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40 Lessons I Learned (And Didn’t) In My Coaching Career So Far

by in Opinion with 52 Comments

Tiina Booth's Garage.Below are three lists of what I learned, and didn’t learn, as a coach at Amherst Regional High School in the past 23 years. Brent Anderson, our assistant coach for the last six years, contributed to these lists, which is not to slight the other assistant coaches (Woody Clift, Jeff Yu) before him.

Please keep in mind that our high school season is a short nine weeks, with a week of vacation, as we have to follow the parameters of our state athletic association as a varsity sport. Very compressed, very intense season every year, with five 3-hour practices most weeks.

Lessons I Learned

1. Look for the athlete who can learn throws in tryouts, rather than the thrower who did not train all winter.

2. Teach offense before defense.

3. There is a difference between sick and injured. If you are sick, go home. If you are injured, contribute to practice in any way you can.

4. Drill catching at every practice.

5. Drill the reset at almost every practice.

6. Make drills creative and challenging. Set the bar high every day and expect your team to surpass it.

7. If your team is doing a drill half-heartedly, stop immediately. If you continue, all you are doing is creating mediocre muscle memory.

8. Say 0 or 1 things in a huddle.

9. Call a time out, if needed, after your team has scored, not when the other team has.

10. After a game, whether won or lost, do a quick debrief and move on. Leave everything behind and get read for the next task.

11. Being up-to-date on pop culture, as tawdry as it is, makes long road trips more fun.

12. The parents and community members who put on the Amherst Invitational and the Paideia Cup run the best tournaments. USA Ultimate is a close second.

13. Adriana, Don, and VC Ultimate are the nicest and most loyal sponsors we could ever hope for. They have been with us since 1990.

14. The best crossover sports for ultimate are soccer, football, basketball and hockey. The worst are cross-country and cross-country.

15. Having a supportive athletic director and principal makes all the difference in the world.

16. Confidence over swagger every time.

17. I prefer to coach a game that is either observed or reffed.

18. Many alums think that the players that came before them were amazing and that the players who come after are terrible. Neither is true.

19. Dr. Alan Goldberg is the man.

20. Keep reading and learning about other coaches and their philosophies. There is no need to reinvent the wheel just because we play with a disc.

Lessons I Learned Over and Over

21. The best way to teach your team about losing is to lose. Losing is just delayed success.

22. Having a group of friends on a team is both good and bad.

23. With very rare exceptions, your seniors will be finished with the season, and its responsibilities, before they should be.

24. Players have no idea how hard their parents work to support the team.

25. What a player needs, and can contribute, changes on a daily basis. The same goes in a classroom.

26. If you have a motivated team with great leaders, you can sit back and watch them perform, and only lightly hold the reins.

27. If you have a different type of team, you sometimes have to carry them on your back, throughout the entire season

28. All types of teams are fine; that is the challenge of coaching.

29. I hate paperwork.

30. I hate fundraising.

Lessons I Never Learned

31. How to teach players to pop in zone offense. The best I can do is say, “Watch so-and-so.”

32. How to teach field sense. One time I took a senior on varsity with no playing experience just because he stopped his cut when he saw a teammate needing the space to score.

33. How to teach downfield defense. That’s why I have assistant coaches.

34. How to give pump-up speeches. That’s why I have assistant coaches.

35. How to demonstrate what I want players to do, (unless it is how to putt in disc golf.) That’s why…

36. And while I am able to coach alone, it is not nearly as much fun.

37. I still get nervous when I have to talk to a parent about playing time or any other player issue.

38. I know that getting cut is much worse than cutting players, but I still feel terrible about it. I did not start coaching to tell teenagers that they cannot spend their spring playing ultimate.

39. Being lied to makes me not sleep at night.

40. I have a difficult time being happy with the state of youth ultimate in 2014, or in any year. I can always see more to do. I have to realize that I should not, and do not want to, be the one to do it.

Tagged , , ,

About Tiina Booth

Tiina is an Ultiworld columnist. She retired from teaching English at Amherst Regional High School 4 years ago and retired from coaching their varsity boys team this past September. She still runs the National Ultimate Training Camp and offers clinics on coaching, training and sports psychology to teams of all levels. She is a co-author of Essential Ultimate and one of the founders of the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference. She plans on returning to coaching by the fall of 2014.

View all posts by Tiina Booth →

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  • Zack Smith

    This is incredible, thank you for this.

    Also, #14 is awesome.

  • Guest

    This is an absolutely great and true list.

