The former University of Oregon and club star talks about how he got started in the sport, the work he's doing leading youth ultimate in New York, and what's it's like to work with USAU.
June 22, 2016 by Steve Sullivan in Interview, Sponsored with 4 comments
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After a very successful college and club career that spans the country and even globe, Aaron Bell has spent much of the past decade working to build out youth playing opportunities in New York. We sat down with him to find out why he does what he does.
UW: For people who don’t know you, where and when did you start playing ultimate?
AB: I started playing the game in the ‘90s, I graduated high school in 2000, and right around 97/98, the camp I was going to during the summers was playing big time. This was a YMCA Camp — Camp Minikani in Milwaukee, I love giving them a shout-out — and my counselors, who later would go on to become some of my great buddies in life, were already in college, playing ultimate, traveling around to tournaments, telling us, “Man, frisbee is the coolest.”
So I didn’t even have a forehand yet, but I had this fantasy that I could go to college to play and travel. I ended up at Pacific Lutheran University, a small private college in Seattle. When I interviewed, I asked, and they said “Yeah, we’ve got frisbee,” but I showed up and it was basically intramural: no one wore cleats, it was on a giant open field, they played like 12-on-12. I showed up and was like, “Guys, there are actual rules, there are actual field parameters, I’ve got cones.” They were all like, “Woah, dude, chill out, this is frisbee.” I came to college as a three sport guy — I played football, tennis, and soccer — but realized frisbee was my calling and I wanted to make it the intercollegiate sport it was at other schools. So I started organizing.
We established a team year one. I was a freshman leading these seniors around — they were much better than me, but I handled the Xs and Os, the administration, and put together the playbook. I basically stayed one week ahead of all the PLU players in my knowledge of the game because my camp counselor buddies were feeding me some drills and rules from their schools. We ended up hosting a tournament that first year, called the PLU BBQ, which is still going strong as one of the largest college tournaments in the Pacific Northwest. By my second year, I had an A, a B, and a women’s team.
That first year, I just didn’t get all our admin stuff together and we played Sectionals but weren’t rostered. So lo and behold, by the time I was graduating as a senior, I still had two years of eligibility left. I wanted to pursue a graduate degree at Oregon and having been a captain for four years, I knew everybody so it kind of lined up perfectly. I got to play two years there and that was the best. PLU had my heart, but Oregon has my soul.
Still, those years at PLU was the quintessential me. It was more than the sport, more than the glory, it was about getting people enthused about the game, getting people to understand the beauty of diplomacy and character during competition. It was also where I learned how to spar with administration, which I’ve come to enjoy (laughs).
I’m sure that has come in handy in your current role! So what brought you to New York? How did you get involved in the youth ultimate scene there?
The west coast was a launching pad for me. I played in ‘04 — my summer between PLU and Oregon — with Shazam, the mixed team in Seattle. I was basically coming from pickup, so I gravitated to all the older guys there like Steve Finn who were just so smart. Strategy was such a bigger emphasis in the mixed game because of poaching and the importance of good spacing, so I felt I could learn more playing mixed. We won the 2004 Mixed Championship and it was the best feeling; we worked so hard. The next year when I got to Oregon, I was playing mixed in Portland [with Ror$hach] and ended up finishing second at Nationals. My last year with Ego, I ended up second in the Callahan and led us to the #1 seed at College Nationals, though we lost to our nemesis, Stanford, in the quarters.
When it was time to graduate, one of my best friends, Adam Holt, was living in London and playing with Clapham, and my girlfriend (now wife and mother of my daughter) was living in Barcelona, so I got a work visa and finished my grad school credits over there. I played with Clapham and we won UK Nationals, then I won a Paganello, and was just on top of the world.
When I came back stateside, my wife was going to grad school at Parsons in New York. I was working in finance, but New York was pretty daunting, so when I got here, I reached out to the PoNY guys who were in year two as a program. They did everything they could to help me land on my feet. I started playing right away and that first year we went to Nationals, the first time the team had made it through.
