First, let me say thanks for all the support I received from my first article about Young Coaches. I got a lot of positive responses from both people I knew and people I did not, and I figured I would do a follow-up. The first article was all about the mindset that a new youth coach should have and how to become a student of the game. This article will mainly be about the structure of practice and how we, as coaches, should present ourselves in a practice vs. a tournament.
Structured Practice Separates Contenders from the Pretenders
Having my father as a coach while I played baseball for most of my youth made me understand why practices should be structured, so structuring practices came easy to me when I first started coaching ultimate. I understood why athletes should always be arriving early, warming up, drills, work outs/conditioning, but for some players and athletes this is not the case. Every youth player’s favorite part of practice is of course the scrimmage, but why is that? Well, players want to play, plain and simple. Many new youth programs can by found just throwing to themselves for 30 minutes and scrimmaging for a whole hour; those teams call that a practice and do it three times a week. It’s easy to understand why programs that have that kind of practice schedule never get off the ground or grow. Most new coaches or captains leading as a coach do not know how to simulate game time situations or develop needed skills through drills. This is why structured practices make or break a team, and more importantly make or break a season.
How do coaches find drills for their teams? Some new coaches know a handful of drills from their experienced playing days at different college and club levels, but most are not that lucky. There are a bunch of online resources that I mentioned in my first article: the internet is a great place to learn new strategies, drills and practice structures. Ulticards are another good source for drills; they are a company dedicated to providing strategies, drills, plays and structure to improve your practices. When I went to a level one coaching clinic I received a Drills & Skills Level 1 Coach deck. I first looked through the deck and laughed at the idea of these cards being helpful toward teams and new coaches. Several days went by and I looked deeper into the deck and came to realize that these cards are a very useful tool. The deck had a few drills I already knew from experience, but there were some drills that I had never seen or heard of. I would suggest that anyone, coach or student, trying to start a program or trying to raise their program to another level, look into UltiCards. They really help to promote structure and development in both practices and games. This next suggestion may seem weird but bear with me. If you are having trouble getting started or teaching a certain aspect of the game, ask another local coach how they approach their team about it. “Wait a minute, you’re telling me it is okay to ask the enemy how to practice?” Yes, there is no shame in asking another coach how to simulate certain game situations, teach good habits or just advice on running practice. In the end, every ultimate coach aims toward developing players, teams and helping grow the sport.
Once you know what drills will help your team improve, you are ready to become a contender. As a coach, it is important that you make a balanced schedule of teaching, practicing skills, and strategy before your team’s first or upcoming tournament. This depends on how talented the team is from seeing the players and their skill level at team try-outs. I have been told by multiple coaches to start with the basics of offense first (skills, strategy, etc.) and then coach the defensive side. Set out each practice having a theme or goal in mind for one aspect of the game, this can range from getting better at the dump swing or perfecting your zone defense. It is important to communicate with the team what they will be working on in the beginning of each practice.
Players like to know ahead of time, before the warm up, what they will be working on so they do not go into the drills or strategy talks without knowing what the point is. If you explain that you want to work on throwing into space instead of throwing at your receiver, then your players will know that today’s practice is not about improving your footwork on the mark or going over how to throw a hammer. This will help them focus on the goal of the practice for its entirety (even in the scrimmage). Going back to a youth player’s mindset, remember that most players want to scrimmage more than anything else at practice. We must communicate not only the drill but the importance of doing said drill. Coaches that can get their players to understand the skills they have learned so they can translate them into a real game situation have done their job. Coaches should always be telling their players the purpose of each drill and that practice reps directly affect how they will play come tournament weekend. When running drills it is okay to see players mess up and look goofy at first, as long as they are giving effort. When I see a player mess up, by either dropping a pass or throwing slightly off his target, during a drill, I am not overly critical. As long as he is trying, that is fine with me. If I see a player being lazy not finishing his cut or not stepping out fully during a throw, that really shows me as a coach that the player is not putting forth effort toward the drill.
