To Yell, or Not to Yell

by | April 22, 2015, 8:30am 6

There is a time to be a firm coach and there is a time to be a fun coach, and there is a big gray area in between. Being a good coach is about knowing where to be on that spectrum, and when.

When I started coaching Fever in 2006, I had no identity as a coach. I had captained teams that I played on, and while that included a coaching aspect, much of it was planning and paperwork.

I didn’t know what coaching meant, and I certainly didn’t know what coaching ultimate meant. And I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I only knew what I had seen watching a lot of other sports. I had seen coaches that yelled (what I call “coaching hard”), and I’d seen coaches that seemed calm all of the time (“coaching soft”). But the nuance of those coaching styles was lost on me, especially in terms of coaching ultimate.

Some things I did know

Fever was a small program led by a small core. There had been some coaching leading into the fall of 2006, but I never witnessed what that looked like. And my experience with coaches in ultimate up to that point wasn’t very memorable. The most important thing I did know: I wanted to see this women’s college team grow and thrive, and I wanted to coach.

At the beginning, I attended 50-70% of practices and all the tournaments. I wasn’t a very practiced coach, and since the team was small and retention was an issue, I approached coaching them “softly.” No yelling, no harsh negative consequences for mistakes, and no pushing them to exhaustion. When players repeatedly made the same mistakes, I just repeatedly explained the way to do things better. My fear of scaring everyone away seemed to override the need to push individuals for the betterment of the team.

I do believe “soft” was a necessary evil. Every team, at any level, fights the battle to keep players around. With new players that need a lot of support, running sprints for errant throws or dropped passes definitely seemed like overkill. I felt that it was key to have an encouraging and welcoming environment.

Certainly, there were always individuals who were raring to go and didn’t mind some tough love. They wanted to compete hard and push limits, and they did. But in my early years of coaching, there was a limitation to the level to which the team could achieve.

What I learned

When a team starts to really push toward success – qualifying for Nationals, for example – “hard” coaching is something players start to demand more of. Captains begin calling for mandatory conditioning workouts outside of practice. At practice, players want coaches to be loud and assertive. At tournaments the discussions in the huddle are no longer about just the good things that are happening, but also about the bad things that need to be addressed to win. Players really begin to hold each other accountable. And winning is no longer a nice bonus of playing; it’s of the utmost importance.

Coaching soft versus coaching hard becomes a philosophical issue. A team at any level will have moments that demand being more at one end of the coaching spectrum. It can depend on whether the team is developing in the fall or is in the meat of the spring season. It can vary from practice to practice (focused strategy practice versus fun practice to just let loose) and tournament to tournament (the team is trying to find itself versus trying to qualify for nationals). And the way to coach can depend on the player being approached. Rookies may need more teacher and less drill sergeant. Most returners can handle a little more force and often ignore the fluffy talk.

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What I know now

There are more coaches now than ever before. Rarely do I see an uncoached college team at a tournament. When I started coaching, I was still working under the premise that coaching was more of a passive, guiding experience than a yell and stomp your feet experience.

Finding the sweet spot took some time. I still struggle to identify when to coach “soft” and when to coach “hard.” When does a player need me to pat them on the shoulder? When do I get in their face and remind them that effort is a big part of what we do? When does the team need a dance moment? When does the program need an inviting personality versus the competitive face of a fighter? I always look for feedback from team leaders to help determine the place they want the coaches to be. During halftime of a game at Nationals in 2014, I asked a returner what we needed to get energized. “Dance party” was the response. No firm words needed.

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  • notaboomer

    this is a big part of why you are a successful coach, deanna: I always look for feedback from team leaders to help determine the place they want the coaches to be.

    i would recommend feedback from any player who wants to give it. let the players design practices after the coach gives them the tools to do so. try new ideas that players bring to you. invite the players to develop practice and game strategy. listen. run sprints when the players decide it’s a good idea not as a punishment for failure to comply with the coach’s wishes. don’t give up on new/less talented players. keep exchanging ideas. thanks for all the great resources online, ultimate community.

  • Sam Wood

    Excellent article, DeAnna!

    As a male who has coached a women’s collegiate team for five years, I’d note that it is extremely important for men to be “softer” than “hard” when coaching women, especially early in a coach’s tenure and with new players. Similarly, there are ways to coach a men’s team that simply don’t translate well to a women’s team.

    For example, I can (and have) told men to lose weight to improve their mobility. Imagine saying that to a woman, especially if the messenger has a y chromosome. Even framing it as fitness or conditioning can be problematic. Also, talking about body types can be touchy even though we all know certain body types have certain (dis)advantages in certain situations and at certain positions.

    There is much for all coaches in this article. An interesting follow-up might be from Kyle W. (man coaching women) or Tiina B. (woman coaching men) and the dynamics therein.

    Only quibble with the article: “And winning is no longer a nice bonus of playing; it’s of the utmost importance.” Our team ethos is predicated upon Spirit, fun, competition–in that order. Winning will never be more important than upholding Spirit and having fun, at least not for any team that I coach.

    • DeAnna Ball

      I agree with your “quibble,” and firmly agree with Spirit, fun, competition. I think the point is when that last piece – competition – starts to have a different value in a moment. And in that moment, figuring out how to coach to get there without losing the other 2 – Spirit and fun.

      • Sam Wood

        Totally agree, DeAnna.

        It’s a difficult thing to do–at least with a young program. How to find the balance between the three is one of the most important things I try to do as a coach. Second only to helping young women develop into competent, contributing members of society via the rubric of ultimate.

        Again, great article. It’s rare I get though an article nodding my head in agreement with just about everything written.

    • Hooray Ultimate

      I am just seconding your suggestion that Kyle and/or Tiina respond to this. They always have great things to say.

  • rleetx

    Excellent article! Thank you. I believe this starts even at the younger ages these days, once a team or club begins to climb the competitive ladder. Coaches are managing personalities and have to be somewhat of a chameleon to match what works best for individuals., to bring out the best in each. Thanks again for highlighting the psychological aspects so important to coaching. I often refer to coaching as being both a teacher and a psychologist.. and it’s the truth :)