I’ve learned in the last couple years to start thinking of myself as a coach in addition to a trainer, since I’m now training teams consistently for at least half my work time. And man, coaching is tough, especially coaching kids. I believe we coaches have a responsibility to not only the athletes, but to their parents and the community at large, to emphasize health and wellness instead of focusing solely on win/loss records. But the way we train kids, and the way some tournaments are formatted and executed seems to run counter to one (and sometimes both) the aim of reducing injury and maximizing competition.
My year of S & C with Garfield High School came to an end at Westerns in Corvallis, OR this past weekend. It was my second year working with the boys’ team, and my first with the girls’ – it was amazing to see the growth in both programs! I did my best all year to prepare the kids to compete, and felt really good about where we were leading up to the weekend. But a few questions and concerns arose during the tournament, and I tossed them around with other coaches* during and after the weekend. How many games a day is too many? Why were there low numbers on some teams, and how does that affect the level of play and amount of injuries? If we all know good sideline food is important, why do some teams have it and some don’t?
We all want our team to be ready to compete and ride to the occasion during an important tournament. That work happens, as we all know, throughout the season in practices and workouts. When it comes to high school ultimate players, I prefer to work with them once a week for about an hour – it’s good to be able to focus on movement on a regular basis without taking too much time away from skills and scrimmages. I also had the chance to work with the Ingraham girls’ team this year! My priorities for these sessions are:
Coach athletic prep/ultimate movement technique
I go through a more-or-less standard warm up with them each time where we work on the building blocks of accel/decel/COD before going into running/cutting drills.
Emphasize keeping good form when tired
The drills I do with them always have an endurance component but I require them to maintain their posture/shin angle/arm drive throughout. Many overuse injuries happen because of consistent form breakdowns.
Help cultivate self-awareness
Because I see them each week, I learn their tendencies and can help them with individual cues they can recall when playing/drilling. I also stress the importance of addressing small tweaks and pain right away instead of masking or ignoring it.
Teach them simple self-care techniques
I teach them all how to use a lacrosse ball for self-massage, and give them all a ball to keep in their bag. Other concepts catch on organically after being introduced – a parent told me a story of her son and his friends seeking out a spot for a leg drain at Disneyland trip. :)
This work paid off at Westerns! We had a good warm up the kids knew and they were moving athletically. They didn’t lose their fundamentals when exhausted. They checked in when their ankle/shoulder/quad was starting to feel crappy instead of waiting until something was really strained and it was too late to fix. They would roll on their lax ball and do what I told them (drink water, have the Voodoo band used on them, do a low back release). In short, they were as ready as they could be going into the tourney and we were taking care of them while they were there. But we didn’t end up finishing very well, and despite my best efforts during the event, most of the girls and some of the boys were hurting by the end of the weekend (a few were out completely). Why?
Westerns is a USAU tournament. It’s the boys’ off-season, which means teams either had to start practicing again a couple months ago or come to the tourney underprepared. “There’s not enough time to coach outside of fall and no stipend beyond what DiscNW graciously gives public school coaches,” shared one coach.
For the girls, it’s the end of the season, meaning they had games every week and (for the Seattle girls at least) had three tournaments out of the last four weekends. For the Washingtonians the location is a hike, and many players had end-of-school-year commitments that caused them to show up late Friday night despite all the coaches’ best efforts. One coach said that 7 of her seniors left on Saturday to attend their school prom, leaving the team very under-represented.
Corvallis is hot, and dehydration is a concern – tourney staff did a great job of keeping water jugs filled, but it’s still hard to get some kids to drink water, and several teams didn’t have the money for a shade tent. The fields were pretty hard, which causes a lot of wear-and-tear injuries.
The girls’ teams had four games on Saturday (the Garfield girls had 4 in a row), while the boys’ teams had three (I’m pretty sure that was only because a team dropped out last minute). The rounds were technically shortened to 75 minutes to allow for four games, but almost all the girls’ games were capped, so they played as long or a bit longer that USAU guidelines dictate (6 hours a day).
Garfield’s coach Rusty Brown weighed in on this, saying, “An 18 year old who goes off to college will need to play four games on a day and seven on a weekend. I view it often as poor preparation if I don’t give the graduating seniors some semblance of what that type of stamina is like. But if you are asking if a roster of 14 kids can handle that level of play and truly compete, then no. A program with 18-22 on the roster though is better equipped for it. I’d like to see limitations based on age or roster size rather than blanket determinations if we keep the tournament format for older players. Frankly I think high level tournaments at any age should spread games out over 3-4 days in order to get the best performances out of teams and players.”
USAU’s rules also state “If teams have more than two games per day, an one-hour break between games is recommended.” As two of our games went to universe, our girls’ team had no breaks at all the first day when we played four games.
Our girls’ team had 13 players attending, while other teams barely had the USAU minimum of 12. I stayed with the girls’ team most of the time because our boys’ team had 23 and they could rest players who were hurting.
A coach told me that “lack of numbers and not being in peak season shape hurt us in the crossover game (I played a line of 6 defenders once because I had no option) and definitely killed us in the quarterfinal game.”
Playing games with low numbers is manageable if all of them are high-level athletes, but schools with more trouble recruiting end up having kids at a younger training age trying to keep up with stronger opponents. Underdog teams who match up against tough opponents late in the day (we had Lakeside as our fourth game) tend to not play too hard, knowing the same small number has to play the next day as well. This leads to a not-very-challenging game for one team and more wear-and-tear for another.
The food provided at the tournament was much discussed amongst the coaches. One said, “Our parents provided field food. The tourney food was not at all adequate or enough for teenagers playing that many games a day in that kind of heat. We anticipated this disappointment and planned to have our parents provide field food.” Each team received a food bag for the weekend, but it only contained two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and apples (some of our players have peanut allergies).
Schools with money and/or good parent support have great spreads on the sideline, but other schools have few resources to put in that direction. Many times coaches and parents use their own money to fill in the gaps, or the kids just go hungry.
No tournament or event is perfect and neither is any high school coaching program. But my takeaways from coaching this year (and my experience at this particular tournament) are these:
Coaches have a tough job. There is SO much to teach, and most coaches don’t have the resources they need to feel they can adequately take responsibility for the kids in their care. The kind of training I do with kids is a necessary part of your program, especially if you’re pressed for time and have kids battling injuries. We need to teach kids about self-care and running technique – if you don’t know how to do it, learn how, or enlist someone to do it for you. Not to toot my own horn, but Rusty says, “I’ve lost far fewer kids to prolonged injuries since we brought Ren on as a part of our coaching staff and I would encourage any other program to seek the advice, even in a small capacity, of a trained professional for all of their players.”
Tournament play for high school is problematic in several ways. Most coaches agreed that four games in a day is too many, and often too few players can afford to go/take the time away from school. The disparity in resources between programs means that some have a lot of sideline support/good nutrition and others scrape by. I feel that we need to shorten tourney days in order to make the games played more competitive and keep kids healthier, and I’d love to see some more of the tourney fees (which keep rising, another point I heard from coaches this weekend) go towards leveling the playing field with better field food and shade for hot locations.
I know tournament details have been discussed a lot in this community, but I hope this prompts further discussion, and eventually revision. If you’re interested in reading about other ways to keep young athletes on the field long term, Melissa Witmer wrote a great article you should check out.
If you want a good dynamic warm up for your team, keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming RISE UP RenFitness season, “Building Athleticism.” And if you’d like me to come work with your team, talk to me! :)
*I’ve quoted several different coaches in this article, who for the most part wanted to remain anonymous – providing honest feedback is often at odds with the desire to avoid getting embroiled in ultimate politics. ;)