Pitt coach Nick Kaczmarek is a shining example of the best kind of coach.
January 22, 2015 by Isaac Saul in Opinion with 3 comments
Last week, Tiina Booth took us through the ABC’s of being a complete player. Her guide included many of the positive and negative characteristics that make up our game’s best and worst players, at all levels. Notably, this tutorial on being a complete player came from one of our game’s most storied coaches.
In an effort to bring Tiina’s write up full-circle, I’ve decided to dive in — from a player’s perspective — on what makes the most complete coach. Because I truly believe my experience with Pitt Ultimate exposed me to college ultimate’s — if not all of ultimate’s — best coach, I’ll be speaking to these qualities in reference to my mentor, dear friend, and one of the greatest teaching minds in the sport: Nick Kaczmarek.
Knowing Your Players
When I graduated from Pitt, I explored some coaching positions and continued to help out with the Pennsbury Ultimate high school program. On a phone call with Nick one night I asked him about the one bit of advice he could give me as a coach. He said: “Coach the players, not the game.”
Of the many wise and cogent words Nick has blessed me with over the years, I think these six words embody him more as a coach than any other. Nick always knew his audience. I know from understanding his relationships with other players that as much as he emphasized being an adaptable team, with adaptable defensive schemes and offensive plays, Nick himself was ultimately the most adaptable of any part of Pitt Ultimate.
It never seemed like when he was talking to you that you were getting some kind of 101 on making a dump cut. He always catered the lesson lesson or skill to you: “you’ll need this when” or “if you get stuck in this position” or “if we’re running this play through Tyler…” For any coach, being sure that you’re catering the lesson to your audience, and not your audience to the lesson, is supremely important.
I thought for a while about the best word to use here, and this is what I landed on. Every great coach needs some boundaries with his or her players.
For some coaches that separation may be never showing a sense of humor so your players always fear you. For other coaches that separation is essentially non-existent, and the players and coach are — for lack of a better term — friends. For the complete coach, boundaries are something that maintain respect but encourage an open and honest relationship.
It’s also important that this line of separation changes as time goes on. Progress is key. I found Nick’s boundaries when I’d immaturely ask questions about his love life or crack jokes about a girlfriend, and he’d respond with silence or a shake of the head and a wry smile. Now, though, our relationship has evolved into a friendship, and that line of separation had been trending towards friendship since the day I met him.
In college, if I needed something serious, if I called Nick at a weird hour or asked him to help me with something non-frisbee related, he’d always be open for a conversation. Nick, and the complete coach, are great at establishing boundaries based on their natural lines — boundaries that you rarely ever find or see because they are where they are supposed to be.
Being A Student
The complete coach is always willing to learn from his players. Nick frequently asked for input, feedback, and even advice. He had no shame in saying, “I’m not sure what the best position to be in here is; what do you think?” And even when he did know what he wanted, often he’d ask just to see what we’d say, or to see how close we could come to what he was actually looking for.
Part of being a student means not always teaching, but continuing to learn. As a complete coach, Nick’s x’s and o’s would change between tournaments, games, or even points. He used to tell us to be like a chameleon, with no shame to put on a different color for Carleton than for Florida, and it worked. Nick watched tons of tape on other teams, and always gave proper attention to tactics that worked for other teams, no matter how far away they were from our own team’s comfort zone or plan.
Every coach is different, and each coach’s responsibilities are different. But on most teams, in most sports, a coach holds some level of responsibility for the sheer intensity that his team is playing with. If players are flat, a coach is expected to give a precise, fiery half-time speech that wakes his players up from their sleep.
The complete coach, though, knows how to pick his spots carefully. Every team has their player-leaders, and those leaders should be expected to take the brunt of the responsibility for keeping a team fired up. Nick had this amazing way about him that, the one or two times he’d speak to our intensity during a tournament, he’d make it count. I’ve played for teams where a coach will harp on intensity in almost every huddle, or call out the entire team because two guys were discussing their weekend plans while the rest of the squad was involved in the game. Nick, though, saved his most intense moments for two instances: when we were truly flat across the board, and when we had just won a big game.
I’ll never forget beating Wisconsin in the finals in 2012, being in that huddle, and hearing Nick say “that’s one baby!” For anyone that was returning, there was a fire and intensity in that statement that stayed with us into our winter training the next year, and ultimately helped us keep our eyes on the larger goal of repeating.
If you are a player on a complete coach’s team, you know exactly what is expected of you. Nick used to always tell us, ad nauseum, to have “the humility to prepare and the confidence to perform.” That was a basic expectation everyone could give themselves, something to unify the team: know that you can always be better, and use that knowledge to motivate you to practice, hit the track, study film, and give 100% when you did.
But the moment you got on the field, you were expected to perform with maximum confidence in your teammates and yourself. What was birthed out of that preparation, and those expectations, was a team full of players who knew exactly what was being asked of them going into each game. Nick would tell me who he wanted me to cover on a turnover, which throws he wanted me to use against which players, how I was expected to respond to throwing a turnover, and what he expected to happen to our offense if I failed or succeeded at executing the things that were expected of me.
Expectation, as it was, built a pathway to success for everyone on our team.
The Big Picture
The complete coach, and Nick more than any other coach in any sport I’ve ever played, understood this concept of The Big Picture. The Big Picture, to me, meant that whatever Nick was teaching me, whatever lesson I was learning through Ultimate, was also something I could and should be applying to my life outside of Ultimate. Even as I was writing this piece, a piece Nick doesn’t even know I’m writing, he was teaching me. While grappling with the section on intensity, and considering its sometimes violent side affects, I tweeted that “empathy is the highest form of intelligence.” Nick, serendipitously for this article, responded to tell me that empathy also might be innate, and linked me to a fascinating video dissecting the subject.
This is the complete coach: seeing an opportunity to teach, and — if that moment comes in the environment of sports — tying the lessons of athletics to the lessons of life. And if it can’t be tied to sports, teaching the lesson anyway. Being average in Ultimate was always something that Nick derided, and he was always sure to mold that into the idea that being average in life was just as boring, loathsome, and wasteful. Why come play for Pitt Ultimate if you didn’t want to give every ounce you had to being the best Ultimate player, student, and ambassador of the sport you could?
Simply posing the question forced all of us to come to the realization that the formula for success in Ultimate was not so different from the formula for success in life, but it took a complete coach to ask this question in order for it to really hit home. Nick was that coach.