Looking back at the GB summer

27
Aug

Bob Fromer

Olympic qualification in 2019 for the Tokyo Olympic Games is now the main programme goal for female GB fastpitch teams, so what kind of progress towards this goal was indicated by results achieved during the summer of 2017, with the GB Women as well as the GB Under-19, Under-16 and Under-13 teams all involved in official ESF or WBSC tournaments?
 

GB Senior Women’s Team

In one sense, the result produced by the GB Senior Women’s Team was right on schedule.  The goal for this summer’s European Championship in Bollate, Italy was to win a medal by finishing at least third, thereby qualifying for the 2018 WBSC Women’s World Championship in Chiba, Japan -- and third place is what the team achieved after an exciting extra-inning Page Playoff win over the Czech Republic.  

While failure to qualify for the 2018 World Championship might not have prevented the GB Women entering a Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2019, playing against the world’s best teams in Chiba next year is an important opportunity for the team to gain the kind of experience it will need before the Olympic Qualifier.

In coming third at the European Championship, GB finished behind the two perennial European powers, the Netherlands and Italy, and these are the countries that we will have to beat in 2019 to get to the Tokyo Olympics.

GB played both these teams in Bollate, and the Netherlands and Italy played each other twice, including in the tournament final.  The evidence from all these games suggests that the gap between GB and Italy is currently not that large, but the gap between the Netherlands and the teams behind them has widened.  The Dutch beat Italy 7-1 in the final in Bollate -- and it could have been by more – and they beat GB earlier in the tournament by a score of 11-4.

One aspect of the gap between the Netherlands and GB may be talent, particularly pitching depth, but a lot of it is about money and opportunity. 

The Dutch programme has normally been well-funded through their National Olympic Committee, even after softball was dropped from the Olympics, though the Dutch did lose much of their funding after the World Championship they hosted in 2014 when they failed to meet the placing target set for them.  However, they got the funding back two years later after softball was restored to the Olympic programme for Tokyo, and the Dutch Women’s Team now gets several hundred thousand euros per year.  In addition, the players in the Dutch national team pool get what UK Sport would call Athlete Performance Awards (APAs), which amount to a significant part-time salary and allow these players to train together year-round several times a week.

Add in the fact that most of the players in the Dutch national team pool are based in Holland, and that the country is small enough to make driving to training an easy proposition, and you have the perfect conditions in which to develop and maximise player and team performance.

This situation is the reverse of that which obtains for GB teams, and this will be explored more fully in the section below on the GB Under-19 Women.
 

GB Under-16 Girls

With the Olympic Qualifier only two years away, but with three years to go until the Olympics, there is at least a possibility that some of the players who were in this summer’s GB Under-16 Team could be considered for places in the Senior pool for 2019 or 2020.

This year’s Under-16 Team had just a few experienced players and a number of players with little or no experience of international competition at the level presented by a 12-team European Cadette Championship played in Ostrava in the Czech Republic.  So Head Coach Johanna Malisani and her staff did an excellent job in steering the team to a fifth-place finish, including a landmark win over Russia and a closely-fought 4-2 loss to Germany in a game in which the winner was able to qualify for the Page Playoffs and compete for a medal.  Overall, the team’s results were positive.

Another positive element at this tournament was the use of current and former GB players on the GB Team staff, in this case as Assistant Coaches.  Former GB outfielder (and BSF Hall of Fame member) Laura Thompson, and current GB Women’s Team pool player Sian Wigington fit beautifully with the rest of the staff and made important contributions to the success of the team.  This was echoed a couple of weeks later when current GB Women’s Team player Lauren Evans helped coach and scout for the GB Under-19s in Florida and former GB outfielder Kirsten Whitt (now Kirsten Leal) served as the team’s physio.  For players to become staff members is a natural and valuable progression in the GB programme.

If relative lack of experience was an inhibiting factor in the GB Under-16s’ performance in Ostrava, another was the fact that, in common with all GB Teams, many of the players only see each other once a year when the team comes together for a major Championship.  Having just three days before the tournament to train, bond and play practice games together is not enough time to create a confident and smoothly-functioning unit, especially on defence.  But money and logistics make it difficult or impossible for most GB Teams to have a satisfactory amount of preparation time.

Again, this topic will be explored more fully in the section below on the GB Under-19 Women.
 

GB Under-13 Girls

The GB Under-13 Girls’ programme has entered a representative team known as the London Cubs in the ESF’s Massimo Romeo Youth Trophy competition in Collecchio, Italy every year since it began in 2012.

For many of the players, this is the first taste of international competition, and since girls in the UK tend to start playing fastpitch later than many of their contemporaries in Europe, the team invariably lacks experience.

