Do you remember your first day in kindergarten? First time driving a car? First date? First day of college? How did you feel during the first moments of that experience? Most people will feel at least a little nervous diving into the unknown, but usually in these cases you can settle in fairly quickly. First-time jitters get everyone in the beginning!
Now think about that first day of college again, and add this crazy idea: starting an ultimate team. Starting. Out of the 5 million+ ultimate players around the globe, there are only a few thousand who were ambitious enough to create the college programs that compete today. They know the experience can be incredibly nerve-wracking, quite often throughout an entire college career. Throw together recruitment planning, practice running, budget calculating, hair pulling, tournament scheduling, and student government handshaking. It is a series of first-times in every tournament of a new season, every time something goes wrong, every time you wake up and think about what you have to do next. A 4-year long first-time jitter.
Yet, in reflection, it is also one of the most rewarding experiences a young leader and ultimate player can go through. Why is that? Why should you create or even grow your college ultimate program to a higher level? In every challenge we face, we become familiar with the circumstances soon after and are prepared next time. As a college team starter, you will develop a mastery of a variety of skills that fuse together when dealing with a different challenge every week. Four years of this and your personality and work ethic could speak louder than your resume, landing you that dream career. Now there’s a new reason to get started if you needed one.
You may have been given a lot of advice if this has been something you are considering or are already doing. Things like: Active recruitment is good. Freshman hazing is bad. Having fun is easy. Fundraising is hard. But how often have you received advice for yourself and the internal challenges you will face in your new leadership position? Here are some more unique thoughts to consider when diving into jitter bug swamp.
1. Keep the plans in your back pocket.
When starting a sports team, the win-loss record is obviously on everyone’s mind. ”How good are we? How fast can we get better? Why can’t I throw yet?!” If you have high competitive expectations for the team, it is important to not let them get to your head. Some of the most passionate leaders can get caught up in an amazing vision, which does wonders for their drive, but can make them forget about current reality. You may find yourself with a few high school players, some cross country kids who played 15 vs. 15, a couple high jumpers with butter fingers, and that one disc golfer who doesn’t like to cut. You must accept the fact that a team is not a tangible thing you can control by yourself. It only exists when multiple individuals come together and are motivated by a common goal. In order to connect with your long-term vision, you must understand your starting point, and create the steps everywhere in-between.
You may present those common goals as best as you can through team mottos, training plans, or long-winded emails. When it comes down to what most followers want to see in a leader, though, you will have to put most of your energy in leading by example. And listening, always listening. This means putting expectations in your back pocket while you connect with your fellow teammates. You know where you’re keeping the plans, but you don’t need to wave them around all the time. It takes a lot of composure and wisdom to carry the burden of operating the team while dealing with loose cannons or low-attendance players. Fixating on immediate success would do more harm than good for you to keep going. If you understand that you may never play in a national championship, but accept the character building trade-offs, you can keep a steady head to lead by example and guide everyone towards that common goal.
2. Wear your heart under your sleeve.
This advice will be difficult to hear for many young leaders. Your job as a leader is not to be loved, but to be respected, approachable, and understood. If you bent over backward to get acceptance from each individual, you would have to bake your neighbors a cake every time your dog peed on their mailbox. There will be plenty of disagreements between yourself and players out of mistakes or misunderstandings. You will find players you get along with well, but there will be others who challenge you. Sometimes they are selfish, but sometimes they are uninformed or confused. In handling any dispute, it is difficult to isolate personal feelings from thoughts that consider the needs of the whole team. It can be hard carrying that load while still running practices and sending out emails. You can be real with your teammates, but you want to avoid letting stress influence your attitude, approach and composure. A bad mood can trickle down just as much as a good mood, so the goal here is to deal with the stress without bringing teammates down with you.
The best way to truly deal with the stress is to talk about your feelings and challenges with those outside of the team. You need someone who will give you unbiased feedback without knowing how hulk-green Timmy can get, or how bad Bobby smells. Another teammate may tell you “Just kick them off the team! We’ll be fine.” But someone with a little bit more wisdom about people may say “Ask them how their day was or see if they need help buying soap.” Not only will you be able to vent a full story to get rid of some of the personal stress, you will gain a new approach you may not have thought of without taking a step back. By outsourcing your own emotional needs of love and acceptance, you will be better able to reflect outside of the team atmosphere, and come to practice prepared, confident, and happy to bring your teammates up with you.
3. Give away your extra hats.
Starting an ultimate team is not something you have to do alone. You have a full set of volunteers who are already dedicating their time as athletes. If you convince them well enough, they could have the time, skills, and desire to do more as well. The trick is identifying what they identify with. When you ask a player why they like ultimate, you will get a variety of answers. Based on the answers, you can understand this player’s background and the area they would be most likely to contribute to.
Social Seekers are the ones who play ultimate for the friends and positive team culture. They identify with spirit of the game on the surface level, but they sometimes disconnect with the sport itself. These are the players who can get creative with team cheers, plan social events, and send friendly reminders to teammates on the regular.
Fitness Seekers identify with ultimate as a sport and the unique athletic demands. They may be struggling with the idea of spirit if they had a varsity sports background, but they have the ability to adapt. These players can be good at developing health resources and training plans for the team, provided they consider the current fitness level of all players.
Knowledge Seekers are rare but they are the ones you want dedicated to your team operations the most. They identify with the dynamic strategy of ultimate and the complex aerodynamics of the disc while actively seek out advice about skills. With the right mix of charisma and focus, you could have an amazing co-captain on your hands.
Once you have identified your players, you can get a better idea of how to balance goals and keep each type happy. One of the more difficult things for a young leader is management of volunteers; keeping them entertained yet still on target. On the surface level, you need to make sure they feel like they belong, so a lot of thanks and personal conversations helps them stay on board. If you really want good help, structure the projects and tasks with few parameters to make sure they take initiative on the rest, while still being available for questions. Typing up work instructions for every detail in planning a tournament trip may end up taking longer than doing it yourself. Letting them wear your hats of responsibility should provide the same opportunity for growth as it did for you.
To summarize, the three most important ideas to consider when starting a team are patience, positivity, and placement. Expect a foundation timeline that spans at least two years. While there will absolutely be smaller successes on the way if you are patient, this is not the place to seek instant gratification in competition. The journey with your teammates towards achieving success will be just as rewarding as getting there. Positivity is also imperative. Because you are leading the team, they will be watching what you do every step of the way. Your joy and optimism will enlighten the team, and help ensure success is attained. Finally, don’t be shy to ask for help. If players know they can help make the program successful, they can be placed in positions that use their identity and strong suits in the best way. The startup phase of every team is difficult, but it is what every team must do to create an amazing legacy! Consider starting your college or even high school program this Fall, and join the ranks of ultimate’s future leadership.
Next week we will be covering what comes after the early years in Team Organics Part 2: Growing a Team.