Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The Curse of Tier 2

I have had the good fortune of being on teams at a great variety of levels. For the past several years, I have been in Chicago playing on a national-level team, but one firmly in the second tier. This is one of the hardest positions for a team to be in, regardless of the divison. There are a number of reasons.

1. The curse of the middle class: no time for fun. People in the middle class are able to acquire possessions and the responsibilities that go with them, but lack the time to enjoy them. The same thing is true in the second tier. A Tier 2 team could, if it wished, skip sprints, drills, and other workouts and have lots of fun while still having an okay team. They wouldn't make it to The Show, but compared to those years where they struggle and don't make it anyway, it seems like a tempting choice. In the end, they ask themselves, was all the struggle we made in getting to the middle class worth it? It's a good question with no easy answers.

2. When to peak? When there's no guarantee of making it to "nationals" (this is a common designation for the UPA Championship Series, and I will continue to use it here as an abbreviation for the longer, more appropriate, term), do you plan to peak at regionals or nationals? If you train to peak at nationals and then don't make it, well... that sucks. On the other hand, if you peak at regionals and do well, but your team is spent by late October (or May for college), you may be in for a disappointment -- for no matter how many "pump it up" speeches you throw at your team, you can only buck a body's physiology so much.

3. Sub to win or sub to learn? At a non-ladder tourney during the season, should you try to win or try to learn as much as you can, keeping October (or May) in mind? Winning keeps team confidence up, but to win you might have to bench some of the newbies. Your team might lose the depth it needs for a four-day tournament, and the morale among rookies may suffer. On the other hand, if you sub to learn, your team may get eliminated, meaning fewer games, less learning, less experience for the newbies and low confidence.

The same considerations apply to what strategies you use during play. If you use that zone you're developing, you may learn something but lose the game. If you go with your bread and butter, you may do well but be left with a meager bag of tricks for Sarasota (or wherever).

These issues do not affect the top tier, who can comfortably prepare for nationals by using tournaments (even most of regionals) for development. Likewise, the lower tiers are typically happier just having fun with their bread-and-butter style.

4. The path of least resistance is hard not to follow. This observation is similar to the above, but the new point is that even if you have resolved Question 3 and opted for development, there is a force aligned against you -- for it is simply hard to turn your back on what's working. And yet the path which has least resistance now may look different in a few weeks' time.

5. The rich get richer. The top tier teams can treat most non-nationals tournament as learning experiences; they see more semifinals and finals games; they have more games against better competitors where they see a greater variety of strategies. As a result, the top-level teams continue to improve at a good clip, and unless the Tier 2 teams work their tails off (or even so), the gap between rich and poor widens.

6. Institutional Knowledge. Top-level teams benefit immensely from the collective wisdom of current and former players. While a great deal has been written about ultimate and is available to the general player, even more has not. Anyway, publication of information is a far cry from having it understood and internalized by the public. (Examples: Darfur, Rwanda.) Top-level teams have players who mentor younger players into a proven way of practicing, preparing and playing ultimate. Moreover, there is often a culture which perpetuates what works. All this is sorely absent in the second tier (and others).

7. Rebuilding. If you're in the second tier and you want to move up, it's hard to be happy with a performance at nationals that doesn't indicate such growth and it's hard to make quarters. So, year in, year out, teams look for that South Beach or Atkins diet which is going to solve all their problems. They reconfigure, reformulate, revise, recruit, rename and rebuild. Sometimes the new haircut makes you feel good about yourself. Sometimes you win that extra game; sometimes not. Either way, your roots and doubts eventually return. For maybe the renaming buys confidence in a two-year experiment, but at some point the stockholders start looking at the bottom

In all the scrambling for success, long-term (multi-year) strategies for growth are omitted.

8. Emotional Toll. No matter what you know to be true, the rollercoaster ride of so many close games decided by the fickle hands of fate -- a block here, a drop there -- is hard on the soul. Phil Michaelson's difficult wait for his Masters jacket pales by comparison to the plight of journeyman golfers who subsist on the tour, toiling every week just to make the cut. Their struggle is our struggle: the curse of Tier 2.

I have no answers for all these problems, only first-hand experience at how gutwrenchingly real they all are.