After four years, I retired because I was about to have a daughter and my work career started getting more involved. So at that point, in 2012, one of my PoNY buddies Isaiah Bryant reached out and told me that he had met some kids at a park who were looking for a coach. I had mentioned candidly to him that I was looking to get back into coaching — I loved it and missed it — so I did it and have been involved in coaching and with youth here ever since.
So you had coaching experience prior to that?
Every year I’ve played the game, except for my first year in grad school at Oregon and the first year I played under Steve Finn on Shazam, I’ve been a coach-player. So I had all those years of coaching experience: showing people how to throw, what the right grip was, how to train your body, stretch, do plyometrics. I’ve had some really great coaches and trainers in my career and I learned what it took to achieve at the highest level. I’ve carried that with me and when I started transitioning from a player to a full time coach, I drew on these experiences.
I also had continued to coach at Camp Minikani in Milwaukee through college — every summer I would go back and would host clinics the kids there. Then, when I moved to New York, I have a habit of just starting things, so I created my own small business called Bell’s Coaching Corps and I run all these side projects out of that. Since 2009, I have been running various ultimate camps in New York and Pennsylvania. I already had a few of these little 1-day or 2-day camps going every summer, then when I left PoNY and started coaching more full-time, I started doing even more of the camp thing.
What are you involved with and working on now?
In 2013, there was this breakthrough moment. A friend of my wife was in charge of the growth and development of the Nike Sports Camps. She put a general blast out on facebook that they were looking to add another sport to their portfolio and were looking for suggestions. So my wife — who had seen me play a million times but had never picked up a disc and had seldom encouraged me to spend any more time playing — showed it to me and said, “Could there be any better fit? Frisbee is like the perfect thing for this.”
After we went through like a seven-month process with Nike — it’s tough, they’re a serious business. We got it approved in April of 2013 and were able to hold six camps that first year in Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, New York, Georgia, and North Carolina. We were trying to create a system with a stronger brand that might reach people that hadn’t heard of our sport; it’s ultimately a pretty small community, but what we’re finding in New York for example, is that — amazingly — just pairing Nike and our sport means something to someone who has never seen it before. It feels official. It’s just a great pairing of brands.
Now we’re going on year four and we’re really proud of what we’re doing. We’re up at Manhattan College, in the dorms and swimming in the lake and just having a blast. We line up scrimmages against our local YCC team and against a couple rival camps. We film all of our throwing mechanics, we review scrimmage tape at night with top coaches from all our club and pro teams in the city — every year we’ve had at least 19 coaches come through over the five days of camp. I was at states this year and so many of our Nike Camp alums were playing big roles for their teams on Sunday. Says a lot about it.
What was the youth scene like in New York when you got there and started getting involved? How has it changed in the last decade?
I started coaching by on a job as the varsity coach for Abraham Joshua Heschel High School. When we first joined the NYCPUL league, there were nine schools. It was just kind of a loosely organized group of clubs that had been around since the early 2000s and perhaps going back into maybe even the late 90s. Darren Myers is an older name in the New York scene; he was the head coach at Fieldston and was acting commissioner of the league for many years. We’d scrape to find a room in midtown and we’d all [the coaches] get together and order pizza and try to bang out a schedule and he’d manage it. As the league grew and the UPA paperwork became more difficult, the commissioner role changed hands twice. BY that point, I had become a board member of DiscNY in the role of youth development, so that second year after Darren left, I became commissioner so we could manage the league under DiscNY.
This year, we had 38 high school teams and five middle school teams playing, representative of about 20 different schools now — some of them have a boys and a girls team or an A and B team. And that’s sort of the second feather in our cap: not only did we grown the number of squads, but we went from just a single division to having A, B, girls, mixed, and middle school divisions. Each have at least five or six teams, every team had a coach this year, it’s been great.
