The Leadership Salad

by | April 20, 2015, 8:15am 0

Today we are going to talk about a mustache and salad. More specifically a thick black mustache that had a ton of salad in it. I never realized how much that mustache nourished me until it was gone.

The Beginning

I remember the first time I saw him. Summer League 2011. He was practicing his pulls into the stratosphere. I didn’t really know what to think of his stache, like a charred italian sausage on his upper lip, thick as a bicycle tire. At the time, I was about four weeks into my ultimate career. I didn’t know what a double helix pull looked like, or what it was good for, let alone that it was a skill few possess.

The following summer was my first experience with club ultimate. I played for an open team for two seasons and Mustache was our team’s coach. I learned almost everything I know about ultimate from him. I played with him in a bunch of mid-level tournaments in Canada and the US over a three year period. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how lucky I was.

You see, a good leader is like a good salad. And a good salad is not just a bowl of lettuce–that wouldn’t be proper! At the very least it’s gotta have some carrots for color, some onion for a little kick, and some tomatoes for their juicy, meaty, fleshy goodness.

If Mustache was a leadership salad, he would have been a hearty one, full of all the veggies you can think of, plus a little bit of cheese and some olives, even some meat. He was an entire meal and I gobbled him up. Metaphorically speaking.

Anyway, Mustache had a god-like persona to most of us. I think it was due to the fact that he had been to Worlds like, 43 times; people respect achievement. He also yelled at us when we did something stupid. Maybe we didn’t respect that part of him, but at least it got our attention. He played basketball in college, his skills and “baller” mindset carried over to ultimate. In practice he demanded effort and work, and we all gave 100%. He focused on teaching fundamentals and how those fundamentals were essential to playing good ultimate.

I never played basketball. Instead, I spent my pre-teenage years playing club soccer. I wasn’t much of a player. Just another 12 year old pudge-ball growing out of his uniform. Our Scottish coach Mac would yell at us in a half slur. “Camon’ yer lit’l fatties, run!” And we ran, we ran our lit’l hearts out. I mean, we weren’t good. We lost every game but one, which ended in a tie.

Like Mac, when Mustache was coaching, everyone took on a shut up and work mentality. Mustache didn’t slur like Mac but, then again, Mustache was sober, at least most of the time. Instead, he would bark orders in a deep baritone voice. (I think he is a quarter Hungarian.) Either way, in both situations my team pulled together and forged bonds over the flames of misery.

You see, good team leadership is composed of a lot of different ingredients in just the right quantities. Mustache, like a good salad, had all sorts of stuff for us to feed on. His vast experience was the foundation, like crisp red leaf lettuce. He had this colorful way of making fun of us when we were being too hard on ourselves, like bright flecks of shredded carrots tossed in here and there. If someone was being a pain in his ass, he would alienate them just enough to get his message across and then move on with practice. Like the eye-watering sting of crunching down on an onion. And then, when we were sucking wind in the final points of a game, totally void of energy, he would hit us with these amazing little stories that filled that void. At those moments he was like a big chunk of cheddar cheese, a hard boiled egg or a grilled chicken cutlet. He was that thing that makes a salad a meal.

I could go on and on about the plethora of skills Mustache possessed. The point is that ultimate teams need to be nourished by their leadership. In my experience, though, many ultimate teams elect the best players to leadership positions. The best players may not have the best ingredients to make a salad, if you know what I mean. The result is that their teammates are stuck staring at a plate of lettuce, thinking “what am I supposed to get out of this?”

For me and my team, like so many others, problems arose when we were left to our own devices. Mustache was an adult and had a life; he wouldn’t always be able to make it to practice. We were adults too, for that matter, at least physically anyway, so we should have been able to prepare a salad of leadership to snack on for a day or two here and there. The menu, however, was bleak. Our captain tried to imitate Mustache’s salad, but when he put the plate in front of us, all that was in his salad was some lettuce and an onion. Trying to survive on only lettuce and onions is a recipe for disaster.

A Welcomed Force Feeding

Allow me to elaborate. In 2012 at Canadian Nationals (I earned my spot to this prestigious event by learning the difference between a single and double knot in an intense cleat-lacing practice) our team was not doing well, even by great white north standards. The previous year we had played in the ninals but, this year, after regionals (there are no sectionals in Canada) we were seeded 12th.

Spoiler Alert! We ended up playing our way into the 14th place game and easily lost. Mustache was trying to win the mixed division so, for the most part, we dined on lettuce and onions all week. Like banana deprived monkeys caged in a zoo we started beating up on each other. We all took part in a variety of team destruction exercises like arguing, complaining about each other’s cuts, and vocalizing our distaste for the captain’s line selections.

On the second day, near the end of pool play, we had a blow-out game against the #2 seed. It was one of those games where we played a lot of zone offense despite a total lack of wind (that’ll happen when the other team just knows you’ll turn it over eventually). You know, a game when your opponents start joking with you on the sidelines about how bad you are. Sometimes they even give you some coaching advice here and there. Anyway, at that point in the tournament, I was getting pretty tired of lettuce. To say I was craving a bowl of Mustache salad would be an understatement.

