Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reaching the Next Level

As I watch SLUJ (St. Louis Ultimate Juniors) taking shape for the 2008 season, I see a number of 3 year-old teams that, with a little more umph, a little more chutzpah, could take themselves from good to great . . . but how?

This seems to me to be a critical time for these teams. Will they peter-out and lose steam due to a lack of success? Or will they find a way to rise above? It would seem the three years of experience for these programs are in their favor, but what are the specific steps that a newish team/coach can take to move itself from a middle-of-the-pack, 4th place team to a championship contender.

I ask this question of the blogosphere about once a year, in various places, and I have yet to get the kind of practical answers I am hoping for. Has anyone out there played on or coached a team that was able to make this transition? What made the difference? What particular changes occurred on the team, with the players, with the coaches, with the on-field play, that helped you to reach the next level?


Kyle Weisbrod said...

This is sort of what my presentation at UCPC is about on Saturday. I've been on or coached a number of teams as they've made significant steps forward (Paideia '96,'07, Brown '98 and '01, Johnny Bravo '06) and others that could have but didn't (Brown '99,'02, Johnny Bravo '02, '05, Chain '07). Talent and strategy can make a team good, but doesn't alone make a team great.

Creating a team that goes beyond expectations or that plays it's best when it matters is complicated but there are some general concepts that I have found to be very important:
- creating a positive and supportive environment where teammates trust, respect and value one another
- Defining and reinforcing roles and responsibilities (both on and off the field)

Since you asked for practical answers, I'll give you a couple:
- Set team goals and a team structure that everyone buys into. Give everyone a voice and a vote on these things early in the season.
- Captains should not necessarily be your best or most knowledgeable players but the ones that work hardest to constantly model what you as a coach are asking of them
- Focus on team play concepts like the mark (mark is responsible for one side and the downfield defense is responsible for the other side). Communicate the responsibilities here and emphasize the trust that is needed to make this work well. You can do the same with issues of cutting/clearing (creating space/utilizing space) and the reset (dump), or zone D's or O's. But the focus on who is responsible for what is the key.
- Make your team train hard (sprints, track, etc.) not just because conditioning is good for the body but because it is also good for your team mental game. When you see how hard your teammates are willing to work for you at practice you're more likely to trust them.

That's just a few things. I'll be talking about this in greater length on Saturday.

The Pulse said...

There are a few things that can make a huge difference to how a team performs:

1) Conditioning. Being in great physical shape is both a physical advantage and a mental advantage over every team you play. No team will be able to run past you no matter how good their disc skills may be.

2) An adaptable offensive and defensive system. You don't want to provide an incredibly rigid system, but one that the players feel comfortable enough in to adapt when other teams start playing different looks. A team that can only play one way will have an extremely hard time making that leap to a top team.

3) Fundamentals. Make sure every player on the team can throw an accurate open-side forehand and backhand 20 yards. Make sure everyone knows how to mark, how to play man defense, and how to cut. Eliminate drops and preach good decisions.

Anonymous said...

I think you have yet to get the practical answers because frankly there isn't one. I have played on many teams throughout the years,some more talented and more athletic than others, some more spirited some who just want it more or want it less. And not just in ultimate, in basketball, football, lacrosse. And it has always been the same for me, its cliche, but it is team chemistry. One thing I loved about playing on my team last year was that as a core of players we made cuts, starting lineups, decisions within a group of the better players and closer friends. I think what this eliminated was people running through the program that others had a general distaste for, and as a result we were left with 17 of the best friends you could find. Sure there were a few shoving matches at practice here and there and some trash talking on others, but none that was ever done behind the back of another or to sabotage someone else. As a result, we worked hard as hell as a team, and pushed ourselves to the brink. I think to be great you need some luck, a lot of talent, a lot of athleticism, definitely some work ethic, but most of all you need team chemistry. You need to be able to look at someone on your team and be able to tell them to stop playing like an idiot and have them respond in a positive way, a smile a shake of the head and then a point of them playing the hardest they ever had. So a practical answer might be out of reach, there is always conditioning fundamentals etc etc, but to put a team over the top you need comradeship.

anthony said...


You make three great points, but you also forgot a solid mental game.

A team can only go as far as their mind will let them. While being physically in great shape is very important, your mind needs to be relaxed and focused. This can be accomplished by visualization drills, or even by just figuring out what mentally relaxes you.

A good book for many athletes to read would be the The inner game of tennis, it really improves the mental side of the game.

Anthony Nunez
CHS Ultimate Coach

The Pulse said...

I'd also recommend The New Toughness Training by James Loehr.