Note: this article was written by Sara Wickström from Finland with an impressive history in Finnish and German Ultimate. More info on her below this article. If you want to write about your team or country, don’t hesitate to get in touch!
German Women’s Ultimate: Past-Present-Future in a Nutshell
In the past 5-6 years we have seen German women’s teams gain visibility both on the club and national level. The national team is reining European Champion and finished as the best European team on 6th place at Worlds. The Munich based Woodchicas won the EUCF two times in the past (2007 and 2008) and finished second in 2011. This year U de Cologne lost the xEUCF final to Iceni (GB) by a narrow margin with a young and internationally inexperienced team.
I have been closely both observing and taking part in the German Frisbee scene since 2005, when I moved from Finland to Munich. Subsequently I have coached and played with Woodchicas from 2006-2011 and U de Cologne from 2012 onwards, as well as coached and played with the German Women’s national team from 2008 to 2012. These years have been very interesting as the scene is very dynamic and constantly in motion. It has also been an interesting contrast to the Finnish Ultimate scene with quite a different culture and where the trend seems to run in an opposite direction from being top of the world (highlighted by Finnish women finishing second at WUGC in 2004 and winning the European Championships 2003 and 2007) to a mid range placing within the European ranking. In this short article I will provide some hopefully interesting insights into the current status and future perspectives of German women’s Ultimate.
A brief look back in history
Although there has been a clear step up in the German women’s Ultimate in the past years, the Germans have actually been part of the European elite already longer, exemplified by consistent placements in the top 4 in European Championships since 1995. In addition, there have been successes on the club level as well, with Milder Norden, a player collective from Hamburg and Berlin finishing second after the former British top team Bliss at the European Club Championships in Prague 2001 and JinX (formed from Milder Norden players living in Berlin) defeating Bliss in the final of EUCC Rostock 2005 (the European Club Championships of the traditional format before the establishment of the EUCF-series). However, the absolute European top appeared to be out of reach. In addition, the national scene was not organized well enough to foster long term success. Traditionally Germany was dominated by player collectives such as Milder Norden that consisted of the top players from a broader geographical region. These collectives did not really train together but instead only got together for playing national and international tournaments. This arrangement actually pretty well reflects the still prevalent attitude of many Germans towards Ultimate: it’s mostly about playing tournaments.
When arriving to Germany I was somewhat surprised that even the top club teams lacked in tactical discipline and very little tactical and strategical aspects were featured at practice. Instead, the players traveled to tournaments every weekend. Although it seemed peculiar at that time, I now believe this intensive tournament culture and emphasis on playing games actually provided fertile ground for the relatively rapid improvement in the German game. The evolvement of a more stable club scene accompanied by advancement of the quality of training and tactical discipline in combination with the mental and physical robustness brought about by frequent game experience is actually a great combination.
The big cities step up
The key event in the evolvement of todays German Women’s Ultimate was the birth of two stable clubs in two major German cities: JinX (Milder Norden) in Berlin and Woodchicas in Munich. Mainz, as smaller city in the west, also has made a respectable effort in systematical advancement of women’s club Ultimate but the small size of the city prohibits sufficient flow of talent to the area, a phenomenon that has greatly benefited the rosters of Berlin and Munich. Berlin dominated the national scene from 1995 to 2004 winning 7 German Championships as well as the European Championships in 2005, as mentioned earlier. JinX was probably the first club team to establish a disciplined training agenda. However, Woodchicas started to gain momentum as well. The team was founded by two top level mixed players Birgit Immen and Margareta “Motte” Junkermann in 2003. Slowly, the city began attracting top-level players from around Germany and the roster evolved into a fascinating combination of experience/game intelligence and youth/athleticism. The broad roster facilitated the development of a tactically very mature and disciplined team, which in its peak (2006-2011) was virtually undefeatable in Germany and absolute top level within Europe. The tactics were based on a combination of the classic Scandinavian split stack and the famous German isolation plays in offence and a set of extremely variable transition zones in defense. This tactical framework provided the basis of the tactics of the German National Team was well, with the Woodchicas forming the core of the national team. This compatibility actually partly explains the success of the National Team during this time. JinX continued to work hard and was able to generate relatively competitive rosters, but was in the end unable to compete on eye level with the Woodchicas. Despite several talented and committed players a sufficient pool of absolute top level players and especially top athletes who make the difference in decisive points was missing. JinX continues to display potential and they would perhaps benefit from an experienced trainer to make the final step to the top.
The year 2012 marked a change in the German national scene as U de Cologne (from Cologne as the name implies), won their first ever German Championship. The rise of Cologne was facilitated by the relocation of several former Woodchicas and national team players (myself, Susanne Theimer, and Philippa Payne) to Cologne.
