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The Ultimate Coaches And Players Conference: Thoughts From A First-Time Attendee

The logo for the 2013 Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference.Going into the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to an Ultimate conference before, much less a conference about anything, really. I knew that I wanted to listen to distinguished speakers, become a better player and captain and ultimately improve my understanding of the sport I love. I had surveyed the schedule and drafted a couple of potential personal programs for the day.

If I went to Brent Anderson’s talk at 9:45 then I could get around to Gene Buonaccorsi’s seminar at 1:15. Maybe I’d check out the first half of Tiina Booth’s talk debunking the theory of momentum so I could listen to Jeremy Kauffman discuss achieving goals through social media. The process was overwhelming; it was near impossible to prioritize twenty seminars when I wanted to be a part of each of them. I settled into one rough schedule and readied myself for the day.

Attendees were greeted at the door and a treated to a goodie-bag of sorts, filled with complementary discs, food coupons, raffle tickets, and Ulticards. Everyone slowly made their way to the expo hall where a unique variety of vendors were beginning to set up their tables. Breakmark, Savage, and VC covered one side of the room, with bins of old tournament jerseys and fluorescent shorts strewn about the ground. NUTC and members from CUT Camp were in attendance, recruiting potential campers and coaches for their programs.

Chasing Sarasota and Ultimate Peace had tables where they explained their mission statements and informed attendees of their agenda. Carleton College, Tufts, and George Washington each had a table, as did Ironside and the women’s team from MIT. They sold discs and jerseys and also informed high school students of the benefits of playing for their programs, much like a traditional college fair.

What really fascinated me about those first few minutes at the expo was the multi-generational atmosphere of the people around me. Grey-haired men hugged and reminisced about their playing days while shy high school attendees huddled up and chose which talks they’d migrate to. A twelve year veteran of Nemesis talked to a current women’s college captain while Tiina Booth and Leila Tunnell chatted at the NUTC table. It felt good to be a part of something bigger than me or the team I play for. The notion of the Frisbee “community” became a hot button item later on the day, but at the expo and throughout the day, a shared love for Ultimate Frisbee (as Brodie Smith put it) was apparent.

Soon after, everyone was shuffled into the auditorium for the first event of the day. Thank yous were doled out, raffles were drawn, and the CEO of Ultimate Peace, David Barkan, took the stage to introduce keynote speaker Kenny Dobyns. He recalled an earlier stage in the history of the sport, a time when “all Ultimate players were five foot six or shorter.” He poignantly highlighted Dobyns’ persistence, noting that Dobyns’ could be described by the phrase, “never give up.” Barkan’s introduction was authentic and set the stage for a memorable keynote speech.

His talk, amusingly titled 44 Minutes of Kenny Dobyns Talking (Though it Will Seem Longer), was witty and well-delivered. He ironically mocked himself and other Ultimate players, questioning why he was chosen as the speaker at a Coaches and Players Conference when he currently holds neither qualification. He poked fun at Tiina Booth’s seminar topic as well as George Stubbs and Ben Van Heuvelen’s session on the whimsical notion of “Teaching Telepathy.”

Dobyns left no stone unturned in a speech that felt more like a stand-up bit than accomplished discourse on the sport. “Ultimate players,” he proclaimed, “are the most arrogant, egotistical people in the world.” He used the quarterback-wide receiver analogy as the evidence most Ultimate players use to assert their superiority to other athletes; since we do two things instead of one, it inherently makes us “ultimate.” Dobyns made sure to get a playful jab in on Barkan as well: “Everyone wants world peace but only an Ultimate player thinks he can do it with a Frisbee.” The crowd thoroughly enjoyed Dobyns’ shtick.

Though Dobyns didn’t make many thought-provoking or stirring insights, he closed with a brief monologue about relationships and priorities. He recounted an experience where the intensity of playing on the same high-level team managed to get between him and his brother. Despite rejoining much later in their Ultimate careers, Dobyns felt that the experience was one he looks back on with compunction. “It’s good to be there for your team. It’s better to be there for your family,” he remarked. This concept of prioritizing in relation to Ultimate is one that I, and hopefully many others, took away from Dobyns’ talk.

