April 1, 2014 by Tiina Booth in Opinion with 17 comments
Sometimes my brain hurts from trying to keep up with all the ultimate news. Daily I read at least four sources (yes, I still go to RSD), as well as most of the comments. I check blogs and emails and texts and Facebook and, alas, Twitter, as of a week ago. I spent most of the last two weekends glued to Ultiworld’s live streaming on my laptop, while watching muted March Madness games in the background. Something is clearly wrong with me.
I balance this all out by running Level 1 Coaching Clinics for USAU. Since November, I have traveled to Connecticut, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Rochester and Maine to spend most of Saturday teaching this curriculum to new, old, and aspiring coaches. We spend the morning discussing ethics and spirit, as well as looking at liability issues and insurance. After lunch, we move onto the fun part of the day: teaching techniques, a mock clinic, and tips on how to run an effective practice. If there is time left, I sneak in an abbreviated version of Mental Toughness 101.
I started doing these clinics about eight years ago and the audiences back then were often the same. Usually I knew about half of the participants, who were already coaching but needed to be USAU certified for various reasons. It was a mostly male audience of experienced players and coaches, plus the requisite one or two old club guys who always wanted to talk about their glory days. Always.
These five recent clinics are distinctly different. Attendees see becoming USAU certified as an important step toward legitimacy for our sport. About a third of the participants are female and most of them are young. Many have just finished college and are coaching their old team for another year. Others are new teacher hires and are starting teams in their middle school or high school. There are also parent players who started a team for their children. Lots of summer league folks and not a lot of elite playing experience. Very few know anything about the current ultimate scene. It is glorious.
However, many of the questions facing today’s coaches are the same as the ones eight years ago. Indeed, many of the problems are the same as they were 30 years ago. Here are the questions and answers that always generate lively discussion:
1. How many of you have ever wrecked fields playing ultimate?
In Rochester, every single participant raised a hand. Almost the same in Maine. I imagine many of you are nodding your head as you read this.
I suspect that wrecking fields is the #1 Bad Public Relations Move for all ultimate teams, leagues and tournaments. We do more damage to our reputation by ruining fields than anything else. We should probably have a USAU Board of Directors Subcommittee dedicated to this problem.
The Answer: STOP WRECKING FIELDS. Our rule in Amherst is that if you can see your footprint on the field, you cannot play. I understand the frustration of canceling practices or tournaments. This morning I checked a local field to see if we could practice there this afternoon. No way. If you are running a tournament, consult the person who is in charge of the fields and let them decide.
I know that other sports have more leeway when it comes to tearing up sod. Football and lacrosse and soccer matter more. That’s just how it is. Take the chip off your shoulder and conduct yourself better than all of those teams. We are not oppressed.
2. What does Spirit look like?
What does Spirit not look like? As you can imagine, everyone had a strong viewpoint on Spirit, but rarely did it devolve into what we read and post online. Some people liked third-party officiating. Some had never heard of observers. People shared horror stories of blatant cheating, as well as wonderful instances of young players working out their conflicts with no adults. We never came to a consensus on how to ensure fair and ethical play at all levels of competition.
The Answer: Context is everything. What works in day camp will not work at Club Nationals. Players need to know the rules no matter where they are playing and how the game is being officiated. I suggest having a Rules Guru on your team who teaches a rule per day to everyone. Make sure fouls are called during practice, so players can get used to discussions.
And beware of demonizing the coaches of other sports that are reffed. Many outstanding youth coaches of mainstream sports teach fairness and responsibility and respect. (Some are even becoming USAU coaches.) Ultimate players and coaches do not own that corner of the market.
3. What do you do if a player discloses abuse to you?
If you find out your underage players are drinking? If another coach is flirting with your players? These are some of the scenarios we discuss in the Ethics part of the clinic. This is an important section because most people, unless they are teachers, have never had this type of training.
The Answer: As a coach, you are a mandated reporter, which means you must take action if you find that the player in your charge is hurting someone (including him or herself) or if they are being hurt by others. You cannot ignore, condone or otherwise disregard any of these instances. You cannot investigate, question or counsel your players. Depending on the protocol of the school or your state, you must report what you have seen to an administrator immediately. You must also disclose what happened to USAU, if the coach involved is USAU certified. Players and parents should understand this from the very beginning of the season.
Make sure you write down any conversations you have and keep them on file. You can be a compassionate coach, but you must remain a professional.
I know that this seems ridiculous to some of you. I have heard every argument against the above policies. What if you are a college coach? What if you are not affiliated with any school? What about summer league?
If this seems too much to do, then do not become a coach. It is joy to teach ultimate but it comes with nonnegotiable responsibilities, none of which I or USAU made up. If we want our sport to be legitimate, we need to act that way. If you do decide to coach, I can guarantee you will face these problems, or others, if you are with a team for any length of time. Make sure you know and understand all of your legal and ethical obligations.
4. How do you deal with playing time? How do you balance fun with winning?
Most of the attendees have new teams, so the answer is relatively easy. Some college and club coaches have teams with decidedly different goals, but the solution is still the same.
The Answer: Have discussions about playing time and team goals at the beginning of the season and perhaps halfway through the season. Do this away from the field. As a coach, you must listen to input from all your players because you need everyone to buy in. Maybe you have a vote. Maybe the captains decide. Problems occur when the subbing policy changes mid-game or doesn’t apply to everyone, or is thrown out the window. Write up the subbing policy and give it to the parents. The last thing you want to do is spend time in an email war with an unhappy player or parent.
5. How do you raise money for a team?
Funding is a constant source of frustration. Most school budgets will not have money for new sports and fundraising is often left to the coaches and kids. Some coaches have players who cannot afford cleats, never mind travel and team dues. And the amount of money that college and club players pay to travel is daunting to many.
The Answer: Our biggest fundraisers were tag sales and selling cookie dough. But we live in a relatively affluent area and are well-supported. Some teams sell candy or discs or pizza. For those teams in poor areas, something needs to be done. I do not have the answer for this one. I share it with you all to see if someone wants to step up to help these teams. If increasing the diversity of our sport is important, we need to make it much more accessible to all.
In spite of these challenges, I believe the future of ultimate on the grassroots level is in excellent hands. These new coaches have the enthusiasm and desire to share their love of our sport with others. They are eager to learn and improve; the glint in their eye, the one we all have for ultimate, is fresh and sharp, not jaded.
I am honored to spend random Saturdays with these folks and I am always energized when I return home. You know you have had a good teaching experience when you learn lessons from the students. I try to recall their optimism every morning, when I obsessively go online to enter our current ultimate world of cynicism and mistrust.