Witmer’s Wisdom: Empower Athletes with Consent-Based Coaching

With consent-based coaching, you can empower athletes, teammates, and yourself.

Coaches, and peers, can use Consent-Based Coach to help enhance their teammates’ experience. Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com

This post is sponsored by The Ultimate Athlete Project. See how the UAP can help you become a better, healthier, smarter ultimate athlete at theuap.com.

One of the reasons I fell in love with ultimate is because there was no coach when I started playing. We were a self-organized club at Virginia Tech in 1996. A few experienced players who knew how tournaments worked put in the bids and took folks based on availability and interest. We never called subs, we just sort of figured it out and self-policed our playing time and peer pressured others into sharing it when necessary.

At school, I was an A student and an overachiever. I felt a lot of pressure to perform and to please the adults in my life. It was liberating to have autonomy over my athletic experience in ultimate. Even better, the experience of individual autonomy within a cooperative team structure was something I’d never experienced before.

So when I found myself in coaching positions of high school athletes, I often wondered, “am I depriving these kids of the very thing I loved about my early ultimate experience?”

I always rationalized away these misgivings: “Well, if I don’t do it someone else will.” I also could not deny that when I finally did get some organized coaching in graduate school, I became a much better player very quickly. Clearly coaching is valuable. So I decided the only option was to become the best coach I could be. But I was never able to shake the misgivings floating around in the back of my mind.

Only recently do I feel I’ve finally resolved these tensions for myself.

I’d like to give a lot of credit to The Institute for Equity Centered Coaching for giving me the language to explain some of my misgivings about coaching. And for giving me real training and tools to become the kind of coach that I’ve always wanted to be. My coaching now feels aligned with my origin story in ultimate and with what I want to be able to provide to the players I coach.

A large piece of this puzzle is the idea of consent-based coaching.

What is Consent-based Coaching and Why is it Important?

At its core, consent-based coaching is pretty simple: does the person give consent to be coached by you? In a program with The Institute for Equity Centered coaching, many participants in my cohort were implementing these ideas through the context of doing business coaching, life coaching, career coaching, health coaching or other types of one-on-one coaching and consulting. However, I believe there are still ways in which this applies for athletes and coaches in a team environment.

The reason consent-based coaching is important for any type of coach is that people learn best when they want to. This is simply how our brains work. When the mind is feeling safe, open, curious – this is when we are able to make the most rapid progress and largest changes.

How Does This Apply to Ultimate?

For the coach of a team, the context is a bit different than one-on-one coaching. At some level, a player deciding to be on the team or show up to practice is giving consent. The expectation in this context is that the coach of the team will be coaching them.

However, on most ultimate teams, there is a lot of informal coaching that happens between players as well. Peer to peer coaching is great! It’s how I learned to play when I first started. One coach, or even a team of coaches, does not have the capacity to give every player one-on-one attention. I’d argue that peer to peer coaching is not only acceptable, but also necessary.

The challenge with peer to peer coaching is that showing up to practice is not consent to be coached by anyone, anytime.

For women especially in a mixed gender environment, being overcoached is a serious problem.

When we allow peer to peer coaching without providing instructions or boundaries, you’re going to get a mix of positive and negative coaching experiences. In a mixed gender environment, you’re often going to have men coaching women in ways that are not appreciated or effective. At a recent coaching clinic in Panama, pretty much every woman present confirmed the experience of being coached nonconsensually, or being annoyed by being coached my male players who do not necessarily know more than they do.

Non-consensual coaching can lead to frustration, less enjoyment, and less receptivity to learning. Even if the desire is there, the athlete’s brain has less capacity to absorb new input when we’re feeling bombarded with too much information or the right information at the wrong time.

Small Steps for Coaches

Here are a few things that I’ve tried that have worked for me as I work on improving the learning environment for my athletes.

1. Ask for permission!

When you have some one-on-one feedback to give, try asking for permission. If you’re in an official coaching role, maybe you don’t NEED to do this. But starting the conversation with “Can I offer a suggestion?” “Is now a good time to share something I’ve noticed?” is a good way to help your athletes psychologically prepare and be more open to what comes next.

Practicing this yourself also models this asking behavior and helps to make it a normal expectation in the peer coaching process.

2. Pay attention to clues of enthusiastic participation

Athletes learn best when they are focused, engaged, and curious. Paying attention to what parts of practice elicit more of these feelings can help you in your practice design.

If players are confused, overwhelmed, overstressed – there may be a place for this type of environment specifically for practicing mental resilience, but not for acquiring ultimate skills or game IQ. This might present itself as players talking between reps about topics unrelated to the drill or as players asking an excess of questions about how the drill should operate.

