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Sockeye 2013: How it Happened, Reflection, and Best Practices

by | October 29, 2013, 4:30am 21

This article is presented by RISE UP Ultimate

As a player, coach, leader, student, and teacher, I’ve spent countless hours (I’m on my way to my 10,000) thinking about how to help individuals and groups of people achieve success. I wrote the following piece with 2 goals in mind:

  1. To capture a critical moment and reflect upon some success that my team recently experienced in order to further my individual growth as well as that of my team. Reflection is one of many best practices as a leader/coach/teacher.
  2. To share my experience with the Ultimate community, so that others can reflect on their own experiences in their own communities, and be inspired to take action to manifest growth.

Introduction: The magic bullet.

I’ve often read articles about Ultimate teams that generally pose the question, “What is THE thing that made that team successful?” As a teacher, I’ve heard this question as well, and sometimes it’s referred to as the “magic bullet question” where teachers are always searching for a secret management technique or teaching strategy that will somehow increase the achievement levels in their classroom. It’s the same for Ultimate, as we all, with good reason, want to know what it is exactly that makes the best the best, so that we can try to lead our teams to success. It’s awesome that people want to know this, it makes me want to keep working for success. Unfortunately, I think people think too much about finding THE answer, and the truth is, there is no one magic bullet, no one specific strategy or speech or workout regimen that will be the one and only reason you succeed.

There are, however, multiple best practices that great teams/programs/organizations share, and our job as leaders should be to identify how we can apply those best practices to our teams. Implementing these best practices will often lead to growth, and if the stars align perfectly, a championship. Just like Opi Payne advises us to forget about the highlight reel and focus on the fundamentals, leaders need to stop searching for the magic bullet, and focus on best practices in leadership and applying them to their team.

My Perspective: Where I’m coming from

Before I dive in here on a critique of my own team, it’s important to understand where I’m coming from. I captained Rhino for the previous 4 seasons. On Sockeye this year, I was officially a rookie, and I held no official leadership responsibility. That said I didn’t feel like a total “new guy”, as I have a pretty deep knowledge of Fish history. Over the past couple years, I’ve been fortunate enough to develop solid relationships with Sockeye members past and present. I’ve played with a core of Sockeye players on multiple occasions internationally (PAUC 2011, Paganello 2012, Windmill 2013). I’ve also developed friendships and working relationships with some of the pivotal players and leaders from Sockeye’s rise and run in the mid 2000s, guys including Lou Burruss (via NGN + Oregon Ultimate), Chase Sparling-Beckley (via Rhino 2012), Skip Sewell (via Sockeye international 2011-12), and Ben Wiggins (via RISE UP). I mention all this to show that this piece isn’t just a reflection on this season, but of the bigger picture I’ve come to understand around Sockeye.

Coming into making the Sockeye roster this year, I intentionally wanted to “just play” and be the best teammate possible. I was also intentional about taking everything in, observing, reflecting, and comparing my experience to what I had previously come to know as the best ways to lead an ultimate team, as I’m sure I’ll be a captain of team again someday.

Okay, enough background, let’s get to it. The following is a list of best practices for ultimate teams and programs to strive for that I think played critical roles in the success of Sockeye 2013. They’re listed in priority order, first is most important relative to the others.

Leadership: Coach 

Great teams have great leaders. This year Sockeye hired (yes, hired, he was paid via team dues) Roger Crafts (another leader during the rise of Sockeye) to coach us. I’m not giving all the credit for our success to Roger, though. The bulk of the credit here should really go to the captains (Tyler Kinley, Danny Karlinsky, Spencer Wallis, and others) who knew that if they wanted to be serious about bringing championship ultimate back to Sockeye, a coach was necessary. Take a look around Elite Club and you’re seeing that championship caliber teams have coaches. The 4 men’s semifinalist teams have coaches (Krier, McCarthy, Payne, Crafts). The 4 women’s semifinalists have coaches (Wiggins, Ghesquiere, Tsang, Melancon). The mixed champion (Drag ‘n Thrust) had a coach, Jake Henderson, who also happened to be my first captain back at UW-Eau Claire in 2003… go Eau Zone! I apologize for my lack of knowledge on the other mixed teams, feel free to fill in the blanks for me. The conclusion here is not just that if you want to win a championship, you need a coach. Truly the conclusion is, if you want your program to grow and improve, you want the right coach with a long-term vision.

I also want to highlight the caliber of a few of these coaches that are at the top of the game, though all of them have impressive leadership resumes.

