Wednesday, November 21, 2012

(above hands not actually Dayu's, Colin's or Hh's)
Continuing to respond...
3) How does your relationship with your captains work? Are you guys all equal partners? Or does your wealth of experience make it so that you have the final decision? How does this manifest itself with the team and in huddles? Who dominates the huddles at practice and at tournaments? Is it you or is the captains? How do you run your huddles at practices? At tournaments?
My relationship with the Hodag captains is great, thank you (but perhaps you should also ask them!). I'll explain our dynamic as I see it. The "Or" beginning your 3rd question implies that either that question or the one prior is answered in affirmative, but not both. I guess I disagree with that premise. Aside from our captains-coach relationship, I have been teammates with Dayu and Colin Camp on Madison Club, as well as their captain on same, but we've also been friends throughout the entire experience. We share a lot of our discretionary time with each other, and we go deep; there are things we have survived or experienced together that I cannot share here. So I see our relationship as an equal partnership, and there is no way I'd be able to do my part without their contribution.

Along with that, our roles and responsibilities complement but are not congruent to each other. And in my role, my "wealth of experience" does make it so I "have the final decision" in matters on the field or at practice, and w/r/t behavior and expectations. But letting the story end there might leave some thinking that I'm roaming around Hodag lives vetoing and imposing my will, which I do not. As I said in an earlier post, the officer corps and I are communicating all the time (unlimited texts & minutes), and I push us in the direction we all want to go. But having the final say in some things is helpful and necessary; there are times when decisions need to be made quickly; also everyone on the same page doing something is often more successful than everyone on their own page doing what they think is right. I'll stick my neck out and say that I have the trust of the captains, trust that I will make decisions with the team's best interest in mind, that those decisions are informed by sound strategy, and that I listen to what they tell me and take them into account.

In teaching high schoolers, captaining adults, or coaching college guys, I've found that deciding and leading unilaterally doesn't come close to getting the same mileage that collaborative work, focused on shared goals, does - Aesop's fable of the Sun and the Wind competing for a man's coat was big for me as a lil'un. I have mentioned that I do not have a vote in picking the team, only the 5 officers do. I attend the cuts and ask questions they should be asking, give my own input on players, and make sure we're balancing present and future. Because of my feedback during the process I've never looked at our final roster and wished it were different; only twice have I adamantly lobbied for a player, making clear I was convinced he should be on the team. In both cases I think time has vindicated my advocacy.

I do most of the talking in huddles, and when presenting drills- a little too much of it, I feel. At practice, I introduce drills and establish the focus of each while the vets demo, and once we're going veterans keep the chatter up and give feedback - this constant learning from each other is a crucial part of our long-term success. Post-practice huddles and most huddles at tournaments it's my voice coming from within. To some extent this is helpful to us; I know as captain of Club firsthand how distracting from your own play it can be to have to be thinking of salient points for the team to focus on. One of the nice things about having a coach is that your captains get to just play. But I also see our team as a long class in citizenry for the outside world. Hodags put in such a tremendous personal investment, working toward long-term goals that are a year, or two, or five long. They should leave the team with the confidence earned from constantly pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and using those challenges for personal growth. Cultivating this side of my players is also a responsibility of mine, and I need to give the captains more of a voice, so that they graduate as Hodags and Badgers, proud and full-throated, ready to lead.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lines Drawn

Continuing to respond to Anon's questions...

2) Technical question. How do you call lines? I'm not asking about your line calling strategy, but what method you use to do it. I've watched McCarthy coach Ironside and it seems like he just uses a small strip of paper with peoples names. From what I've seen of you coaching, it seems like you prefer this method as well. Why do you use this way instead of something like a clipboard that allows you to keep track of points played and other stats? Do you have someone else keeping track of things like that? Any other methods that you've tried?
Hodag Kyle Geppert's father designed a statistics app specific for Ultimate for iphones and ipads, and we use it to keep track of playing time and general stats. Players take turns being responsible for a point's stats, and they rotate turns per game. I have a spreadsheet I made specific to my needs, and the top portion has the names of all the players healthy at the tournament. They are organized by handlers and cutters, by O-line and D-Line, and players from each line that can fill in anytime on the opposite side of the disc. I do this using a table with cells that are shaded different gradients to designate each of these options. Aside from this, in meetings with the officers we design lines of players that have good chemistry for specific situations, such as upwind, must-break, must-hold, etc. I use this coach's sheet to guide my choice from point to point, and i have a rough calculation of points played that ends up reflecting the app's numbers within my margin of error.

