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Tuesday Tips: Keep Calm And Captain On

Advice for young team leaders who feel unsure about making strategic decisions for their teams.

Arizona State at 2016 Desert D1 Conference Championships. Photo: Alex Rentzis -- UltiPhotos.com
Arizona State Caliente at 2016 Desert D1 Conference Championships. Photo: Alex Rentzis — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by guest author Mark Davis, coach of Arizona State Caliente.

Captaining an ultimate team carries a certain burden for those who take the responsibility seriously. You tend to constantly worry that you are not doing enough, or wondering how results might have been different if you had made an adjustment here or there. You hope to learn from the past without dwelling on it and prepare for the future without worrying about things you can’t control or failing to remain fully present in the current moment. It becomes a difficult balancing act to manage your team responsibilities while also being the player you hope to be on the field.

Every team and every leadership situation is different, but for many teams — especially in college where tenure is short and turnover is high among leaders — leadership roles end up being filled by players with little real ultimate experience. For these young, first-time captains that are driven to do everything they can in an effort to lead their team to success, their frustrating lack of knowledge and experience in ultimate strategy and tactics prevents them from being as effective as they think they could be. They can see something is wrong or needed and they want to fix it but don’t feel like they have the tools to come up with a solution they can feel good about.

Most ultimate players are probably familiar with this phenomenon. I experienced it myself in college, witnessed it in club, and certainly see it now coaching a college team. Earlier this year, a young, passionate captain of the team came to the rest of the leadership to share these very frustrations, wanting to personally be able to have more to offer the team strategically when problems arise. I offered my perspective, which I hoped might help relieve some of her frustration and allow her to see a path toward becoming the leader she wants to be.

What follows is the advice I sent her1, edited for context, personal references, vulgarity, and general readability, in the hope that it can be useful to other young and passionate captains out there.

Take A Deep Breath And Recognize The Scope Of The Situation

In my opinion, the truth about strategy and tactics, as far as diagnosing in-game problems and coming up with solutions on the fly, is that there is no magic formula or answer.

When you step on the field with a team, most of what determines the outcome comes down to how well practice has prepared your team and the raw individual talent balance. A leader can still have a impact on the trajectory of the game, but start by recognizing that there is only so much you can do to fix problems in the moment. Rely on what you have prepared for in practice, then just use common sense.

To some degree, most everyone is winging it. There is no strategy that will always work, there is no one thing you can read or video you can watch to automatically become good at making in-game adjustments overnight. Plus, there is rarely only one right answer — the way one person successfully leads their team through a situation can be different than the way another person successfully leads their team through a similar situation.

There are several facets to in-game decision making, but if we focus on making adjustments in real time, there are particular aspects, which in combination inform what kind of decisions are made and can provide tangible paths to increase your capacity as a leader: Knowledge, Experience, Confidence, and Common Sense. Knowledge and experience are your primary sources for answers to tactical questions, but they are filtered sometimes significantly through what you bring to the table in confidence and common sense.

Knowledge

Knowledge can be sought after and gained from many places, depending on what your team’s situation is. Take stock of the information resources available to you and use them. First and often most helpfully, from the coaching staff. For obvious reasons, a good coach is probably your best and most efficient resource. If you have coaches listen to them.

If you are not fortunate enough to have an experienced coach or are just driven to explore on your own, there are resources out there — online publications, forums, videos, local resources, etc. One resource that I recommend for tactical knowledge base building is The Huddle; while it stopped publishing in 2011, it is now archived on the USAU website. I read a lot of it while I was captaining for the first time in college and go back to it every now and then; a lot of it was very influential for me in forming some of the types of ultimate philosophies and principles I still adhere to.

These days, Ultiworld and Skyd are the main contemporary resources for general ultimate related media. Ultiworld in particular does some good strategy related reporting and every now and then they will put out an absolute gem of a breakdown with diagrams and or video examples. These are probably the most widely read resources — you’ve likely seen them, but keeping up with those is good for keeping up with current trends and exploring ideas.