The last part of most practices, depending on the chosen structure, is the scrimmage. It is extremely important to make sure that players do not revert or lose what they had learned just 30 minutes ago while doing drills. The point of scrimmaging at the end of a practice is not for them to let loose and have, what I like to call, pickup fun. This time is to use the skills just learned in game type situations to get comfortable with them. As a coach, if you feel a player has reverted back during the scrimmage, feel free to stop the game, make everyone freeze and explain what happened, good and bad. This is the time to correct the mistakes, because it will lead to better habits and better decisions come tournament day.
Practice vs. Tournament; Attitude & Body Language
During my first season of coaching, I did not really make a huge impact (or so I thought) on the sideline during games. Usually I would just echo Coach Jordan’s remarks. But early on I learned a really valuable lesson. During the same season we had single home game against a team not to be named, let us go with Team X, which to me seemed like a tune up game and of little importance. First point of the game we receive the pull and, after a long and frustrating point, got broken to start the game. After trailing for a while we took half but most of our players were frustrated because we thought that we were much better than the other team. I remember what I said aloud during the half: “Well guys, it’s only the first game of the season, this is not a big deal.” One of my players quickly turned to me and I will never forget the look on his face. “What do you mean not a big deal?” and before I could even form a sentence he responded, “If you and I let our attitudes and our body languages seem like this game is no big deal, they will play like it is no big deal.” Even though I was trying to come off optimistic that our team would win, I did not understand that my careless attitude would rub off on the players. We ended up winning, but that game was the start of learning the differences between a coach’s talk and attitude at practice and at a tournament or game.
During practice is when players come to learn, craft their talent, and practice how they will play the game. A coach’s goal is to teach new systems and push the player’s retention rate during practice to help them remember what is important during a game. My attitude during practice is now intense and my thoughts are mainly focused on pointing out players’ laws so I can help them correct it. When it comes to practice, I am not hesitant to channel my inner Nick Saban and throw my visor when one of my starters makes a rookie mistake. With that being said, this does not mean that I am not positive during practice either. I constantly strive to make players push themselves when they mess up and to tell a player good job when they legitimately do a good job. We as coaches should attempt to get our players to figure out their own mistakes or faults and be able to correct and coach themselves.
However, when my team is at a tournament my attitude and body language is totally different. When I yell it is to make sure my players hear me from the sideline and when I communicate with them, it is only via quick, tiny, positive reminders so that they can make adjustments to his play on the field. Keep it short and sweet. A player’s thought process during a tournament is all over the place, especially if they are young, new, or nervous. It’s not helpful as a coach to get frustrated or angry with a player after giving up a score. During a game or tournament, players should feel the urgency of being scored on or being behind in the score. When talking strategy in between points, remember that “less is more”, and always be confident when talking with your team. Coaches can demand things of their team, challenge them, or give pre-game speeches to fuel fire in their players, but I feel that there is a huge misunderstanding between yelling and being passionate. A new coach’s natural reaction toward seeing their player mess up is to yell out in frustration, but to the players it comes across as anger and disappointment.
Finally, it is important to remember that coaches are role models for players. If they see that their coach is confident they will play confidently. But if they see that their coach is getting upset, they will focus more on not trying to mess up rather than competing and thus create insecurities. Over-thinking is something that can lead to players dropping easy passes, forgetting the sequence off the stack, or forgetting simple fundamentals. A great way to solve the problem of over-thinking is taking time to get your team to circle up and then calmly approach the problem with confidence. It is very difficult for coaches to keep things short, concise, and to the point on game day. When coaches can keep a balance of short encouraging words and mindful tips in between certain points they are usually going to get the best response from their players. For every practice and every tournament we look for our players to be competitive and a have positive attitude, that should not change. As for a coach, our attitude is slightly altered at tournaments to make sure our players spirits are up. A player’s attitude and thought process reflect those of his or her leaders.
Feature photo by Kevin Leclaire (UltiPhotos.com)