My selection of seminars was framed around the context of where I currently stand as an Ultimate player. I think this was one of the biggest strengths of UCPC. There were, more-or-less, logical tracks depending on atendees’ interests. If you wanted to learn more about the women’s game, you could have attended Gwen Amblers seminar on recruiting female Ultimate players, a panel discussion on the state of women’s Ultimate, and Amber Sinicrope and Sophie Herscu’s discussion on growing women’s college programs. There was a potential course track for coaching youth and one for starting a program. I took one that would sensibly help me grow as a college and club player and simultaneously improve the short and long term results of my college team.

The first talk I attended was Putting the Play Back in Playing: How to Make Working Hard at Practice More Enjoyable with Leila Tunnell, a well outlined discussion about creating “an enjoyable yet challenging and competitive practice culture.” Citing a great deal of coaching and playing experience, Tunnell emphasized setting team standards as well as developing mental toughness as key attributes of success at practice. Using a team meeting to set both personal and team goals and expectations will help guide players and have them buy into the team dynamic. She talked about the idea of getting comfortable being uncomfortable, a concept aimed at pushing players past their perceived limit. In doing so, you not only help yourself, but you also benefit the person marking you at practice.

She explained a series of offensive and defensive drills, emphasizing competition as a vehicle to bring out the best in athletes. Even though we ran over-time, Tunnell was happy to hang around and answer questions. The content of the talk itself was very useful but the insight from elite club players, middle-school coaches, and college captains in the audience really made it shine.

I continued through the hallways of Newton South Highschool toward John Korber’s talk, Actions over Outcomes: Preparing for, Achieving, and Measuring Success. Korber spoke about valuing the process of improving over looking at outcomes. “If I’m coaching high school kids and we set our goal as everyone running hard for every point, even if we lose fifteen to zero to Amherst, I can say with a clean conscience that it was a success since we ran hard,” he stated. Korber felt that Ultimate players are often too concerned with wins, losses, and accolades, and put much of the fault on the popular sports media for overemphasizing narratives that glorify and condemn these things.

“Successful people aren’t influenced by outcomes,” he noted, “as hard as that is to hear.” He emphasized being concerned with issues that are tangibly under your control: how hard you run, your attitude, and your work habits (as opposed to the weather and the opponent). Korber explained that during his time at Tufts, his captains would not tell the team what school they were playing, the point being that the each player should execute his job well, regardless of the opponent. Perhaps the best part of this talk was that it was theoretically practical and relevant to spheres outside of Ultimate.

My next destination followed the theme of expanding my knowledge of practice habits. Brent Anderson’s More than Just Layout Blocks: How to Get the Most out of Your Defensive Practices was a well-attended and concisely thought out presentation. Anderson outlined, in detail, a three hour practice schedule for both man-to-man and zone-defense practices. He detailed three focus points for each practice and preached that these focus points need to be repeated over and over throughout a practice and a season. Unsurprisingly, these points were not overly technical. For man-defense the emphasis was on marking, position defense, and forcing opponents to go in. For zone, Anderson highlighted the cup moving as a singular unit, active wing defenders, and understood sideline communication.

Taking from Korber’s ideas, Anderson pushed that if a team can master or better themselves at these skills, they can experience success at practice, though he did concede that a given team might tweak their focus points to serve their defensive personnel. For me, one key takeaway was formulating and sticking to a structured defensive schedule in order to strategically hit each defensive focus point.

For my final chosen talk of the day I picked How We Built our College Program And What We Learned From It with Kenyon alumnus and current Ironside player, Russ Wallack. Wallack’s talk, though lightly attended, was likely one of my favorites. Wallack recapped his four year experience at a small, liberal arts college, highlighting the ways in which his team gained legitimacy and identity. When he arrived at Kenyon the team was a sectionals competitor that recently instituted a “cleats-at-practice” rule. With his prior experience at ARHS and Junior World Championships, Wallack immediately changed the culture of SERF Ultimate.