At the same time Woodchicas was to some extent weakened besides our departure also from retirement of some of the older players and maternity/injury breaks from a few. I took over the coaching of U de Cologne that at the time consisted of very young and inexperienced but exceptionally enthusiastic and ambitious players captained by the mixed national team player Helen Springer and the current U23 national team coach Yannicka Kappelmann. As an example of this determination, despite finishing last in the German nationals 2011, the team immediately agreed upon setting the goal to become German champions as soon as possible. The motivation combined with athleticism enabled us to practice on a relatively high level from the beginning on and we continue to make big steps forward, exemplified by the silver medal at xEUCF in 2013. The major hurdles are still our inconsistency in offence due to inexperience in high level international games as well as the lack of tactical discipline at times. xEUCF 2013 also clearly showed that our roster still lacks the depth needed for international games as well as the top level athleticism required to challenge the North Americans and the Japanese. We are working on this and have been able to attract promising young players from the region as well as internationally to strengthen our roster.
In addition, we have used both external expertise as well as the expertise of the sport scientist in our squad to professionalize our physical training. Finally, we hope to sophisticate our tactics to match the former level of the Woodchicas and the German National team with the aim to be able to compete at the World Club Championships in Lecco 2014. Woodchicas will also be participating at WUCC, and they have some hard work ahead of them in order to get into their old strength, whereas JinX unfortunately was unable to secure a spot. This will be the first time Germany will be sending 2 (hopefully) competitive women’s teams to World Clubs. The hope is in the air that this will benefit the entire national Ultimate scene and lead to an overall improvement in the level of play.
The national team in transition
As mentioned in the previous passage, the rise of the German Women’s national team occurred concomitantly with the peak of the Woodchicas, benefiting greatly from the fact that both the trainer and the core of the team knew each other very well. The Worlds in Vancouver 2008 was still more of an educational trip, and we were not in the position to challenge to top nations and also lost to Great Britain making GB the top European National team in the first and only time in their history. After Vancouver we had a small change in generation with several younger players joining the team. In addition, some top women who had previously played mixed decided to play women’s instead. These developments paid off and the Europeans in Maribor 2012 marked the highlight of German National Team Ultimate with the first European Championship victory in history. The Germans dominated the tournament winning all 10 games with the tightest margin being a win by 3 against GB in a pool game.
Everybody hoped that this win would initiate a new era in German Ultimate and preparations for the Worlds in Sakai, Japan were initiated with high hopes. Unfortunately a combination of bad luck (injuries of key players just before tournament and during first games), windy conditions (there is surprisingly little wind in Germany and high wind is therefore suboptimal for German teams) and insufficient fitness (in combination with the hot weather conditions) made Sakai a very difficult tournament for the Germans. It was a big eye opener to see that we were miles away from the quality of the North Americans and Japanese; even the Australians beat us with a relatively large margin. A small condolence was beating GB in the upper bracket to be able to play for 5th place, thereby ending up 6th as the best European team. Taken together, however, it is quite worrying to see Europe in general losing touch from top level Ultimate played on the other continents. I feel that we are entering a phase where things need to change relatively fast if we want to prevent this from becoming a permanent state.
Although the grownups are struggling, the juniors are still providing some hope of better times to come. Both the U17 as well as the U20 girls dominated the European Championships this year and won gold. The German U23 girls finished 5th as the best European team in the U23 Worlds this year. Importantly, the U23 coaches Melanie Neunerdt and Yannicka Kappelman (both long time national team players and playing U de Cologne this season) chose to implement the Women’s national team tactics in the U23 team, providing conceptual compatibility for the national teams and thereby facilitating a smooth transit for players from U23 to the women’s team. We hope to see the benefits of this in the upcoming years. One has to note, however, that also in the U23 division a worrying gap between the top 3 (USA, Canada, Japan) was visible, emphasizing that work needs to be intensified already in the early junior divisions.
The German Women’s National team is now facing another big change of generations as well as restructuring in general. There is an attempt to professionalize the preparation and to generate an all-year national team with a large pool of players that regularly comes together to practice and play tournaments. This is in contrast to previous years where the national team was always assembled de novo in years where an official national team event took place. In addition, the national team is on the lookout for a new trainer after my retirement in 2013. The team is currently headed by a project team consisting of experienced national team players.
These are important improvements that will hopefully materialize in future success. However, it is obvious and critical to realize that the most important work is carried out in the club teams. Therefore it is key that all of the 3 “big cities” (Cologne, Munich, Berlin) urgently professionalize their structure to improve quality of training and level of play. We need to avoid the “one city domination model” that has been prevalent for the past 10 years and achieve a healthy rivalry that will drive the national scene to a new level. In addition, cities with a consistent but currently not quite competitive Frisbee scene (Hamburg, Mainz, etc) need to step up and join the competition.
About Sara Wickström
Sara started playing Ultimate in Finland, where she made her debut in the Finnish National Team at Worlds in Jönköping 1996. She has played every World Championship since. The highlights of her career are World Championship silver in 2004 and bronze in 2001 as well as European Championship gold in 2003 (with Finland) and 2012 (with Germany). In 2001 she played the World Games in Akita, Japan with the Finnish team. On the club level she has 4 medals from EUCF (gold 2007 and 2008, silver 2011 with Woodchicas; silver 2013 with U de Cologne).
She has coached Ultimate since 2000: Team Discus, Finland (2000-2005), Woodchicas, Germany (2006-2011), U de Cologne (2012-) and the German National Team (2008-2012).