Witmer’s Wisdom: What Kind of Coach Are You Trying To Be?

Becoming a better coach requires intention, especially in a player-driven sport.

Modern coaches can shape a player’s experience in huge ways. (Photo: Rodney Chen — Ultiphotos.com)

Playing as a Whole Human

I started playing ultimate in 1996 on my first day on campus at Virginia Tech. Like many of you, I fell in love with ultimate immediately and I haven’t stopped playing since. Ultimate became an identity and a way of life as much as it was a sport.

And like many of you, one reason I fell in love with ultimate was because of the people. It felt different than sports in high school. I felt accepted on the ultimate field as a whole human. In high school, I felt that my worth as a human was very much tied to what I could produce, either academically or on the field.

In contrast, ultimate was something that no one else cared about and that I did because I wanted to. With no external reward, and no coach to impress, I was able to be in touch with the part of me that just loved running, chasing plastic, heckling, and laughing with a group of folks I loved.

The egalitarian nature of ultimate appealed to me at that time. Everyone who was experienced helped those who were less experienced. At tournaments, no one called lines. We played when we wanted and took subs when we were tired. All of this was able to be negotiated, though not always without tension, but somehow without the need for a coach or arbiter.

This semi-anarchical version of ultimate is the sport I fell in love with. It was a re-imagining of what sports could be for me.

Being Coached and Becoming a Coach

The first time I had an ultimate coach was when I went to graduate school, a full four years after I started playing. Turns out you can get a lot better at frisbee a lot more quickly with guidance from an off-field figure!

There were, of course, tradeoffs. With a coach, my playing time was no longer my decision. This team did not have to learn to negotiate and communicate with each other in the same way as the ultimate community where I came from. And on this more competitive team, my value felt more closely tied to the results I could produce.

Since then, I’ve had many coaches and I have coached many teams.

At times I have felt conflicted about my role as a coach. I fell in love with ultimate in part because there was no authority figure whose approval was prerequisite to my success. I had more ownership over my own journey as an athlete. By being a coach, was I taking that experience away from others?

I viewed my role as a coach as a necessary evil. If I weren’t coaching, someone else would be. It’s all part of the path of  professionalization that ultimate is on. I could either be part of it or abnegate responsibility for it; have a seat at the table or be ignored.

So I assumed the best I could do was to try to be as good of a coach as possible. My tools were the styles of the coaches I had in high school, but they would need improvement and to be tailored to my skillset.

What is Leadership?

Later, I came to realize that it is not simply an absence of a coach that allowed for my first positive experiences on the ultimate field. It was the presence of good leadership.

In this self organizing structure, the men who were in informal leadership positions earned their leadership power by being good at ultimate and by being well liked. The influential women earned their influence by being good at ultimate and by taking no shit. There was Wayne and several others, who were good at corralling the chaos into better collaboration. And there was Hatton, who was willing to call-out players on the field who were not throwing to women. At the time I thought I didn’t need her arguing for me on my behalf. It wasn’t until many years later that I recognized how her willingness to be “the difficult one” created space for a more positive experience for the rest of the women who were new or not as skilled.

The primary thing these leaders did was to teach us how to be ultimate players. While they did teach some skill and strategy, the primary emphasis was on passing on the culture of our particular ultimate community. This included things like acting in line SOTG, respecting your opponents, being a chill person, always going to the ultimate party and socializing with people not on your own team, playing all of your consolation games, singing cheers to the opposing team after games, not caring too much if things started on time, and mostly sharing playing time regardless of the score.

While my playing could have probably improved my skills more rapidly with dedicated drills, what I was taught was how to love the sport of ultimate in a meaningful and actionable way. I do think that good drills and clear strategic explanations can be helpful. But when I look at some of the most experienced coaches who have presented in our annual UAP Coaching Conferences, the topics they tend to think and talk about most are those having to do with team culture. These “soft” skills increase motivation and player buy-in and the ultimate community thrives on them.

Re-imagining Coaching

Playing ultimate was an opportunity for me to re-imagine what a sport could be like as an athlete. Now ultimate is providing me with an opportunity to re-imagine what sport can be in the role of a coach.

I still like the idea of leadership that arises from folks who earn it with knowledge or leadership skill, rather than official positions or titles. I love a more collaborative approach to problem solving.

But I also see the harm in hoping that good leadership will appear by accident. And I know now that informal, communal decision-making doesn’t always create an environment where everyone feels seen and heard.

I would like to imagine aiming for something that’s not simply the same, but better than what I saw as a high school athlete. Rather, I have to build the kind of coaching that enables self determination for my athletes. Can I go beyond giving my players the type of self determination I felt simply from the absence of a coach?

These are skills I’m still working on. I am hopeful that with ultimate still being a young sport, we are still flexible enough to envision new ways of doing things beyond simply mimicking what passes for professionalization in other sports.

Deciding to be a coach brings with it greater responsibilities than those that arise from informal leadership. In informal leadership, where you never formally say that you’re in charge, you can always go home or simply check-out for awhile when you want to. But to step up and say that you are committed to a team as a coach is different. An official role as a coach brings added power and added responsibility.

I feel now the responsibility not to reproduce the same old systems in the name of professionalization, and that leaves me with the responsibility to learn better ways of listening and leading.

This is an invitation to step up and be a leader on purpose. Whether you are a captain or a coach, I invite you to take your influence seriously and take time for your own education. We can apply these shifts in ultimate tactics and in coaching skills.

Learning from Other Coaches

The UAP Coaching Conference is an event unlike any other. If you want to feel like part of the global ultimate community, this is the place to be. And with a wide variety of talk topics and perspectives, you’re guaranteed to hear something new. We start next week! This event is FREE to join and watch live if you register here.

Special thanks to all of you who are UAP Coaching and Game IQ Classroom members. Your membership helps to make the UAP Coaching Conference accessible to everyone! To learn more about what’s in, check out Ben Murphy’s review of the Coaching and Game IQ Classroom here on Ultiworld.

  1. Melissa Witmer
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    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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