Monday, November 19, 2012

Captain Tenderfoot

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.