of improvement was established by using external coaches and advisors. This was important since the development in Germany had stagnated over the years, and the team looked to other leading international programs for input.

For instance, the Inside Rakete team traveled to London to meet, train and scrimmage with Clapham over the course of a weekend. It was a great inspiration for the team to practice against, and hang out afterwards with, some of the best players in Europe.

UK Tour by S.Rekitt

In 2012 Ben Wiggins was invited for a clinic with Team Germany in Munich. Ben Wiggins also made contact the NexGen Tour that same year. Accordingly, Philipp Haas, one of Team Germany’s captains, was able to play with the bus and gain further experience from playing with and against the best players in the US. Every team clearly benefits from such experiences of one of the leaders.

Ben_Wiggins_by_M.Brucklacher

It was also Ben Wiggins who introduced me to Josh McCarthy, coach of Boston Ironside, with whom I did a kind of internship at US nationals to gain insights into the coaching experience of one of the best elite programs is the US. I was looking for this opportunity because I wanted to improve as a coach to keep pace with the progress of the team. In Germany there are no non-playing coaches in club (Open) Ultimate. Even in the rest of Europe, non-playing coaches are very rare, and so it was the best thing to learn from coaches in the US where coaching has a rather long history and is recognized as valuable at the highest levels.

Both Ben Wiggins and Josh McCarthy continued to be trusted advisors in the development of the Inside Rakete project afterwards. For instance, they supported the search for a well-suited team for Philipp Haas to play in the USAU club series in 2013, where he trained and played with Truck Stop for about four months. In addition, I had the chance to constantly exchange further ideas with Josh via email and, most recently, again in person at US nationals in Texas this past fall. All this US experience will surely further help to improve Team Germany in the future.

Incidentally it was also during the Ironside internship in 2012 when I first met Tim Morrill, who has worked with the Boston team over the past two years. This led to a Morrill Performance clinic just a couple a weeks ago in Munich with about 50 players from the extended Team Germany squad.

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The improvement of the athletic skills of the German players has now become a key focus for the further development of the program. The players will take the new input back home to their club teams and raise the athletic level there, too, by implementing the new training methods.

InsideRaketeMorrill_by H.Ryll

We are currently working with an extended Team Germany squad of 66 players. In 2013 we met on four different weekends, tried new strategies and trainings methods and played against the German U23 Open team during their preparation for the U23 Worlds in Canada that summer. The players on this extended squad are expected to train in their club teams according to a specific training program developed and improved over the last few years.

InsideRaketeMorrill_by H.Ryll 2

We will meet again next February and March to run athletic tests and work on certain strategic key issues. At the end of next year we will have an internal tryout and make cuts for the next two years. We aim to have a smaller (but still extended) squad with about 40 players to work on team strategy more in detail. This group of 40 will work together for the following two years. Team Germany for EUC 2015 and WUGC 2016 will be selected from this group. In doing so we hope to ensure consistency and internal competition at the same time.

IR_poster_by_H.Ryll

Original picture above by http://www.lookgoodplaygood.org/EUC2011/Highlights/Highlights/18561438_KwcVtZ#!i=1433516133&k=kxkVN5X&lb=1&s=A

Bad Skid – it’s in the game

Bad Skid is the perfect symbiosis of a strong junior program and the desire for constant improvement that can be found in the Inside Rakete project. The new team from the Heilbronn area was founded in 2007. Ten of the 17 players from the Junior Open team that took gold at EUC were founding members of Bad Skid. Today eight of them are still playing with the team. Their victory at the European Youth Championships 2007 inspired them to form a new team that could shoot for the moon.

Bad Skid EUCR2013

As mentioned above, the junior program in the Heilbronn area benefited from the media exposure and the publicity that was generated through the World Championships there in 2000. Before 2000, there were only two junior teams in that region. After 2000 many more programs got started and attracted more and more players. Today, Bad Skid recruits their players from five different teams in the Heilbronn region. Just having more junior players was not enough, though.

Until 2010, Bad Skid struggled as a team. Many in Germany predicted that they would win the German Championships each year, but somehow they constantly failed to make use of their talent and win the important games. The German Championships in 2010 marked their turning point.

At this tournament, many internal conflicts surfaced for Bad Skid. There were different groups inside the team, with different goals and expectations. The situation escalated and in some games they barely had seven players who were ready to go on the line.

After the tournament there was an important change in the team leadership. In particular, Holger Beuttenmüller took over control. Along with a few others, he was the puppet master behind the recent success of Bad Skid. He was able to join the forces that wanted more and already back then WUCC 2014 was presented as the main goal for the team. In 2010 the best players of Bad Skid had played with other German club teams at WUCC in Prague and afterwards they wanted to have their own team at the next club Worlds. After 2010, the players that were not willing to commit to these new and very challenging goals left the team.

