This past weekend, I played in a fun one day hat tournament. There were grizzled veterans and fresh faced newbies, players who have been chasing plastic for 20+ years playing alongside some who have been for fewer than 20 days.
These tournaments can bring out some of the best and worst in Ultimate players. So often we hear of new players, especially girls, who are excited to play with and learn from veterans leaving at the end of the day frustrated because they didn’t feel like part of the team. Too often we hear about these negative experiences, and it is avoidable.
My 13 Yellow Team teammates were a good mix of newer and more experienced players. Among us there were five of us with real coaching experience, and a couple for whom this was their first time playing real games on a full sized field. We started out the day slowly, but built up our team and were finally able to notch a win in our final game of the day. While a 1-3 record (a 3 way tie for 3rd out of 5) wasn’t the stuff dreams are made of, I think I can honestly say that everyone in yellow enjoyed themselves, learned something, and made new friends. A large part of that was due to how our veterans approached the newer players.
During our second game against a strong Purple Team, one of the newer boys on the team had a couple drops in a row on easy in cuts where he just fumbled the disc. In a break on the sideline I asked him how things were going. He said that he knows he should catch a pancake catch with two hands. I stopped him and pointed out firstly that he was making good cuts and creating open looks for the thrower. He gave me a look of astonishment or realization. Before he had a chance to recover, I added that he should just keep reminding himself to catch the disc securely. We picked up a disc and tossed back and forth a bit while I talked about catching technique, and then he surprised me. He said that’s all well and good, but let me do it while running, and he proceeded to make cuts while I fed him discs. It looked to me like he was ready to come off the field and just sit on the sideline, but by giving him that piece of positive feedback it kicked in his sense of improvement. Instead of thinking about how he wasn’t playing well, he was thinking about what he could do to be playing better.
In that same game one of the young women on the team, who had first touched a disc maybe four months ago, made an in-cut and I was able to complete a solid up-field pass to her. She turned around and, as many new players do, she got flustered by her mark. She turned to throw a dump, it came out with little spin, and easily floated out of reach of her target on the wind. In a break on the sideline I asked her about it. She said that her target had already mentioned the lack of spin. I responded that I knew that she could throw with spin, but did she know why that throw came out different, and she didn’t have an answer. Pressure, I told her. She had a mark on her, unlike partner throwing at practice. Her dump was moving, with a defender. A secondary dump was moving closer into a position to help out of the first dump didn’t get open, with a defender. Suddenly she wasn’t throwing a simple five meter throw, she was throwing a five meter throw to a moving target with four other people in close proximity. That doesn’t even take into account whatever down field cutter may have been calling her name for the disc or what her teammates on the sideline might have been calling to her. That can be a stressful situation, and one of the things we need to learn on the field is how to stay calm when everything around us (and inside us) is zooming around at a hundred miles an hour.
It wasn’t until the next morning, trying to coax my leg muscles to move me along to get my day started that I reflected on the tournament and saw the connection between these two moments. In both cases, I approached a young player not as a teammate who had made a mistake, but as a person who was having success in parts of their game and struggling in others. In both cases I first pointed out what I saw that they were doing well, and then inserted my suggestions for how to improve from there. I truly feel that both of them left the park having grown a bit, even if only by a tiny amount.
Miranda Knowles, UP’s Director of Coaching, likes to talk about teachable moments. Those moments that you can reflect on what just happened and pull something out that can help you grow, they help attach concrete experiences with concepts that were diagrammed on a white board. While coaching, those teachable moments are the little nuggets of gold that can help your players improve on the field.
Where we move from just being Ultimate coaches to being ‘mentors’ or ‘leaders’ or ‘teachers’ is when we can help make connections between those teachable moments and the player’s life outside of the sport. Next time she feels stressed, will she be able to take a step back and recognize where it is coming from and how to deal with it? Will he, next time he stumbles, recognize all the good work that got him to that point?
I’m not arrogant enough to think that my short interactions with these two on this day will have permanent long standing effects on who they are. I am, however, arrogant enough to think that the cumulative impression of my use of teachable moments with a lot of young people coupled with other amazing UP coaches’ use of teachable moments with a lot of young people just might have permanent long standing effects on who they are. And on who we are.*
*Disclaimer: During the course of the days events referred to above, the author (In addition to some sound fundamental play, some very beautiful long throws, and a couple random fits of dancing) had at least one drop on an easy in cut where he just fumbled the disc and threw at least one dump with little spin that easily floated out of reach of his target on the wind. He is now going to try to internalize these teachable moments himself.