Player Coaches and Coaching Coaches
By Lou Burruss
There is a lot of advice out there, whether in the digital or physical world, that players can use to get better. However, as a coach, it is much more difficult for me to find resources on how to better coach Ultimate. Are coaches just tight-lipped when it comes to coaching, or is it more that most teams are so different in personality that a different coaching style is needed for each one? Or is it something completely different?
You’re an experienced and successful coach, and rather importantly, willing to write about many things related to ultimate. Do you have advice on becoming a better coach? Is it directly related to being a better player?
I think that a lot of (young college) teams are looking to their captains to coach, and from running practices to devising strategy in games, the captain(s) often shoulder a heavy burden. Is it possible to be a ‘good’ player coach? Would it benefit the team to rope in a separate, non-player coach even if they were less knowledgeable about the game?
While the kind of coaching resources you describe are largely missing from ultimate, there are lots and lots of great books and videos from other sports. As an example, the Inner Game of Tennis has had a profound influence on my coaching. Still, providing the kind of coaching resource you describe is a big part of why I write. Now to your question:
It is possible to be a good player-coach; that was the model for ultimate from its birth through the late 90s and beyond. Even now, the elite men’s club teams are just beginning to get coaches. That said, there is a huge competitive advantage to having a non-playing coach. The challenge is to allocate responsibilities in such a way as to maximize everyone’s strengths. If your non-playing coach isn’t a great strategist, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a great help to a team by handling logistics, managing the clock at practice, calling subs and other non-analytical tasks. The key is for the entire leadership group to have good discussions about who is going to do what and to define clear roles.
Last year I transferred schools and went from a large, established ultimate program to one where they played hotbox barefoot twice a week. By January, I was coach and we were running serious practices. By May the whole team had made serious improvements (in the strategy, fitness, and shoe departments). Between my previous experience and the huge amount of ultimate-related info on the web, I’ve been able to teach this group how to play better.
This next year is my last at this school and I’ve been trying to figure out how to create a self-sustaining ultimate program beyond my tenure. Do you have any advice on laying the foundation for a program?
You have been teaching people how to play ultimate; this coming spring you will want to teach them how to be leaders. The biggest loss college teams face with the graduation of a great senior class is not the institutional frisbee knowledge, but the leadership knowledge.
Since it sounds like you are working without a coach, the first thing I would suggest is to put together a leadership team or junta. You are looking at 5 to 7 players with a range of experience and seniority. While it is tempting to put all the most experienced people on the junta, remember that you are consciously trying to build program longevity and this means that some of your leaders need to be people who are going to be around for a few years. Because you will be picking from people who are on the younger end, it is quite likely they won’t be entirely ready; that’s okay.
Rather than give you a specific leadership structure or formula I’d suggest moving forward with the goal of teaching and learning leadership skills and three big guidelines. First, learning to lead requires meaningful work. You can’t learn to throw a forehand just by watching someone throw one and leadership is no different. So when you think about the inexperienced leaders on your team, it isn’t enough to have them just be on the committee, they need to do real work. Have them call subs or pick defenses or run drills in practices. How you chose depends a lot on the skills and needs of the team. (See below.) The second guideline is to expect mistakes. To stick with the forehand analogy, no one throws perfectly the first time they are shown how. It takes practice, work and mistakes. Don’t dwell on them, but use each as a chance to get better. The third and perhaps most important guideline is to talk and talk and talk some more. You will need to sort out who is doing what, how to do it, evaluate mistakes, make strategic decisions. Essentially, you are embarking on democracy and democracy isn’t efficient. So expect to put in heaps of time in leadership meetings, phone calls, pre- and post-practice conversations.
Omnivore: I think we might be a bit naive about our impending inclusion in the Olympics…the Harvard Buisness Review’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership has been a wonderful and thought provoking read for me over the last year and a half. It’s dense, slow reading and there is a lot of business-speak to wade through, but the ideas are excellent.
As always, send your questions to email@example.com. Any question, any topic.