  • CC–>ULTI

    As an ex-cross country runner in a relationship with ultimate for the past 7 years, I get #14. I really do, but it still makes me cringe. We can develop more fast-twitch muscles, I swear.

    • Jon

      So agree with you.

    • Charles

      My problem with ex-CC runners was always field sense, not speed. You can develop speed over a season (or more), field sense not so much.

      • Full Field Hammer

        Also body control. Having no object – a ball – to work with during the course of their development makes it very hard for them to make a physical action focused on an object while also moving and maintaining balance.

  • Warren Meech Wells

    Great piece as always, Tiina. #31 makes me feel better about myself.

  • Bill Bourret

    “9. Call a time out, if needed, after your team has scored, not when the other team has.”

    Can you elaborate on this? Wonderful piece, by the way.

    • Miller

      I’ve been a fan of the TO after we score. Personally, I’ve felt that your O line should be able to stop the bleeding on its own, without a TO, then use the break between points to focus the D line on what they need to do to get the team back in the game.

      Tiina may have a different rationale, and I’d be interested to hear it as well.

      • tiinabooth

        First of all, I never want the other team to be energized by anything we do, and calling a timeout after they score often does that. We don’t run O and D lines and, even though we are pulling, I most likely will talk about ONE thing that we need to improve on O, based on what I just saw. But many times I call a timeout because the offense is frantic and it needs to calm down.

        • Bill Bourret

          Gotcha. Is there a reason why you don’t run O and D lines?

          • tiinabooth

            They just never seemed to work for us. The top players were usually the best on O and D and we needed them to play both ways. I am not sure you need that kind of specialization on the youth level, or maybe other levels too. I would rather see each player try to improve on both sides of the disc.

          • Bill Bourret


  • Ariel Jackson

    Awesome article.

    Regarding #14, any thoughts on tennis? I’ve seen a few tennis players become really good ultimate players and it makes sense to me. The shared similarities in swing/throwing mechanics and especially the similarities in proper footwork and running styles (shuffling, sprinting, etc.)

    • neeley

      I think tennis is one of the absolute best crossover sports for the reasons you listed. Brodie, Kurt, and Mac Taylor are a few examples of the link.

      • tiinabooth

        Tennis is an excellent crossover sport, but we had few players quit tennis in order to play ultimate, at least not until they got to college. Tennis, lacrosse and baseball are spring sports at our school and those athletes tend to be loyal and their coaches are fiercely protective.

        • Maxi

          Tennis is played with a rather stiff and passive wrist (more or less) whereas in ultimate you need a maximum of flexibility.
          Although the swing/throwing mechanics in tennis are very close to ultimate they shouldn’t be transferred one to one.

          For that reason I think badminton (it’s a 100% wrist sport so to speak) is even better as a crossover sport than tennis (still pretty good though of course).
          But to be honest who playes badminton these days?

          • Ariel Jackson

            I don’t actually know much about tennis (other than occasionally watching a match on TV), but based on your description of “passive wrist” I think I disagree with your statement.

            I don’t want to hijack a great discussion thread, so I won’t go into a ton of detail, but I think that “wrist snap” is severely overemphasized to the detriment of other proper flick mechanics. I realize I am in the (extreme?) minority on this one.

        • Full Field Hammer

          Definitely a fan of tennis. Easy translation of the throwing motions and great lateral movement for downfield defense and marking. Good short burst speed.

    • Jesse Alien

      Many of my teammates and I regularly play racquetball and a game we call disketball. I think it really helps with quicker reactions and being able to start and stop suddenly.

    • Terry Plotkin

      I play tennis and ultimate. the biggest problem i have from going from one sport to the other is in tennis you have to keep your head down until you have finished the stroke. In ultimate as soon as you catch it your head is up. I have missed many a tennis shot because i lifted my head to soon. So it messed up my tennis game more than my ultimate game.

  • Warren Tang

    Love #8. So true and yet so difficult. Wondering if you’d care to share some of your favourite examples of #6 – creative & challenging drills?

    • tiinabooth

      I will certainly write a column on this in the next month or so.

      • Victor Rehorst

        Looking forward to that!

      • Anon

        Agree, yes please!

  • stpollock

    #36. Wouldn’t be anywhere without my co-coach.

  • Michael Dussault

    5. Drill the reset at almost every practice.

    What do you mean by the reset? Is it a stopped disc situation?

    • tiinabooth

      We drill it as stopped on either sideline. The reset is how your team decides to get it off that sideline.