The league’s mostly been won by just three teams: Stuyvesant, Fieldston, and Horace Mann. So originally not only was there a small number of teams, there was not much parity. There were the dominating three and everybody else getting their butts kicked. The other thing I’ve seen over the past five years is a lot of change with the coaching clinics even on the local level; coaches are sharing more and their acumen in growing. Their ability to facilitate the learning across all areas of the game — physical, intellectual, and the spirit side — is evidenced by the parity and growth rate of the league now. We’re kind of perfectly in stride with our growth projections.
I’ve been at the helm of DiscNY officially taking over the league, managing it, lacing it up as an affiliate program with USAU, and trying to get all the bureaucracy lined up. USAU has kind of turned the screws a bit — in years past, you only needed one coach at the game, now you need one coach for every team and that can be tough. A lot of these coaches are willing to run an A and a B team, but they just can’t be everywhere with all of their teams at once. Two years ago, we even had one guy — Vinnie Drybala at Fieldston — who was coaching four teams at once between A, B, mixed, and girls.
But we need that level of supervision. As commissioner, I’ve seen incidents, and we want to make sure there is always a responsible adult there who is trained and ready with a protocol in place to deal with conflict.
USAU tends to take a lot of flak for their bureaucracy, but it sounds like you find value in it. Do you see them as a good partner?
My opinion is, when you’re an entity trying to provide something for all these teams and players, you need a strong partner to lean on — that’s where USAU has become invaluable. I’ll sing Josh Murphy’s praises all day. He’s been a fantastic relationship for me. Before him, it was Anna Schott, who I’ve known for years and was also great. They really helped me with the transition those first couple years.
It can be a challenge when DiscNY is talking with athletic directors and heads of schools; it becomes a longer conversation to explain the relationship as to why we’re referring them to USAU. But at the end of the day, they do provide an authoritative feeling when you visit their website. Having the kids sign up through them does provide a level of protection for liability purposes and it makes it easier for us to secure fields, which is the hardest part of the algorithm. We get to go to Parks & Rec and say, top to bottom, we’re bulletproof across your requirements, so let us play. That’s far easier than when we were just a group of club players without a parent to point to.
I think the flak that USAU is catching is that organizations like ours that have really benefited at an asymptotic pace are becoming too difficult to manage from Colorado Springs. We’re all over the country and we have different needs and they’re seeing that it might be easier to try to compartmentalize at the state level. For us, we’re just getting used to the requirements from last year; we’re not ready to make another big shift. It’s just a difference of pace.
So what other good collaborators do you have in New York?
Parks & Rec is our biggest friend; we’ve gotten more and more fields from them. Last year we had Mondays and Tuesdays for our kids and we might get one or two additional days next year for those 3:30 to 6:30 hours which is massive. Those 43 teams I was talking about played 275 scheduled games last season; you need two hours a game so that’s almost 600 hours of park time! We just can’t get enough field space. So I would say the next partners are schools that have their own facilities, like Riverdale.
Another partner that is brand new this year, we work with this organization called Global Glimpse. They’re a San Francisco-based nonprofit but have been on the east coast the last three years. Basically they work with teachers to build cohorts of students across different schools — all kids: high-income, middle-income, low-income — and they go on these trips to developing countries and they do skills building and leadership training. We’ve found that we’re all kind of like-minded; what our league was doing at the local level, they’re doing at the global level, kind of similar to what we see with Ultimate Peace. Since we’ve started this partnership, as they work with schools to introduce their program they are also introducing ultimate. What we’re finding is that some schools are finding out about ultimate through them and some schools are finding out about Global Glimpse through us, so that’s kind of nice synergy.
It’s got to be nice to have a partner like that, completely outside the ultimate world, that helps bring some new folks to the sport — and through whom you can spread the sport elsewhere.
I feel like it legitimizes us. As I mentioned, one of my favorite things to do is tackle the administration. But it’s hard to get in front of athletic directors and show them that our sport matters, that it’s well-run, that it’s safe, that it’s fun, that it’s progressive, that it’s multicultural. Sometimes you need another voice in there that’s credentialing you. And that’s what I’ve found with these guys; they hustle, they go out and sit in these schools and they talk to people and they sit down with administration to get their program going, and they talk about ultimate all the time. It’s actually been a really productive relationship, even in the first year.
