Monday, March 18, 2013

Australian Exceptionalism

Jonno Holmes and Mike Neild have been added to the World Games squad for 2013.

That's the important thing, the take-home message, but for the rest, read on:

Picking representative teams is tricky, and as selectors you are bound to make decisions that don't please everyone. This happens with every selection event in sport though the problem is compounded in ultimate, where all the personnel involved tend to be friends, armchair commentators or fellow players - and usually all three.

Why is this an issue? Well, some would say it isn't even one. If canvassing opinions over the various regional qualifiers this weekend was any indication, there are two ways this news can generally be greeted. The first, and the least common, is muted indifference. "So?" goes the refrain, "You want to pick the best possible team." People in this camp tend to take it as a given that both Jonno and Mike would be a key component of Team Australia - "the best team possible".

The alternative opinion runs something like - "The process [of selection] is now meaningless. What was the point of applying back in October if they can be added to the team now just because they feel like it?" Outrage abounds: squad hopefuls tend to view late additions as certainties for the team going to Colombia. Why else would they be added this late?

Most tend to feel that the case for adding Neild is more justified than the case for adding Holmes. Since playing 2008 Dingoes, Mike has unfortunately had less and less time to dedicate to the sport. Though a regular - and regularly impressive - fixture at the Big Sky 9's tournaments, his last elite-level play was at 2011 Nationals with Firestorm. Despite this, there seems to be a sort of "standing order", that were Neild's personal situation to allow it, he would be a shoe-in on any representative team: tales abound from Vancouver and from Kaohsiung, not just of his unparalleled athletic ability but of his charisma - his ability to lead and empower those around him. And as of last week, for the most awful and terrible of reasons, Mike Neild is free to commit to any tourney he wishes to. Including World Games.

Does such a set of special circumstances exist for Holmes? A standout player in the 2009 World Games campaign (though, wasn't he hospitalised and put on a drip mid-tourney? we suspect peptides at play) and current captain of the Dingoes, he is an undoubtedly impressive talent. He has come in from the World Games cold, by all accounts, "because he wants to play with Mike." Of the two additions, his has been viewed with more scrutiny and less sympathy. Though perhaps that is less to do with his ability as a player, and more to do with his being a later addition to the squad. That, and the most trying circumstance in his personal life appears to be a forced conversion to vegetarianism.

One thing is clear - a lot of high-level players feel that the way this information is trickling out into the ultimate public (i.e., through usually biased conversations) is not optimal. Changes like this need to be announced, with their rationales, from the highest peaks and the lowest valleys, to quash as soon as possible the idea that World Games selection is some kind of cliquey boys club run by the Rogacki equivalent of Sea Org. Getting this information out as soon as possible was an aim of this blog post.

Transparency and accountability are essential when picking national teams. Without them, trust is quickly eroded. A full, frank and open discussion of situations like this - even if it's just announcing it on the AFDA frontpage - stops the wound from festering. Instead, World Games squad members today received this email, notable for its lack of any kind of explanation:
Jonno Holmes has been included in the 2013 WG Squad.  As with Mike, as an inclusion outside of the initial process, both cases have gone through the AFDA Board and been approved.  Welcome Jonno!
Having trust in selection processes is important for more than just AFDA face-saving. It's important because it has an effect on team morale. Teams are stronger for having suffered together and fought for their spots - if there is the sense that coaches are playing favourites, well, that's not going to go down great with the massive interpersonal pressures of playing a world championship event.

But we digress - storms, teacups. There has not yet been a single selection event. In theory at least, all are on equal footing coming into Melbourne this weekend. The players tacked on to the squad list are all of the highest calibre. And we wish them the very best of luck.


  1. Nice post Tiger

    -Tom Watson
    AFDA Director of High Performance

  2. I just had a read of the AFDA Representative Teams Policy document (super thrilling). Pretty crazy how flexible it is. They were meant to include a 'Commitment Policy' in the call for applications that outlines what the "severe financial penalties" for things such as late applications are, and also what circumstances can result in them being waived.

    Also in the rep policy is the fact that 'the membership' should be notified by email after applicants have been notified. At least Mike's entry was mentioned on facebook? AFDA are notoriously slow at releasing squads and things though so maybe it'll pop up in the next week or two.

    I'm all for selecting the best team possible, but it'd be nice if AFDA told the common-folk who was getting added to the squad so that those of us playing at home can argue over what the team will end up being.

    Nice post Tiger.

  3. The real question is why must players nominate their interest 9 months prior to the tournament...?

    Most of the top 40 guys in the country have played together extensively over the last 18 months (if not for years) and I doubt any real additional "cohesion" is going to eventuate from a one or two training camps between Christmas and Nationals. So what's with needing to get commitment 9 months out?

    I think selecting the squad/team post Nationals caters far better for cases guys like Jonno and Mike putting their hands up "late" as well as gives the selectors more opportunity to assess players in competitive environments (Regionals, BCI, Nationals) without requiring the entire squad to invest a substantial amount of time and money to fly somewhere.

    My personal opinion is that making sure the best players are available adds more value to the Australian representative teams than the cohesion gained from a couple of training camps.

    I also tend to think the talent gap in Australian ultimate is still quite large and the guys like Gak and Mike (when fully fit) do make a significant difference so you should give them every chance to make the team if they are available.

    With all that said, I'd like to see a stop with independent selection processes altogether and move towards a continuous National squad for both genders with 40 or 50 player and head coach for each from which all representative teams are selected?

    Then just require that to be a part of the National squads that players must attend two National squad training camps a year and the major National events and then 3 - 4 months out from major tournaments select the best available individuals who are willing to complete.

    Then once teams are selected organise a couple extra training camps and tour games as a representative team.

    If we had a continuous National squad it would also be feesable to organise to send National squads to optional events like Kiamana, US Open, Dream Cup and you'd always have a big enough pool of players who were willing to go and these events would provide great opportunities to the guys aspiring to cement themselves within the top National teams and you'd provide more opportunities for players to gel and coaches/selectors to assess players skills.

    That's my two cents.

  4. Chris, looking purely at the guy list for World Games, you have something pretty similar to what you're proposing. With the exception of Cupcake and Rogacki all of the guys were from the dingoes (not exactly a continuous national squad, but have been together for over a year or so?). X number of those put their hands up for world games and a shortlist was chosen for selections because of the very tight roster constraints of world games. That small squad will then be made smaller based on form and the resulting team will train for a few months.

    With the whole asking for people to commit 9 months in advance thing, one of the reasons would have to be that big gap in talent you mentioned. Having Gak/Mike/Jonno available or on the team could completely change the direction you mould the team. On the girls end of things, if there aren't any dominant female handlers up for selection, you might need to change your strategy to have your male contingent more thrower heavy. This could also slightly change who you invite to your world game selection events and the playing style you select the team based on.

    Only one more month to find out what the team looks like. Look forward to cheering them on via low quality random streams.

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