It was with great enjoyment that I read Ben’s excellent series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) last week. Since Ben and I can’t talk about ultimate for 2 minutes without arguing, I have a million inconsequential disagreements but they really are inconsequential and not worth mentioning. There is however, a piece of getting great that Ben talked around but never addressed directly. As this piece is essential to how I coach, I’d like to address it; it is team vision.
The most important function of a coach is to create and articulate a team vision. What I strive to do is to build a picture in my head of what the team is going to look like on the field at Nationals. I don’t mean the personnel or the uniforms, but the way the team is going to play. What is a point actually going to look like? How is our offense going to unfold? How will a defensive point play out? From here I start putting all the pieces into place of who will be where and doing what. This process will often go back and forth. It is impossible to build an initial vision without some sense of what you already have and how people fit into it. But every team is new every year (some are newer than others) and so the pieces will fit together differently and there will certainly be gaps that need filling.
Once you have that (always adjusting) picture in your head, take a good look at where you are. See what you have. See what is missing. Now comes the tricky part: you know where you are and you know where you want to be, but how do you get there? This is where a lot of the training and practicing methods Ben was discussing come into play. The role vision plays in this is to always guide you. As you think about strategy or tactics or drills or any aspect of the team’s training regimen, consider your vision. Hold your vision in one hand and the work you are proposing in the other; does the work get you closer to where you want to be? Try another way. Compare where you are with where you want to be. What is the difference? What do you need to do to get there? Is your defense struggling around the disc? Design some drills to work on repositioning on handlers. Is your offense struggling to reach the deep cutters? Run some offensive simulations that physically move people in the way you have envisioned them moving.
This piece is equally true of players as well. The most helpful thing you can do as a coach is to see the player she will become and help her on her way. I know I am forever indebted to Eric Kehoe (Boston, Sockeye, current USAU observer) for looking at the young, rangy idiot from the Midwest who thought he was a receiver and seeing a handler. I would have been okay as a receiver and that’s the rub – okay. I’m still not sure what EK saw (I’ve never asked), but he was spot on. There is a bit of an art to seeing what someone can become, but the basis is paying attention and thinking about it. If you don’t have a spot for someone or a sense of what they can become, that should bother you. I also am often looking (or seeing) for a flash or a spark more than consistent play. (Although consistency is a spark in its own right.) I am constantly reminded of a story I read once about single-A baseball tryouts. The scout was much more interested in the kid who from shallow left rifled the ball five rows up above first base while striving for the out than the weak-throwing but accurate short-stop. In that one play, with the ball clanging around in the empty seats, the scout saw possibility and potential. I don’t necessarily agree that athleticism trumps skill and work ethic, but I do agree that it is the spark, the moment, the possibility that you are looking for.
I can’t emphasize enough that these two pieces go hand-in-hand. You cannot build the possibility of your team without building the possibility of your players. As you progress toward your vision, the team and players will grow simultaneously. The work will narrow. In the beginning, changes will be quite large. Whole offensive or defensive structures will change. Cutters will become handlers, handlers will become cutters. As the season progresses and you get closer and closer to that vision, changes become smaller. A piece of the man offense needs tweaking. A handler needs work on breaking a backhand mark. The middle-middle in the zone needs to work on looking over his shoulder at the poppers more often. The challenge throughout is to choose the most beneficial work because there isn’t time to do it all.
Here’s the bad news. You won’t ever get there. You’ll get close. You’ll reach your goal. You might even win the whole Big Thing. Getting to your vision is a lot like Zeno’s Race Course Paradox; it keeps receding away even as it gets closer and closer. That’s the brutality of teaching and coaching; even when you win you have to accept some failure.