Saturday, September 13, 2014


Effective leadership is the cornerstone of any quality Ultimate team. Behind every good team and program is a core of solid leadership: coaches, captains and veteran players.

There are many qualities that go into making a good leader, but I'm going to focus this blog entry on college-based Ultimate leadership principles. However, these principles do overlap into the rest of the Ultimate scene and real world.

Lead by Example

This may seem obvious and perhaps even cliche, but this is the most important principle of leadership in any situation. A team takes on the personality of its leadership. Every follow-up principle will inevitably connect back to this point, which I cannot emphasize enough. 

Leading by example is by no means limited to on the field.  As a leader on the team you set the practice tone, the workout tone, the mentality of a classroom session and so on.

On a college team especially, you have to demonstrate the value of the team and the value of the spots on that team to new and returning players (aka Why the heck do I want to pay money and give a significant amount of my time to play this sport?). For more established, consistently elite programs, this is task is easier. The history and infrastructure of success is there. New players to the program can take a look at your nationals appearances, your Callahan winners or just the reputation of the program and the reasons to try-out and play are obvious. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this an easy task for elite-level programs, but through excellent leadership, these programs have established the infrastructure where the value of the team is a foregone conclusion. Newer or less-established programs need to build towards that inherent team-value by cultivating good leadership principles, which in-turn lead to success.

Regardless of the level of your Ultimate program, leadership-by-example is going to make or break your team. For captains (leaders on the field), you need to be the first ones to practice; the first ones with their cleats on and throwing. Your captains need participate fully in warm-ups and work hard in drills; your captains need to be the guys that set the tone for the level of intensity both at practice and in a tournament. 

The first couple years of college are still a hugely impressionable time for young people. If the culture of hard work, punctuality and intensity is what they're first exposed to at a practice or tournament, then they are significantly more likely to adopt those principles into their own personalities and on-the-field play. Even experienced players who are new to a program (grad students for example), will cue the way they approach a team from the leadership. 

Additionally, the value of a team is more effectively communicated through actions rather than words. If, as a new player, I see a someone who has been established as a leader on a team, busting his or her butt on the field, getting to practice early, etc, the value of the team is assumed because of the value implicit in the actions of that person.  

It's been an interesting shift in last several years as high school Ultimate has exploded and more and more players are entering college with significant Ultimate experience and skill. A lot of their Ultimate persona has already been established, versus someone who is entirely new to the sport. However, even those with high-school experience are still impressionable teenagers, and the tone set by leadership early on will still affect them significantly. 

Conversely, if your leadership shows up late, half-asses their warm-ups and runs through drills at 50%, new players are left to discover their own reasons to play. For some people, their competitive spirit or love for the game may override that poor mentality. But for many new players, they will exhibit the same behaviors (not a good formula for success) or decide that something that isn't valued by current players and leaders won't be worth the time/money investment that playing Ultimate entails. 


Like I mentioned above, all of these principles will key back to leading by example and how that relates to the value placed onto a team by members of that team. Organization is a principle more directed towards logistics, which usually is a coach's responsibility. 

At the beginning of a season, a team's season-long goals need to be set. These are going to vary from team to team, but the overall goal(s) of the season needs to be clear to every member of the team from the get-go. Is our goal winning nationals? Making nationals? Top 5 at regionals? Etc. These goals don't have to necessarily just be tangible results-based goals either, they could also be related to team attitude and mentality throughout the season. 

Once these goals are clear and established, how these goals are going to be achieved is the next step. You can't simply tell your team "We're going to make nationals" in August and expect them to stay motivated and work hard until May. Goals need to further broken down into manageable time-frames to keep players motivated for an entire season. 

For many teams this will start with a tryout process. Players see that end-all goal and the first step for them is making the team. For several weeks they will be working hard for a spot on the team; motivation is easy, they have a clear tangible goal right in front of them. 

After tryouts conclude and roster is established, fall versus spring season goals should be made. Maybe the plan is a couple split-squad tournaments in the fall to get everyone lots of reps and then all-in at a big late season tournament like MLC. This will then prepare the team for a high level of competition heading into the first regular season tournament in the spring and onward.

Once those goals are set break it down even further. What are we doing week to week? How do we get players the reps they need at practice to prepare for those tournaments?  What are we going to work on this week specifically, marking? Defensive footwork? Fitness?

Once your week to week goals are set break it down further. What are we doing at this specific practice? What is the goal to have achieved by the end of practice? 

And finally, one last breakdown: drill to drill and into scrimmages, what are we trying to achieve with this drill? What is the focus for our scrimmage today?

