Friday, July 31, 2009

Team USA Interview--Dylan Tunnell (part 2)

Here is the continuation of our interview with Dylan Tunnell. Ultimate Strategy & Coaching would like to thank him for his candidness and eagerness to participate in this piece.

You mentioned versatility as a key component of the Team USA selections. In your article for The Huddle, you talked about deep threats also needing to be able to throw. In recent years, is this something that you’ve consciously developed in your own game?

I've always tried to be a good thrower. I think my throws have just become more consistent in games within the last couple of years. Whether that was just a function of experience or something else I'm not sure.

As individual players, do you think Team USA was the most versatile of all the teams?

Yes. Although I would say that Japan was close. Canada and Australia both had a few well-rounded players but a number of people who played specific roles.

One of the weird things about the Japanese team was that most of their taller players handled and their shorter players were downfield cutters.

Considering all 20 players selected, was Team USA deeper than any other country’s team?

Yes and I don't think it would have been particularly close. Canada has two very strong teams in each division and after that they fall off a lot. I talked to a couple of the Australians about this and they gave me the impression that each of the cities in Australia has two or three good players. I think Japan may actually have the second-best depth. I know that Sockeye traveled there for a tournament and had a number of difficult games against teams other than just the Buzz Bullets.

Four years ago, someone else said something similar about what would have happened if the World Games rosters had been twice the size. Any indication on what is leading to the strength or growth of ultimate in Japan and Australia?

I can't say for sure. If I had to guess, I would say that because ultimate is such a fun sport to play, once you get a few people in a place who know what they're doing, are pretty cool, and are interested in teaching others to play, it’s pretty easy to get growth. I would also say that the increased accessibility of ultimate media online helps with growth. Players around the world can see videos of the top U.S. teams playing and can learn a lot from that.

Also, it’s worth noting that ahead of either Japan or Australia, ultimate is probably growing most quickly in Colombia. From what I understand it’s blowing up there. In Mejedin (sp?), where the 2013 World Games will be held, they have an entire ultimate-only field complex and stadium that have been built.

Are there any expatriates working with the Columbia program?

Seth Wiggins, from Team USA, has spent a good deal of time in Columbia teaching ultimate. He's going back down for a few more months soon.

It was noteworthy that outside of Japan and the host team, everyone was from English-speaking countries. I don’t think this has been the case in previous World Games. It will be interesting to see what the landscape is like in four years. Team Japan was all Buzz Bullets players, correct? Were their women from the same area?

I expect that unless they increase the number of teams to more than six, it will be the same teams minus Taiwan, plus Columbia. I think there is a chance that Sweden or Germany could knock off Great Britain.

Yes, I believe all of the Japanese guys were Buzz Bullets. I think the women came from the same team as well but I'm not sure.

What if the US had taken a similar approach, sending seven guys from Jam and six women from Fury? Could they have won it all? Do you think there is some merit to this approach, given what it took to have you all practice together?

I believe they could have won it all. As it was, there were three Jam guys and three Fury girls on the team. I think having a team made up of players from around the country, however, is a much better way of doing it. More teams and cities feel that they're being represented as the best players are spread out to some extent. If you have as many practices as we did there is plenty of time to develop chemistry. Although it was a big commitment for all of us, I'd be shocked if anyone said it wasn't worth it.

Besides, the WUGC that happens every four years is already for the team that wins the UPA Championship.

Given the circumstances, do you think buy-in is higher because of the level of commitment?

Well, I think no one would have tried out in the first place if he or she wasn't prepared for the commitment. There were a couple of players, Moses Rifkin and Jeff Graham, who applied and would have had had excellent chances of making the team but withdrew their names before tryouts because they couldn't make the commitment.

Physically, how does one prepare for an event like this? Especially since you were geographically separated from your team-mates and on the final roster there would be so few players.

Aside from the four practice weekends and two tournaments we went to as a team, we did a lot of stuff on our own. We were never given a team workout regimen but we had an online group where we would share our workouts with one another. Most people had someone to work with. The most challenging thing was finding opportunities to actually play ultimate in the late winter and early spring before club season had started. I scrimmaged Emory a few times.

What kind of workouts were people doing?

Most people were doing a mix of running either on the track or on grass in cleats and lifting weights. There were a lot of shuttle runs, sprints, agility drills, and other exercises that focused on explosiveness.

