Tuesday Tips: 5 Steps To Starting A Youth Program, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Successful, long-term programs don't pop up instantaneously -- they take careful, consistent cultivation.

Khalif El-Salaam coaching Roosevelt High School at High School Westerns. Photo: John King -- UltiPhotos.com
Khalif El-Salaam coaching Roosevelt High School at High School Westerns. Photo: John King — UltiPhotos.com

If you’re reading this article then you’re likely an ultimate diehard. You love the sport and you wish there was more ultimate in the world. You probably dream of a future where ultimate receives the same caliber of coverage, resources, and athletes as the mainstream sports that currently dominate the market.

I’ve got good news for you. There’s a simple, yet incredibly important way that you can help transform our world into the one you want it to become: Start a youth program.

I speak from experience, because I started a high school ultimate program in 2007. Over the years, it has brought over 200 players to the sport, many of whom have gone on to success at the college and club levels. And, while the program I started hasn’t completely changed our world, it’s made a small impact. My hope is that more of you will choose to make that same impact.


Step One: Line Up The Coach

It’s possible to have a great team without having a coach. However, it’s virtually impossible to build a great program — remaining competitive year-in, year-out — without consistent leadership.

It’s important to realize that you don’t need to be a worlds-caliber player to be a successful coach; coaching and playing are two distinct skill sets that sometimes, but don’t always, overlap. You just need to be dedicated, patient, and committed to helping kids learn.

If you work at a middle school or high school and would like to start a team, great, you already have your foot in the door. You’ll need to set up a meeting with your principal to discuss your vision and learn about any school or district protocols, but most principals are happy to greenlight new, cheap extracurricular activities that give students an opportunity to find a niche at the school.

If you’re an ultimate player who is interested in starting a program at a nearby school or other youth serving organization, the best access point is likely through a current student or his/her parent. Work with your local ultimate organization to identify youth players who attend clinics or leagues. Offer your coaching services to those players and their parents, and ask them to arrange a meeting with their school’s principal. The principal will be much more receptive if the request is coming from a stakeholder at the school rather than an outsider.

If you’re a student and you’re looking to start a team, you’ll likely need a faculty sponsor if you want to secure field space and the ability to advertise around campus. You can ask an administrator to help match you with a teacher who would be willing to help, or you can seek out a teacher yourself. For most schools, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a teacher with an ultimate background, so target teachers who are helpful and who aren’t already involved in other after-school activities. Once you’ve found a faculty sponsor, you can identfy a coach by asking your local ultimate organization to search for a qualified, interested volunteer.

Step Two: Respect The Parameters

Ninety percent of the headaches I’ve endured as a coach have been related to either field availability or field conditions. For practices, you can’t expect access to the best field on campus at the most convenient time of day. You must be flexible and humble. Ask for what you want, but take what you can get. My team has been bounced from location to location due to construction and the needs of other sports. We’ve had years where we were forced to practice off campus at nearby middle schools, parks, and churches, and when it rains, we’re not always able to secure access to our school’s gyms or indoor practice facility. However, that’s the nature of the game, and all we can do is adapt and persevere.

Your best bet is to be proactive about securing field space. Ask early, before other organizations stake their claims to the fields you want. Also, take great care of the space that you’re given; don’t let your players tear up a wet field and make sure you pick up trash after every practice. The ability to use your field is a privilege, not a right, and it can be taken away if it’s abused.

You’ll also need to be well-versed regarding your school’s financial policies. Accounting irregularities can cost the team its existence and can cost a faculty member his/her job. Every school has different protocols, but most will require the timely deposit of funds, and there will be paperwork related to all fundraising and spending. Also — and I hope this goes without saying — don’t expect any up-front funding from the school. Congratulations if you’re able to secure some, but most youth ultimate programs in this country are self-funded. While we occasionally hold fundraisers to help offset costs, Marcus1 players have to pay for their own jerseys, tournament fees, and travel expenses.

Finally, communication will be key, both with players and their parents. You’ll need to find a way to reach players, whether it’s by Facebook, Twitter, a group messaging app, a website, or other means. The same goes for parents, who are just as important to the success of the program as the players. Parents are typically responsible for most travel arrangements — carpooling, booking hotel rooms, selecting places to eat — and their mere presence on the sidelines will go a long way in regulating the behavior of your team. You’ll want to cultivate positive, trusting relationships with your players’ parents. At Marcus, we host a parent orientation meeting at the beginning of the season, and we also have a parent party in the first semester where I’m able to teach parents about the rules and terminology of ultimate.

Step Three: Assemble The Rookie Class

It can be difficult to assemble a full roster of players when you’re just starting out as a club. While we know our sport is amazing, most students have probably never seen or even heard of ultimate and they’re unlikely to be excited by flyers around campus. Furthermore, you have to understand that most of the top athletes at any given school will have commitments to other sports, so they might not have time in their schedules to give ultimate a chance.

