Friday, March 28, 2008

I recently spent a couple of months in Los Angeles with my bro Bert. Of all the sweet things I got to see/experience there, the defining role I played while in LA was that of co-coach with Bert of a little team in Eagle Rock, Occidental College's Detox.

I've got mixed feelings about the stint from my end, mainly because it was so different from my own college ultimate experience, and I found myself fluctuating between feeling proud of and frustrated with the players on the team. I think their experience is similar to what many other small teams are going through around the country, so I'm going to write about my observations.

Occidental College is tiny, 1,800 or so students, and walking around campus feels like being in high school all over. Indeed, the campus has been used by Hollywood to portray bourgeois HS life before (Clueless was filmed on campus) and in my last days, production crews were turning into Southeast Cheering Competition station for the next three-word-title dance movie (Bring it on, Step Up 2, etc). Most students live on campus all 4 years, a fact that I could barely stomach or believe, which leads to massive personal growth retardation, giving the general school population a young, naive feel. From this stock Detox chooses its members.

Detox has a long team history (but the name is only ~2 seasons old), spotted with good players but never too many at the same time. Because of this and Oxy's small student body, Detox has never had the critical mass necessary to build a program. They're a team alright, but a program has levels of continuity that these guys don't even know about. Lacking a critical mass of core players and any solid recruitment strategies, the 8 or so committed players make due with another 10-12 who show up when it suits them and these employ a tired litany of excuses to reason out their absences.

The overall effect this has is that the team cannot decide if it wants to be a competing team regionally or just a bunch of dudes that get field time from the school to play some pick-up disc. You can imagine that this might frustrate the most committed members of the team that want to compete interscholastically, and it makes continuity from practice to practice nearly impossible. This makes implementing team-wide strategy likewise unlikely. Not knowing these things, I arrived for my first practice with the team.

My friend Bert gave me some backgroud deets. Having coached Georgetown in D.C. before his move west, a Georgetown player who transferred to Oxy named Neil Oakey wanted more structure to practices and asked the Bert coach them. Bert, Hodags '98-'01, agreed and gave them the rough framework for being good, and indeed they have some capable players this year.
He brought real-world experience playing for a good team and coaching a team in a similar evolution back east. Neil and fellow captain Andrew stand out on both sides of the disc, rounded out by Leor, Jeff, Dan, and maybe a few others. From our first practices together it was clear they liked playing frisbee and they'd never really been shown what real frisbee is supposed to look like. The typical newbie errors - excessive poaching, poor match-ups, weak marks, nonexistent dump defense - were mitigated somewhat by their desire to play. We worked on basic positionings, the awesome Whit's Marking Triangle, and defensive footwork, along with breakmark throws. For the first few weeks we made steady progress, and always had around 12-15 guys at practice. Not huge numbers, but enough. Bert and I cleated up for most of the drills to model proper technique and fill out the numbers.

The real breakthrough I felt I had with this team came at College Trouble in Vegas. Free from the constraints of short practice time, the 15ish players who made the trek with Bert and I got three full days of us being in their ears, and being able to give immediate direct feedback to players as they subbed out; it's the closest thing we had to studying video as they do in football.

Alongside the improvements we also saw some of the hangups that plague the team: poor leadership caused us to be 45 minutes late to our final game Friday, with most of the team having left the fields after the captains announced we were done for the day, and Bert and I discovering later we were supposed to be playing and scrambling to get the cars back to the fields. It's this kind of planning that last year caused them to miss the rostering deadline and as a result, the series (can you believe that? and talking to a few of them about this, they seemed like it only kinda sucked. if that had happened while I was on the Hodags, heads would have rolled. devastation everywhere). Yet despite this, they played well above their seed (we did come in seated dead last in pool XX) and showed the kind of promise that got me excited to work with the team for the following month and a half.

And then, nothing.

That's it, just nothing. After an awesome showing at Vegas and watching the team poise themselves on the edge of improvement people just stopped coming to practice. After Vegas we rarely had more than 8 players show up to any given practice, and soon midterms, papers, work, drama productions, homework, winter league games, dates, and plain old lethargy took precedent. For having a month's worth of practices planned out, running the drills I wanted to became impossible with such low numbers, so Bert and I scaled back demands and expectations to try and coincide with the majority's attendance.