  • Mike Payne (Revolver Coach, Founder) is not just an ultimate coach, he’s been educated and is a professional leader. He is a pro at leadership, and not just “pro ” like an ultimate player in the MLU or AUDL. Dude has made his living in leadership, and he’s taken that skill set and applied it to ultimate. The result is Revolver, a team notorious for it’s culture and ethic (IHD, etc.), and Mike was, as I’ve come to understand, instrumental in laying the bricks in the foundation. Revolver’s success is no accident, it’s a result of a strategic plan (yup, you might be sick of that phrase because you’ve scoffed at USAU’s strategic plan) that’s come to fruition… multiple times now. Sorry folks, Watson, Cahill and Sherwood were great players, but Mike Payne is the most important reason Revolver is where it is, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

  • Matty Tsang (Fury) is a teacher, as in, professionally. Roger Crafts (Sockeye) is a teacher, professionally. Ben Wiggins (Riot) is a teacher/professor, professionally. Jake Henderson (Drag ‘n Thrust) is a teacher, professionally. Lou Burruss (Oregon) is a teacher, professionally. Nick Kaczmarek (Pittsburgh) is a teacher, professionally. Tiina Booth (Amherst) is a teacher, professionally.

My point here is that the best leaders in the game aren’t just great leaders in Ultimate, they’re professional leaders of groups people. They’re constantly cultivating their ultimate coaching skills by simply going to their day job. They’re making their teams better even where they’re not at practice. They know how to build for growth and success in the long term. Sockeye 2013 had a great coach, a professional leader of people, and that was one of the critical pieces to our success this year.

Best Practice: Do the leg work and get the right coach for your team.  

Getting Better: Meaningful time on task

There is only one thing that has been universally proven to make you better at anything and/or everything: meaningful time on task. I’m not apologizing for all the hyperbole in that sentence. Teachers know that if they want their students to improve academically, it’s all about maximizing engagement in combination with increasing/maximizing time on task.

What does meaningful time on task look like for an ultimate player? Here are a few good examples:

  • Playing in a genuinely competitive environment with/against players that are similarly or better skilled than you
  • Participating in a focused and well organized practice or training
  • Teaching/Coaching Ultimate

Let’s assume for a second that the top elite club teams get similar amounts of meaningful time on task during the season. Teams can differentiate themselves in the offseason by creating more opportunities for meaningful time on task. Sockeye is exemplary at creating opportunities for meaningful time on task, below are some examples.

  • Goaltimate. Seattle has the SGL (Seattle Goaltimate League). This league happens in the fall and winter and many of the elite men and women play, along with lots of other players from the Seattle club feeder programs (Underground, Voodoo). There is a draft, pride is on the line, players compete. This league was started and is currently run by Skip Sewell.
  • Mini. I can’t tell you how many times since becoming a member of Sockeye/Rainmakers that I’ve gotten an email from someone getting a game of mini together, even during the club season and on/near holidays. Mini is an amazing use of your time as an ultimate player if you take it seriously. It’s 3 on 3, you’re always marking or defending a live cutter, you’re always trying to get open, making a throw, or making a critical decision.
  • Coaching/teaching Ultimate. Many Sockeye players coach and teach in the local community. Reid Koss, for example, teaches/coaches frisbee every day as a PE teacher at the Northwest School in Seattle, where he’s helped lead their varsity boys ultimate team to four straight state championships and a USA Ultimate HS Westerns title. He is also the head coach for Seattle’s U16 YCC team which has won gold medals the last two years. Sockeye has also led the way in creating coaching/playing opportunities for its players abroad. This started at the tail end of the Sockeye dominance from 2004-2007. Fish players past and present, in recent years, have coached in Colombia, Panama, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Russia, The Philippines, and South Korea. Not only were these experiences helpful in developing Sockeye players, but it was also deepening their commitment and love of being a part of Sockeye. Ben Wiggins, Jaime Arambula, Skip Sewell, Tyler Kinley and Xtehn Titcomb have been key instrumental as organizers, among others.

These are 3 of the major examples of meaningful time on task that Sockeye players get outside of the Club season. I think it’s important to point this out because much has been made of Sockeye’s small-ball style and lack of dominant athletes. What we lack in size/athleticism, we make up for with skill and innovative strategy, which are cultivated year round.

As another quick note, the pro leagues are great opportunities for meaningful time on task. Here’s my quick, anecdotal, opinionated, self-serving reflection on the pro leagues and how they affected some USAU teams.

Cities with pro league teams:

  • SF, Boston, Seattle – Successful in both leagues
  • Chicago, New York, Toronto, Minneapolis – All had generally positive USAU season, and were on the rise compared to 2012
  • Vancouver – Rebuilding in both leagues
  • DC – Hmmm, no correlation?

Cities without pro league teams:

  • Austin, Denver – Despite the highest profile recruiting classes, fell just short of expectations and most predictions in USAU
  • Atlanta – Average regular season (probably below average if you ask them), no big recruits, quarterfinals exit

Best Practice: Assuming that you’re already maximizing your time on task at team events, find and create opportunities for players to develop.

Leadership: Player development during the season

Tip of the cap goes to Coach Roger Crafts here. As a captain of Rhino, I always tried to help individuals specifically address their strengths and weaknesses, but I never did as good of a job as I wanted to. There wasn’t time, I didn’t delegate well enough, and other things took priority. This year, Coach Roger had time to do this, and did it well. He had us set our own individual goals, and held us accountable, simple as that. We got better as individuals AND as a team, which gave us an opportunity for success.