As an example: Edmund Morrow is a 4,000+ student high school deep in Brooklyn — four thousand kids, they’re a behemoth — and they don’t have an ultimate team. At our last DiscNY town hall meeting, one of the teachers from Morrow raised her hand and said, “hey, I’d love for you to come to my school and host a clinic.” And I’d love to be there. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t get the enrollment we needed to run one because we couldn’t get the athletic director to help hand out even like a single flyer. So we’re going to try again next year, since I know there is opportunity. And our friends at Global Glimpse are in there and will hopefully help us to widen the door. We just need all the tools we can to spread the love of the game.
What other challenges are in your way of growth?
The new challenge that we have as we grow is with the governing board for interscholastic sports in the state. If your school deems your sport a varsity program, you are governed by certain rules and standards. Essentially, once you’re on that list, you can only play other schools on that list. It sounds like what was decided at the most recent athletic directors meeting in April is that next year NYSAIS is going to focus on enforcement, and every sport has to comply.
My challenge as commissioner is no longer just to maintain and A and B division, but we need to rearrange it for varsity interscholastic vs. club teams. When I did the math, it comes out to around 10 and 10 schools, thank god, but we’re missing out on the competition element and the no boundaries leadership style of Spirit of the Game. What I’ve loved about our sport and our city league is that everybody plays everybody. It’s a true showing of competition at its finest and most holistic. We’ve got private schools playing public schools playing Jewish schools playing Catholic schools; the last two years, the final has been between an private and a non-private school, which has been awesome.
What I’m most concerned about is that the interscholastic division won’t get to play a championship playoff against the club division anymore. They’ll be separate all the way through; we can’t have a Super Bowl. While division viability may persist for our 10 Interscholastic boys and 10 club boys teams, this NYSAIS fissure will adversely impact our girls and mixed divisions which feature six teams each, combined of lopsided amounts of club versus interscholastic schools. I’m going to fight my darndest over as many years as it takes to get our city’s championship to be a sanctioned event that would allow clubs to play interscholastic teams as they always have. If they can’t be in the same division, at least let them compete in the playoffs. It’s going to change everything. All of our progress to this point is repealed in a way — or at least stifled.
So what does progress look like a few years from now? What is DiscNY’s plan for youth ultimate?
So I’ll start with my counterpart, deputy commissioner Chris Nelson. I can’t sing his praises enough. I’m a big idea guy and I talk all the time; I’ll get in front of crowds and promise this and promise that, but without Chris it won’t get done.
Basically, we’re trying to build a kind of timeless relationship with everyone who plays in NY. It’s a transient city, people come and go and it’s hard to create something with staying power. For example, Trinity is a school that had always had a team, but the last few years it hasn’t been able to maintain it and it’s losing touch with it’s own history. So we’re trying to create that.
We’re trying to build a website with an archive going back at least to when DiscNY took over where as an alum you can click back and look through your team pictures and results and game summaries and relive not only your memories but see how the current team is doing.
Every division now plays for a trophy. Every trophy has a plaque of who’s won so they can be passed around from school to school each year. Every year that DiscNY has been in charge of the league, we’ve had a coach of the year. We want to showcase that kind of lore in our history books. We want to hand out Spirit of the Game awards. We’ve been keeping track of spirit scores but are finding that the old-school USAU rubric is not good enough. We need a kind of specific language to help these kids really understand how to give a spirit score, work through a grudge, and evaluate fairly. So one of the YCC coaches for New York is helping us rewrite a rubric for NY that we are proud of.