In one of last week’s updates, Matty Tsang said that Team USA had “very few true handlers.” Miranda Roth mentioned a similar issue with the 2005 team. Was preference give to athleticism over disc skills when selecting the final team?

I believe so. While I think that almost all of the players on the team could be only handlers, they are fast enough that they are better served as cutters and receivers most of the time.

Was this role adjustment something you all addressed in practice?

I never felt like we were short on handlers. More often I felt like it was a shame that some of the people who were having to handle weren't getting the opportunity to run the field.

Do you think the line between handler and cutter was blurred in the horizontal offense you all were running?

I felt like as we developed better and better chemistry there was a lot more switching between the positions. Someone would catch a pass on an in cut and one of the people who had been handling would run through and get downfield.

Despite the high-level of play, all the games looked very clean—Spirit of the Game looks to have been extremely well-represented. To what do you attribute this?

I felt like almost everyone on all the teams was pretty into the ideas of spirit and self-officiating. This may have been because everyone was anxious and to show our sport in the best light on the international stage but I think it was more likely genuine respect we had for one another. It felt like the cleanness of the games was a strong argument for self-officiating working at the highest levels of the sport.

I heard inklings that observers of some sort may be required for the next World Games but I hope full-fledged officiating isn't on the horizon. I think the fact is that when you have outsiders who aren't directly involved in the plays making calls, you're bound to have a less well-called game. Look at the NBA.

What role did the gray-shirted officials have during the matches—similar to that of the UPA Club Championships? Were the just making active line calls? One couldn’t tell from the video.

They were making no calls. Their main job was to give hand-signals to the public-address announcer about what calls were being made so he could relay it to the crowd. If players appealed to them, they were allowed to give advice on up/down and in/out calls, but their advice was not binding in any way. Players had final say on all calls.

Given the venue and the amenities afforded to all of you, it looks like ultimate was really showcased at the World Games. Do you think there is a future for ultimate at this level? I heard the Olympic Games representatives were impressed with what was displayed by all the teams and participants.

I would love to think that ultimate could be in the Olympics in the foreseeable future but I think there are a few big obstacles. For one, we are still a good number short on national governing bodies. For another, the Olympics are not too keen on adding more team sports because more athletes necessitates more money. I think the fact that ultimate is growing so quickly helps, however, and I believe the idea of Spirit of the Game fits in well with the Olympic ideals of diplomacy and peacemaking. That being said, I'd be surprised to see ultimate in the Olympics in the next 25 years. For the time being, the World Games are pretty sweet.

Was the stadium where you all played the same as for the opening ceremony? Was upwind-downwind a factor in the stadium?

Yes, it was the main stadium and it was awesome. The first two days were very windy—comparable to Sarasota. The last day was fairly still.

Even on video, the crowd noise was chilling. What was it like playing in that stadium during higher-attended games? Was a mental adjustment necessary?

It was awesome having the energy from the crowd. I think some people may have gotten jitters a bit early on but for me it just helped me keep up my level of intensity. It was surprisingly easy to tune out the distractions.

What about the ambassador experience? It looks like you all spent a lot of time interacting with the locals and the other teams.

It was pretty cool meeting the players on the other teams. After each game we'd have a circle with the people we just played and talk about the game and what it meant to us. As far as interacting with the locals, they really seemed to like us a lot. I think the fact that we were large and American had a lot to do with it. We were asked to sign a lot of autographs and have pictures taken with people. It was unlike anything I've experienced before.

Are there any drills Team USA did that you think our readers would be interested in learning about?

We did a lot more scrimmaging at our practices than drilling. Most of the drills we did were pretty straightforward. Stuff just to get our legs and throws going.

What would you say to someone watching the World Games coverage right now who wants to be on the next Team USA in four years?

Go for it. Play high-level ultimate as often as you can. In practice and games, match up against the best players whenever possible. Hit the track and the gym with a well rounded approach to improving athleticism. Throw. Throw. Throw. Good luck.

How does Team USA stay on top for four years from now?

I think ultimate in the United States keeps getting better and better. The other national teams will definitely improve but I feel confident there will be plenty of American players who are excited to make the commitment in 2013. I may be one of them.

Do you have any final impressions about the experience to share?