When athletes seem to want to continue doing an activity after it’s time to stop, that’s a great sign. Another green flag is when players are engaged and communicative between reps.

Most athletes at a practice will do most of what you ask them to do. But if they seem bored or disengaged, that’s more like compliance rather than enthusiastic participation.

Compliance isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. And it’s not harmful or annoying the way nonconsensual coaching can be. But it’s all a spectrum. I believe that paying attention to cues of enthusiastic and focused participation is an important part of paying deep attention to your athletes. It can tell you about their overall receptivity (vs if a significant number of the team seems burnt out or mentally checked out). It can also tell you if the activities you’re bringing to your practice plan are a good fit for the team skill level.

3. Train your players on peer to peer coaching expectations

Most people understand that if someone is not ready to receive feedback or coaching, it’s not going to be effective. The idea is simple. Ask someone if they want to receive coaching suggestions. Give people real permission to say “no” or “not right now.” A player that says “no” should not be labeled as “uncoachable” or “not open to feedback.”

Consensual coaching is not rocket science and nothing new in the ultimate community. And it can be taught. I believe leading up to Pitt’s nationals championships, Nick Kaczmerek taught his athletes at Pitt using the idea of “praise, press, and address”1 to communicate to each other their desire to share positive, neutral, or challenging feedback with each other.

The point is, whatever system you use, having a shared language and a shared system for how to talk to each other can help to create more positive player to player coaching interactions and avoid unnecessary frustration.

Train your players on how to help each other. And allow them to say no to peer coaching when they want to.

Small Steps for Athletes

I have coached many athletes in my UAP Premium program who have felt frustration around getting too much feedback, conflicting feedback, nonspecific feedback, or just unwanted feedback from coaches or players.

We are taught that we need to be coachable and open to feedback. It’s true that if you rarely listen to coaching you’re not going to get far in your ultimate game.

But has anyone ever taught you that you have a limited capacity for feedback? I want all athletes (especially women) to know that just because you don’t (or can’t. or don’t want to) accept feedback from everyone all the time does not mean you’re uncoachable.

1. Purposefully decide who your coaches are

Think about who you enthusiastically enjoy accepting coaching from. It does not matter if they have the official role of being a coach or not. Who do you respect as a player or coach? Who’s feedback do you value most? Who is easy for you to understand when they explain things to you?

The truth is, your brain will be more receptive to some folks than others. And it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with either of you.

I recommend that you actively seek out coaching from people you want to be coached by.

If you are actively seeking out coaching, and if you know who your coaches are, then you can stop feeling uncoachable when you want to say “no thanks” or “not now”

2. Give yourself permission to say “no, thank you” and practice it beforehand

Practice how you want to say no. Many of us have been taught that saying no to someone who says they want to help you is rude and ungrateful.

“Capacity” is a helpful word to use in these situations. Instead of saying “I don’t want to be coached right now”, you can say “I don’t have the capacity to absorb that right now.” This makes it about you, not them. And it is true. If you’re feeling resistant to coaching or frustrated for any reason, you don’t have the capacity. The reason why doesn’t matter.

If you’ve done step 1, you can also say “hey, I’m getting coaching on this concept from [X person] and I want just one source of input right now.”

3. Trust your ability to filter feedback

Do you feel frustrated when you receive contradictory feedback? Some of this frustration may come from the belief that you need to try to implement all of the feedback you get. When you can’t implement everything because feedback is contradictory, or there’s too much of it, you may feel like you’re doing something wrong.

Part of the journey of taking responsibility for your ultimate career is learning to filter feedback. Listen for patterns in feedback. For example, if three people give you three varying opinions about your defensive positioning, you might not want to change anything yet. You likely haven’t landed on the real issue, if there is one. Or you might choose to listen to the person with the most expertise and ignore the rest.

If you have multiple people telling you the same thing, or if it’s coming from those you’ve decided you want to get coaching from, you might decide to take that information more seriously.

When you can trust your ability to filter feedback, you increase your capacity to entertain more of it without getting overwhelmed.

Coming Full Circle

The work I do now as a coach feels like I am giving players autonomy over their own journey as athletes. I am giving athletes the thing I loved most about my first experience in ultimate rather than taking it away.

If you’d like to experience more consent based coaching in your life, or if you’d like to have the tools to feel more in control of the progress in your ultimate game, you’re invited to join us in our UAP Premium membership.

If you’re interested in having some training on this topic for your team, I have started experimenting with some team workshops. Please contact us through our website if you’re interested in this for your team.

  1. Apologies if I’m getting the exact wording wrong. 

  1. Melissa Witmer

    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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