Coaching Through the Plateau

Players shouldn't have to work through their growth entirely on their own. A good coach knows when and how to help.

Photo: Brian Canniff -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Brian Canniff — UltiPhotos.com

Last week, I discussed how to survive the frustrating skill plateaus we all encounter in our growth as players. But since these are nearly universal experiences, we shouldn’t have to work through them on our own. Coaches and team leaders can have a huge impact in shortening plateaus or making the plateau a more productive and less frustrating experience.

The two big complementary strategies to this work is pushing players out of their comfort zone or “turning up the heat” while simultaneously creating a “holding environment,” essentially regulating the stress of the player who is doing the difficult work to improve. Below are several tactics that can help you as a coach both push players out of their comfort zone and regulate the stress in that difficult space.

As I wrote this, I became aware that much of this goes beyond “coaching players in plateaus” to just “coaching players.” And, for all of these tactics, I realize I am only just brushing the surface. There are many great resources out there on coaching that address these topics in more depth.

  • Identify and Communicate Areas Players Need to Improve

This seems so obvious, yet many coaches (myself included) can struggle with it. As a coach, you determine how many of the parts of your team come together and what roles players will play. To be as successful as possible, you can’t just stand back and put the pieces together as they are now. You have to guide players toward the role that you want them to fill and push them to build the skills and knowledge that they need to best fill that role. For players that are in a plateau, drawing attention to specific areas of focus and helping them set specific goals around that area can push them out of their comfort zone and into a space where they are challenging themselves and making mistakes.

  • Create Situations Where Mistakes Will Occur

Coaches have an extraordinary authority to create scenarios where players must play outside of their comfort zone. Coaches can do this through drill design, player roles in scrimmages and games, and, most frequently, through simple requests to players to work on specific areas of the game.

The difficulty sometimes is doing this with players at multiple levels. For example, one of your players is at a plateau where they have no breakmark throws when forced forehand and another relies on the same high backhand break every time. But you can put them both in challenging situations by running a drill that requires breakmark throws and telling the second player they aren’t allowed to use a high backhand break (or, similarly, specifying exactly how they must break the mark each time). Both players will make mistakes and be pushed outside of their comfort zone in that scenario.

It’s important to sandwich these situations where you are inducing mistakes with support. Before entering challenging drills, be explicit about which mistakes you don’t care about. If you want to focus on running full speed through a disc, be clear that mistakes related to catching are tolerable as long as you are running full speed.

Following these situations where you induce mistakes, it’s important to provide an opportunity for players to process those mistakes by helping them understand why you did it and what they should be learning from the experience. If you move past the drill and simply rely on players to process it (or not) on their own, they may end up leaving the drill frustrated at themselves, the drill, the team, or you and even less likely to take on tasks where failure is possible or likely in the future.

  • Acknowledge Both Positive Risk-Taking and Subtle but Critical Improvement

It’s essential that players in the plateau who are taking the right steps to move through it receive positive support throughout the process. As a coach, you can reinforce those steps by applauding players taking the right risks and putting themselves in situations where they may make mistakes. The “right” mistakes and mistakes “in the system” are easy to identify from a coaching perspective, but harder from a player’s perspective. Mistakes from taking on challenges — like leveling up to a much harder match-up or playing a different role than a player is accustomed to — should be supported.

More difficult but just as important is recognizing small gains in a player’s game. With your experience and coach’s eye, you will notice gains that your players are making, that they may not notice themselves. Providing positive feedback on those gains both helps support your player through the plateau and reinforces the improvement that the player is making to help them move past the plateau.

As always, the more specific your feedback can be, the more productive it is.

  • Allow Players to Learn Wholistically/Teach Principles Over Rules

As a coach, it’s sometimes easy to micromanage your team by giving players very specific roles and teams rules within those roles or rules for certain situations. The result of coaching like this is often very fast learning of those roles and rules which, in many cases, can lead to noticeable on-field improvement and gains. This type of coaching is particularly tempting when coaching newer players when you want them to make quick gains so they can contribute at an upcoming game or tournament. Rules sometimes sound like:

  • Stay in your lane and cut forward and back
  • Always cut from the back of our stack
  • Downfield cuts shouldn’t get within 10 yards of the thrower
  • Don’t throw crossfield throws when you’re in the redzone

Roles limit the amount of knowledge each player is responsible for learning. A player who learns to cut as a rail in a horizontal offense doesn’t need to know where to set up a reset or how to initiate as a middle cutter. Like rules, roles can accelerate short-term learning.

But roles and rules can lead toward and extend plateaus. The game is too complex to dictate rules in every situation and, even if you could, trying to decipher which rule applies in which situation would make it practically impossible to actually succeed. And strict roles can limit a player’s perspective on the field and understanding of how all of the individual parts work together.

This isn’t to say that some rules and roles aren’t valuable or necessary for team and player development, but they must be balanced with overarching principles that can apply at the limit of useful rules and give decision making over to players as well as opportunities to move outside of their roles and see how the game works together.

Principles might look more like:

  • Always be creating, attacking, or preserving space
  • When not actively attacking a space, work to maintain two or more potential spaces to attack
  • Anyone may throw any throw as long as the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks

Principles are harder to apply. With rules you can say “did I follow this rule?” but with principles you have to apply much greater thought. As a coach, when a player asks you “what should I do in this situation,” you can answer by picking the most relevant principle and asking “how do you think the principle applies in that situation?” Well-founded principles allow players to answer questions on their own before they know every rule. As far as plateaus go, principles allow for more consistent growth and reduce the perception of plateaus.

With roles, it’s important to give players opportunities to play other outside their role — sometimes that means different roles or no roles at all. Playing 3v3 is a perfect example of removing roles (as well as giving a great opportunity to apply principles). Typically, most teams don’t break into specific roles for drills, so players get opportunities for reps in other roles in that setting. If your team is very role-oriented, push your players to play outside of your team in settings where they can experiment with other roles: summer league, pick-up, etc. Playing other roles not only makes that player more adaptable to those other roles, but also helps them improve at their own role where they’ve plateaued.

  • Acknowledge Plateaus

Your players are going to experience plateaus. Many players feel isolated and alone in the process of working through the plateau, as if they are the only person ever to not perceive a linear improvement in their game. This isolation makes practice less fun and/or reduces their desire to make the necessary mistakes. Simply talking about plateaus and acknowledging that they are a necessary part of improvement can help players feel more comfortable with the discomfort they are experiencing.

Conclusion

From a coaching perspective, much of addressing plateaus and generally helping players grow is reading players and understanding where they are comfort-wise. If a player is too comfortable and not challenging themselves, you need to find a way to turn up the heat. If a player is too uncomfortable and verging on despair, you need to find a way to make them feel secure in their challenges. And, for all players, you need to collaborate with them to help them understand what to focus on.

It can be a challenge on a team with 20 or more players to give everyone such personalized coaching, so engaging your team leaders (both as temperature takers and feedback providers) can help distribute the work and train even more future leaders that can help their teammates push past plateaus.

  1. Kyle Weisbrod
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    Kyle Weisbrod has coached several teams including U of Washington women’s team, Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls national team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA. You can reach him by e-mail (kyle.weisbrod@gmail.com) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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