Ultimate, specifically youth Ultimate, is a sport that is still in its developmental phase. More often than not, you see teams take a meteoric rise to prominence, then fade just as quickly. There are very few youth teams that are considered institutions. Columbia high school, as the founders of ultimate, come to mind, and then of course you have your Amherst, Paideia, and the Seattle contingent. I’m sure there are more teams in different regions, but as a lifelong resident of the east coast, these are the only ones that come to mind off the top of my head, and really, that’s what we’re talking about, name recognition. We recognize these names not only as teams, but as programs that are institutions in our sport, which is what I think we as supporters and coaches of youth Ultimate want our programs to ultimately become.
In youth Ultimate, so many times a team is started by a charismatic and driven captain who recruits and trains the entire team. If the cards are right, teams like this can make deep runs into the regional tournaments and start making a name for themselves. But once that captain leaves, very rarely do those teams survive. They’ll hang around for a year or two surviving on the reputation and the skilled players who were trained by the captain, but ultimately they fade into oblivion. If you take a look at Pennsbury on the boys side you’ll that they won Easterns just a few years ago, but the program has fallen from elite status and has regressed, starting the waning part of this cycle. Cardinal O’Hara used to be a prominent girls team but their performance has since faded. Some programs are caught in this cycle in perpetuity.
The fact of the matter is that coaching in the youth community hasn’t caught up with the demand. As a former youth player looking at the youth circuit now, the growth in not only numbers, but skill has been exponential. So often a team’s “coach” is a glorified chaperone who is in charge of holding waivers and getting the school to sign off on practices, tournaments and the like. Very rarely is there a tactically and strategically knowledgeable coach who can make in game adjustments and raise the overall playing level of the team.
I am a devout believer in coaching (Read this excellent article if you need convincing) both because I was profoundly impacted by coaching and saw how a skilled and motivated coach raised the level of my play and my team’s, but also as someone who has served as a coach who has been profoundly impacted by my pupils. I played for Watchung Hills Regional High School from 2001-2004, and within that time, we became a team that had that charismatic and driven leader holding us together, to a team that went to UPA High School Nationals because we brought a coach who worked with us daily. Coaching, just like anything else, is a discipline and a learned skill. Great players don’t necessarily become great coaches and the opposite is also true. As a coach, you develop a certain methodology and a certain terminology and mindset that infuses the way you teach your trade. That mindset and methodology diffuses down to the team level, and I firmly believe that each coach, no matter who trained you or who you mold yourself after, is unique.
When you coach youth ultimate, you have to realize that you’re serving as a role model for kids during a very impressionable age not only in their development as players, but development as individuals. To say the least, your personal conduct when you coach needs to be exemplary. One of the things I always say is that “I’m here to be your coach, not to be your friend.” I say that, but eventually as you toil through a season you form strong bonds as a group of players that becomes a team. That’s where I believe a coach really makes the difference. It becomes a sixth sense when you know you have to push your team, when you have to cool them down, when you have to fire them up, and ultimately, when you have to push them past their limits. Personally, that’s what makes me love coaching.
Now, imagine if you were a player, and you had to go through this process every year. Personally, I think it would be maddening. I’d have to learn a new lexicon to communicate effectively with the coach every year and depending on what system the coach wants to run, learn new intricacies on what seems like a new offense and defense every year. More often than not, this is what happens. I’ve seen team after team have a rotating set of coaches, whether they are an older club players who happen to take an interest, or a former alumnus coming back from college to tutor for a season or two. There is a simple lack of continuity in coaching regime and I think that it is very detrimental to development. Frankly, the kids don’t know what to expect out of the coach (Is he/she a fun coach or are we gunning to win Easterns?) and the team may not agree with the coach’s views. The turnover on a season to season basis is just not conducive to program building.
As potential coaches, we have to realize the impacts that we have on continuity. When you are named as a coach, you have to consider how invested you are, because kids will invest in you. Be upfront about your future plans and how committed you can be to the program. When I started coaching, I went back to my old high school and I was asked to help out the girls team. At Watchung Hills, Ultimate is a varsity lettered sport, and as such, had two coaches working with the team, Mike Porter and Ken Karnas. Both of them were former players for Rutgers University and had full-time teaching positions at the school. Throughout the years they built a foundation for the program and relations within the school and community, laying down the groundwork for continuity and program building. When I came into the program there was already an established schedule, field space, requisite paperwork, and more importantly an established standard of excellence that allowed me to come in and contribute. Now, I still had to earn my stripes, earning the respect of the girls and learning to work with the other coaches, but my job was made 100 times easier because of the continuity that existed.
Going forward, I see programs that have said continuity growing steadily contributing to the legitimacy of the sport. Whether you see that as something that the sport needs or not, I believe that it is crucial for the development at the youth level, especially to parents who don’t know about the sport. Will flash in the pan teams still exist? Absolutely, but I think we need to move away from that model and work towards ways where schools and communities can support teams past any one generation and build not only a team, but a program. Once we start building programs instead of teams, we can teach this game that we love and use it as not only to spread a sport, but to spread what makes this game unique, which is spirit. We as coaches also need to evaluate our dedication to the craft of coaching and realizing that while our intentions for helping out a team “for a season or two” are pure and good, leaving said team also has just as many impacts as us signing on as coaches. At the end of the day, if we want Ultimate to grow as a sport I believe that it has to happen from the youth level up, and building continuity through the growth of programs is essential to developing youth Ultimate.
Feature Photo by Kevin Leclaire (UltiPhotos.com)