It was incredible. I got to play the most fun sport in the world with some of the best and most fun people I have ever known. I will cherish the memories for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Team USA Interview--Dylan Tunnell (part 1)

In only a decade of competitive play, Atlanta’s Dylan Tunnell has assembled an impressive ultimate resume, taking home bronze at Junior Worlds in 2000, winning the UPA Juniors Championship with Paideia Gruel in 2001 and 2002, and being Callahan Award candidate for University of Georgia in 2006 and 2007. He has made semifinals at both UPA College and Club Championships. This summer he competed at the 2009 World Games as part of Team USA, where they won gold. Currently, Dylan plays for Atlanta’s Chain Lightning and works as a firefighter for the City of Atlanta.

Congratulations and welcome home.

Thanks. It's good to be back but I'm definitely experiencing some withdrawal.

Withdrawal from which part—people, playing? How was it trying to bring together a group like that from all over the country?

Mostly withdrawal from the people. The people on the team were awesome and it sucks that we won’t get to be a team again. It was really pretty easy for us to come together. On field chemistry took a little while to develop but off the field we immediately bonded.

A big part of it was that we all shared a love of playing and that made it easy for everyone to buy in early on.

Can you identify a specific point in the season when this "buy in" happened?

I think it happened as early as the tryouts among everyone who was there—those who made the team and those who didn't.

Everyone seemed to be excited just to be a part of the process.

Had Team USA won its last pool-play game against Team Japan and all other results remained the same, then Team Japan would have advanced to the gold-medal game out of the three-way, head-to-head tie (with Team Canada and Team Australia) for second based on point deferential, correct?

Yes. Going into our first game with Japan we knew that no matter the result of the game we'd be playing them again for the gold, even if we lost.

Going into the tournament, did you all expect Team Australia to be your biggest competition, both because of the level of play that they have displayed in recent years and because you all had not faced them over the summer? What about Japan?

I think we expected Australia, Japan, and Canada to be our biggest competition in no particular order.

We knew each would provide different challenges match-up wise. Personally, I was most concerned about Japan because they are a small, quick team and a lot of our players were on the bigger side and not used to guarding little guys.

In preparing for the tournament, you all played Team Canada multiple times along with seeing Team Great Britain and Team Taipei at Poultry Days. In pool play, did you all have specific game plans for each team or did you start out the same and adapt later in the game?

We had some specific defenses we used against Canada and Australia to stop their long game. Against Japan we knew we had to stay very close on defense because they use big cross-field throws to the break side well. Also we knew we had a height advantage we could use against the Japanese. Otherwise we were pretty confident that if we went out and played our game we'd be successful. Against Great Britain and Japan we made a few in game adjustments to the defenses they were playing against our H-stack.

From the video, it looked like Team Great Britain played very tough defense on you all.

They did. That was without a doubt our most physical game of the tournament. The Brits played a gritty style and they were close to upsetting almost all of the top teams. They just couldn't quite put it all together.

What adjustments did you all make in between the two games with Japan? What about half-time adjustments in either game?

We made a few specific adjustments. Notably, they really try to get blocks on dump passes and succeeded a couple of times against us in the first game. We learned that if you pump-fake the throw, they'll bite hard and you can get an easy up line pass. Also, their downfield cutters don't do a lot of change of direction. If they start running, they're probably going to continue in that direction until they are thrown to or not. We learned to sell out in running with them on D. The biggest change for us was just that we were super focused and fired up for the finals. Even though we were trying hard in the first game, I think it was in the back of everyone's head that the game didn't really matter. The intensity of focus wasn't all there, I think for that reason.

Personally, I'm not sure I have ever felt as intensely focused as I did in that finals game.

One of the updates mentioned that people would prepare mentally for the matches in different ways. During the break, did you all do anything as a team to get up for the gold medal game?

I think losing to [Team Japan] in that first game served as a wake-up call for us. I'm not sure we would have been complacent had we won the first one but having lost it we were hungry to get back out there and redeem ourselves. We followed basically the same warm-up routine we used for the other games only before the finals everyone was extremely dialed in. I think we all felt like we were just waiting to get on the field to be able to unleash the energy that was building inside of us.

The best example of this for me was when I passed Beau in the hall and asked him how he was feeling. He said, "I feel like I'm ready to blow the fuck up. You can either sit back and watch me or help me do it." After that, I had no doubt that we were going to win.

