I was watching some highlights of professional ultimate the other day and it struck me that many of them could have conceivably had a coach at every level throughout their development. A pang of jealousy struck me because I had never been coached in ultimate. And when these young players go on to coach their own teams, they’ll have several ultimate role models to choose from.
Don’t get me wrong, I had captains and older players like Marty Bakko and Dan Rydel, local teammates who did a great job helping me learn how to play, but I’ve never really had a proper coach on the sidelines running practices and calling games. Because I missed out on being coached in my youth, I had to look beyond my ultimate experience to find my role model when I began coaching. The coach who had the biggest impact on my style was my middle school football coach, Dean Ribich.
Create the right culture
Dean was a dedicated coach and a great role model. He was tough and demanded our attention and focus. Coach Dean loved football and he made us love football with his enthusiasm for it. It was easy to tell that he cared about everyone on the team because throughout practice he’d be making small talk with each of us. He wanted to know about our lives and what we liked to do in our free time. He’d make us laugh by being a little crass, and then crack the whip to keep us running. He set up a stern culture but it was fair and we worked hard for him. By the end of the season, we would have run through a brick wall for Coach Dean. He was legendary in our community for his pregame pep talks; we’d sit on our helmets and he’d give us a speech about how we needed to play hard and fast and for each other. He’d tell us how big a game it was based on how many times he had to go to the bathroom that day. We would all try not to giggle. Somehow we were both fired up and relaxed, which is a great combination for successful effort.
Lessons learned: The spirit and the culture he created was right on the money. He kept us moving and having fun, challenging us to work hard towards a common goal. Coach Dean made sure we knew that he cared about us, and we worked to show that we cared too with our play. Do those things and remember that culture is just the the behavior we tolerate. If it’s not helping the team, consider changing that behavior. Don’t forget to have a little fun!
Identify the right roles for each player
What set our football team apart from our rivals was that we all individually knew our role and did our best to play it well. Coach Dean spent time with each player talking about their role and helping us realize how important we were. I was the backup quarterback on the team. I knew what my role was and continued to stay focused even if I wasn’t getting the ball very often. If the starting quarterback complained about a call or a teammate, Coach Dean put me out on the field immediately. My role was to be close to the coach and make sure I was ready to head in if there was a problem.
Lessons learned: In ultimate, most teams have trouble getting adequate playing time for more than three lines. If you’re going to have more than 21 people on a college or club team, you’d better make sure that they know what their role is. Youth teams (which often have players who have to play nearly every point) should consider having even fewer total people. Consider having a line that plays just a few points but has very specific goals (i.e. forcing a lot of passes with Zone while giving the starters time to rest for example).
Find your team’s strength
Coach Dean did something that I was constantly puzzled by at first. We had a playbook of 15-20 different plays we could run, yet we still started each game with a dive up the middle. We’d routinely get 4-5 yards or more on that play. Then we’d run it again — and we’d get 4-5 yards. And then we’d run it again. While the other team was busy expecting the pass and figuring we had to do something different, we ran it right at ‘em. We did this basically until the other team stopped us.
When I asked Coach Dean about it after the third series of this he said, “It’s hard to beat deliberate.” And you know what? That fifth or sixth dive often turned into a long touchdown run. Coach had us go back to the same play even after the other team stopped it. We did this partly because it played to our team’s strengths but also because this play was the most easily executed by our team. We knew it well and the timing was crisp.
Lessons learned: Find what you’re good at and do it until the other team stops it, and then be ready to go back to it because it’s your strength. If you’ve got the tallest and fastest receiver on the field and someone who can throw it to her, take all the shots you can to her. No reason not to right? It’s amazing how often coaches try to make things more complicated than they need to be. Sure, you need to take into account what the defense gives you, but start with trying to do what you’re the best at.
Please share some of the lessons you’ve learned from your coaching role model in the comments.