(Photo by Perry Nacionales – mapgeek.com)
Special note about this article: After I write an article, I run it by my son Ray for a sanity check. Ray plays for Seattle Sockeye (#99). Ray often has a different perspective and catches things I forget to mention. In respect to this article, Ray’s comments were so good I couldn’t take credit for them. I’ve left his comments as bold and italicized text.
A championship team is, above all else, a team. It is a true and pure example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The dynamics of the game dictate a team approach mostly because of how time is kept. Unlike a lot of other timed sports, the time limits are placed solely on the player with possession and that player can’t move. That combination of a stall count and fixed thrower position drives the sport in the direction that makes it so enjoyable.
The mix of players that must come together for a championship team varies with the level of play. A middle school team has completely different needs then a league team, which in turn has completely different needs then an elite team. Let’s go through the different levels and see what they each need.
Middle school is the most challenging, and therefore the most rewarding level of Ultimate. The greatest challenge here is in coaching. At this level, championship teams are the product of sound coaching. The coaches here have many responsibilities. They range from explaining the rules to developing the proper team spirit. The kids, on the other hand, are focused on having fun and deciding if they even like the game.
I would allow three years to build a successful program and a championship caliber team at this level. The first year is for teaching basic skills & movements, the second year is for furthering the teamwork, and the third year is for putting it all together.
Sixteen to eighteen kids is about the right number for two coaches to handle. Too many more than that and a coach won’t be able to give enough individual attention with skills development. With less than that number, there’s a risk of not having enough players to scrimmage. However, no kid should ever be turned away from playing. If a team is lucky enough to have more than eighteen kids, an additional coach is needed.
While no one should ever be turned away from playing, be careful not to insist on continued involvement from kids who sincerely aren’t interested. Some people are team players and some are individualists. Instead, steer the kids towards a sport or activity more to their liking. Everybody will be the happier for it.
At this level, be careful about locking players into specific team roles. The kids are going through tremendous changes both mentally and physically. What works at the beginning of the season may very well change towards the end of the season or next year.
An important aspect of developing a team at this level is the establishment of program continuity. An even mix of each grade level is desirable. Even more desirable is instilling in the kids a responsibility to work with their younger teammates to improve their skills and understanding of the game in preparation for the next year.
Expect one or two wins the first year, one or two close losses the second year, and a serious run at the championship in the third year.
High school represents a continuation of middle school team development. If the school has a strong feeder system of experienced middle school players, then building on that will be a joy. As with middle school Ultimate, everyone should be welcome.
Coaching is still the largest single factor in team success. Without a strong coaching staff guiding the kids, success is unlikely. This is especially true if most of the players are coming in green.
It is now time to start the process of establishing stable player roles. As the players mature and their natural abilities become apparent, it’s possible to steer them towards the roles they are best suited for. Once the players begin to specialize, the skills drills can ratchet up a notch. The cutters have their drills and the handlers have theirs, although cross training to other positions is valuable.
With the increase in physical abilities comes a change in practice requirements. Proper warm-ups and cool downs are important. Between the warm-ups and cool downs will need to be skills development, conditioning, play walk through, and scrimmages. These are some serious practices.
With these steps, the team performance will improve and after a couple of years the team will be positioned to win whatever championship is available. That is of course assuming the other teams aren’t doing the same thing.
College is the final competitive level where no one should be turned away from playing. There might be limits to the size of the tournament squad, but at this level, Ultimate is a game of spirit and teaching.
Everything from the previously levels still holds.
I think that the largest similarity between MS, HS and College Ultimate is that they are all entry points to the sport, which requires sound coaching as you mentioned. However, as you move up the ladder towards college, you start to have larger discrepancies in skill/experience between players. You may have a D1 athlete switching from track to Ultimate in his sophomore year, while there are other guys/gals on the team who’ve played since MS and are in their 7th year playing Ultimate. Coaching is probably still the most important, but it’s certainly a different style of coaching given the spectrum of players. College is the time where the more experienced/skilled players should get experience teaching the sport to the younger players, such as being team captains or coaching youth. Continuity across years is paramount to a successful college team, in terms of success on the field and success in recruiting during the off season. Also coaching can only get a team so far in college, the team must create an identity for themselves that everyone buys into. The players are not mature enough to simply “flip the switch” and play great Ultimate, they require motivation from within. You see this the most with the established college programs, where they tend to almost be more like fraternities than teams. I guess what I’m saying is that the social aspects of Ultimate become increasingly important. College is probably the first stage where coaching and team bonding is not enough to be a championship team. If your team is not as athletic or does not possess gross mismatches, it will be tough to compete with the top programs. This where time put in off the field (such as on the track, in the weight room, playing league or pickup to gain experience in the summer) makes a big difference.