Ultimate is still at the point where having a coach is not a given at even the highest levels of the sport. What influence did Greg Connelly have on both unifying the team and determining its style of play?

I think he was good about allowing a style of play evolve among us naturally rather than impose something he had in his head that not everyone would necessarily be comfortable with. The first practice or two he just let us play and then afterward asked people what they liked and based the offense off of that. He was aware that there were a lot of smart players on the team and that he didn't need to over-coach. The players had a lot of say in the way our game plan developed. I think what came out of that ended up working pretty well for us.

For a moment, to go back to what Beau said to you and what you said at the beginning about being bonded off the field . . . I don't know what competing at this level is like but it sounds like as a team you very much supported one another and this was key to your success—is this correct?

It really was. I think what made us a great team on the field more than anything was the love we had for each other. When we were out there we were playing for one another. For me, and I think for the rest of the people too, caring about teammates is the best motivating force you can have. That way, you don't get caught up in your own head because you're playing for something outside of yourself.

In the mixed game, teams are always searching for the best ways to use their men and their women. How did Team USA approach this issue? How did you all prepare for your opponents using different mixed-specific game-plans against you all?

To begin with, and I mean this in the least sexist way possible, our girls were so good it felt more like playing open than mixed. We didn't have a whole lot of plans that pertained specifically to our coed nature other than the obvious things like not having guys hanging out deep when women were making long cuts. Because about seven of the nine women on our full roster were more in the mold of downfield cutters we used our women more as receivers than as handlers. Some of the other teams used their women in more specialized ways but our women were versatile and adjusted well to whatever was thrown at them.

On defense, it looks like Team USA often played transition zone. Was this to counter horizontal-stack plays off the pull? Overall, were the conditions or opposition not right for whole points of zone defense?

Yeah, we played transition Z mainly to disrupt pull plays. Actually, that was the area in which being coed was the most difficult for us because we had to match up according to gender after the transition rather than just with the closest people. We got better at it but there were a couple of times in Kaohsiung when we messed it up. We didn't play much whole-point zone mainly because we thought our person D was very strong. Also our zone just wasn't that great. Go figure.

How did Team USA prepare for playing person-to-person defense in the mixed game? How was playing mixed ultimate at this level different than playing open? Did you all find yourselves employing different strategies and tactics than in the single-sex games?

It really wasn't that different from what I'm used to playing open. When matching up the men would figure out their matchups and the women theirs. Against some teams we realized that we might have better matchups with the women than the men or the reverse and look to exploit our advantage on offense but that was about the extent of it.

As players, what qualities were shared by the final selections? Physical ability is obvious but one thing I noticed from the videos was that everyone was excellent throwing against—and often breaking—strong marks.

A lot of times we did set up plays where we'd be throwing to opposite genders throughout our sequences but I think that may just have come out of trying to involve everyone.

I think all twenty of the players on the team were confident breaking the mark. In fact, the four guys who weren't on the final roster, Jared, Steven, Adam and Jolian were as good or better break-mark throwers as any of the final seven. I think the selections had more to do with versatility than anything else. I'm not really sure though. You could have taken any 13 of the 20 and made a great team.

You’re known as a receiver, but in the footage it looks like you played almost every defensive point and frequently handled the disc. Initially, how did Greg perceive you role on the team?

Everyone on the team was capable of either handling or going downfield. I almost always started downfield but sometimes after catching an in-cut pass whoever was behind the disc would go run and I'd stay back for a bit. I played a lot of D because I could pull and I think because I am fairly aggressive throwing the disc and catching hucks after a turnover. He never really told me why I was playing D. I just assumed those were the reasons.

From the footage one would think you pulled every disc.

Pretty much whenever I was on the field. Jolian pulled a lot before Taiwan though.

Given that there were only two short games in a day with a substantial break in between, what were the sub rotations like?

Except in the case of really short points it was mostly play a point-rest a point. Obviously one guy had to stay on from the point before but that got spread around. There was pretty equal playing time for everyone.

It was hot and humid as hell so even though games were short they were fairly exhausting,

Everyone was healthy through the three days? I don't remember seeing any Team USA players go off with injuries, but I heard about people suffering from heat exhaustion.

Deb hurt her ankle in the first game but was able to play in the rest. Gabe had a mild concussion that kept him out of half a game. One of our ladies got heat exhaustion in the first Japan game but was fine for the finals. We were pretty healthy all things considered.