Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere

Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere
Completed Scandal’s
Championship Puzzle
Ghesquiere huddles up with his team after a practice and
before the start of the World Games in Cali, Colombia.
Photo: CBMT Creative
There’s no place like home. Or is it that there’s nothing like
championships? When Alex Ghesquiere, a lanky Belgian who
looks a lot taller than his stated 6’1” and is known throughout
the ultimate world by his college nickname, “Dutchy,” came
on board to coach Washington, D.C. Scandal, the squad was
knocking on the door of a national title. But in the women’s
division, where nobody had touched San Francisco Fury in
seven years, the knob had practically rusted shut.
Ghesquiere, however, returned from San Francisco to the east
coast city where he grew up with quite the tool collection:
appearances with Revolver in the past four straight men’s
national final games, including wins in 2010 and 2011, along
with gold medals from Worlds in 2010 and 2012 and the
World Games this past summer. Not a bad way to say, “I’ve
been there before.”
Getting there again with Scandal, a new team in an unfamiliar
division, would mean both convincing the group they had
the pieces to contend as well as guiding them through the
assembly of the puzzle. All they needed was a little faith.
U S A U lt i m at e
Although better known for being pragmatic and focused, Ghesquiere
has a lighter, softer side as well. Photo: CBMT Creative
Alex Ghesquiere is well known in the ultimate world for having an
unmatched ability to analyze players and lay out successful game
plans. Photo: CBMT Creative
take a moment and some slow breaths
and correct your trajectory. The best
mentality is one of challenge.
It’s the morning of the national final, which doesn’t start
until 1:30 p.m. In the lobby of the Homewood Suites,
Ghesquiere is leading Scandal through their final meeting
before the game. The strategy: use flat marks to stop Fury’s
short, inside-out throws; allow long swings, which the Texas
wind will make difficult to complete; make them throw deep.
Other teams had yet to throw a wrench into the most basic
parts of Fury’s attack, said Ghesquiere. If his team could do
that, they would win the game.
Nobody lays out a game plan like Ghesquiere. Players from
every team he has led laud his ability to turn a strategy into
a system of inputs and outputs that is at once thorough and
actionable – because Seattle Riot had killed Scandal with
a trap on the downwind sideline at Labor Day, he told the
offense to keep the disc away from that part of the field when
the teams met in the national semifinal; when tweaking
Scandal’s handler poaches, he emphasized not drifting
too far downfield but being able to move as far toward the
sideline as possible. His tone when he addresses the team
seeps confidence but is devoid of swagger. Knowing both
that there is a correct answer and, more importantly, that he
has it, is simply a matter of fact.
Ghesquiere is naturally inclined to solve puzzles. In “real
life,” he is a biomedical engineer that heads research and
development for a team that makes glucose meters for
diabetics. In his free time, he and girlfriend Kath Ratcliff –
also a new addition to Scandal this year – host board game
nights at their house in Chevy Chase, Md. Ghesquiere’s
favorite game changes whenever he gets the itch for a new
challenge, but right now it’s a tie between Family Business
and Diplomacy, both of which require players to forge
alliances while also aiming to be the last one standing.
The popular Pandemic is “cool, but too cooperative for my
competitive side,” he says.
Getting through to players, for Ghesquiere, is all about
pushing the right buttons. Before playing Australia in the
World Games final, he pulled Mac Taylor aside and told him
the game was riding on his match up with Aussie stud Tom
Rogacki: if Taylor could force him away from the disc and
deny early stall hucks, the United States would win. Taylor, a
long-time Revolver teammate of Ghesquiere’s, stewed for a
moment before looking back at his coach with a nod and a
quiet “I’m ready.” Similarly, with Scandal, Ghesquiere came
to understand that Octavia Payne is unstoppable when
she is calm but intense; Alicia White is successful when she
believes she’s the best player on the field; captain Molly Roy
leads best when she doesn’t have to worry about logistics
and is encouraged to set an example solely by play.
“All players are different,” says Ghesquiere. “What I’ve learned
is you have to respect that there are players that need a lot
of positive energy and players that you have to fire up by
telling them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough. You
get to know each player and what works for them.”
Ghesquiere prepared Scandal by asking them to visualize
their path to the top. At the Chesapeake Invite in late August,
he acknowledged the possibility of underperforming
in a speech to the team, listing behaviors like tanking,
choking and losing their tempers. “When you feel negative
mentalities encroaching,” he told them, “take a moment
and some slow breaths and correct your trajectory. The
best mentality is one of challenge.”