The changes were immediately successful. Already in 2011, Bad Skid won, for the first time, the German Championships. Suddenly they could perform with the talent they had in the years before. The focus was clearly more serious and the team stood together as one unit. They repeated their national success by winning the German Championships again in 2012 and 2013, by even more impressive margins.

It was after the EUCF in 2012 when Bad Skid made the next step to progress at an international level. The decisive moment was the universe point in the quarterfinal against Flying Angels Bern. The Germans started on defense and finally got it on their own goal line. But they turned it over right away, losing to FAB just a few seconds later. Bad Skid won the following placement games but the loss hurt them a lot and was the main drive during the following pre-season to work even harder. For instance, they even met with FAB during this season for scrimmages and a joint practice. It showed how much they wanted to overcome the painful loss against the Swiss Champion.

The increased effort paid off already in 2013. Bad Skid played in the final at Windmill Windup and at the UK Tour in London. At xEUCF they won the bronze medal after a close loss to Clapham in the semifinal, closer than any other team in Bordeaux had played Clapham.

Inspired by their recent success, Bad Skid started their pre-season for the next year already in November. They hit the gym in groups and meet with the whole team for regular practice weekends. It is very likely that they will present themselves in even better shape next spring when the final phase of the preparation for WUCC will begin.

What will the future bring?

The coming years will tell if the effort described above will pay off, whether the German Open teams – junior and senior, national and club – can take the next step to close the gap with the leading nations in the world and distance themselves from the rest of the competition.

I recently talked to Sion “Brummie” Scone about the prospects of the German Open teams. He coached GB Open from 2010 until 2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013. Brummie is one of the masterminds of European Ultimate and he follows the development all over the world and in particular Europe closely. He was kind enough to share with me his thoughts on the development and the current status of the German Open teams. Brummie explained what German teams already have and what they still lack from the perspective of the GB team.

According to Brummie, Germany’s development of strong handlers is second-to-none in Europe. Not only excellent throws, but clear thinking, strong decision-making under pressure and a level of calm rarely seen in such young players. Brummie also acknowledged the strong culture of continued development and the continuous program of training and improvement.

On the other side, Brummie pointed out what German Open teams still lack. On issue would be squad depth. This could come with time. Another concern is what Brummie called “beast” athletes. Team Germany is already athletic, but there are few big athletes who create a real concern for the opposition. For instance, GB Open generally had 4 to 6 very strong players that made matching up really tough. This is not so much the case in Germany. Furthermore, Germany relies on the other team making mistakes to get the disc. Currently, this would be one area where GB has the upper hand, as they have more players capable of making big plays defensively. Lastly, German Open teams still lack a sufficient variety of playing styles. Brummie suggested more offensive and defensive ingenuity. It would also improve their ability to play against different teams and styles. Bad Skid struggled against Clapham’s junky defense in London this year, for example, so learning more distinguished zones and practicing against them could help to make the team stronger.

I would agree with Brummie’s observations and I’m really thankful for his openness. I believe that Germany could produce dominant teams in Europe. It feels within their grasp. But in order to do that they will have to continue to improve. This is all the more true in view of the worldwide competition.

For Team Germany, there is still time to improve over the next two years. With their current trajectory, Germany should be aiming for gold in EUC 2015 and semifinals in WUGC 2016. However, we know that the other nations are not resting. There are many other programs in Europe that already work hard or just began to develop the desire for more international success and recognition, not to mention the other strong nations outside of Europe who are already chasing the US teams.

InsideRakete_TryOut_by_H.Ryll

The German Junior Open team can show if they have the power to win a medal already next year at Junior Worlds. This would be the first medal at Junior Worlds since 2008 where they won bronze. In 2010 and 2012 they came in fourth. They’ve invested a lot and continue to improve. I expect to see an even more athletic German junior teams, in particular since they have now the support from the athletic trainers of Ultimate Performance (http://www.ultimateperformance.de), who recently provided an individual training program for each junior player for the pre-season.

Bad Skid can demonstrate in Lecco whether their philosophy of relying on regional talent, rather than trying to bring in star players from other club teams, will prove sufficient to reach their goals. I know at least that they are working harder than ever before. Playing a quarterfinal in which they can compete would be still huge for them, I think.

Let’s see what the future will bring. Can’t wait for the next season to start…

About Stefan Rekitt

Stefan Rekitt has coached the German Open Ultimate national team for many years now, recently winning the bronze medal at EUC 2011 and leading the team to the quarter-finals at WUGC 2012. Previously, Stefan coached the German Junior Open team to a silver medal at WUGC 1996. When he started working as a litigator in an international law firm, he retired from playing actively. Stefan had started playing Ultimate in 1990 and did play in both the German Junior Open and Open national teams, won German and Danish titles with his club teams Mir San Mir (Munich) and Fenris (Copenhagen) and participated at club Worlds and European club championships.

All pictures by S. Rekitt, H.Ryll, José Pires, Jocelyn Trottet and Get Horizontal

Another article covering the story of the womens division in Germany is coming tomorrow. Keep on reading!