(If you haven’t read any of my other writings or played with me, I’ll warn you right now: I have a lot of onion in me. I like to think of myself as a sweet onion–a nice, versatile onion, that isn’t too intense–but I suspect, if asked, others would say I am more like a shallot. For those of you with culinary disabilities, a shallot is a very small garlic-like onion which, when consumed or chopped, overpowers your consciousness with the pungent odor and taste of an onion the size of a Buick. So, I got that going for me.)

In the middle of that blowout game I ended up losing my cool. When I finally popped, I asked the captain to, metaphorically, take the rebar from his Goalti kit and put it in his Pontiac Sunfire. He deserved it. Well, maybe he didn’t. But it sure felt like he did at the time. I stormed off the field, ripped off my jersey and went to my car. Everyone just looked at me as I packed up my gear and marched away in a five foot six inch, red bearded tornado of self destruction.

After an hour of rotting in my own deranged world I changed into street clothes and made my way to the beer garden for a nice refreshing sulk. About 45 seconds after I sat down, Mustache, fresh off another win, spotted me. I could see my team from the grandstand— let’s be honest, bleachers—and the guys were warming up for the last game of the day. “Another shellacking.” I thought to myself. This time from the #9 seed.

“What’s up?” Mustache said to me.

“Nothing.” I replied, like an arrogant little shit.

“No, why aren’t you suited up and on the field?” Such a coach; he said it like I was missing the gold medal game.

I sat there like a toddler, staring at the big hearty salad he was about to force-feed me.  “I quit,” I told him. “I can’t take this crap anymore.” He looked at me like I was an idiot—I was—and motioned me to come down and take a walk with him.

As we walked, he took a moment to load up a fork with every veggie he had cultivated over the years. A few minutes later Mustache had the team captain and me, figuratively, by the scruff of our necks. “You guys need to cut this shit out,” he said. “You are both right and both wrong. You are also both good players and YOUR team needs you.”

His emphasis on your was pretty clear to me. We (the captain and I) had been fed, and reluctantly engaged in a nerdy fist bump before walking back to our team’s sideline. There was animosity, but we went on to win that game and it was the only time our team broke seed all week.

Building Anew

Looking back, I can see why I quit. I was malnourished. (Now, I’m not justifying my quitting, after all no one else flipped out and left. I’ve always had a flare for drama, and maybe I’m not cut out for team sports. But hey, what can you do but learn from your mistakes?)

I do know this: if Mustache was on the sideline I would have never made it as far as pulling my jersey off. But he wasn’t there to tell me to chill out and park my ass on a bench after I went to psycho-town. (Lucky for me, he was lurking in the grass, and eventually solved the problem.)

In the end, ultimate is not a coached sport, not in the traditional sense of the word. I don’t think it ever has been and I can’t imagine it ever will be, at least not entirely. But that doesn’t mean we have to try to sustain ourselves on plates of lettuce in lieu of a well-rounded leadership salad.

Mustache was a commanding coach and leader, but not every team has the opportunity to be coached by such an individual. For those teams without a born leader, they need to find another way to construct a team of leaders who, together, possess all the traits needed to lead. They need to make a leadership salad.

Some teams will have to grow their own veggies from the earth before they can make their salad of leadership. But it seems to me that, all too often, teams don’t even try–they just grab a handful of twigs they find growing in their backyard, plop it in a bowl and call it a hearty meal. Hogwash!

If you pick the right people, regardless of ultimate experience, you can grow your own vegetables and make a great leadership salad. It won’t happen overnight–it takes work to develop the skills to be an effective coach or captain. It will take time, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Be Your Future, Make It.

Start by selecting 3-4 people who all have parts of the coaching puzzle. Use each person’s strength to enhance your team’s salad and, in the event that a skill is missing, you must take the time to develop and cultivate that skill, just like growing vegetables in your garden.

Allow leaders to have roles, much like players have roles. I’ve taken the liberty of dissecting a salad because I’m really having fun with the metaphor:

  • If someone is a great strategist, have them build the system (like the lettuce provides the base of a salad).
  • Someone else may be an exceptional public speaker, coach, or storyteller; have them run drills. (like tomatoes: not everyone likes drills, but they are good for you.)
  • Others may want to boost their frequent flyer miles by booking the hotels and doing tournament logistics (these people are like sunflower seeds or pine nuts: they are little gems of goodness that make you feel fancy).
  • Every team has that one person who just wants to have fun all the time–you know the type, they are everyone’s friend and they facilitate shenanigans like bringing water balloons to drop off the roof of the hotel. (leaders like this are like red peppers: colorful and crispy, they brighten up a bowl of greens quite nicely.)
  • Don’t forget the team yelling-machines who pump everyone up sometimes, bring everyone down other times, make questionable travel calls but run and work so hard they throw up and then get right back to it. You guessed it–those people are the onions. Some people don’t like onions, but you gotta have them in there.

Bon appétit.

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