There is also this resource manual put together by some awesome women’s ultimate advocates a few years ago on WithoutLimitsUltimate.com. For leading women’s ultimate specifically, I leaned on that quite a bit when going about the early stages of my involvement with coaching, and I think there is a lot of value in it still.

Another resource I used pretty extensively in the ‘teaching people basics’ stages, Rise Up has great production value for instructional videos and some really good drills and explanations of concepts. Full seasons cost money, though some of their videos are available on YouTube for free.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; I’m sure I’m not being fair to some great resources, as there are many out there if you are willing to look a little. Plus, between coaching staff or experienced leadership, institutional knowledge passed down from previous groups that made it work, or systems and plays that you’ve seen others run successfully — use whatever first-hand sources of information are available to you to supplement what you learn from personal research.

As a final word of caution: reading lots of pages and watching lots of videos can only get you so far. I might even warn that filling your brain up with too many conflicting ideas about how ultimate should work, when to run set plays, and what systems to implement, might get in the way of figuring out what will actually work for you and when. All of the resources listed above can inform the knowledge you have to draw from, however, the most valuable type of knowledge is that which comes from experience of what actually works for you and your team.

Experience

The best and most obvious (though least gratifying) answer to the question of “How do I get better at tactics and evaluating the game?” is experience. You’ve got to put in the time and keep your eyes open.

Even if you have a coach, there is a certain amount of learning you have to do for yourself through experience. The type of experience and the way you approach it matters too. If you are taking an active role in the decisions that are being made and taking interest in strategy as it happens, you will start to see and understand strategy through a filter of experience. As you start to see what kinds of things actually work for you and your team in certain situations, and what the mechanical details need to look like when you are successful, eventually most of the situations won’t feel new and you’ll have your own tactical ideas informed by your previous experiences.

One way to approach the process of making in-game tactical adjustment is to treat it like an informal scientific process: the null hypothesis is whatever you’re doing (your standard endzone vert stack), the alternate hypothesis (Ha) is your new adjustment (running an iso) to combat a specific problem (lane poaches taking away options). You test your adjustment and compare results as best you can and either adopt Ha (run iso when poached), refine Ha and test again (adjust iso initiation or angle etc), or discard Ha (Poach too strong, iso not a good solution for this). Then start the process again (new Ha – endzone dominator). You apply this in enough situations and eventually, not only are your solutions to common problems more refined, but you have an arsenal of solutions to problems in your pocket to draw from. You can get there by just asking yourself simple questions about the situations you find yourself in and trying to offer rational answers, then observing and learning from the experience of applying it.

The best advice here to a young captain is just keep at it, keep being interested and paying attention, keep using the resources available to you and it will come. I’m not sure there is a shorter or better way, though going about it in a sensible way will streamline the process.

Confidence

If solutions to problems are mainly informed by the knowledge and experience you have, the recognition and implementation of those solutions is shaped by the personal and psychological lens you bring to the whole process. Particularly what you add to the equation with confidence and common sense.

The confidence I’m talking about is not necessarily pure self-confidence, or some kind of certainty that you are always right about what needs to happen — if you are inexperienced, it is difficult to have natural confidence. What I’m talking about is the confidence with which you project your decision and communicate it to your team; it’s confidence because confidence is needed when making adjustments, not necessarily because it’s warranted. Your teammates want to follow your lead, and you can make it easier for them by being confident in what the team is doing and clear about what teammates are expected to do — even if that is subject to change. Confidence the leadership projects when giving the team direction can go a long way from a team buy-in and morale standpoint; it can paper over certain gaps in knowledge and experience, and it almost doesn’t matter if it is real or fake for that to take effect.

When implementing an adjustment, even the best moves can go wrong due to poor communication or instruction. The fuel that powers the team’s ability to be agile with tactics and make successful adjustments is confidence. Someone leading a team wants the tank to be pretty full all the time and it doesn’t even really matter whether it’s filled with real or fake confidence — it all makes it go. If you have knowledge and experience to give you real confidence, great. But if not, you need to pump in the fake confidence accordingly until more experience and knowledge can replace it.