Ghesquiere both confronted natural fears and gave Scandal
substance to put in their place: optimism, a willing mentality
and confidence became the focus. In the week leading
up to Nationals, Ghesquiere sent out emails about sleep
patterns, sports psychology, and physical preparation. “We
are going to win,” he signed them.
Ghesquiere started playing ultimate in 1993 while in high
school at Sidwell Friends School in D.C. and continued
when he arrived on campus at Dartmouth in 1996. He joined
Boston’s Death or Glory in 2001, two years after the team’s
run of six consecutive championships had come to a halt
but with plenty of championship pedigree still on the roster.
Ghesquiere – along with Josh Ziperstein and a number of
other Boston greats who played during DoG’s twilight –
names Billy Rodriguez, who won five consecutive titles with
New York, New York before the run with Boson (11 total, if
you’re counting), as his biggest leadership influence.
Off hand, Ghesquiere estimates that he’s attended
thousands of ultimate practices and tournament days,
all of which have given him ample opportunity to make
mistakes. He blames poor subbing and too long a warm
up for Revolver losing the 2009 title game and recalls a
college regional final when California, who he coached from
2005 until 2011, lost to Oregon because they stayed in man
defense too long. “[Coaching] is a 10,000 hours thing,” he
says. “I didn’t step on the field and immediately become
a good coach. You have to want to do it and you have to
practice and you have to overcome the fact that you’re not
necessarily good at it to start. I’ve put myself in situations
where I could improve at it and made a real effort. You can
work at it by practice, work at it by reading, you can work at
it by talking to people. You get better as you go along.”
One of his proudest moments as a coach is Cal’s 2010 run
to the national quarterfinals, when the team qualified out of
the brutal Northwest Region and upset the overall top seed
in pre-quarters, despite finishing dead last the year before.
“We had no superstars. All the focus was on how we worked
as a team,” explains Ghesquiere.
Ghesquiere says that while his teams have been hedged
by some of the game’s top talent – Beau Kittredge and
Taylor with Revolver; the entire World Games roster; and
this fall, Payne, Jenny Fey, Sandy Jorgenson, Anne Mercier
and White – talent underachieves without leadership and
structure. Though he is now strategically removed from
Revolver, he points to the team’s 2013 title as evidence
of a system with role players who willingly do their jobs
to perfection. Adam Simon, who played for Revolver in
2011 and 2012 and helped lead Seattle Sockeye back
to the national finals this year, has frequently named
Ghesquiere as the best coach he has ever played for –
this from a star Ghesquiere asked to focus on catching
dumps and throwing swing passes. Without buy-in like
that, Ghesquiere asks, how could Revolver have won
without Robbie Cahill, Bart Watson and Mark Sherwood,
all greats who did not play for the team this year? “You
always need talent,” he says, “but ultimate is more than
talent. There are so many examples of teams I thought
had more talent than Revolver, but they would lose
consistently and by fair margins because they didn’t have
the right strategy or right mentality, or they weren’t ready
to play.”
Ghesquiere gives feedback to Mike Natenberg and Beau Kittredge
during the U.S. v. Japan match at the 2013 World Games. Japan was
the only team to take half on the U.S. In Cali. Photo: CBMT Creative
Ghesquiere spent five seasons with Revolver and many
more in the Bay Area. 2013 was his first with Scandal, and
he didn’t have that much time with the team because of his
World Games duties, which included six practice weekends
throughout the spring and summer and culminated with
a week-long trip to Colombia in July that he and Ratcliff
followed up with another week of hiking in Peru.
“Scandal to me is very much a work in progress,” he says.
“But in the limited time I had with them, I could immediately
see that the team needed to become tighter. Getting to
know and have faith in each other was a widespread and
big-picture thing.”
Ghesquiere planned numerous bonding activities
throughout the season. For the drive to Virginia Fusion,
the team’s final regular-season tournament, he set up a
scavenger hunt, giving each car a list of various tasks with
corresponding point values – go through a carwash without
a car; eat an ice cream cone from the McDonalds dollar
menu as fast as possible; snap a group photo with a cow.
“One of the most important parts of a team that often gets
overlooked is fostering a good mentality,” says Ghesquiere.
“Teams that are successful are teams that spend a lot of
time outside of pressure situations where they can have a
good time and get to know each other outside of ultimate.
