Monday, December 30, 2013

Teaching New Players :: The Tactical Approach (by Matt Allen) – Part 1

by Mario O'Brien

One of the awesome things about developing RISE UP is that I get the opportunity to interact with leaders and coaches from around the world who are on a similar quest as we are: to actively pursue becoming better leaders and coaches of Ultimate. Early in the fall, Matt Allen, a captain and assistant coach at the University of New Hampshire sent us a paper and a lesson plan he was developing for teaching Ultimate to new players. Since then, he tested his lesson plans and revised his work, Part 1 is below.

There are so many right ways to do things as a coach. One of my goals for RISE UP moving forward is to highlight the work of others that we feel is a step in the right direction in Ultimate education. In this piece I’ve highlighted (or, rather italicized and bolded) specific ideas that are either best practices and processes in teaching/coaching OR commonalities I think many in the Ultimate community can relate to. They are ideas that, generally, I fully support and employ all the time as coach.

We’re excited to publish this piece. If you know someone else who creates things like this, or have ideas you’d like to share, by all means, get in contact with us at

Side note: Putting your plans into action, assessing them, making new plans… all are best practices in teaching and coaching. Congrats Matt, you’re on your way to becoming a better coach, teacher, and leader. Thanks for sharing.

Always Building,

Mario and The RISE UP Team!


Teaching New Players – The Tactical Approach

by Matt Allen


The Way We Teach

New Ideas

I’m a Physical Education student, a captain and  assistant coach of the Ultimate Frisbee team at the University of New Hampshire. I’m writing this article to propose a method of teaching ultimate called the Tactical Approach that engages new players in learning the fundamentals of the game in an enjoyable and understandable way.  The way I, and perhaps most people, learned to play ultimate was this: we all stood in a circle, talked about the vertical stack, got on the field, set it up, with instruction to, “stand here, cut there.”  I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the essence of how most people have learned our sport, and that’s how we’ve been teaching it at UNH for as long as I’ve been here.

I’ve been studying physical education and observing the way our team members learn and perform.  I’ve come to realize teaching ultimate in a command style, with focus on a series of steps for players to follow, doesn’t work for a large population of learners.  This method of teaching provides too much information and sets up learners for failure. For example, we try to teach new players about an algorithmic pattern of cutting, clearing, and pushing down field, and standing on one side of the thrower and the other side of everyone else.  Players who don’t understand the specifics of cutting and space are lost in this command method, end up running in circles on offense, and trailing on defense.  When coaches simply order people to run around in patterns and then lecture them for a while, players don’t have  fun and can quickly lose interest in the sport.

At UNH, for example, in the past three years we have had nearly 100 students come out for the first week to see what the game of ultimate is all about. We dedicated the first two weeks of practice to “teaching” (as described above) and by the end of October the number of players had dropped to around 40.  By the time the College Championship Series comes around in April, we can barely field enough players for a B team. I believe that this loss of participants speaks to our inability to effectively teach the game and keep people interested.  Telling people what to do, having them stand around and maybe run a simplified drill is boring, unrealistic, and insulting – it sends the message  that we think players are incapable of understanding strategic ideas and need algorithmic instruction on where to go in order to function.

How do I think we should teach the game of ultimate?  I advocate for, and have adopted, what is called the “tactical approach.”  Teaching ultimate is most effectively done by talking about tactics, using specific skill instruction to help improve execution of those tactics and learning them through playing the game.  The goals and aims are to teach the “why” and “how” of offense and defense, as opposed to the command style “what” to do and “when” to do it.  The focus is always on a tactic, a strategic idea, interspersed with specific skill instruction, and always in a specific order: possession, creating space, on-the-disc defense, off-the-disc defense. The tactical method is largely based on playing small-sided games (4-on-4 or 5-on-5 is ideal) with a focus on teaching specific tactics while going through one idea at a time.

The tactical approach is better than the “here’s the stack, now cut” method because everyone learns the fundamental strategies, rules, and feel of the game at the same time in an easily understood progression. Everyone is involved in playing the game and in a position to touch the disc numerous times.  Most importantly, this style breaks down the essential skills of cutting, throwing, and pivoting to their most basic elements and allows everyone to  understand game concepts.  Here is the first lesson plan that covers the fundamentals of possession.  I will go on to describe, in detail, my proposed tactical method of teaching ultimate.

Lesson Plan #1

The formula is pretty simple: play a game with simplified rules, work on specific skills to help the tactical idea, then reinforce and apply the idea in the same game.  The tactic and the goals of the game are explicit, and there is always a question and answer session after each game to check for understanding. This method is guides and helps learners understand their own experiences.  A full lesson plan is at the end of the article.

I recommend that you allow sufficient time for  games and the skill work – don’t rush.  I would spend at least 45 minutes on each tactical idea, and you may want to practice the skills more than just once.  If you notice that your students are getting open down field, but throwers are having a hard time throwing around their defenders, coming back to work on throwing skills definitely is the right way to go.

 PART 2 coming soon…