In my years on Bravo we organized into small pods of similarly styled players that organized their own playing time in loose fashion, and we communicated often enough to know when to defer, in critical moments, to the team's studs and veterans. We've done this on the Hodags on few occasions, but usually at preseason tourneys. It generally doesn't work as well on a college team than it does on an experienced club team like Bravo; that's not because players overestimate themselves and can't share, but because it takes years of experience to get a feel for the timing of a full game experience, by which I mean how much you've played in relation to others, percentage of total points, complete performance during the game, etc. This makes it difficult to be able to self-assess mid-game and adjust your playing time accordingly. There are some college players that can do this, but it works much better on a team of veterans who have years feeling out the game's subtle texture.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gonna answer some questions from the last post's comment section. Anonymous person asks:

1) Wisconsin has historically been a player/captain driven program. When you started coaching, was there any resistance or did make any adjustments to your coaching style going into it? For example did you take more of a back seat your first year?

That the Hodags had not had a coach before me is actually a misconception. In the winter of 1998, my freshman year on the Hodags, the UPA changed the rules determining college eligibility. Previously, you had five years of eligibility starting from the moment you joined the UPA. That winter, they decreed that the eligibility clock started the moment you joined the UPA or any other governing body of Ultimate. Aside from Jonathan "Opie" O'Connell, our other captain was Simon McNair, citizen of Canada, and that college season would mark 5 years since he joined the UPA, but 6 years since he joined CUPA. During one of our first indoor practices he got the news. After some soul-searching, he decided to stay on for the season in a coaching capacity. He was, in my 18 year-old eyes, far older than most of us, and respected on the team as the brightest Ultimate mind, so the usual problems you encounter from players who immediately stay to coach were non-issues, and his soft-spoken but steady touch complemented Opie's redheaded firebrand style. Simon must have enjoyed the experience, because he stayed the following year as well and helped guide the team to their first natties appearance in the (then)modern era. So there was precendent, and the results had been positive.

I returned to Madison from my years in Boulder and commuted to play with Sub-Zero in '08. That was the modus operandi at the time, having the best of the Hodags travelling up to play with the Frosties, so that year I had the veteran Hodags as teammates. This was the club season after the Hodags' last national championship, and Shane Hohenstein, Muffin, Drew Mahowald, Reb, etc, etc had just run out of college eligibility. I expressed to Jim Foster et. al. my openess to help them with the season, and they expressed two things: 1) They wanted me to coach and 2) They did NOT want Muffin in any coaching capacity. We had a meeting where both of these things would be expressed to Muffin and me, and if you know Muffin or the history, you know what happened next. Muffin pretended to not hear everything anything he didn't want, and we both ended up in "advisory" roles, attending practices but not traveling to any distant tourneys. It was a compromise they decided they could live with. It wasn't that Muffin didn't have the capacity for usefulness, but the year prior he had been an incredibly polarizing figure on the team, and he didn't have the supoort of the younger guys, who after a year of bench-riding verbal choke-outs were hesitant to embark on another season of same.

Everyone's fears were unfounded and the Hodags did as best we could that year. We split results on two games decided on the final point and it pushed us into a pre-quarters match that proved too heavy a weight in quarters, but we had lost the players that played over 3/4 the prior year's points and our ability to finish games still needed work. We were young-heavy and many of them had played only a handful of points, and our inexperience showed. The following year Muffin moved to Boston and I became coach of the Hodags fully.

There wasn't any resistance that I could feel, only the healthy arguments with Feldman that are to be expected of two people who want the best, but we always ended in a shared agreement. In my role as a coach, I have a say but not a vote in tryouts or our tournament schedule, and I don't take charge of any travel logistics. The team was then, and remains, a player-driven team. My role on the team consists of planning all practices, creating and communicating team strategy, calling lines at tournaments and keeping the team's focus where it needs to be during competition. I help players find their roles and give feedback on performance. But none of it happens in a vaccuum; the officer corps and I are in constant communication and they have ample input in what happens. I've been grateful to have, each year I've coached the Hodags, an experienced and motivated leadership who bring diverse insight into our play. My skill is in synthesizing that feedback and insight into a unified, coherent message to transmit to the team.