While strategic mastery of the game certainly helped the team grow, Wallack attributes the teams’ evolution to something they termed “being the best teammate.” An open door policy at the team off-campus house and an egalitarian culture bred a team that worked hard and looked out for each other on and off the field. “[We were] an open bunch of guys who wanted to have fun with you. There were no hierarchies,” Wallack explained. While he conceded that there are logistic hurdles involving recruitment and funding, he stressed that teams need to put themselves out there to draw underclassmen into the sport and portray themselves as a tool for campus improvement to sway school administration. Wallack’s experience at Kenyon virtually mirrored my own at Connecticut College during my time here, the implication being that, though challenging, there is a proven formula for sustained achievement at the small college level.

After these discussions, the attendees grouped back up for a panel discussion simply titled, The Future of Ultimate. On the panel were Elliot Trotter, Gwen Ambler, Brodie Smith, Tim Morrill, and Jim Parinella. The session was poignant and at times contentious, with differing viewpoints across the panel leading to dynamic discussion about the state of the sport.

The first question asked each panelist to give their thoughts on where Ultimate will be in ten years. Parinella rounded up the answers and brought up a point that would become the hot issue for the rest of the discussion: he predicted that something very impactful was going to occur in the near future that would result in a fissure between professional Ultimate and the rest of the sport, the elite branching off from the ways we traditionally look at the sport. The subject quickly shifted to whether this gap was inevitable and whether it was good or bad for the sport. Trotter asked if this professionalization would alter the culture surrounding the Ultimate community and Smith followed up to ask if a culture swap necessarily has to be bad progress.

The panel discussion was especially intriguing because of the many demographic voices. Parinella, while quirky and goofy throughout the hour, provided the powerful voice of traditional Ultimate. “In five years no one is going to be able to storm the field,” he argued. “[Jerseys] are going to have to conform. You won’t be able to have your crazy designs because the man won’t let you.” Parinella’s ideology mimics that of many older Ultimate players. Ambler reflected on women’s college Ultimate, positing that given Title IX stipulations, women’s Ultimate will likely become an NCAA sport before men’s. Morrill pushed for a “Che Guevara-style” woman to come forward and put her face on the women’s Ultimate game. A Brodie Smith style role model couldn’t hurt in piquing young girls’ interest in the sport, I suppose.

The differing mindsets were clear. If we want to grow the sport, which theoretically, most people do, will professional leagues do the trick? If they’re successful, will they breed youth Ultimate that doesn’t have an inherent respect for spirit?

For the last question of Q&A, PoNY’s Ben Van Heuvelen was called on. Instead of asking a question he raised a point to the panelists and audience. In an empowered mini-speech, BVH brought up the elephant in the room that is money. “I reject the notion that we have to be subject to the concept of monetization,” he argued. The theme of Van Heuvelen’s commentary was that money needs to take a back seat to spirited, high level competition. He noted that our collective love for the game derived not from seeing the sport grow but from “a higher ideal of what competition means.”

Smith responded to these claims by attempting to debunk the myth that Ultimate players are different or better than other athletes. While Smith and BVH’s dialogue threw an intellectual wrench into an already complicated equation, the point was clear: we just can’t know where Ultimate will be in ten years. Is there a market for professional Ultimate? Will it evolve into a sport that we won’t even come to see as Ultimate, as Trotter suggests? What resources do we have to make women’s Ultimate see tangible growth? Really, only time can answer these questions.

The UCPC was a fantastic experience. For me, it held that familiar Ultimate feeling of significance without condescension. Despite the emergence of professional settings, at the end of the day, we remain in a niche community. However, this did not stop the presenters, panelists, and attendees from completely immersing themselves in the shared passion of the sport. The panelists were realistic in their future expectations but excited about exploring solutions for growth. While legitimized by exceptional organization from Booth, Raphael Savir, and others, the conference still featured the lovable antics of Dobyns and Parinella. The conference featured some of the most well-known speakers in the country, but no one seemed to forget their roots to the sport.

  1. Jesse Moskowitz
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    Jesse Moskowitz is the DIII editor for Ultiworld. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he started playing Ultimate at the Bronx High School of Science in 2008. He captained Connecticut College Dasein and currently plays Mixed Club with 7 Express (NYC). You can reach him by email at jesse@movoli.com.

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