USA Ultimate’s Coach Convention: Takeaways from the Virtual Event

This year’s socially distanced affair brought together coaches from around the country for four evenings of workshops, training, and connection.

Disclosure: USA Ultimate covered an author’s registration fee.

USA Ultimate conducted its annual Coach Convention from February 1-4. Like many gatherings usually held in person, the convention adopted a virtual format this year; 2021 also marked the first year the coaching and organizing sessions were split into separate events, with the Organizer Convention held earlier in January. Two of Ultiworld’s writers attended the Coach Convention via Zoom.

Sessions were held over four weekday evenings after typical work hours. Each night’s programming was centered around a common theme: Youth, College, Adult, and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). Most evenings featured three separate presentations, with the EDI session structured around one presentation, one panel, and an hour of breakout rooms focusing on attendees’ own teams. Participants could sign up for any of the first three evenings separately or for all three together; the EDI session was free and open to the public. The youth and EDI nights were attended by about 60 participants each, while the college and adult nights each topped out at around 30 participants; as an approximate index, about two-thirds of the participants put he/him pronouns in their Zoom name each night.

Presentations Offer A Variety Of Perspectives

Over the course of the convention, presenters made use of their sessions to explore various elements of successful coaching, offering a range of viewpoints and strategies to attendees. Some took a systematic approach to interpersonal dynamics within teams, giving step-by-step overviews of how coaches might handle given situations. During the youth night, Candace Yeh of the Colorado Cutthroat U20 girls team focused her presentation on user-centered design, demonstrating a particular methodology for having vulnerable conversations about difficulties within teams. She put together a guided worksheet through a program called Mural, which was visually impressive, yet easy to figure out as a first-time user. During the session, participants walked through the way a team might describe challenges they have on the field and designed solutions to work through them; the process was collaborative and user-driven. It isn’t a stretch to envision teams going through the exact process she outlined, and it presented a useful model for teams who are still stuck practicing virtually to accomplish something during their time off the field.

U24 Mixed National Team assistant coach Lauren Boyle’s presentation offered another perspective on sharing information and building relationships within teams. She outlined her vision for a player-centered approach, focusing on methods of communication both between coaches and players and on the player-to-player level. Boyle emphasized the importance of being actively inquisitive as a coach as well as setting expectations for communication ahead of difficult conversations. She also shared that she has captains write their own communicative expectations for their team and send them to players before the season.

On the strategy side, Miranda Roth Knowles’s session titled “How to Win Games You Shouldn’t: Punching Up in Ultimate” was one of the most popular of the entire conference. Knowles had initially been asked to present on a different topic, but convinced the organizers to let her switch. “I really wanted to talk about this,” Knowles said, “because I’d been thinking, what is it that people see in me that they think is a good thing, that I bring uniquely to the teams that I coach?'” She primarily discussed the strategies that Atlanta Chain Lightning, the men’s club team she coaches, used in its upset of Chicago Machine at the 2019 Club Championships and how those methods could transfer to other teams.

The final night’s session on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion was well-attended, since it was especially publicized by USA Ultimate and was free to attend. The panel discussion, which included Ultimate Impact’s Nicole Neumiller, Boulder high school girls’ and mixed coach Alexia McCaskill, and US Lacrosse’s Lauren Davenport, was informative and enlightening. The perspectives of people with first-hand experience as minorities in their sport as well as with managing conversations about equity and inclusion were valuable for attendees learning how to address these issues within their teams. It was also helpful that Lauren Davenport’s experience came from another sport, and one whose development can serve as an example for how ultimate can grow and improve while preserving its unique spirit and character.

Online Format Brings Accessibility Upside To Presenters And Attendees

This year, the pandemic necessitated an online format for the convention, but the engagement and accessibility afforded over the course of a few weeknights in February made a strong case for a permanent switch to remote conferences. For many participants, the ability to log in from home rather than planning an expensive weekend in Colorado was what allowed them to participate. While there is a certain social element to in-person gatherings of this kind that simply cannot be replicated on Zoom, the presentations themselves translated to a new format nicely.

The virtual format also made it possible for more presenters to participate. “This is always right when I’m beginning both my high school and my pro seasons, and imagining going away for a weekend, both away from my teams [and] away from my family, it’s just a non-starter,” said Knowles, who had not been able to attend previous conferences. “But I’d give a talk on a random Wednesday evening. For me, it made it way more accessible.”

It wasn’t just the paying attendees who benefited from the conference’s greater range of presenters; the presenters took home meaningful lessons and connections from the event as well. “What this kind of thing does for coaches is, so much of what we do is in our heads, and things that we do and we don’t know exactly how or why we do them,” Knowles continued. “It was just so cool to hear Darryl [Stanley] talk through exactly how he goes through his sub-calling, and hear Dutchy talk about every single D point in a game and what the goal of that D point is, [and] to think about ways to take what they said to make me a better coach.”

The reformatted event’s success came perhaps in spite of a surprising lack of publicity. The USA Ultimate social media accounts tweeted just twice about the convention in January, and promoted it once on Instagram; the event was also promoted in the general USA Ultimate newsletter as well as its coaching-focused newsletter, though the announcements were fairly general.

While limits on USA Ultimate’s resources are understandable, it was a great convention that more people likely would have enjoyed attending given the increased accessibility of the format, and more promotion could grow the event in future years. Looking ahead, perhaps USA Ultimate will promote the convention further and consider retaining some of the benefits of a virtual conference, even as the world returns to social engagement not limited by the online space, and ultimate teams can safely and equitably take the field again.

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years, but now spends his time playing pickup and coaching de Toledo High School in Los Angeles. You can reach him through e-mail (rubin.alex14@gmail.com) or Twitter (@arubes14 or @dthsultimate).

  2. Ben Murphy
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