That has been and will continue to be my role on the team, and it's an honor and so much fun. Our last two second place finishes have tested our character but hardened our will. And although we push ourselves and finishing second has been disappointing, each year we've gone to nationals and played our best Ultimate of the year, and this year we plan to peak there again.


Friday, November 16, 2012

The high school where I work has begun an initiative over the last two years to encourage collaboration between teachers, to share best classroom practices and learning strategies. Collaboration between teachers is time well-spent, as the insular nature of the classroom can turn a school into a land of tiny kingdoms, with each teacher doing their own thing, unaware of the work their colleagues are engaged in elsewhere. I love that time together, where I can pick the brains of people with years of experience making mistakes, adjustments, connections, and developing winning strategies.

That degree of collaboration is markedly absent from the ranks of Ultimate coaches, who are largely left to synthesize from their own playing experience and books and videos their particular coaching style and approach. The mandatory Level 1 coaching certification is a fantastic 8 hour lecture on legal liabilities and admonishments against hooking up with your players, and for casual rec players looking to help out and form a team at their local high school it's a good starting point, but as a long-time club player coaching and captaining established programs, I would have benefited more from direct collaboration with my peers. How do you talk to your players? How far in advance do you plan practices? How do you lay out an upcoming season? What do you focus on during play? How do you decide on adjustments and how do you communicate this to the players?

I take any opportunity to have these conversations with my peers and I'm always searching for new information. It was in this spirit that I was picking Alex Snyder's brain over a dinner last college season. Aside from having elevated herself during this year's natties finals into Club Women's current GPiG, she's one of only two players who have been coached on Fury by Matty Tsang for the entirety of their 7-year dynasty. And because I am so in awe of Matty, I wanted to know: what does he say in a huddle? How does he get Fury to make adjustments? I kept peppering her with questions, demanding specificity, but she couldn't answer me. Not that she wouldn't, but she couldn't. I began to see her annoyance at my incessant curiosity starting to rise because she could not tell me what Matty says, and more importantly, how he says it.

Exasperated and ready to drop the issue, I finally asked, "well, what are you doing in huddles while he's talking that you can't remember his words?" Her answer, its logic and effectiveness so obvious, blew me away in its simplicity. During huddles, with Matty addressing the team, she's playing Ultimate. Not for real, mind you, but in her head. She sees herself playing as she has been all game. And her brain, as it takes in Matty's message, adjusts the video it plays. If they're taking shots from the break side next half, then she sees herself creating space and cuts on that side. She notices where the cutters are attacking downfield, notes where she's looking. She throws those shots. If the adjustment is on the mark to force the arounds, then suddenly her woman has the disc, and Alex pays attention to her feet as the thrower pivots. She contests the I/O aggressively. She shuffles to push arounds for loss of yards. She does all this as Matty's words travel around the huddle and so his phrasing, his words, evaporate away, and a clear vision of how to play going forward remains as the sole precipitate.

What happens then is that when play resumes, she's already been playing under Matty's new rules and priorities. She's game-time before it's actually game time. And the results, for anyone who watched Fury last month, speak for themselves. The power of visualization cannot be overstated, but it only unlocks its full benefits for those willing to commit wholly and play make believe. Even the phrase leaves clues as to what is required: suspend your doubt, release your expectations about your current reality, and make yourself believe in a new reality. And when circumstances change and it's time to make adjustments, you will already know what it feels like to live by your new rules.


p.s. I'm going to expound a bit on the coaching certification/collaboration and my dream scenario in a later post. But for any captains, coaches or players reading, if you've got questions, I'd like to read them, and I'll answer them to the best of my ability here on this blog.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012


This morning I snuck a pinch of haterade in with the ground cardamon, cinnamon, and nutmeg I usually put into my hexsspresso. And as the caffeine kicked in, so did my annoyance with a nationwide habit that players across all levels of play indulge in: the yelling of violations and infractions from the sideline.

How many times from the sideline have I heard, "Billy, that's a double-team," or, "Johnny, that's a fast count," or, without question the most abused, "DOWN!!!"