Best Practice: As a leader, encourage others to set individual goals, monitor progress and make adjustments frequently and regularly. Make this process MANAGEABLE, start simple, and build.

Sockeye huddles during a semifinal match against Boston's Ironside at the 2013 Club Championships (Photo by Kevin Leclaire - UltiPhotos.com)

Leadership: Delegation

The captains crushed it this year, they did so much right. They assessed the captains’ experiences in previous years and came to the conclusion that captains felt overworked and didn’t feel like they could put enough focus into the critical elements that would lead to success on the field because there were other things (i.e. logistics, organization, etc.) that had to get done. The captains knew that in order for the team to be most successful, they needed to have as much focus as possible on the things directly related to on-field performance of the team. This means they delegated a huge amount of responsibilities to the rest of the team. The result was that our captains were effective players and leaders at every corner. The team also had more buy-in because they “owned” a responsibility on the team. The captains have also mentioned how instrumental Coach Roger was in keeping them focused on the most important aspects of leading the team.

Best Practice: Prioritize your time as a leader, explicitly define roles, and make sure you spend your time doing the most critical things that will lead your team to success. Delegate tasks as much possible, and find away to appropriately hold others accountable.

Strategy: It’s got to be focused AND fit your personnel

We have a lot of guys on Sockeye who are around 5′ 10″, are quicker than they are fast, and are skilled with the disc. Over the past couple years, Sockeye built an offensive and defensive scheme around the strengths of these players. We run an offense that has been described as “chaotic handler motion”, and we like it that way, because we understand it. Teams rarely generated blocks against us, turnovers were much more often a result of an unforced error. We had multiple games this season against good teams with less than 5 turnovers in the game. We allow our ballers to use their “super powers” and the flexibility to work within our systems, but never at the expense of the integrity of the plan.

Another nod to Coach Roger here, he kept us focused on the fundamentals that he and the captains identified as critical to our success. When we were up, we focused on those fundamentals. When we were down, we focused on those fundamentals. When we were at practice, we focused on those fundamentals. Focus.

Best Practice: Identify the strengths of your team, and implement strategies and tactics that match those strengths. Identify the critical fundamentals that you think your success relies on, focus on them with words and, more importantly, actions (e.g. practice those fundamentals at every practice, or at least more than you practice other things).

Ballers: We got ‘em (just in time)

To win against the best, you need ballers, players who change the field and tip the odds in your favor, either by athleticism, skill, or a super power. Matt Rehder was hurt and absent almost the whole season, got healthy for the series, and had a huge impact for us athletically, while staying off the radar from other teams. Same goes for Phil Murray and Danny Karlinsky. BJ Sefton is weirdly good, it’s hard to pick out exactly what it is that makes him so good, he’s just a straight up playmaker and a gamer. Chris Kosednar is one of the most solid and consistent O handlers in the game. I could go on and on about the superpowers of other players on our roster.

Notably though, our rookies weren’t the 20 to 24-year-olds many squads normally pick up. Instead, our rookies were:

  • Chicken (Age: 30) – 8 straight USAU semis appearances, MLU Western Conference MVP
  • Julian Hausman (Age: 23) – Pitt Nat. Champ. 2012
  • Mark Burton and Donnie Clark – (Ages: Mid-twenties) – these guys blew up in the MLU this year on the Rainmakers, might not have made the team if not for that experience.
  • Me (Age: 30)

These “rookies” had big-game experience, and had specific roles they filled on the team that helped us win.

Our roster was deep, as skilled and experienced top to bottom as any in the country, and this depth helped us put away games on Thursday so our starters/ballers could ball late on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Great players are NOT the magic bullet, but they’re definitely important.

Best Practice: Recruit and cultivate great players.

Final thoughts: Reflect

Writing all of that felt good.

Again, my goals here were to reflect and shed some light on my personal experience with the hope that it might provide insight for those trying to build and strengthen their teams and programs.  I hope there’s something in here that you can apply to your team. I know you’re hungover from your amazing club season, I know you’re thinking about your teammates, and the season that was or could have been. I am too.

You can make next year’s team better than this year. It can start right now.

If you’re a leader/captain, organize a leadership meeting where the goal is to critically assess the elements that made up your season. Be intentional and solicit specific feedback from the players on your team. FOCUS ON WHAT WORKED WELL, and build on that. Listen and think critically when people offer critiques. Revisit your vision for the big picture… did it change? Did it go as planned? Where did you fall short? Where did you succeed? Support each other as leaders. Be honest with each other. These are best practices in leadership, they will make you a better leader, and, in turn, your team will have an opportunity to improve.

If you’re a player, write your captains a sweet email about how awesome they are for dedicating so much time to leading the team… for free. Tell them what you think was awesome about the team and what you think was successful. Offer some constructive criticism. Tell them why you love the team. Thank them again. Seriously. Thank them one more time.

Do this all as soon as possible, while it’s fresh. Good luck.

Best Practice: Reflect + Assess, Make a plan to Act, Act… repeat

Feature photo by Christina Schmidt – UltiPhotos.com

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