That’s been a consistent focus for me, and I think that teams
have been really clutch in big situations as a result.”
Of course, team bonding is not all ponies and rainbows,
and like any other coach, Ghesquiere has faced his share of
trials. In his first year captaining Revolver, a program that is
vocal about how much it values its history and roots, he was
part of a leadership group that cut a number of veterans;
as coach of the World Games team, he was tasked with
running tryouts for the country’s best players – and then
cutting the vast majority of them; when he agreed to coach
Scandal, he joined co-coach Mike LoPresti, who was on
board for last year’s semis berth but had far less big-game
experience – and Ghesquiere admits to having a hard time
taking direction. But he sees the bearing of burdens as part
U S A U lt i m at e
You need to have faith in yourself and
put yourself in a position where the
team trusts you to make those calls.
Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere celebrates with Washington, D.C. Scandal
after winning their first-ever national championship in his first year with
the team. Photo: CBMT Creative
The 2013 women’s final was a battling of coaching wits. Ghesquiere implemented
with Scandal some of the things he learned while coaching the World Games team
with Fury’s Matty Tsang this summer. Photo: CBMT Creative
of his responsibilities to the team. “As a coach, the team
depends on you to make hard decisions. You can’t shrink
away from the things that are difficult. You need to have
faith in yourself and put yourself in a position where the
team trusts you to make those calls.”
When Ghesquiere sees something on the field that needs
correcting, he will speak sternly or even yell if he thinks it
appropriate. But he stresses that his aim is always to bring
out the best in his players. He explains, “I’m for positivity. But
I’m also for accountability. If someone has made a mistake
– a throw they shouldn’t have or they’re positioned wrong
– I will go and tell them. But you have to bring them that
information in a constructive and positive way, and in a way
that every player knows you have faith in them that they’re
going to do it right next time. You reach any competitive
person with the fact that you want them to win. That’s a
common platform to build from.”
Scandal is a chance for Ghesquiere to balance his impressive
résumé with learning new lessons – to make more strides as
a coach. He wants to blend the intensity he has come to
expect at east coast practices with the easy-going, teamfirst ethic he found out west, and he says one of his biggest
takeaways from the World Games experience was gleaning
tidbits on how to manage a women’s team from Fury coach
and USA assistant Matty Tsang. “There’s some really exciting
new stuff I’d like to try,” he says. “And with a little luck, I’ll
have the chance to do it.”
Before the final, Ghesquiere gave Scandal one last nudge of
belief. Players disagree on whether it was “I got you, we’re
winning this,” or “Let’s do this,” but whatever the phrasing,
Ghesquiere went around the huddle and, one by one, had
each player look another in the eye and say it. The team
executed the game plan perfectly, jumping out to an early
lead and not looking back en route to a 14-7 win. “It just
seemed like the right thing for that moment,” he says. “We
needed to get the whole team to buy into what we were
going to do so that they believed it was going to work. When
the whole team is on the same page, it builds confidence.
That’s what Scandal needed going in.”
Ghesquiere’s pragmatism sometimes borders on aloofness.
After I congratulated him on winning gold in Colombia,
he just grinned. “Yeah, I’d say it worked out alright.” At
Chesapeake, I asked how the South American vacation was,
and he shot me a similar shrug and smile. “Peru is pretty
cool.” When pressed about the dynamic with LoPresti, a
sensitive subject, he paused before pointing, logically, to
the championship. “Seems successful, right?”
But he has a soft side too. At a recent D.C. ultimate gathering,
he rolled up on a Capital Bike Share bike, laughing because
Ratcliff had ridden multiple city blocks on the middle bar.
Spend five minutes around the couple, and it’s obvious
how much he loves being with her, and he’ll tell anyone he
wouldn’t have coached Scandal had she not played. His
playful banter with the Revolver contingent of the World
Games was a laughing point for the entire group, and after
the tournament, he wrote that the best kind of team identity
is one of trust and love.
Every year, Ghesquiere relaxes with both a ski trip to
Jackson Hole and a visit to his parents’ house in Belgium.
But perhaps most human about Alex Ghesquiere is that he
speaks openly and confidently about his achievements. He
does not feign humility; he is proud, but not cocky. That,
and his simple but deep love for the game of ultimate. “As
a coach, I get nervous and excited. I lose my voice after
every game. It still is the highlight of my weekend and the
highlight of my fall. Just like players, you come home after a
tournament and still feel that everything is muted and quiet
compared to the excitement and thrill of the weekend.”