At this time I abandoned my earlier plans to actually pass down strategy and information to them and decided that the few showing up were more entitled to a free-for-all scrimmage than a skills clinic, so we stopped drilling except for during warm-ups and then just played, 5 on 5, on a small field. We even worked on resets and swings and weaves sometimes. It was fun, a lot of fun. It just wasn't very satisfying or rewarding as far as my other coaching stints have gone, with the Pimpdags and Fairview High. There's something intoxicating from pooling so many different energies and personalties together toward a common cause.

Thankfully at around this time I also started to spend a lot of time with the dudes off the field, and our friendships tightened even as the general dedication to ultimate waned. I would have loved to stay with the team through the end of the season, but I would also have loved 14 dedicated players at every practice. Regardless, I learned a lot about the team and became good friends with several of them. How they do this sectionals remains to be seen, but I hope they come prepared and do well. If any of y'all Oxy kids are reading, I'm rooting for y'all to make regionals this year because you've got the tools to do so.

The pitfalls holding Oxy from being the program they could be are probably similar to small schools across the country. Low interest and attendance at practice. Inexperienced leadership having to figure things out on their own. A host of other problems come from these but they're the big roots.

A young team needs a solid nucleus of players equally committed to buying in to the team concept, and those players are going to have to do a lot of leg work. Making posters, distributing them across campus, and talking to friends and dorm mates over and over again are necessary to making sure that you start and end the season with good numbers. Recruiting is the number one goal here: get enough people interested, and they can turn the tide on the school's mentality to lend the team a little recognition. This in turn helps recruitment for later years.

The veterans on Small College also need to play club, on any team provided that they are not the best player there. Being in the bottom 3rd will help, where you still get playing time but learn from the majority of your teammates. This will first off help All-Star disease, where your best player just starts trying to make ridiculous hucks work because they've convinced themselves a blady huck from their hands is more of a sure thing than a 5 yard reset from a novice teammate. It might be true, but it's not going to make the team any better. Learning technique and strategy from veteran players can't be beat, because you can begin to understand the matrix for doing what is supposed to be done.

In fact if you're a college player looking to move up in the world, playing on a mid-level to elite club team is the guaranteed best way to shoot your stock up. I've got so much more to say about this point that I think I might make it its own post, the gist of which will be "if you want to make college feel easy play club."

Go Oxy.


Anonymous said...

Great post, really speaks to the problems Skidmore has had in our weaker years.
Something I'd like to add: I think it's important to get your rookies playing outside of the team as well as your veterans. I absolutely agree that getting your better players to learn from the truly good players in club helps them and the team continue to grow. What I've seen in myself and other former rookies is that great leaps in progress can happen when an inexperienced player gets a chance to "get out from under" the players who taught them. It's easy for young players to get stuck in a role when they only play with one group, but when they branch out, they get the chance to form new impressions and take on new roles and responsibilities on the field.
Looking forward to that next post.

Anonymous said...

"If you want to make college feel easy play club."

So very true. During my final 2 years of college eligibility I was able to play for a club (open) team that, while good enough to compete with elite nationals teams, only won those games maybe 1 out of 5. We regularly finished somewhere between 10th and 5th at club Regionals.

The biggest thing I noticed each year was how hard it was to adjust from the college game to the club game and back again. After a college season, my first club tournament in early June would often make me feel entirely out of place. I recall a moment at just such a tournament during my first point on the field where I couldn't believe how much faster everyone around me was moving compared to what I was used to. The exact opposite applied when heading back down to college tourneys at the end of a club season.

Breathing said...

reminds me of new college.


Anonymous said...

Cool to see someone resurrecting the team logo that Edinboro University used in the late 90's. Chemical X dropped it in 2000 and become Haggis.

Anonymous said...

Speaks true to so many mid-level teams. Great article.

Brian Frederick said...

I handled things much differently than you did (something I've been contemplating regretting lately) and we now have 35 people on the Pimpdags. We're sending a C team to regionals. If you coach the pimps next year, I'll coach the cteam and we'll call the cteam the shit-box-tool-heads, as I promised Scallet I would long ago. I digress.

Coaching ultimate really has been strange for me, and a great learning experience as well. As rewarding as ever, so they say.