Maintaining Spirit of the Game Amidst Growth: A Letter to My Coaching Colleagues

With continuing growth in youth participation, positive coaching and a prioritization of Spirit of the Game is a growing necessity.

Photo: Christina Schmidt -- UltiPhotos.com
Independence High School’s Coach Jordan Roe at the 2014 Southern High School Regional Championships. Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by Arnoush “Java” Javaherian, Executive Director of Competitive Ultimate Training and a coach at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, IL.

It’s universe point in the semifinals of the 2012 Central High School Championships and the team I coach is on the verge of the biggest win in our program’s history. One of my players catches a disc in the endzone and my team storms the field in celebration. We’d won.

Except… we hadn’t.

The defender who went up with my player for the final pass had called foul. My player contested, sending the disc back to the thrower, as the rest of the team cleared the field.  This decision hit us hard, but we still had the disc and a chance to punch it in and get the win.

Except…we couldn’t.

We turned the disc on the next pass. Even when we were able to get a turnover back — giving ourselves yet another chance at a score for the win –we failed to capitalize and ultimately, we lost. All that was left to do was to line up, shake our opponents’ hands, and handle our defeat with grace, as explicitly described in the Spirit of the Game clause as embracing “mutual respect” and “the basic joy of play.”

Except… we didn’t.

At the time, I was absolutely furious at the player that made the final call — even at the entire opposing team — and I blamed the loss on them. I let the other team know this was how I felt by visually and verbally expressing my frustration. My players followed suit and showed their own frustration, aimed squarely at our opponents.

Looking back on this now, I know that I was absolutely in the wrong in how I reacted. I handled the situation poorly and unprofessionally, failing to uphold the Spirit of the Game; my high school players simply followed my lead. The opposing defender had every right to make the call that he did; we should have respected it, even though we disagreed with it. In the end, no one call decided the game’s outcome — even after that call we had multiple opportunities to score a winning goal. To place the blame for our loss on an opponent was completely wrong on our part — and, more importantly, on my part.

As coaches, we must realize that our teams are a direct reflection of us. That is true for any sport and I would argue even more so in ultimate. The way players act and handle themselves on the field is due in large part to the example we set and the culture that we create.

***

I have been coaching youth ultimate for nine years. I consider Spirit of the Game to be the underlying principle of the popularity of the sport and foundational to the community of mutual respect we have built, even amongst opponents. From my perspective, there is nothing greater than when, even in the most competitive situations, once a game is over and decided, players meet in the middle of the field, shake hands, hang out as friends, and maybe even participate in a spirit circle to share praise for their opponents. It’s a level of camaraderie that I have not seen in other sports and why many of us love this game.

It may even be the thing that attracts kids to ultimate in the first place. In my time as a coach, I have seen the sport grow at the youth level more than I ever could have imagined. New teams are popping up every year from different schools and different regions as ultimate spreads across the country. But with this explosion in growth comes the challenge of ensuring that we never lose sight of just how important Spirit of the Game is to our sport.

Yet, recently more than ever, I have witnessed a number of situations where aggressive behavior and a “win-at-all-costs” mentality — attitudes specifically prohibited in the official definition of Spirit of the Game — have encroached on our principles and put Spirit of the Game in jeopardy. I have seen players argue aggressively over calls, trying to intimidate opponents into taking back a call or overturning it in their favor. Worse still, I have seen a coach react to a controversial call by throwing down his water bottle as hard as he could and vocally expressing his extreme displeasure. This negativity bled into the postgame handshake, as players — rather than praising their opponents’ effort — accused each other of cheating while walking through the line.

My concern in both of these instances is that the players and coaches involved appeared more concerned with winning than demonstrating spirit and sportsmanship. Whether players — and especially coaches — agree with a particular call or not, they have a responsibility to treat their opponents with respect. A lack of respect leads to an environment where teams resent one another and form a lasting negative relationship. I’d like to think that the Spirit of the Game is so much stronger than that.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the coach bears responsibility for positively influencing players and addressing any negative behavior before it can have a lasting impact. One of the beautiful things about our sport is that players make their own calls and work things out on the field, so yes, the players must accept personal accountability. However, coaches can define and nurture the culture of the team or club, responsible for both promoting an environment in which their team respects their opponents and disciplining players if they act disrespectfully. If a player does not exhibit good sportsmanship, it is the coach’s responsibility to pull that player aside and have a discussion to help the player understand how their actions negatively impact the game. If a coach lets it go, that choice sends a message that that unspirited behavior is acceptable.

With the explosion in number of youth teams, positive coaching and a prioritization of Spirit of the Game is a growing necessity. We cannot let ourselves diverge from the essence of our sport. Kids may not come to ultimate with much experience making their own calls and doing so with integrity, regardless of what it means for the final outcome of the game. Coaches and role models who lead with the right frame of mind are more important than ever; players will always follow our lead and will become role models for future teams if we set the right example.

As a youth ultimate community, I ask that we all do our part to make sure that Spirit of the Game and sportsmanship are at the forefront of everything we do. Below are some actions we as coaches can take that may help us continue to promote and prioritize Spirit of the Game on the field:

  1. Continue to lead and participate in spirit circles after each game. I think this practice goes a long way in developing respect for opponents and ending every game on a positive note.
  2. Assign your team a Spirit Captain and call spirit time outs. This worked well in international competition last summer and I am going to incorporate this into the Neuqua Knockout this year.
  3. Attend Coaching Clinics. Spirit of the Game is a hard hit topic in a lot of coaching clinics, including the USAU Level 1 Clinic, and this is a great environment to talk to fellow coaches and have great discussions about this.
  4. Include your players when filling out the other team’s spirit scores. As spirit evaluations become more common in sanctioned USAU competitions, involve your players in assessing their opponents’ sportsmanship and — perhaps even more importantly — have them rate their own spirit for each game!

In the end, the responsibility is ours as coaches to create a positive, competitive environment that upholds the Spirit of the Game.

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