Creating an Athletically Competitive College Team

by | September 25, 2014, 9:57am 0

If coaching and leading a college ultimate team was a movie, I think it’d be called The Good, the Bad, and the Tricky. But because I’m a relentless optimist, I’d rename it Gifts, Challenges, and Opportunities for Growth. I know, it’s not quite as catchy. But the reality is that there are issues unique to college ultimate that trip us up and cause us to wonder sometimes at the end of the year, “Did I do my job well enough? Could I have done more to set our team up for success? Could we have developed our players more?” Whether you’re a coach or a college player, I hope you’ll find this article helpful as you approach your fall season.

The Good (Gifts)

Many, if not most, of the people trying out for ultimate are going to have at least a decent athletic background. They might be new to ultimate, but my impression is that the demographic has shifted in the last 5-10 years to include more people who’ve played ultimate in middle and high school. Even if their running technique isn’t perfect and they don’t have great disc skills or they come from another sport, it’s likely that they’ve competed, trained, and been a part of a team before.

Your team will be mostly made up of returning students who are excited to improve from last year and new students who are excited to join a team. Going to college often means living away from home, and students are eager to form affiliations and bonds with each other. Add that to the step up in competition levels in college, and that’s recipe for attracting people who are fired up and ready to go.

College students are learning autonomy, which means they are often excited to start taking more personal responsibility and moving away from needing or allowing parents and coaches to dictate their behavior. They begin recognizing their personal power to invest in their health, their physical education, and their contributions to the team.

The Bad (Challenges)

College is hard, man! It’s tougher work than high school, and the workload ebbs and flows through the year. The physics major has lab duty late at night and can’t make practice, and the freshman is struggling to get homework done while also getting to practice. It’s a big adjustment for many, and when push comes to shove, ultimate sometimes gets the shove.

College years are a big emotional and self-identity growth period, and the degree to which that influences and affects the running of a team cannot be underestimated or ignored. Personality conflicts can abound as people try to figure themselves out and deal with stress, and work ethics vary widely. Trying to form a cohesive college team vision can be like herding cats.

The Tricky (Opportunities for Growth)

Navigating these murky waters rife with so much potential and so many variables is difficult. Where do you start? Where do you focus? How do you see it all through? I learned this firsthand last year, finding that my work with the Rainmakers and Riot in the spring, while awesome experiences, in no way prepared me for my work with Element and the  Sundodgers in the fall. Strategies I had developed for the pro and club teams didn’t cleanly translate to the club level, and I wasn’t able to contribute nearly as much as I wanted to as the strength and conditioning coach for UW.

I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for this college season, getting feedback from those teams’ coaches and leaders, reading some of the great articles written lately about coaching at the college level, and rethinking the way I approach functional performance training for college programs. Growth is uncomfortable and scary sometimes, but we as coaches and leaders have opportunities to do it in ways which should make our teams stronger.

For those starting on this tricky coaching and leadership journey, whether for the first or fifteenth time, here are some thoughts on functional performance training (FPT) for college:

1. Know Your Goals

Take the time to talk to team leaders and come up with a clear set of goals for the year. The more specific, the better. Are you trying to win Nationals? Is this a development year for this team? How big of a priority is it to have fun and build community? Once you have your team goals, tryouts become easier because you know what to look for. Encourage players to set their own goals and help them figure out what they need to do to reach them. FPT should play a part, big or small, in any goal for your team — you can’t have fun if you’re always injured, you can’t develop players without a detailed plan and good instruction, and you can’t win Nationals without taking advantage of athletic gifts and refining technique and skill. Knowing your goals will help you train as efficiently as possible.

2. Create a Supportive Team Culture

Cultivating a growth mindset in your athletes will be immeasurably helpful in running your team regardless of your goals. The gist of a growth mindset is that ability is not static, that all people can be learners, and that hard work pays off. (A fixed mindset, on the other hand, treats challenges as obstacles and repeatedly says “I’m just not good at…” or “I can’t…”)

Having small groups in order to give feedback and help people progress toward their goals is a huge boon (Lou’s piece on micro-posses is a great read if you missed it). You can encourage the groups to share challenges they’re having in training and brainstorm together for solutions. Also, maintaining your own positive voice when teaching technique and giving feedback can really help — don’t shut people down, foster that “growth mindset” mentality instead!

3. Make the Most Out of Practice

This is the time when the players are gathered and you have the chance to get better. Use it wisely! Here’s a sample of how you do that:

  • 3-5 minutes of individual time. This is time at the beginning of practice, not before practice is supposed to start. Giving people sanctioned time to work on their own issues and get their heads in the right space is important, and your players shouldn’t have to show up early to get that. If you’re working with a movement coach or S&C coach, they’ll give your players specific mobility and soft tissue work to do during that time.
  • Focused warm-ups with good cues. What you do in warm-ups is not as important as the focus with which you do it. Hopefully we all know by this point that the glutes (your butt) are very important to running. If you think about moving with your glutes instead of your quads and hamstrings during the warm-up, the specific movements can be varied and still have a good result. Tim Morrill and Melissa Witmer have both released good dynamic warm-ups, and mine will be out as a part of the RenFitness RISE UP season in 2015.
  • Teach new technique and skills at the beginning of practice. This method has been shown to lead to better retention and muscle memory. Don’t throw something new in when you’re three quarters of the way through practice.
  • Increase complexity in drills gradually. First, let athletes focus on technique, then speed, then introduce competition (start with closed tasks, then move into open tasks). If you throw a live disc into a drill, do it after good movement and explosion has been achieved. Otherwise, you’re just repping bad movement and athleticism isn’t improving.
  • Useful cool-down. Meet with micro-posses, remind the team about optional workout pods, talk about what you’ll be working on next practice. Give any positive feedback you saw: that person get a faster first step through better foot placement, and this other person kept running hard on defense during the last scrimmage. Pick out a couple moments per practice to share and help motivate.

4. Work to Understand a Bigger Picture

As a coach or team leader, you have lots on your plate, lots to juggle. A good strength and conditioning program will help your team succeed, but only to the extent that you vision and integrate it. Slapping FPT onto a fully formed season plan is less efficient than taking athletic development and performance into account along with everything else (strategy, skill, schedule etc)– think of it as seeing your team as a 500-piece puzzle rather than a 300-piece one with a 200-piece addition on the side. What you do in the weight room should make you better at track, which should directly prepare you for practice, which should translate into great in-game performance– this type of progression needs to be planned because it just won’t happen by itself. Don’t just lift, lift for ultimate– lift like an athlete. Don’t just run yourself into the ground, run in ways that will make you better at offense and defense (for example, here’s a track drill designed to help train Sockeye’s defensive strategy this year). Don’t try to be a S&C coach, hire one, or at least get some goal-specific education for your team. When you and your leadership committee are planning your season, think about how FPT can be integrated, not just slapped on around the edges. And if you don’t know how, get some helppeople like me are out there, and believe me, we want to be involved.

Good luck this season. I’ll be working with UW using these methods this year, so I’ll let you know how it goes! :)

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