Witmer’s Wisdom: Precision Coaching

Finding the root cause of your errors and fixing them for good.

Seattle Sockeye defends in the red zone during the 2018 National semifinals. Photo: Greg Pettus — 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.

A player at the front of the endzone panics and throws into traffic creating a turnover. How many times have we seen that? And what do you say to a player after they do that? Likely something like, “Calm down. You have to stay chill near the red zone!”

But what if you’re wrong and panicking near the end zone wasn’t actually the problem? Have you actually helped your player to behave any differently?

And besides, most players already theoretically know that they should stay calm near the end zone. But intellectual knowledge is different than the embodied knowledge needed to change a behavior on the field.

As coaches, what we know about ultimate is important. But the ability to help a player to change their behavior on the field matters more. Intellectual understanding of ultimate is useless unless it is executed in practice. Embodied understanding is what determines what a player actually does on the field.

I’ve been coaching KIE in Medellin Colombia for the past five weeks. With them, I’ve been able to test out some of the tools I use with Premium clients in a team environment. In this example, the player used a variety of our training tools to get the coaching from me that he actually needed. What we did is took one specific error, got to a root cause that can be generalized to other decisions.

Starting with a deep dive into a specific to get to the general solutions a player needs is what I call Precision Coaching.

Determining the Root Cause of Errors

For any error, there are three possible correctible sources, plus one more:

  1. Mental interference
  2. Lack of skill
  3. Incorrect Mental map of the situation (Game IQ)
  4. Shit happens (the natural error rate) – similar to skill, but for the 3% errors that occur even when players have the skill.

On our team, we’ve developed a post-play reflective practice. The idea is for them to remember their errors and ask themselves a few questions.

  • What did I see?
  • What did it mean?
  • What did I feel right before or at the point of decision?
  • What did I decide to do?

One of the primary mental skills here is using feelings as information.

When we’re using the correct brain for the correct purpose, we can count on our sports brain to recognize patterns and act appropriately without much conscious thought. When we are using our correct brain for the correct purpose, we feel relaxed, confident, focused, and in control. Feeling confused, rushed, or afraid can all be indications that the errors are not skills or game IQ challenges, but mental training challenges.

The three questions: “What did I see?” “What did it mean?” “What did I decide?” all give us insight into the skill or game IQ in play during the incident. “What did I feel?” gives us valuable insight into whether the athlete is using the correct brain for the correct purpose. Or if they have some emotional/mental interference inhibiting their natural skills in that moment.

I’m going to walk you through a recent conversation with one of my athletes that demonstrates Precision Coaching in action.

With the post-play reflection, we can start to get to the root cause.

Real World Example

The Thrower told me: “I saw a good cut to the right space. In fact, I felt with my body that the pass was going to connect and I even felt for a moment that it connected but it bounced off his hand. And that gave me a little frustration because I felt it had been good.”

So, the first thing I realized as a coach is that my perception (from across the field – best perspective! amiright?) was not accurate. This was not a panicked or rushed player.

The concept of feelings as information is that you can feel in your body the difference between a sure decision and a “maybe” decision. This is because the pattern recognition for how ultimate works is stored in the sports part of your brain and is the same place where your feelings live.

The feeling of “surprise” at the missed connection really shows that Thrower was positive they were going to complete the pass and were not panicked or rushed at the moment of decision. So it’s not a mental interference error.

At this point, I’m thinking it’s a “shit happens” error. The pass was to a highly skilled player, Receiver. He might drop one out of 500 passes. Maybe it was random. That was my analysis until I asked another question: “Maybe check in with Receiver and see what his perspective was if he remembers the play.”

Because we had been practicing these kind of conversations as a team, it turned out Thrower had already done that.

“I talked to Receiver just after because I was sure the pass to him was the best option. But he said the pass wasn’t so accurate and bounced off his hand,” said Thrower.

Suddenly, this is beginning to to look like a throwing skill error. But I also know Thrower. Their throws are usually accurate even if the decisions aren’t always perfect. Where the players got to in this conversation was that maybe it was just a fluke. Or maybe Thrower didn’t have the throwing consistency in his throws in that situation that he thought he did.

This is the spot where a lot of player to player analysis ends. Basically the solution is to “try harder” or maybe do something different next time the same situation comes up. But I asked a few more questions. That it would be a throwing error was surprising to me.

So I asked, “Why was the throw not so great?” What was it about this situation that may have made it a less than 90% sure thing?

And I presented some options: a cut that made the throwing angle difficult, running out of space near the sideline making the margin of error very narrow, or throwing a fast moving throw to a fast moving cutter.

When presented with some ideas, Thrower knew it was the third thing: “Now that you say it, what you are telling me is right. I feel the cut was very fast and my throw was just as fast, that’s why I feel it caused a rebound at the moment of the catch.”

That brought us to a real conclusion: this is actually a game IQ/mental map error. If we had stopped earlier, we might have walked away thinking it was unlucky.

For some players, when they see an open cutter, they will throw any throw directly at that cutter. A higher game IQ decision is to be able to consider other factors like speed of the receiver, weather conditions, what type of throws you can make with a high degree of consistency, and use all of that context to make a more specific choice. Or perhaps not to throw that throw at all in favor of a more simple or easier throwing option.

In this case, a fast moving throw to a fast moving cutter moving into a tight space is not the best choice. The margin of error in this situation is lower than what we would ideally like at the level we are trying to play at.

Applying the Fix

I could have told this player a million times to stay calm near the end zone. But that would not have affected this type of decision error, because staying calm was not the problem. As a coach, I need to trust my players that they know their own feelings and can report them to me accurately. And we can use that as information. With enough questions, we got to the root cause of the issue.

With a new mental map or vision of how to use his throws he can automatically make higher percentage choices without having to think about it. And with the recent mistake that does not feel good, he is very likely to generate the new pattern recognition he needs and replace the old pattern recognition that led to a poor selection of throwing speed.

Tools Used:

  • Feelings as information
  • Post-play reflection
  • Post-play conversations with teammates
  • The concept of mental maps
  • Feelings as a learning tool

The team training tools we’ve been practicing as a team made this all possible. Having a coach involved was also probably necessary. As a coach, the most important thing I did was ask the necessary questions so that we could figure out the real root cause of the error. And secondly, I was able to provide the mental map the player needs in order to quickly make different decisions going forward.

Want More? Be More Precise

I’ve been coaching this team for five weeks. And they have just recently learned the tools they need to make this process work. (And btw, I barely speak Spanish so …the process has been a bit slower than it would otherwise be.) Imagine multiplying this process with multiple players every practice for a whole season. How many unforced errors could be prevented? And what difference could that make in your win/loss record over a season?

Team/Coach Training

If you’d be interested in having a training session for your players on how to do this process, get in touch. If you’d be interested in learning how to do this type of coaching yourself, I may create some paid training courses for this in the near future. Let me know if you’d like to be on the wait list for that option.

Precision Coaching

Even if you have not been trained on using these tools, I can help you figure out the root cause of a specific error or type of error in about 20 minutes. I call this process Precision Coaching. If you would like to have this type of coaching in your life on a regular basis, you can learn more and be ready to join our Premium Membership when we open to new members here.

  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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