Clown Tent: Successes

by | January 4, 2012, 11:40am 0

This article is part 2 of 4 in a series.

Writing about Clown Tent is tricky.  By its very nature, CT is designed to deal with individual idiosyncrasies.  On a team where all the players are largely homogenous, are quirk-free or lack creativity, there isn’t a need for any type of adjustment or accommodation; CT is unnecessary.  The strength of Clown Tent is that it does make exceptions for people and that it builds team unity not through unity of action, but unity of purpose.  So a big thanks to the Fugue and Syzygy players who were willing to share their stories.

Oregon Fugue 2010

After a successful 2009 campaign which saw us bow out in the semifinals to eventual champions UC-Santa Barbara, I was stunned when captain and returning senior Molly Suver told me she was thinking about not playing her 5th year of eligibility.  I had known that there was tension between Molly and the team about vision and leadership style, but I was caught off guard by the extent of it.  As a captain, Molly wanted to run a very tight ship off the field.  Organization, timeliness and focus were very important to her.  As anyone who has ever tried to get a team to an 8AM game knows, moving 20 groggy adults can be difficult.  While Fugue wasn’t the most scattered team I’ve ever been a part of, they were rather…Eugene.  More importantly, the team wasn’t very interested in being great in this area; organization just wasn’t that important to them.  As Molly reflected on it last week, “These factors combined to make interactions with the team stressful and difficult in a lot of situations.”

Fugue at the 2010 College Championships - Photo by Andrew Davis

Through the strong encouragement of her teammates, Molly decided to return.  She and I talked a lot about what would need to change for both her and the team to be happy.  The most obvious difference was that she would no longer be captain.  Underlying this choice was a decision to trust the leadership to ensure that the team’s flakiness wouldn’t affect our on-the-field performance.  Molly again: “By being able to relinquish these responsibilities to incredibly capable people, I was able change my own attitude towards the team and the season. Your [Lou’s] philosophy of clown tent was pretty instrumental in that change. I realized that I can’t change who people are, but I can change how I react to a situation. I can’t force people to be on time, but the leadership can make conscious decisions to accommodate different time lines in the morning.”  One of the biggest changes the team made was adjusting our pregame time management.  We acknowledged that this was hurting our performance and that we were incapable of moving quickly.  The solution was to build an extra 30 or 45 minutes into our schedule every morning.  If we said, “Hotel lobby at 7:10”, that was for a 9:00 game only five minutes away.  Usually a full van was there and ready to go at 7:10 but there wasn’t any stress about the people who were straggling; we had planned for them to be late.

Unlike previous teams (like Sockeye) that had used Clown Tent ideas without the broad philosophy of it, Fugue 2010 explicitly discussed the idea and the implementation.  Being out in the open about the team philosophy created an enormous pressure valve.  When there was difficulty or stress, often it was cleared up with a laugh and a “Clown Tent.”  The situation described here were just one of several that the leadership worked on throughout the season.  Clown Tent provided a framework that prioritized trust and unity of purpose.  This framework was used to resolve and guide any difficulties throughout the season.  Molly sums it up nicely: “[Clown Tent] expressed differently [by] each person in their own way. I can say, though, that the whole team became more cohesive, more accepting, more flexible and more intent on our unified purpose.   [Italics added.]”  Oregon finished the season crushing the competition at Nationals by almost 10 points per game and winning their first title.

Carleton Syzygy 2000

In 1999, Carleton lost to Stanford in the finals.  It was the second consecutive year Superfly had topped Syzygy for the title and for those of us in blue and yellow it was a painful loss.  It was made more painful by the graduation of six brilliant seniors, three of whom (Sharon Goodwin, Jenn Willson and Mizu Kinney) went on to star for Riot and three (SJ Hawley, Cindy Craig and Brooke Harnden) who could have, if they’d chosen that life instead of retiring.  Left behind was a crew of tough, physical and athletic defenders but not a lot of offensive talent.