  • #15 DragN

    #13 could be said again and again! Thanks for supporting DragN’ Thrust! VC you are the best!

  • yayultimate

    #12….very true. WE LOVE YOU PAIDEIA PARENTS! <3

  • Nick

    #2 I don’t think so! I know I have no experience compare to you but I sucked at o until I learned d because I didn’t get it, if you know d then you know o. Such as a defender has to know how to shut his/her guy down by doing this you already know some of the strengths and weaknesses of an o player. Also I loved playing against your team they were always fun especially last years paideia cup finals!

    • Nick

      Oh I forgot to ask why would you say that learning o first is better?

      • AaronGStock

        My guess is 2 reasons: 1) If your offense scores on every offensive point, and your defense is scored on after each pull, the worst thing that happens is you lose by one. So, be good on offense. 2) If your defense is doing its job, or even if their offense isn’t, your defense is going to become the offense. So, be better on offense.

        • Nick

          But why would you teach o before d? Knowing d is knowing o because you know the strengths and weaknesses of a defender which will help you make better cuts and just have a better field awareness. It took me over a year to learn defense and I still have a ways to go but now offense is so easy because I know what a good defender is.

          • Rob

            I would imagine her high school players are new to ultimate. Teaching lockdown D is going to lead to scrimmages where no one can complete a pass

          • tiinabooth

            Most of my players came through our “system:” day camp, summer league, middle school intramurals, middle school travel team, high school rec leage, NUTC, pick-up with college and club players, JVA/JVB. By the time I get them, most have been playing for 5+ years. I almost never have to teach someone a forehand by the time they are on varsity. I am lucky.
            The reason I wrote #2 is because I have done it both ways. I have opened up the season with an intense focus on defense and when we got to games, we had serious difficulty running a coherent offense. I think I may have even tried it more than once because sometimes I am a slow learner. Even though my players were very skilled, we still had not spent enough time on team offense. We were getting plenty of turns but then we would give it right back. And we only have 8 real weeks of competition, so time cannot be wasted.
            And I agree with everything Andrew said, particularly #3.

          • Nick

            Ok that does make sence because of how short the season is. If you had the time and it was easier to teach would you start with defense?

      • Andrew Hollingworth

        I tend to agree with Tiina (no surprise there). Here are my reasons (in the order they occurred to me, not necessarily in order of importance):
        1) A team that executes offensively is going to win more than a team that can produce defensively (even if you’re getting 5 blocks a game, if you can’t score off those blocks, you won’t win). In ultimate, the team that turns it over less is going to win, end of story (unless neither team turns it over, in which case, if you pulled to start, bad luck).
        2) Being a good defender requires an understanding of what the offense is trying to do. Knowing what the goals of the offense are, and more specifically where an offender wants to attack, allows the defense to be more proactive instead of reactive, which enables the defense to exert pressure on the offense, instead of the other way around.
        3) For me, teaching defense is more difficult than teaching offense. Offense is more structured and more predictable. You can teach the rules of your offense, cutting mechanics, and when learning to be an offender, you are in control of the cuts you make. While you can teach rules of thumb for defense and defensive mechanics, defense is largely reactive to what the offense does (I know that this may seem slightly contradictory to what I mentioned above, but understanding the offense and being able to predict where a cutter is likely to go is what allows you to be more proactive; sometimes, you will be wrong, and a good defender is able to be flexible). Certainly, you can provide structure in drills to practice footwork and specific scenarios, but ultimately in-game defense is it’s own beast and probably the most difficult part of ultimate.

        All that said, certainly learning about both offense and defense is circular, and better understanding one will help you with the other. That said, I think the structured and controlled nature of learning offense, make it easier at first and provides a strong base for teaching defense.

        • Nick

          I see what you’re saying in 3. I’m not a coach I’m just a high schooler. I guess I don’t know how easy or hard it would be to teach it knowing that I learned d with almost no help I do watch a lot of ultimate and I always watch a defender when his guy gets the disc to see what he did wrong which usually the defender will turn his/her hips or they look away from the offensive player. So when I’m on offense I try to turn the defenders hips, at a higher level it doesn’t happen often but if they turn to look at the disc I go. So those are ways I have improved on offense. Now there’s so many things I look for. So I’ll say I guess I can understand that but I think coaches should still try it’ll make offense so much easier to teach.