Common Sense

Most of the tactical decisions made during a typical game of college ultimate fall more under common sense than something you might have to read in a high-level article with diagrams and analyses. Common sense is a little bit of a loaded term, but for the purposes of making in-game adjustments, I mean just evaluating the most basic facts about a problematic situation and utilizing the resources you have available to come up with a solution.

Say you see something that isn’t working and needs to be addressed mid-tournament. Look at the evidence of what is happening to determine if the problem is with your strategy or just your execution, whether it is team-wide or confined to just a few players. Once you have diagnosed the problem, ask yourself: What strategies do we have in place, what has been working in practice, what are the weapons on the team, what types of things do we do well? These are all things an attentive captain will know and should offer something different you can try. To me, these are common sense questions, that don’t require any special training, anyone who knows what is going on could ask the same questions. However you, the captain, are the person in the best position to answer these questions and ultimately offer a solution.

You probably already do this more than you may realize. If you’ve ever come up with a call to send someone somewhere on command, or told your defense to go straight-up on a particular thrower, or switched match-ups to take advantage of a mismatch, you engaged in this process of offering simple tactical solutions to problems you observed. I think most of it is about that simple.

When in doubt, start simple. Simple is approachable, simple is communicative, simple can yield significant results, and when it does you can build complexity around it more organically. Sometimes it’s even as simple as not making an adjustment but just making sure people are executing correctly. Maybe the only answers you can come up with are unconventional or you know what will actually happen if you try some of them, but the reality is there aren’t many small adjustments you can try and implement that will irreversibly damage your team if you stop doing it when it doesn’t work. There are solutions that will work better than others, but don’t let the idea that you might pick a less than optimal solution stop you from making any adjustments if you think one is needed.

Be Proactive And Carry On

The key is to proactively try something. If it doesn’t work or even turns out to be an objectively bad tactical decision, this is not a failure of the process of you becoming a better strategist, this is a useful data point. If the same situation comes up again, you won’t make the same poor tactical decision in the same way. You may not yet have a good solution but you have recognized a non-solution and that is valuable if you’re paying attention. Mistakes are part of the process; leadership works best when you aren’t afraid of mistakes, are willing to admit them, and you learn from them. Do your best, care about the results, and go about your responsibilities in a purposeful, reasonable way. You have the tools, you just need to get real comfortable with them and keep fine-tuning them to your style.

This is all from the perspective of an inexperienced captain trying to get better at these things personally. This is not necessarily a process I think applies to every leadership situation, and is not necessarily the main approach of an experienced coach. But no matter your situation, approaching the process with a common sense mindset can help you stay grounded and maintain the flow of knowledge through experience, streamlining the process of you growing into your leadership capability and style.

In the context of leadership honestly evaluating a problem and offering answers, there are not many absolute wrong answers for an ultimate team at the level we’re talking about, except sticking with one that never works. An idea that might be terrible in most situations could make sense in the right circumstances, at the end of the day if it makes sense and it works — it wasn’t a bad idea, regardless of what conventional wisdom might say to the contrary. If your decisions are based on your best, honest evaluation of the inputs and you’re doing everything you can to make it happen but are willing to make changes when you can see they are needed, you’re doing as much as any other good captain out there and you shouldn’t feel bad about being confident about it, even if you aren’t totally sure what will happen.

Just keep grinding. Keep doing what you are probably already doing — keep playing, keep caring about learning, keep getting experience, keep your head up and your eyes open, and watch as it starts to inform the common types of in-game management issues that arise. When you’re young and/or inexperienced, becoming a competent leader is a process that takes time, you shouldn’t expect magic short-cuts to it, but the path is pretty straightforward, and if you are already captaining a team and are driven to do it well, you are already on your way.


  1. Special thanks to Megan Mendieta for making this happen. 

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