Tuesday Tips: How Best To Teach Skills To Your Team, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Ideas for making the most of your practice time.

Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

Teaching is an incredibly important part of the sport, both as a way to introduce players to the game and to help improve individuals and groups. But it is also not easy to do and in fact, is not often done as well as it could be.

At its most basic level, teaching is about communicating ideas. However, an audience, while often willing, is not always able to understand exactly what a leader might be trying to express. Likewise, players may be distracted, confused, or have other challenges that limit their ability to fully grasp and remember what a captain or coach is explaining.

Once a concept is taught — whether it’s a simple rule or an advanced strategy — it then also has to be practiced and put into use in game situations so that a team or player can use it without a second thought.

All of this makes teaching tough, but it’s a task that can’t be avoided. Every team and player, whether middle school beginners or the most elite club squads in the country, should constantly be working to learn and improve.

Here are some best practices on how to teach skills to your team.

Keep It Simple

The old K.I.S.S. adage holds true. Keep it simple, stupid.

Sounds obvious and easy? Well it’s not. Try explaining something like a 2-4-1 force-middle zone, or even the basics of hucking, in one minute or less. The best teaching, at least in terms of direct vocal instruction, should be done in under 60 seconds. Anything longer and your audience is likely to tune out or lose the thread, especially if this is to be done on the field in a huddle.

The key, of course, is to break down complex ideas into simple components and teach them one at a time. Sometimes this can feel painstakingly slow and deliberate. But, if you really want players to grasp concepts intimately and keep their full attention, this is the best method. And it is much easier said than done.

Start with something easy, preferably building off another skill your players have already got down, and then quickly put it into practice in an engaging activity. For example, don’t explain the whole zone at once, but rather focus on just one position, explaining what their purpose is in the zone and how to execute it. Then have them do something to practice and kinesthetically learn, locking in the muscle memory alongside their cognitive musings.

Teaching hucking? Start small with grip and have players focus on that. Have them throw thinking only about the grip, not worrying about anything else. Then, regroup and come back to the next step. It could be that same practice, or it could be the next, but they’re more likely to really have that one segment down pat. Painstaking and time-consuming, but better in the long-run than teaching hucking and having it go badly, or having people forget, or having to do it over and over and over again half-heartedly until they’ve finally mastered it.

Use Visuals

Learning is done in a variety of different ways by different people, but rarely will you find a purely auditory learner. That means that most people will not be able to understand something and put it into practice just by listening to you talk about. Even trying it out will be hard for some people for the first time without some further instruction and a way to see it all clearly. Sport strategy, especially large-scale team strategy, needs to be visualized.

Most people recognize that visuals are important, but a good coach might cringe at the very common practice of discs or cones being splayed about to simulate a field scenario. Ideally, use video or photo examples, sent out ahead of time to be studied. This prep work can be an invaluable tool that will save a ton of time on the field and should make talking about it much easier. A written explanation to accompany (or in replace of) the video might not be quite as good, but can also work. Likewise, showing examples after explanation is great. A helpful reminder that homework is very useful.

However, in all aspects of education, one must also prepare for misunderstanding or the flat-out fact that half the team might not read an email or watch a clip no matter when you send it out. So, plan accordingly. Have at very least a whiteboard to help players visualize and show while talking. Better yet, have players on the field and a whiteboard to mirror their movements, demonstrating as you talk.

Then do it all again, this time with the players you are teaching drawing out the visuals or acting it out on the field. Doing this right before an engaging activity can identify commonly misunderstood elements, answer a lot of questions, and save reteaching time.

Get People Moving

‘Practices are for running’ is a mantra that is good to live by. And yet, teaching needs to happen and practice is probably the best place to do it, since most teams don’t have the time or luxury to have chalk-talk or video sessions.1 Realistically, most teaching will have to happen on the field. Therefore, keep it moving. Using the principles stated above, keep verbal instruction under a minute (time yourself and practice explaining beforehand to get it down and save your squad precious minutes… work on ways to keep it shorter) and also use visuals and player demonstrations to go quickly.

Then, immediately, follow it up with an activity that combines the new skill with some physical fitness.