  • Harper Alexander

    Hey Tiina, really enjoyed this and hope you’re doing well. I was just thinking about our ’98 Junior Worlds team yesterday, in fact.
    All my best,

  • Reb Ezra Weinberg

    what struck me was the preamble of the ultra compressed 9 week spring season. That may have been the official state guidelines, but building and maintaining a culture of ultimate is a year round activity. Had you been paid by the hour for what you had to do…….

  • http://understandingultimate.wordpress.com/ Benji Heywood

    Hi Tiina – great list! Love the point about stopping drills that aren’t engaging the players – it’s so tempting to just keep forcing through, but there’s always a better way. I need to remember that one sometimes.

    It would be great if you could expand #2 (possibly in another article?). I always used to teach offence first (not least because I’m better at it), and would continue to do so if my team were all beginners together. But when integrating beginners to a college team with a few years’ experience already, I’ve recently found that starting with defence enables those new people to contribute and feel part of the team much more quickly. Obviously we work on throwing skills and other offensive pieces, but much of the in-game focus is on defence so that they can play a part more quickly.

    What are your thoughts on teaching offence or defence first depending on the make-up of the group?

    • tiinabooth

      I can certainly see doing this with a team of beginners, but I think the satisfaction of completing a goal will do more to get them hooked. It is the rare novice who becomes excited because they just forced a throw to the correct side.

      • http://understandingultimate.wordpress.com/ Benji Heywood

        Yeah – I agree with that. Thinking about it, our beginner sessions are all offence-focussed, but for those beginners who also come along to the ’1st team’ sessions we tend to focus on D so that they can be involved competitively as fast as possible. It’s great when they throw goals against other beginners, but when stepping into a game above their level a focus on offence can be pretty intimidating – they just can’t throw well enough against good defenders. I guess it varies in different situations.

        • Gwen Ambler

          When coaching at Stanford, we would always start out teaching offense first in the fall (which had a lot of new recruits to the sport). This approach was also about building confidence. It was easier for new players to find offensive successes when they were first playing against players who hadn’t been taught any ultimate-specific defensive fundamentals.

          When we add teaching defense into the mix, instantly, the offense takes a huge hit, but the players have enough offensive skills to challenge the D and help reinforce the need for good defensive footwork.

  • Full Field Hammer

    The challenge of #7 (stopping a half hearted drill) for me is knowing in a situation where we have a stated goal – either a tangible number or just general application of the concept – that we have yet to reach. I don’t want to “give up” but I also don’t want to waste unproductive time.

    In those situations, I’ll usually stop the drill, give us a chance to recharge, and give them a pep talk. In some rare situations, we’ve stopped and gotten a “fitness reward” to motivate them.

    But it is always a delicate balance. That drill was there for a reason: there was something we needed to improve and we are failing to do so.

    • tiinabooth

      Other options are:
      1) Stop the drill and have them discuss among themselves what they need to do to improve. I stay out of it. The more you can build self-reliance early on, the better it will be when you really need it.
      2) Punishments can also work.
      3) My favorite is to end the drill, start something new and maybe, in the middle of games to 3, have them set up again for the drill. They almost always accomplish the original goals, almost always on the first try. You will be amazed.

  • Full Field Hammer

    OH AND #31 FOREVER TIINA! I regularly tell my players how popping is probably the thing I am mentally worst at in all of Ultimate and I have so much trouble instructing how to do. I often go to “watch this person” as well. Agonizing to feel like I can’t help them.

  • Victor Rehorst

    Great list. I’m going to have to get some of these tattooed on the inside of my forearm so I remember them when coaching our local youth league this summer!

  • Rafer Dannenhauer

    As a cross-country runner who played for Tiina, I’d like to offer my opinion on #14. I started playing summer rec Ultimate when I was ten. I went through almost every step of the program that Tiina talks about somewhere here in the comments, with one exception: instead of playing fall intramurals, I ran cross-country. I was a really good runner, and a really bad ultimate player. The problem wasn’t field-sense, or not understanding the flatball, or whatever. I wasn’t quick enough on defense, and guys got open on me at will. That being said, frisbee is an excellent crossover sport for cross-country and track (see #19).

  • Runsalot

    The cross-country comment makes me cringe. Just my experience… I think a runner is one type of athlete that shows up in shape (#1) and isn’t banking on a pick-up game, gym membership, or anything else to get them in shape. It may not teach/reinforce field sense, but it does teach some tough mental lessons and being personally responsible to a team. I trained/ran a half marathon my last year of college, and that determination/fitness helped me make the A squad for the first time. I’m currently 9 states into Run50, and it’s how I stay in shape off-season and keep up with the younguns in club.

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