It might seem nit-picky to break things down this extensively, but players need constant  reminders as to what they're working for and how they're going to get there. A drill is more effective when they participants know why they're doing it. A practice is more effective when players know what that practice is building towards. A fall-season makes more sense to a player who knows the purpose of all the hard-work is try and win a big tournament at the end. Organization like this keeps the team motivated to work hard day in and out. Everything should be building towards those final end of the season goal(s) starting with the first warm-up at the first practice. 

While it might seem daunting to keep a team motivated for an entire season, it's a fairly simple process. Organization starts at practice. Coaches need to plan their practices beforehand. Everyone does this a bit differently and nothing has to be 100% set in stone, but there must be obvious organization and thought put into what's happening on the practice field. 

Does the warm-up flow into drills? Are drills set up in advance so the downtime is minimized? Do the drills effectively run together and unify a common practice theme? Good clear organization of practice is a cornerstone of a good team. With established, focused, goal-driven practices in place, expanding to week to week goals beyond is simple because it's following the same simple organizational structure: What are we trying to achieve, and how are going about that? 

Again, I do have to emphasize that these goals do not have to be results-based. Heck, they could be as simple still having 14 at practice by April, but regardless of what goals are set the process in achieving those goals should clear and organized.  

Talk Less

Yes, I realize I just spend several paragraphs on goals and how all of these goals need to be frequently communicated, but keeping those talks short and succinct is very important. 

Droning on at players on the practice field or in the huddle at a tournament is not beneficial for improvement, as most of what you say will be lost. Make your point, make it clear and let that be the end of it. 

Here is an example of how I approach teaching a new drill.

1) Explain how the drill works: "You cut here, you line up here, you rotate here, etc." 
2) Explain the focus: "The goal is to work on around-breakmark throws. With an emphasis on stepping through your mark."
3) Run the drill.

Keep things simple. If there is confusion on rotations or something then clarify, but leave that one singular focus (in the example above, around-breaks), for players to key-in on. Once you start saturating that focus with more talk, they're less likely to keep it in the forefront of their minds and the value of the drill lessens.

The time for lengthy talk is classroom and chalk-talk specific practices. That's when you outline more elaborate concepts. Not when it's following or going to be followed by hard running. Use these practices wisely, so that when players do get to the practice field or tournament field they can focus on their play. 

Another situation where leaders need to say less is during in-game huddles. So many new coaches and captains (myself included) get into those huddles and just have 10 different things to say about what's going on. This is NOT helpful. Make either one specific point or none at all. People have just been running hard, their hearts are pounding, they can't process five different things. Too much talk will saturate the message. 

Make sure who is speaking in a huddle is also clearly defined. Four people chiming in with something is just as bad as one person saying four things. It doesn't mean people don't have good observations or comments, it simply is that people cannot effectively process that many different things in that situation. If someone wants to bring up a point have them talk to leadership individually and then the captains can bring it up in the next huddle.

Also, give your players a benefit of the doubt. They're not dumb, they know what's going on, they don't need you or five other people pointing out every single thing that's happening; keep the message simple. 

The time to have longer talks is at the end of the game, where players are able to mentally and physically cool down. A time when they won't be immediately following the huddle with more intense physical activity. Then they will actually be more able to process and think about things being said.

It's Not All On Your Shoulders

This idea is a concept I've struggled with the most in my leadership career, and it's very straightforward: When things go bad it's not all on your shoulders. There is only so much you can do from a leadership standpoint. You have to trust that work you've put in and the things you've done are pushing your team in the right direction. When you endure a tough loss or a stretch of bad play it's not purely a reflection on you as a leader. Bob didn't drop the disc because you taught him poorly, Bob dropped the disc because sometimes people drop the disc. Frank didn't get beat force-side for the game winner because you failed to drill the proper footwork, he got beat because he was covering a good cutter.

Certainly, leadership can be improved, but every little thing can not weigh you down. Maintain your confidence on the field (for captains) and off the field (for coaches). Don't dwell on bad things that have happened and what you could or should have done prior, focus on what's going to help your team out the most at the moment and what can be done in the future. Accountability is very good quality to have, but a leader is not 100% accountable for everything his team does. 

This is especially important for captains, because you cannot allow other's mistakes to affect your play. Staying mentally tough is one of the most challenging things in Ultimate, and approaching mistakes and improvement with a "What can be done?" rather than "What should have been done?" attitude will help you stay strong when things aren't going your way. 

Leadership, on the whole is not a simple matter. Everyone will approach it differently, but having worked in a leadership role in Ultimate for 10+ years and as a leader in my full-time job (business management), I've found a lot of the things I've outlined above to be extremely good tactics for getting positive results. 

As always I love comments, questions or differing opinions. 

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