Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This year’s fall season is over now. Two tournaments in, the substantial problems that we’ll face as a team have come to bubble at the surface, where hopefully hard work and focused diligence will be able to skim them off our surface and allow our team game to shine.

Before I agreed to coach the Hodags this year, I made a list of a few things that I wanted to accomplish in the coming year. But before I could implement any of the culture-wide changes, I had to make sure that I would have the authority to do so. A year prior, I had returned to Madison and wanted to make myself available to the team as a resource. I knew I’d have some time on my hands and wanted to remain close to Wisconsin Ultimate and the friendships I’d forged there.

There was a small obstacle standing in the way, however. Muffin, fresh off his final year of eligibility and back-to-back championships, also wanted a role. Despite never having been chosen as captain of the team, his (let’s say) commanding personality was such that he was able to drive and direct a large part of the team’s focus toward what he saw as the most important goals. His methods for doing this were, to touch it lightly, a bit heavy-handed, and after his class’ graduation the new veterans on the team were eager to stamp the Hodags with their own style of play and leadership. It’s a delicate balance to shift roles from player to coach, especially when attempting to coach former teammates, and these new veterans, long overshadowed by the dominant players the program had churned out the few years prior, weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to relinquish their control right back to the man who’d held it like a choke-chain over them for the last two seasons. Finding the right balance between using Muffin for his experience and forging their own path would require an even hand, patience, an open mind, and a splash of finesse.

These are all qualities that Muffin possesses, but his application of them has always fallen outside our sport. My first summer back, on countless last calls at the Big Ten Pub and other bars, there he’d be, voicing the vets’ worst fears in a tone that was impossible to read as serious or playful.

“I’m gone fucking coach you guys and there’s nothing you can do about it. Try to stop me.”

Their apprehension at hearing this was such that, when the season began and it came time to delineate roles and responsibilities, they all but cut him from the picture. In a meeting with the both of us to discuss what we’d do for the team, they asked me to help coach and plan with them. Muffin was not given much room at all, not even to do what he does best; plan and implement the team’s fitness program. In a move that puzzled me, they asked that he 1) train Shemoans to be the team’s new fitness coordinator and 2) not go to any of the actual workouts.

I understood their desire to build a new identity with them as the central force, but it felt like throwing the baby out with the bathwater (or, actually, it felt like they were so afraid of Muffin’s reaction to being denied that they wanted to reject him without actually having to utter the word ‘no’). What ended up happening was that Muffin and I were both sidelined and our input rarely solicited, and we had little to do at the practices we attended beyond watching and shouting from the sides. What also developed (I think to everyone’s surprise) was a new, (slightly) gentler Muffin, eager to help and ready to put in work. Being removed from affecting the outcome of a game directly allowed Muff to step back and look at the game with more brain and less brawn, and he grew up in the process. However, the Hodag ship is a mighty vessel, and she doesn’t turn on a dime. By the time everyone realized what Muffin and I could have provided, the season was over and Club tryouts were days away.

It wasn’t all a loss, though. The potential help did not go unnoticed, and after a club season where I was able to prove my chops in designing and running practices the team asked me to take on a much more substantial and formal role as their coach. Muffin’s own attributes didn’t go unused either. Eager to make the final leap from a group of coulda-beens to did-its, Belladonna asked Muffin to bring his singular fire and passion and try to pass it down to girls on the cusp of breaking out.

Tonight is the fall Blue/Black scrimmage, always an opportunity to gauge where we are individually and as a team before breaking for the holidays with a list of to-dos. The team is hungry and I’m eager to put in work, and our weekend in Chattanooga showed us that, while we’re not where we’d like to be, we’re at least not as far behind as we feared. Four months of throwing indoors can spoil us in the same way a diet of sweets does, and we have work to do in zone and transition to get to where we want to go.

Where we want to go, obviously, is only a few miles from Madison’s picturesque capitol: Breese Stevens, location of this year’s College Championship game. The motivation that comes from hosting natties cannot be underappreciated, and you can see it in eyes of the Hodags as they prepare to run their last set of sprints, and in the bottom of the Shell’s trashcans afterwards. Halfway done with the school year, and tough, but enjoyable, challenged lie ahead. We’ll be ready.