"Double team", "fast count", and "down", within the context of a game of Ultimate, are not just words, or appropriate sideline communication; they are violations with prescribed consequences; in the case of "down", it's a stoppage of play where the defense is asserting that a turnover occurred. And as such, those specific words should be left to the 14 players currently on the field, and them alone, to use.

Here are some alternatives that I endorse to my team. Rather than say the words "fast count", say, "that's very quick!" Then, at the next stoppage of play, from the sideline you can talk to your teammate and tell him, "dude is fast counting you every time." Play has stopped so feel free to say it then. Instead of "double team", say, "they're too close," "they're crowding you," or "their cup is on top of you." Then, at the next stoppage of play, talk to your teammate and tell her she's being double-teamed, tell her when it's happening, and tell her when and how to punish it. In a stoppage of play, say whatever you'd like.

But keep the word "down" out of your mouth when you're on the sideline. Don't go there at all. It stops play, and anyone on the field who hears it and stops can send the disc back to its location at the time of the infraction, which you can bet they will if, in the moments afterwards, their team was roasted. "Down" requires a disc check to put the disc back into play, and that all players be set in position.

To complain further, aside from "down!" being abused by reactionary knee-jerkers walking the sideline, it's also routinely abused by defenders on the field to stop play, second only to the travel call. Violations in Ultimate are meant to be called when you believe, in your heart of hearts, that a violation has occurred. But the burden of proof for calling a disc down has fallen so low that defenders now call it with little perspective on the disc, without actually seeing it touch the ground, with no angle on the catch, merely because they think that, hey, maybe, right? Of course, if you call them out on their lack of position to see what actually transpired, they're adamant about their call, instantly looking for the nearest holy text to lay their hand on and swear they saw it touch this blade of grass, or that one.

All this is further exacerbated by the confusion as to what happens when a disc is called down. Few seem to know play stops and must be restarted with a check, and often after a side conversation or two the offense will just put it back into play and off we go, official procedures be damned. Ugh, so annoying.

Aside from monitoring what we say from the sidelines to strike a balance between communicating to our teammates and constricting on-field play, let's raise the bar on the certainty we require of ourselves to call a disc down. You should have an unobstructed view of the disc; you should be able to see the moment it touched the ground; you should know, and not just think, hope or, extrapolating a trajectory in your head, assume that it should have been down.




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MLC Redux

Just wanted to jot a few quick thoughts on playing in Missouri this past weekend while they're relatively fresh.

A Midwest autumn weekend is a very mercurial creature, resisting predictions and expectations. A short month ago during our own No Wisconsequences tourney, we played Saturday in conditions that began promising but became progressively wetter, and Sunday morning found the fields swamped as rain poured unabated from the skies, cancelling play for the day. Columbia, MO this weekend greeted us similarly, with a manageably windy Saturday full of sun giving way to heavy winds and heavier rain Sunday, as the mercury dropped, and the cancellation of games after the second round. I assume (or hope) that teams from this region are used to the variable conditions, which make guaranteeing the completion of the tournament a shaky proposition. The Hodags were happy for the opportunity to play as a team for the first time since our final roster was announced, and while we would have loved to Sunday's weather to echo Saturday's, we understand tourney directors can't call on Taoist magic to control the elements.

Our Saturday brought games against Iowa, Carnegie-Mellon, Michigan, and Arizona in a showcase game. While Iowa has some solid players, their handling core seemed very inexperienced, and the stiff wind proved too difficult to overcome. They gave us several short-field possessions on miscommunications in their backfield which gave momentum to the Hodag feeding frenzy. In the field next to us, C-M was bewildering a Natty Mich caught off-guard, so they came into our game with a win and tremendous positive energy. Two Downtown Brown candidates, their primary handler (#47?) and a cutter (#1) were surprisingly effective and the handler has my respect. His throws and movement helped the less experienced teammates receive the disc in more favorable positions and his play elevated the team as a whole. I look forward to hearing more about him and hope his play continues to progress (and impress). Our game against Natty Mich had a chippy midsection, but our younger players from last year are stepping into larger roles on the team with success, and our depth carried us over our opponents in the second half.