This year, the competition was divided into two groups based on relative experience, with six teams in the Sport Division and seven in the Futures Division.  The London Cubs finished fifth out of seven in the Futures Division.  All their games in this division were competitive and the team had a 7-4 win over Moscovia from Russia, the first time they had beaten a Russian team.  Their second win, over Turkey, came on a forfeit when Turkey violated rules around the number of innings pitchers were allowed to pitch.

None of the players on this team will be directly involved in GB’s fight for Olympic qualification for Tokyo 2020.  But it is important that our programme at this level continues to grow, with players being introduced to the sport at a younger age, so that the player pool in the UK can develop in terms of both quantity and quality.
 

GB Under-19 Women

The GB Under-19 Women’s Fastpitch Team – a team that won the European Junior Championship last year and brought back nine players from that team – was not quite able to replicate that success at this summer’s WBSC Junior World Championship in Clearwater, Florida.

The team won only two of the six games it played, though it had chances to win all of the others and was never dominated or mercy-ruled despite being pitted against opponents that included four of the top 10 countries in world softball.

The four games GB lost were by margins of two, three, four and six runs, and in the six-run defeat to China, GB led 1-0 after three innings and was probably closer to winning that game than some of the others.

The GB Junior staff had set a goal of reaching the Championship playoffs and finishing as one of the top eight teams, but in the end, the team was only able to place 15th.  However, once the format of the tournament was known, with only two teams from opening-round pools of six or seven able to reach the top eight and the Championship playoffs, it was clear that GB’s goal was going to be hard to attain.

The question still remains as to why the team didn’t do better.  What follows is purely my opinion, as a long-time observer of GB and international softball, but I think there are three main answers to this question, some of which speak to the obstacles our programme will face when it comes to Olympic qualification.

A World Championship – even an open World Championship, as this was -- is a much tougher competition than a European Championship. 

Apart from two or three very weak teams (none of whom were in GB’s first-round group!), the standard of play at a World Championship is very much higher than in a European Championship, especially when it comes to pitching.  Europe/Africa continues to be the weakest of the three main world softball regions (the Americas and Asia/Oceania are the other two).  This is because the sport is less embedded in European culture, and player numbers are generally lower than in the other two regions.

This is a plus for GB’s chances of Olympic qualification since it is likely that only European (and possibly African) opponents will be faced in the Olympic Qualifier.

GB was drawn in the toughest of the four first-round pool groups, in a format where too few teams had a chance to advance to meaningful playoffs. 

While each first-round pool contained one of the top four teams in the world rankings (Japan, USA, Australia, Canada) as the #1 seed, Pool D, with Canada, China, Mexico, GB, Korea and an Irish team consisting mainly of American-based players, had more strength in depth than any of the other pools.  This was demonstrated by subsequent playoff results, where all of the teams in GB’s pool won their first Championship or Placing playoff games apart from Canada, who almost upset Japan, and GB, who lost 2-0 to the Netherlands, while China eliminated Australia from the tournament.

It is worth noting that the two traditional top teams in Europe – the Netherlands and Italy – did not make the Championship playoffs either, and both had as many first-round pool defeats as GB.  The Czech Republic did advance from Pool C to Championship playoffs, but only because it was by far the easiest pool in the tournament. 

The reason you will often get more unbalanced pools in this competition than in Senior World Championships is that youth teams can change dramatically over the two-year period from one competition to the next as players age out, so performance is dictated by where teams are on the age range within the cycle.  Some teams are mostly 19-year-olds, others can be mostly 17-year-olds, others are a mixture.

As far as the GB Under-19s are concerned, the team that won the European Junior Championship last summer was remarkably young, with a preponderance of 17-year-olds.  Only three players aged out of that team after last summer and only three players will age out after this summer, so the GB Team that competed in Florida was probably younger on average than many of the others, especially those that made the top eight.

The GB Team was simply not well-enough prepared for the competition to maximise its abilities. There is a long-term and a short-term aspect to this, neither of which was the fault of the coaching staff.  But this is the element most worth discussing.

The short-term problem was that the GB Team convened in Florida only four days before the tournament started, with a plan to pack two training sessions and five scrimmage games into those four days.  This would at least have let the coaching staff – new to the team this year – assess the players and the best positional options, and let the players get some familiarity with each other.

In the event, bad weather and poor coordination on the part of the tournament organisers meant that the GB Under-19s managed only two practice sessions and about a scrimmage game and a half, and this was far less than the team needed.  When the tournament began on 24 July – with two tough games against Korea and China, both of which had to be won to keep realistic Championship playoff hopes alive -- the team wasn’t ready and the coaches were making educated guesses about who to play at some positions.  In the event, the team scraped a 1-0 win over Korea, led for three innings against China, but then subsided to a 7-1 loss.