Yes, at first you’ll need to start slowly, but remember, we never play at half-speed in game situations, so don’t bother practicing at 50% for very long. The more you do in real context and game-simulations, the better it will be, even if it exposes failures or misunderstandings. Keep the walkthroughs very short and quickly ramp it up to full speed reps. You can always do brief pauses to talk (again watch the under a minute rule), letting your athletes catch their breath, and then run again.

Exercise combined with learning will be a two-for-one for mind and body that will yield great gains.

Make It Fun And Competitive

Along the same train of thought as keeping it moving, learning is so much more valuable when it is fun. And let’s face it, listening to a concept be explained (and even trying it out) is rarely as fun as a scrimmage. So, do your best to make a game out of the instruction. Most ultimate players are competitive by nature, and while some will appreciate the value of the new skill in making them or the team more successful, all will appreciate the joy of playing while learning.

The easiest way to do this is to incorporate live game reps in a ten-pull or endzone situation with set rules around the new skill to be practiced. For more individual skill drills (say throwing, or cutting, or defense), design games to be done in pairs or small groups. Anything can be given a point value — a completion, a successful under cut, beating someone to a spot — and likewise tallied. Incorporating consequences or rewards, whether fun or physical, add a little edge to the game and keep everyone trying hard.

Young rookies, eager with fire and excitement, will learn quickly because they want to catch up to the veterans on the team. Once players have been playing a while, however, the allure of trying to be the best in the drill will wear off a bit, hence the need for some added stakes.

Adding an element of fun on top of the explanation and visual demonstration will make learning much smoother on the field.

Utilize Multiple Instructors

Teaching should ideally not be done in isolation, although that is unfortunately often the case. When possible, have two or three assistants familiar with the topic ready to help. Keep each individual explanation to a single voice — it keeps the message clear, saves time under the one minute rule, and avoids complicating things with too many opinions — but use multiple instructors during the practice period or physical simulations.

If you have three or four teachers/coaches, have some watch the entire group, while others pull aside either small groups or individuals for additional instruction. This is the best way to teach, asking advanced students to showcase information, giving pointers, and demonstrating other facets based on ability. Here is the chance to help those who are struggling or challenge and expand on those who are quickly grasping the concepts.

This level of individual feedback takes a lot of time and effort, so try to keep these individual or small group session short, or else rotate so that players are moving through a variety of different activities to avoid boredom. Stations are a great way to accomplish this differentiated instruction. Have one group drilling the skill, another group playing a game using the skill, a third working in small groups with a coach on questions or mistakes.

Many hands make an easy load.

Students Become The Teachers

Eventually, you want all players to be as competent as the coach on the squad. That may seem like a long road, but every journey begins with a single step, and the very best way to assess mastery of a topic (and to have students gain confidence in using it) is to have students teach others.

Even if players are just reviewing the concept for the group again or with a partner, have students end each learning session by explaining and showing what they have learned. This is an important step in students being able to master a skill, the ideal goal in imparting knowledge.

This post-practice review is often lost or cut short when practice time is limited, but can be invaluable. Even if it is just a two-minute pair and share, or review of the basic tenets, never walk away without recapping what was learned. The human brain, as shown through multiple pieces of research, needs constant review and repetition to fully achieve success.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once something is taught, don’t stop and assume it’s ingrained forever. Make sure you hit it again and again over the next five or six practices, even if only for a few minutes. Teaching a zone or a hucking concept and then waiting a month for the next game where you expect it to be implemented well is asking for disaster.

Players need constant reminders and tweaks when learning an important concept, whether they are fourteen or forty. Combine all previously taught concepts into accelerated courses of study or review, hit them hard, make them fun, and add them to new concepts.

The very best learning takes this practice and then builds subtly upon it for new learning or for collaboration so that in a seamless way it is incorporated into daily thinking. Once this is achieved, the teacher is no longer needed, your team’s players and skills have improved, and you’ve done your job well.

  1. If you can manage it, especially during the off-season, some once-a-week classroom work with an Ultiworld video subscription can be a goldmine; call it your own personal team ultimate class. 

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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