On top of that, we’re trying consolidate all of the little things that add up to make things easier on our website. We’ve incorporated Google maps so you can see where the fields are and how long it’s going to take to get there so you can plan accordingly. Rostering is easier now. Coaches and captains can enter their game scores and spirit scores directly online in real time so everybody can see it on their smart phones. The rules are there — we’ve created special rules around things like how much zone is permissible for different divisions or forfeiting rules that reflect the challenges of travelling across multiple boroughs — and they are explained and accessible to all. Teams are responding very favorably to this.
Growthwise, we want to maintain all five divisions and we’d love to get to at least ten teams in each. We’d love to have permitted fields every day of the week somewhere in each borough. We want to have every team have a certified coach — that’s our dream.
Listening to you tick through all that you’ve accomplished and all that you’re still aiming for, what strikes me is that all of this stuff lines up so well with what USAU has been working towards and pushing for in youth. Seeing it pan out for high school and youth in NY for example, it seems at least that USAU’s goals are pretty well aligned with what’s happening on the ground anyway. Folks like you have done a great job not only building out and what it means for someone to be a great youth ultimate organization at the city or state level, but also looking at what seems to be working as a best practice and trying to spread that more broadly.
Changing gears, are you still playing at all?
It’s funny, my kids — especially the freshmen — you see them on their phones trying to find Youtube clips of their coaches. But when I was playing, there wasn’t Youtube and there wasn’t Brodie Smith so maybe there’s one or two bizarre clips online of me playing. I wish I could have been doing it now where there are multiple camera angles capturing all this great stuff.
But, you know, I’m not that old and my body feels pretty good! I’ve gotten permission from my wife to begin training again this fall to maybe play club again next summer. There’s a part of me that’s really excited about trying to make that a reality, trying to make PoNY again, see if I can’t teach these young whippersnappers a thing or two. I definitely want to get back into the club scene at some point; I can’t let BVH have all the old-player glory.
Other than that, I play Horse [New York Masters], which I’ve done for the past three years and it’s a blast. There’s nothing like lining up on a master’s field at Nationals and you’re standing on a line with a bunch of guys who were on your old college team and you’re playing against an old college foe. It’s like, these are the same guys! It’s just nostalgia and still competitive and a ton of fun so I’m loving masters and I’ll play it again this year, but I haven’t done anything else. I haven’t played pickup or summer league; I look forward to the day when I can add that back into my routine.
Any other goals for New York ultimate?
I always tell my guys, whether I’m at a club tryout or I’m at a youth game, I say that my goal — I don’t care about all these other affiliate groups across the country, I just want New York to break through quarters in every level, every time they compete. Club, we should be breaking through and winning in quarters, whether that’s youth club, men’s, women’s, or mixed; we should be a team that is as good as every other city with the amount of talent we have here.
And I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid — I think that starts on the youth level. Hopefully we can get people so excited that they come back to New York after college or travels or whatever. I’ve found through our Nike camp that a lot of our high school players are coming back during the summers, they’re interning with us, they’re coaching with us, and we’re seeing that sort of feedback loop happening. That’s huge for us.
With my Heschel team, we are a bunch of indoor kids from a small school — 280 students — without top athletes and all of a sudden we finish second in the state this year. These players are dedicated to the strategy & spirit of the sport, and as religious observers, we walked to the fields three and a half miles Saturday morning, and then walked back after because we can’t drive on Shabbat. We put in the extra work because the kids still have so much fun. When you see something like that, you gotta spread the love around.
So if I could make a final comment, it’s a call to arms. You know that somewhere along the way, someone made a sacrifice to get you hooked on the sport — and that’s what it takes. I’ve never been paid from DiscNY, this is a passion play. I work beyond a 9-5 and I still find time for this because it gives me juice. It feels like I’m paying back and paying forward at the same time. We need more of that. Anyone who wants to come out and help with clinics, just raise your hand and we’ll do a better job of getting that information broadcast early and trying to keep track of our volunteers who are ready and able. There are plenty of players who just want to grow and learn the game.
The Nike Ultimate Camp at Manhattan College — led by Aaron — will be held July 24-28.