Coaching Chemistry: Ditch Some System, Add More Development

Recently I got an email from Mike Zargham of the MLU’s Philadelphia Spinners about team chemistry. I’ll let him say it:

[quote]The observation we made recently is that we think of chemistry as being on the same page as our teammates; however, there are two distinct ways in which this arises:

1) Your team is well trained and everyone knows that in situation X you are expected to do Y

2) Your team has played together a lot, and you know instinctively how your teammate will react to a situation (where they will go, or what throw they will look for)

Now, to an outside observer these two things can have the same appearance – at least as long as everything is going smoothly. However, against a stifling defense (one that is good at recognizing what you want and denying it) suddenly the first type of chemistry doesn’t help you that much and it’s chemistry number two that makes all the difference. It is my opinion that the second type of chemistry is what we really mean when we say ‘chemistry.’ But often (1) and (2) get lumped together under that heading. I think (1) can be more accurately described as your team’s ‘system’, which is great as a starting point – but you will need good chemistry to adapt on the fly and succeed consistently against a top notch defense.”[/quote]

Mike was asking for my thoughts on this. Honestly, I don’t have much to add to those definitions; I think he’s covered it pretty well.

But where I would add something is in how we create genuine chemistry. What I’d say is that by striving too hard to achieve chemistry #1 – a thorough system where each player knows what to do next – you can delay the evolution of genuine chemistry. Or, to put it the other way round, allowing more chaotic play encourages the rapid development of increased chemistry.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started coaching a team seriously was in creating a relatively rigid style of indoor ultimate. Given the vast differences in skill and experience in the players we had, we assigned them roles that suited them, and built an offense around playing to all their strengths. It’s a very effective system, and we still generally use it to good effect at tournaments.1

But the job of a coach is not only to create a strong team out of his existing players – at least, not unless he’s taken over the World Games squad three weeks out from the tournament – but also to encourage player growth and improvement. And these can be stifled by strict tactics.

Developing Players

First, players may be stuck in particular roles and may never get meaningful practice at other skills. This can hurt that player’s development, even though it might be best for the team in the short term – so it may also hurt the team in the long run.

If you’re coaching at a school or college (or at a club whose very best players will move up to a stronger team each year) then this can be a real challenge. If everyone starts off as an out-and-out cutter in first year, then is allowed to throw forwards in second year, then slowly graduates to handling at the end of their career in your club, you don’t just have to integrate a couple of new people into the team each year. Instead, you have to teach every player a new role as they move up the experience ladder.

That’s not to say that it’s definitely wrong to pigeon-hole them – there’s a balance between having the best possible team this year and the best possible team in 2 years from now. We can’t always think only about the future.

And perhaps it’s best for a player’s development that she should focus on only a limited set of skills until she understands them, before moving on to other facets of the game. If that’s the case then, of course, we should give them a defined role to play in the short term. But we shouldn’t do it solely because that’s the best way to win this particular pointless scrimmage on a wet Wednesday in October. It’s at least worth considering the longer term before making the decision.

Chaos Is Key

Second, and this brings us back to Mike’s point, putting too much emphasis on the first type of chemistry potentially results in every player following a script most of the time. What’s never learned is the vital skill of reading the play.

Reading a teammate’s intentions, spotting an opportunity the defense has offered, and recognising (and reacting to) novel and chaotic situations – these are the hugely underrated skills which form the basis of most “good team chemistry.” They can only be learnt by allowing some degree of chaos in your training.

They need a system in which they can make a lot of mistakes, try a lot of new things, and see a lot of new situations on a very regular basis. It’s not just getting the chance to throw more passes or catch more high discs (the skills that you can work on in any system just by switching roles); it’s about the kind of mistakes they can make.

They need to cut to the same places and cause picks; they need to miscommunicate on reset passes; they need to stand looking at each other like idiots deciding who will cut; they need to throw into poaches. These are the mistakes that will teach them how to read teammates and opponents.

That might not be the best way to win the scrimmage at today’s practice, but it will help all the players and the team to grow. We learn infinitely more from correcting our mistakes than from avoiding them in the first place. Developing a rounded sense of what works and what doesn’t, and how your teammates will react, is far superior to just doing what’s ‘correct’ all the time – particularly when it comes to dealing with the unexpected. 

Picking A System

So having a ‘system’ is not necessarily always a ‘great as a starting point’. Actually, it can be a backward step in a team’s or a player’s long term development if that system is too rigid outside of competitive matches. Whilst I wouldn’t advocate playing headless-chicken offense all the time — you do need some sort of offensive strategy — I’d say that choosing your system needs to be about more than the best way to win every game you play.

Instead, you need to pay attention to the quality of practice that your players will be getting, and to the kinds of decisions — and errors — they will have the opportunity to make. It takes a real effort to step back at every practice and think about whether what you’re doing — letting your best players pick up the disc, letting your strongest cutters cut first while everyone stays out of the way — is really helping your team.

I’m naturally a ‘system’ guy, and I’m not at all advocating that we get rid of organized play. But we need systems that allow our players to sometimes think as well as to follow a script. And we have to spend at least some of our practice time thoroughly ignoring the systems we plan to use when it counts the most.

  1. For those who don’t play much indoors on UK-sized pitches, it is far easier to play positionally-rigid tactics than it would be outdoors; indeed, the lack of space can make any sort of headless-chicken offense a real challenge. And if you’re wondering why we take it at all seriously, it’s because it’s recognized by BUCS, our (loose) equivalent of the NCAA. 

  1. Benji Heywood

    Benji Heywood is the full-time Director of Ultimate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is also a coach-educator for UK Ultimate, and sits on the WFDF Ultimate Rules Sub-Committee. You can find more of his thoughts on the 'Understanding Ultimate' blog.

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