Our showcase game was against an Arizona squad which had surprised both CUT and Mamabird in their pool, and it was clear early on why. They have several outstanding receivers, including one with absurd wheels who caught the final goal of the game in the hard cap. The sure-handed receivers, in challenging wind, complemented their savvy primary handler, who despite his unassuming frame and shorter stature has high-release throws that allowed Arizona to effectively spread the field. Our game against them was very spirited and friendly, and seeing their execution this early in the season be as crisp as it was bodes well for their spring. I hope to be able to measure their progress in Madison come late May.

Rumors of Luther's demise have been greatly exaggerated. While they did lose EJ and Graffy, lil' Johnson still commands respect and has throws that rival (but don't match) his brother's, and they have a few big men that played an imposing cup in their zone defense. While they clearly won't be as deep or experienced as last year, if the North Central secures a healthy number of natty's bids again this year, they have the time to grow enough to challenge for one of them. Whether they do or not remains to be seen.

The Hodag-CUT rivalry is as robust as it's been. They lost some dudes, we lost some dudes, neither is giving the other any room to get comfortable. We expect to see them at most of our spring tournaments, and as always our meetings will be a test of each of our preparations.

Our strength at this tournament, and the new roster, brings to mind comments made prior to the tournament on rsd and elsewhere predicting results. Several wondered how Wisconsin will fare with the departure of Simmons and other players we relied on heavily last year. Well, a year prior we fielded questions about how we would ever replace Bergen and Feldman, and the year before that Klane and Crumb, and Foster and Gayor before that, etc. I love my teammates, and I will certainly miss the ones who aren't coming back this season, but I'm not asking myself how we will replace one player or another; I'm focused on how to develop the talent we have for this year, and confident that, like in so many years past, we will.


p.s. One gripe about MLC: please please please get some port-o-johns on site. The fact that the players had to wait almost half an hour to drop a deuce throughout the entire day should make it glaringly apparent that the current facilities are deficient.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Who is our pyromaniac? Who is our firestarter?

Getting yourself fired up with no provocation is one of the hardest things to do. In lulls of energy, everyone knows that if a small-ish number of teammates get louder and more animated and start playing balls out and physical, eventually the whole team will follow suit, and murder will ensue.

The problem is that getting loud and animated takes energy. Getting physical and playing balls out take energy. And the vast majority of humans, in situations like these, silently hope somebody else will do it. So they cross their fingers and wait, they wait to join the surge, straddling their emotional surfboards ready to paddle onto and ride the wave of energy their teammates will create. You will discover quickly that when this happens, you end up with 26 players, each with their fingers crossed, waiting for a wake that never comes.

I'll tell you one thing; we missed Coolidge this weekend. He can be counted on to buckle in and produce in our moments of need, and you can actually see when he declares by sheer will that he won't cede another inch of ground, and any pass foolishly sent in his direction gives us possession, and chills at how Kill Mode he got.

But one player is not enough to spread the fire. And yes, we have Brian Hart, and many other quality defenders; I'm not talking about defensive skill, I'm talking about fire. And not just being able to hold fire, I'm talking about the ability to create it.

Consider this: Once upon a time, there lived a human being. This human being was the first human in the history of our species to create a fire at their will, just because; they wanted a fire and - poof - they made it. Every single human before them had feared fire and desired it and saw how powerful it was but this human was the first to create it consciously, deliberately. Hundreds of thousands of years later we have bics and electric stove tops and furnaces in basements and we take it for granted that we can have heat on demand. (true story!)

The moral of the story is that it's easy as hell to bring the heat when you're handed the flame, but don't nobody wanna be the guy who has to light the torch. It's a tough job, much harder than putting your hand out waiting for the torch to be passed to you.

And so I acknowledge that I'm being demanding when I ask in huddles to spark the team up. It's asking a lot. And I ask it of you all not only in every huddle, but at practices and at workouts as well. Push yourself and us to another level; be the first Hodag to put in more. Am I asking too much? The question does not stay rhetorical; you answer it each time it is asked, through your actions.

And lastly consider this: compare the total number of open college teams that compete in the series with the total number of teams that are division 1 champions at the season's end. How grueling is the path that weeds us down? Are you each doing your part to propel us onward?

I hope the answer to my last question, from all of you, is, "yes." But of course, the real question here is, "are you doing more?"