Maybe some of this is due to you having been in Tier 1. I look back fondly, even wistfully, at my days in Tier 2 or Tier 3. And when I was there, I never had the Angst about it that shows up here. But it could be that I was near the beginning of my career, and didn't spend a lot of years maintaining at that level.

And maybe Chicago is victim to a collective memory of what once was in the city. Z made two semis appearances in the past decade, and even Windy City's success is probably not completely forgotten, even if no one else on the team was even playing ultimate when they were last a factor (for other examples, see Cubs, White Sox).

This is just a long way to say that Tier 2 weighs more when you _know_ Tier 1, somehow.
It's possible that my personal experiences preclude me from expressing the collective conscience of my tier, but I don't think so. I shared your experience of the second tier at the beginning of my club years (in Boston) -- no angst. It's when you stay with a team through multiple reinventions that you appreciate the heartache. Also, I don't think it's related to the history of the city. I'd guess that you'd hear similar things out of Atlanta, Portland, Washington, Philadelphia.... Maybe others will chime in to confirm (or deny).
To me, the most important thing is some sort of objective, make nationals, make semis at nationals, win cooler, etc...

And then have a couple people lead the team who believe in this goal and who everyone will follow. If you don't have strong leaders with a plan, it will be very hard to attain any goal or get anything positive out of the season, no matter if you are tier 1 or 2.
Not that I don't think the travails and frustrations of Tier 2 that you describe are legitimate, but at the same time, I think one should appreciate the good fortune of being able to play with a team at that high a level.

A lot of people who really love ultimate have never had the opportunity—either because of insufficient personal talent, or lack of supporting personnel—to win a significant tournament or make it to nationals. I know it must suck to sometimes get to the dance and never win, but hey, at least you got there. Not all that many people can say that much.
Hi Jon,

Yes, that's true. Being able to make it to "the dance" is a great reward in itself. I played college ultimate for five years without getting there. Making it to the second day of regionals was often our measure of success. Still, comparing Tier 3 to Tier 2, I'd say the struggle there is not as great. By and large, Tier 3 teams do not have the same focussed dedication and commitment. It is the investment of emotional and physical effort with little (relative) gain that is so trying. So at Tier 2 there *are* more rewards and perhaps fewer disappointments. But the struggle is mighty and takes its toll.
I definitely understand where you’re coming from. There have been seasons in Atlanta where I honestly believe we could have been as successful without practicing. I’m able to keep my spirits up by telling myself (perhaps deluding myself) that we’re getting better. We’re always striving to become tier one, hopefully we’ll get there eventually. Having played on tier 1 team and a tier 2 team…what do you think the biggest difference is? How much of it is talent?
Honestly, I think the biggest difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is expectation of excellence. Personal expectations and aspirations, as well as team expectations. Tier 2 teams needn't accept most of the turnovers that happen, but they often do. I am encouraged by the sight of my team keeping stats and focussing on turnovers and appreciating how much hinges on simple mistakes such as over-running a mark. When these expectations are brought to practices and simple mistakes are corrected, play improves immensely and a team can focus on more subtle mistakes.
In my opinion, the difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is the commitment to a system, the leadership of a team, the attention to detail, the ability to focus, etc. This may be what Zaz refers to as commitment to excellence. The difference between high Tier 3 and low Tier 2 is atheletic ability.

AJ, in 1996, when Chain missed semis by a couple, we had plenty of atheletes. Everyone could jump through the roof, throw it the length of the field, break any mark, and play shut down D (had they wanted to do so). What we lacked was discipline or a system that would maximize our strengths. The same has been true on other Champies teams on which I've played.

In Tier 3 -- which may or may not be a fair assessment of Philly right now -- you have a slew of other problems related to the atheletic ability and experience of the players.
the one thing that i will address, now, while i'm hungry... is when to peak...

it should be moot. My current understanding of the physical peak is that it can be

sustained for as long as a month

and the abillity to do so is based on your condtion.

In middle distances, that means base miles. A really athletic runner, sure, they can wind it up in a month or so, and have good form and run a good race... but not for 2 weeks in a row.

But If you do the base work, you'll have your legs for longer...

Granted there are some differences in middle distances and friskee, but, honestly, in anysport, a "best conditioned" player is the most durable, and effective over the most games, recovers fastest from injuries... etc.

psychologically, maintaining peak... well, that's something else...
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