A state championship coach talks about how he has built a sustainable program by ensuring all of his players get meaningful touches long before they are called upon in big games.
June 21, 2016 by Rob Doyle in Opinion with 4 comments
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This article was written by guest author Rob Doyle, head coach of Marcus High School in Flower Mound, TX.
In August of 2007, three students approached me about sponsoring an ultimate club at the high school where I teach. All they wanted was a weekly pickup game, which sounded perfect to me, since I felt imminently unqualified to coach a competitive team. However, over time our program has grown into a bit of a powerhouse by Texas high school standards. This May, I got to watch my players storm the field after our boys team captured the state championship. To make it even more satisfying, many of the players who stormed the field were from our top mixed team, which had won the mixed state championship a few hours earlier.
So, how did the program evolve from three students and a clueless coach into what it is today? If I could sum it all up in one word, it would be “reps” — both quantity and quality. Our mission over the past few years has been to build a program that can be sustainable in the long term. The blueprint we used requires a lot of sacrifice and patience, but we couldn’t be happier with the results. We don’t want a one-year championship window. We want an every-year championship window.
Here’s 10 lessons we’ve learned to get all of our players enough reps in practices, in games, and in the big picture to build a winning program.
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1. Never cancel practice. If we can’t practice outside then we’ll find a way to get better by doing something inside. Our first option is always finding gym space so we can throw, run drills, and play indoor ultimate. However, if all of the school’s gyms are taken, then we’ll have a classroom session where we can study film and draw plays and scenarios on a white board.
2. Give only current players the reps. Do we have alums and local talent who would love to practice with our team? Of course. However, they’d just be taking reps from the players on the active roster. The same rule applies to my assistant coaches and me. We might step onto the field briefly to demonstrate concepts, but we’re at practice to facilitate and instruct, not play.
3. Make the most of available space. At a normal practice, we have about 50 players on a large soccer field, which is only big enough for one regulation-size ultimate field. So, we divide the soccer field into two, three, or four smaller fields to maximize reps in drills and scrimmages. It means that we might be playing two games of 7v7 on fields that are only 30 yards wide rather than 40, or it means that we’ll be playing 5v5 or 4v4 on smaller fields, but that’s okay. Young players need touches, and small-sided games force everyone to be part of the action.
4. Ensure newer players learn from experienced players. I’ve seen programs that are completely segregated, where the top players never share the field with rookies. However, rookies need to share reps with veterans so they can absorb the nuances of the game and learn to play at a faster speed. Of course, it’s detrimental to the veterans to exclusively play with rookies, so we do our best find a healthy balance. At every practice, we’ll do some drills and scrimmages in mixed-ability groups and some in same-ability groups.
5. Seek quality competition. At this point, it’s hard for us to get better by exclusively playing against high school teams. Most of the high school programs in Texas aren’t quite as developed as ours, especially during the first half of the school year. So, during the fall and winter months, we mostly compete in college tournaments. It gives our players quality reps against bigger, faster competition and teaches them how to grind-out victories in close games.
6. Divide the program during the spring season. We had 60 players compete in our annual high school spring league this year. We could have divided into two teams of 30 or three teams of 20, but we went a step farther and divided into four teams of 15. It ensured that each player received plenty of playing time, preparing underclassmen for larger roles in the future and preparing everyone in the program for our upcoming state championship tournament.
7. Spread out top talent. We don’t want to bury good players on the depth chart behind great players. Instead, we want to give the good players reps so they can eventually become great players. This year, we felt like there were 11 boys who distinguished themselves during the fall and winter and were destined to be the core of our boys team at the state championship tournament. Would the 12th, 13th, and 14th-best boys on our depth chart have made great backups on our boys team? Of course. However, we knew we wouldn’t need them on the field during critical points in close games, so we felt like they’d be more valuable as core members of our mixed team. Similarly, we have the two best female handlers in the state of Texas on our top mixed roster, but our third and fourth best girls have handling potential, too, so we gave them quality reps on our mixed B-team during spring league so they’d gain experience commanding an offense.
8. Develop young handlers. I coach against a lot of high school and college teams that thrust all of their best upperclassmen into handling roles out of necessity, meaning that their downfield cutters are inexperienced and unthreatening. Meanwhile, on our boys state championship team, all three of our senior captains — elite athletes who are all perfectly capable of handling — are used primarily as cutters because we’ve identified and developed players who can distribute the disc to them. All of the primary handlers for our two state champion teams began to receive significant handling reps during their freshman or sophomore years.
9. Coach for the future, not just the present. Despite being the program’s head coach, I don’t spend all of my time with varsity-level players. Young players on a developmental track need the most coaching, and so I spend just as much time with them as I do with the groups that are competing for state championships. I’m blessed to have one year-round assistant coach and six additional assistants for our spring season. They give me the flexibility to float from player to player and team to team, allowing me to provide oversight and assistance to everyone. By doing so, I can keep my finger on the pulse of the program and make long-term plans based on the development of our younger players.
10. Play more ultimate than your opponents. There’s no real offseason for Marcus players, as most of them play the sport year-round. Those who are 16 or older sign up for spring, summer, fall, and winter adult recreational leagues, giving them the opportunity to learn from older, more experienced players. In the summertime, over half of our roster plays club ultimate, including many who compete on DFW’s YCC teams. Additionally, I schedule a weekly pickup game during the summer months for all past, present, and future Marcus players. It gives alums a chance to stay connected to the program, it gives current players a chance to continue building chemistry with each other, and it gives incoming players a chance to learn our system before the start of the new school year.
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We didn’t win two state titles in May because we peaked at the right time. We won because of weeks, months, and years of preparation and long-term planning. And now, even though we are losing a terrific class of seniors, our window to compete for championships is still wide open. Our program will be returning 40 players next season. Of those, 21 will be entering at least their third year in the program, 25 logged over 200 points of playing time last season, and 27 have received significant experience handling the disc.
In August we’ll starting breaking in a new crop of rookies. They’ll inevitably develop at different paces and into different types of players. Our job is to figure out how the program can utilize their talents and patiently provide them with the thing they need the most – reps.