During the course of the tournament, there were two or three innings – including one in the China game -- when the defense simply panicked and broke down, if only for a few batters, and those innings cost the team runs and possibly wins. It happened mainly because the players hadn’t had enough playing time together and in some cases were playing at relatively unfamiliar positions.

For many teams at the tournament, having the rain wash out pre-tournament practice games was an annoyance -- but these were teams who normally train and practice together and their general standard of play wasn’t affected.

For a GB Team where players come from around the world, some were new to the programme and many others hadn’t seen each other for a year, the loss of those practice games was a lot more significant.

By contrast, the GB Women’s Team prepared for the European Championship this summer by getting together nine days before the tournament began, and a weekend tournament in France involving two other European national teams was followed by a week of training sessions and scrimmage games in Italy.  By the time the GB Women opened the European Championship with games against Belgium and Russia on the first day, the team was ready to play and the coaches knew what they had – and the result was two emphatic wins. 

This level of preparation cost the players and staff more time and the players more money, but there is no question that it contributed to the team achieving its goal in Bollate.
 

Looking ahead

So the longer-term issue in terms of team preparation is this: can the GB Women and ideally the GB Under-19s, some of whom are likely to move up to the Senior pool over the next year or two, find the time and the means to get together more often for training and competition in the time that remains before an expected Euro/Africa Olympic Qualifying Tournament?

Unless they can, and despite the fact that we have the talent to achieve Olympic qualification, the GB Team will be significantly under-prepared in relation to its main European rivals for that one place in Tokyo -- and the history of GB Softball shows that this matters.  More time together, and more international games against a wider range of opponents is essential if the players are to prepare themselves physically, mentally and emotionally for a supreme challenge.

Finding the money for more and better preparation is the most obvious problem.  Rising costs and the fall of the pound against other currencies following the Brexit referendum means that many GB players and their families are struggling to find the money required to attend just the one European or World Championship tournament each year.  The additional cost of separate training camps and playing in other competitions, unless the team can find significant sources of external funding, may simply be prohibitive for many.

There are other issues as well, such as players and volunteer staff members finding additional time away from work or school.

And with a number of players on the GB Senior and Under-19 teams currently playing in US college programmes, there is a need for GB staff to establish the kind of relationship with these players’ college coaches that will allow us to request their occasional release to attend GB training or competition events while colleges are in session.  This will be a time-consuming task for GB coaches who have full-time day jobs in addition to their responsibilities with GB, the HPA and the Academy.

But mainly, this is an issue about money – money that GB Softball doesn’t have because of the restrictive funding policies of UK Sport, but our main European opponents do. 

The GB Under-19 pitching coach in Florida was the Dutch Senior National Team pitcher Lindsey Meadows, and at the end of the tournament, she said to the team, “It’s always going to be an issue with GB Softball that you don’t get to play and work together as much as other teams.  But you can let that hold you back, or you can decide that you will achieve your goals regardless.  If this team can learn to fight together for what you want, it will be very hard to stop you.”

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of positive message: that collective focus and willpower, combined with talent, can overcome practical obstacles.  But there are also realities that it’s hard to overcome with willpower alone.  The whole raison d’etre of UK Sport and how it chooses to spend the £345 million that it now gives to just 16 out of 33 Olympic sports is that money can buy medals.  The flip side of this, other things being equal, is that lack of money can make the attainment of medals very difficult.

With the external funding that the Dutch, Italians and Czechs receive unavailable to GB teams, a lot of other avenues have been tried: sponsorship, crowdfunding and other grant opportunities. 

But as a small sport in the UK with almost no public profile, sponsorship is very difficult.  Crowdfunding attempts have netted little.  Grant opportunities are sporadic and are rarely designed for national team programmes.  Other possibilities are being explored as this article is written – but nothing is guaranteed.

For the foreseeable future, most of our national fastpitch team programmes will face the problem of having players based in different countries.  In an ideal world, however, players in the GB Women and Under-19 Women pools, at a minimum, would be getting together each of the next two years for a combined autumn or winter training camp, and would then be playing in one or more high-level invitational tournaments each year (the Canada Cup, the World Cup, the Japan Cup or possibly tournaments in Europe) before playing in that year’s World or European Championship.

In addition, there is an urgent need to start a GB Under-22 Women’s Team to compete in the ESF’s Under-22 Championship and other tournaments to help players – especially British-based players – bridge the gap between Junior and Senior softball.

Failure to find the money – somewhere, somehow – to make all or even part of this a reality is the biggest single threat to GB Softball’s Olympic dream.

Anyone who thinks they can help – or might know someone who can -- is invited to contact the GB Softball Management Committee on: gbmc@britishsoftball.org.
 

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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