Tuesday Tips: Dos And Don’ts For Captaining A League Team, Presented By Spin Ultimate

If approached correctly, being a league captain is an opportunity to help new players become lifelong ultimate enthusiasts.

Photo: Kevin Leclaire -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

There are plenty of stats that say ultimate is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. While this is great, it’s no reason why we can’t get even more people involved in ultimate and hooked to the game. One of the biggest sources of untapped potential is the huge number of pick-up players who play casually, but want something more.

Anyone can play pick-up disc. It’s fun to run around and chase plastic without cleats on. Only half the players use stall counts, barely a quarter put on or are even aware of a force. One of the teams might start in a vague stack, but it quickly disintegrates into headless-chicken offense. At least two people can’t throw a flick.

Out of these games, however, come the people who sign up for leagues. They grossly overestimate their skills because, after all, they’ve been dominating their friends at pick up for a few years. Throws? They can backhand, flick, and chicken-wing, so 9/10. Speed? Faster than everyone they’ve played against. 9/10. Defense? That’s basically speed. 9/10. Then they say “pick up only” in the experience section and, unbeknownst to them, their draft position drops several rounds.

Then when they hit the field — expecting to school people, or at least compete with them — they find themselves far behind the game. They repeatedly get exposed by players who are older, slower, and can’t throw as far, because those players simply know what to do and how to do it. They get discouraged; they’re not performing as well as they expected to, and might even realize that they’re a liability to the team. Other players on their own team might get impatient with them, look them off when they cut, or even openly wish they weren’t on the team. The next year, they go back to playing pick up, and stay there.

This is where we can do better. Local leagues should be the hook that brings in casual, pick-up level players and turns them into lifelong ultimate players. They should be what Little League is to baseball, minus the parental pressure. And the people who are in the best position to make this difference are the team captains. Here are some dos and don’t for those brave enough to take on this responsibility.

DO take the role of captain more seriously.

As it stands, many if not most of the people who captain a league team do little more than make it to the games just on time, flip for pull, and then become just another player. Unfortunately, this does very little to help a pick-up player who is out of their element, floundering, and unsure how to get better. If you volunteer to organize or captain a league team, know that part of that role will likely involve playing with and mentoring younger or newer players who may be frustrating both to you and your more experienced teammates. If you approach the role knowing in advance that this is your responsibility, you can create a more fulfilling experience for everyone.

DON’T forget who your team’s new players are.

It’s not that difficult. Remember who your team’s new players are. Watch them when you’re sitting on the sideline, and be aware of them when you’re both on the field. Take note of the mistakes they make, especially if they make the same one over and over. Some new players pick up the game quickly and can teach themselves. Others aren’t quite there yet and need someone to help them understand what they are doing wrong and how to fix it — those are the players you need to help the most. Keep an eye on them and be willing to offer advice either during or after games that will help them improve.

DO create enough structure for people to understand on-field roles and expectations.

While most league teams will not need a deep playbook of offensive set plays or elaborate defensive looks, it is important that a team has a common understanding of what they want to look for out of a simple vertical stack or where they want players to force in person defense. By putting in place even some simple ground rules, all players — especially those new to the game — will be on the same page on the field and create an atmosphere where learning opportunities can be explained in the context of a general team strategy.

Bring a whiteboard or a bunch of extra discs or cones so you can visually diagram specific things that new players can do better or what the opponents are doing that you want to adjust to take away. If enough players show up early, or stay late, captains can go even further ad run a drill to teach good techniques or to build fundamental skills. Oftentimes this isn’t feasible1, so use timeouts and halftime efficiently. While many people don’t expect to have to practice for a league team, doing it as often as you can will really help new players improve.

DON’T ignore the whys when explaining skills or concepts.

When working on the sideline with inexperienced players to show them what a vertical stack looks like or what they just did on the field that let the other team score, make sure to cover the why. New players don’t necessarily see why everyone’s upset when they bust deep and then linger back there to catch their breath, or why people on the sideline groan when they let off a break throw that didn’t even gain any yards. Take the time to explain why mistakes hurt the team.

For example…

“If you cut deep and loiter back there then this teammate goes deep, even if she gets away from her defender, she’s still got your defender to deal with. So what do you do? This is called a seven cut. It’s a way to get out of this deep area, provide a potential hammer option, and also set yourself up for a massive under cut on the break side, while clearing space…”

Or…

“Notice how the rest of our defenders are on the force side of the vertical stack. If you get broken on the mark, now the other team has the disc over here. See how this allows them to flow up the break side? There’s not much our upfield defenders can do about it, which is why it’s so important to work to take away throws to that spot.”

Explaining concepts beyond just saying “do this” or “stop doing that” will encourage new players to want to get better rather than just walk away feeling frustrated.

DO celebrate the small victories.

New players will almost always hear it from frustrated teammates when they screw up, but they rarely get positive feedback for doing something correctly. Be sure to celebrate when your new players do something well or execute simple strategies effectively — especially when it’s a new skill they have previous been chastised for.

As a captain, the benefits of improving weak players are obvious, and well worth the time. Seeing a player “get it,” and develop to a whole new level is an incredible feeling. Being the one that showed them the tools to reach that level of play can lead to a kind of mentor relationship — potentially going beyond just this one league season — which is also incredibly rewarding. And, by the time the end of season tournament kicks around, your team is going to be so much better. Watching your team breaking seed and cutting through the brackets because everyone on it understands the game, does things the right way, and contributes? That’s priceless.


  1. Maybe you don’t have any field space before your game starts or after it ends; maybe you’re playing savage or near savage and energy should be spared for game play. 

  1. Sean Myers
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    Sean Myers is an Ultiworld reporter and freelance writer. He played club for Cincinnati Hustle, and recently graduated from law school at the University of Cincinnati. He lives in Rochester, NY, where he plays baseball. You can follow him on Twitter at @discreporter.

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