The new team found some success throughout the 2000 season by changing from a ball-control to a huck-and-play-d strategy, but still struggled offensively at key moments.  3-, 4- and 5- turnover points were not uncommon.  The stress of this style was compounded by a crew of intensely competitive women.  Julia Weese-Young recalls: “I remember that there was drama and that practices where high tension.  There was a lot of competitive bullshit.  We were pushing hard and pushing each other hard physically and mentally – which was good but some feelings were getting hurt. I remember how strong willed and opinionated all those women were/are. Everyone wanting to make a mark personally, everyone wanting to win too, scared that hard work wouldn’t be enough, wanting it so badly.”

Things finally reached a head just after Regionals.  One of the captains, Paige Anderson remembers, “The meeting was precipitated by a conflict of leadership between the captains (me and Julia) and the other dominant personalities on the team, namely Liz [Penny] and Mimi [Frusha].  You (and potentially me and Jules, as well) had realized that the leadership battle could negatively affect the team if we didn’t figure out how to make it all work.”

So two weeks before Nationals, when the focus should be on fine tuning and healing, six of us including myself, Julia, Paige, Liz, Mimi and captain Anna Coldham met to clear the air.  My goal as coach was to try get these incredibly mentally strong players, all of whom wanted to win so bad, to quit fighting against each other and unite against everyone else.  The meeting lasted six hours.  None of us involved remembers exactly what was said (or isn’t sharing), but by the end, we were together.  Paige: “I do remember feeling liberated in finally having a chance for everyone involved to say what was bothering them.   I feel like we might even have started the meeting by saying that the point of the meeting was to be honest, open, and the end goal was to figure out how to do the best thing for the team even if it meant not doing what you felt was best for you as an individual. I think we all left the meeting knowing the team came first and we’d have to swallow our pride to make sure that was reality.”

The team that emerged from the Carleton Chapel (where we’d met) wasn’t the one that went in.  Julia: “I think that coming out of the meeting I knew that our success would be a culmination of our skill, our determination, our belief (it was the first time in my life that I wholeheartedly bought into the idea that you could believe something into reality), and our joint effort as leaders to work together, keep the peace, and honor each individuals assets.  Does that sound sentimental? My experience with Syzygy was very emotional.  I think that the meeting was a turning point. It was a re-affirmation of our competitive/determined/difficult personalities and that we could use together to form a human wall.”

Two weeks later in Boulder, Colorado we willed our way to Syzygy’s only national title by out-toughing the toughest team of the 90s, UNCW.


Doublewide's Brodie Smith readies the disc against Revolver's Mark Sherwood - Photo by Brian Caniff (

Clown Tent isn’t limited to team chemistry; it can be an important piece of strategy and tactics.  For many teams, it emerges by necessity; they build one set of rules for the team, but need their stars to do much more.  Often, this creates a weird culture of confusion where the team is saying do one thing and yet the star players are doing something else.  That isn’t a failure of strategy; it is a failure of communication.

In the last two years, Doublewide of Texas has emerged as a national power largely due to their integration of Florida star Brodie Smith.  They have done this by building an offensive system that most of their players follow, but allowing Brodie to do what he wants.  Everyone else works around him.  This is an offensive system philosophically similar to the Sockeye defensive scheme described in the first CT article; most players on the field are following a fairly strict set of rules, but one or two players are given near-total freedom.

The rules of Doublewide’s system are simple.  Run a standard vertical stack offense.  Handlers and cutters know your roles and execute them.  Brodie has priority on everyone else.  As an example, take a look at a snippet from the Goat-DW quarterfinal from Nationals.  (You’ll want to start about 10:40 in.)  Everyone gets in the vertical stack; Brodie has set up on the backhand sideline, effectively shutting that lane down for anyone else.  The disc is swung back and forth.  Comeback cuts happen.  (But not on the backhand side because Brodie is clogging it.)  Cutters and handlers work to provide options; Brodie does nothing.  Finally, he goes into motion, first cutting all the way across the field, running through the middle of the stack before turning up and going deep.  In the process, he breaks at least four rules of running a vertical stack offense.  He also scores the goal, making a very difficult catch look routine.

Not convinced?  Still think that Doublewide’s system is unsuccessful because they haven’t won a ring yet?  Because they can’t beat Revolver?   Answer this trivia question: how many times did pre-Brodie Doublewide get farther than quarters?

Next week: More than one way to skin a cat.

Feature photo of Molly Suver by Andrew Davis

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