Starting Your Season Right: The Forming Stage

New seasons are full of hope and anticipation, but often the best laid plans don’t bring the changes you hope to see on your team.

Mixtape huddle during their semifinal game against XIST. Photo: Sam Hotaling – Ultiphotos.com

This article was written by Luisa “RJ” Ruge-Jones, a professor at the University of Dayton with a PhD in team and organizational communication. She is also an ultimate player and coach in the Great Lakes region, whose expertise centers on practical ways to facilitate teams long term. 

We all know the feeling. It’s been months since the last point of the postseason with your club team. You embraced some offseason R&R, received a not-disconcerting amount of frisbee gear in holiday gifts, and played a few games in questionable weather. But now, the real first sign of spring has arrived. An email from your team has popped into your inbox. The new season is here!

With lots of time between the final game of one season and the first practice of a new one, there are many opportunities to plan for a better year. That endzone set you couldn’t quite get right, the lack of focus at early practices, and the competing ideas of what the team should be doing better all can be fixed with a perfect plan. This year will be the year it all comes together!

But wait—you’ve been here before. New seasons are full of hope and anticipation, but often the best laid plans don’t bring the changes you hope to see on your team. I’m here to talk about the important steps you can take at the start of the season to set you and your team up to make good on those plans for improvement. Welcome to the Forming Stage.

The Forming Stage

The Forming Stage is the initial stage of a team’s work together. While you might not recognize it by name, your team is in the forming stage if:

  • You have a lot of questions about how the team will work, but not a lot of answers.
  • You feel shy and uncomfortable around your teammates.
  • Your stack flow on offense just isn’t working like you know it could.

While the forming stage can feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. The good news is that all teams experience some time in the forming stage and there is a way through it.

How to Set Your Team Up For Success

The best way to move through this stage is by having early and intentional conversations with your team. Each team might have different communication channels or comfort levels. Text conversations might not work best for this, but other than that, it’s okay to find out what works for you. The important thing isn’t the how, but the what as in “What should you be talking about?”

Who You Are as a Team

Beyond geographic proximity and a shared, often silly, team name, an identity is what transforms a bunch of individuals into an actual team. A team identity helps keep people focused as a unit and gives a little extra juice to overcome difficulties throughout the season. It’s important to have conversations early and often about your team identity. A great place to start is by asking things like:

  1. What kind of values do you want to guide your team?
  2. What do you want your team to be known for?
  3. What process and outcome goals do you want to achieve this season?
  4. How can you set up your practices, rostering decisions, tournaments, and other team activities to align with this identity?

Who You Are as Players

There is lots of research behind the true value of team bonding activities that translate to on field success. Although name circles, ice breakers, and inclusive team social events seem both obvious to do and easy to implement, they play a key role in building team trust, reducing uncertainty, and improving team performance over the season. Fun on and off the field will very often translate to success on the field. There are so many different ways to build chemistry!

Although it’s great to know what Tommy’s favorite ice cream flavor is or which celebrity they think they could beat in pickleball, here are some other questions you might ask your teammates to discover what role each person can play in bringing the team’s identity to life:

  • What are some of your personal goals this season?
  • What is your favorite role to play on the field?
  • What is something in ultimate that you find particularly challenging?
  • What do you expect from your teammates?
  • What is the best way to give you feedback when we are playing together?
  • What is your go-to cut or throw?

Final Tips for Effective Team Conversations

As you’re beginning your new season, the season where it’s all coming together, take these final tips to help craft the conversations you want to have to get your team to that next level.

  1. Come into the conversation with a plan of what questions you want to ask to help keep the discussion focused and efficient (and to avoid the common equation of passionate players + new season + team identity talk = accidental three hour meeting).
  2. Create moments for individual thinking – have time for everyone to silently think their thoughts. That way everyone, not just the quickest thinkers or loudest teammates, get their ideas heard.
  3. Create space for everyone to share their ideas – ask people to individually share something they are thinking about or have people submit answers before the meeting to your main questions. Hearing everyone’s (not just the most stubborn or loud players) thoughts on what the team should be can increase buy-in to the team’s mission for the whole season.
  4. Don’t forget to write down what the team talks about and decides so you can come back to it throughout the season!

That’s the forming stage! Teams that spend effort (over)communicating early in the season reap the rewards near the season’s end. The team identity provides a roadmap when things get shaky mid-season. Player relationships help to build trust that quickly can translate into on-field chemistry, especially in the most stressful situations (universe point in the game to go – we’ve got this!).

If you’re reading this and recognize your own team has done some of these well in the past, share your ideas for team bonding activities and team identity conversations in the comments below!

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