Do we recruit? Yes, of course. However, I’ve come to understand that mass marketing — flyers, announcements over the loudspeaker, a table at freshman orientation, letters delivered to students in class — are not nearly as effective as the most basic and meaningful form of recruitment: existing players need to invite friends and family to the sport. The players who are interested in being a part of the team need to tap into those relationships to grow the team. New players are simply more likely to stick with the sport if they share a strong bond with at least one teammate.

It’s a bit torturous to walk down the hallways at Marcus and see a 6’2” volleyball star or an All-American boys basketball player and know that those students will likely never join us on the ultimate field. We occasionally get top athletes from other sports — of the 21 boys on our travel team roster, five play other varsity sports at Marcus — but the core of our program consists of players who were either unsuccessful or unhappy at other sports, and the majority were introduced to our program by a friend or older sibling.

Step Four: Build (Slowly) The Vision

Whether you’re scripting a single season or devising a five-year plan for your program, it’s important to work incrementally toward realistic goals. As obvious as it sounds, you have to learn to walk before you learn to run.

In my opinion, the best goal for a first-year program is to grow the roster so that there are enough players to keep the program going the following year. That means recruiting, creating an enjoyable team culture, and providing enough opportunities to maintain player interest.

Secondary goals can include x’s and o’s. When we get rookie players at Marcus, we spend the first few practices focusing primarily on throwing mechanics and defensive strategy — the principles of effective marking and downfield positioning. Only later do we begin teaching advanced concepts such as cutting patterns and zones.

Finally, once you’ve grown a full roster of players who understand the basics of the sport, then you can start thinking about competitive goals. Start seeking out scrimmage opportunities, tournaments, and youth leagues. Every game will help forge your team into something greater than it was, but make sure your players understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day. If they measure success only by winning a championship, they’re likely to feel disappointed at the end of the journey. It’s smarter to set improvement goals rather than outcome goals, and it’s really important to be positive and patient with your players. They take their emotional cues from you. If you look discouraged then they’ll feel discouraged. Make sure they know that you’re proud of them, win or lose.

Step Five: Anticipate The Transition

Graduation shocks every program. Rosters feel gutted with the annual loss of star players and team leaders, but the difference between successful programs and unsuccessful ones is that the best programs are constantly developing young talent. One player’s graduation is another player’s opportunity, and the job of a coach is to make sure that young players are ready when opportunity calls.

First, it’s important to be inclusive of younger players, even if they’re clearly buried on the depth chart behind older players. Find opportunities for young players to get valuable reps during practices and seek out tournaments and leagues where you can bring multiple teams so that everyone gets a chance to improve. I’ve only had two players in the ten-year history of the Marcus program who were starters as freshmen. Everyone else had to pay their dues, and many of them eventually went on to become stars. The key was that we never cast players aside. We don’t cut anyone from the program and we don’t marginalize players by depriving them of opportunities to participate. If we only cared about the top of our roster, we would truly feel gutted at the end of a season, but instead we know that we have eager players who have been waiting in the wings, so we always feel confident that we’ll remain in the hunt for a championship.

Secondly, we elect captains at the end of each school year, not the beginning. We like to have leadership in place during the summertime for pickup games and workouts, and we want to be able to hit the ground running when the new school year begins. It also helps everyone on the roster to visualize the upcoming season when they know how the principal characters have been cast.

Lastly, we encourage our returners to play ultimate during the summer. There are YCC and club opportunities, plus leagues and pickup. I’m a firm believer that if my players are ever going to be truly great, I can’t be the only one coaching them. They need to hear different voices and experience different styles. Above all else, they need to continue getting reps in order to increase their athleticism and skill. It’s a great thing when we return from summer break and realize that most players got better, not worse, since the end of the last high school season. It’s a testament to their hunger for the sport, and it’s an indicator that we can set a high bar for the season ahead of us.

* * *

Like most things in life, running a successful youth ultimate program requires hard work. But, like most things that require hard work, there’s a big payoff in the end. You get to do something great for the sport you love and you get to make a positive impact on young people. Chances are, those young people will make a positive impact on you, too.

So, I really hope that many of you will decide to get involved. If you’re already working in a school then you know where to start, and if you’re not already working in a school then I’d advise you to talk to your local ultimate organization to find young players in the area who might be interested in your coaching services. Good luck, and thanks for making a difference!

  1. Marcus High School in Flower Mound, TX, where I coach 

  1. Rob Doyle
    Rob Doyle

    Rob Doyle is an AP U.S. History teacher at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, TX. He started the school’s Ultimate program in 2007 and his teams won state championships in 2011 and 2016.

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