One of the biggest challenges for a college coach is teaching brand new players the game while integrating them with a veteran player base. Veterans often groan through the beginning of the fall because they have to go through basic training once again. Rookies struggle with the sheer amount of information that they have to learn when even building their throwing mechanics for a 10 yard flick seems out of reach. Teach them the dump scheme? Well, what about their lack of defensive awareness? Teach them how to cut? Oh man, no, they are clogging! Now the veterans are frustrated, the rookies are clueless, and the coach is searching for answers.
The best way to handle this?
A principled framework and the patience to attack problems one by one.
First, I preach a principled framework because we want to get started fast. I don’t want to teach details, but I want to get across important principles the first day so that the rookies can scrimmage. When I say important principles, I mean establishing a minimal framework that lets the brand new players step on the field and avoid the biggest complaint from veterans: clogging.
The most prevalent offense that is taught for young programs right off the bat is vert stack. There is nothing wrong with vert, but I suspect the reason it is taught is because of its simplicity. It has rules and lets teams start scrimmaging quickly. People say that the vertical stack offense is the most important to learn, but I disagree. I think it hampers early creativity and can stunt growth when taught strictly. I have heard numerous college captains say that you have to learn vert first before learning ho, side, etc. I didn’t teach vert stack at Geneseo in the fall, and we improved throughout the year just fine. The only contradiction here is, if your primary offense is vert, you should be teaching vert first.
When teaching the first vertical stack offense, many coaches deal in absolutes: cuts come from the back, you clear to the middle of the stack, and stay out of the way. Now the veterans can scrimmage without any strife!
Or, we can spend day one on the principle of “Always be creating, preserving or attacking space”.
Creating space? Clear hard, sprint to these specific areas and look to rejoin the play.
Preserving space? Be actively looking for others to see if they have a better play at the disc.
Attacking space? Cut, move, and get the disc.
What happens when they clog? We don’t shout “no clogging”, we shout clear, and then tell them where to move and practice it. When they cut off someone else, we point out that someone else may have had a better option. We also point out the positives:”Great clear!” Yes, on day one, I get legitimately excited about rookies that clear well and hard.
But they didn’t fake while cutting! They were out of position on defense! they dropped the disc!
Here’s where patience and one concept at a time comes into play. Rookies can not be expected to play perfect on day one, or even day 50. Every day is about maximizing their ability to play better. If you do that for the 60 practices you have within a year, your team will be the best that it can be. You can’t teach everything at once, some things are going to fall by the wayside. The most common error is to run a drill where you focus on both offense and defense early on in the season.
One thing at a time means accepting that there will be lots of other things that the rookies don’t know. But, by teaching your principles, a minimal framework, you can start building on a base.
Day one and day two also include going over the dump scheme, and so will days three, four, five, and so on forever. The dump scheme is something that I’m still working on applying a principled approach to, but I find that because of the nature of the small cuts it’s important to teach good fundamentals in this area as soon as possible. By teaching a basic offensive scheme and the dump set, we can operate an offense, reset the disc, or at least practice doing it the right way.
When we practice our dump cuts on day one and day two, the defense is often lacking. Do we harp on that? Only if they aren’t giving effort. Players will start to pick up positioning and other defensive elements by talking with or watching veterans. On a person by person basis they’ll pick elements of stopping the force side first, proper stance etc. It doesn’t have to be an explicit topic; it happens on it’s own without focus from the coach. Regardless of how fast or slow they pick up on defensive fundamentals, I ignore how bad our defense is playing.
Why? We can only get better at one concept at a time. We can’t fix our dump defense if our dump set isn’t working right. We can’t work on our trap marks if the dump throwers can’t complete the basic throws. We have to step up slowly by developing a minimum competency in one area before progressing to the next. This is why working on facets one by one is so important.
So by the end of day one or day two, we have rookies who can’t throw well, can’t cut well, can’t play defense well, but they can operate an offense. Now pick the thing that will benefit your team the most. I follow Tiina Booth’s philosophy that defense catches up to offense. My teams spend the first several weeks on throwing and dumps. After that, we can start to install more facets of our offense, and once our offense starts to dominate we can focus more on the defensive side. I’ve found that my first defensive-oriented practices take place in November, with an exception for zone defense. I introduce that earlier to allow for chemistry development.
By the time we hit our first scrimmages, I see drops, bad cuts, and defense that would make me tear my hair out in the spring time. But I see also see rookies ad lib and start to learn the game. Not only am I patient, I’m also not yelling about mistakes, I’m praising effort, and I’m over the top excited when a rookie clears correctly, letting a veteran get a 20 yard under.