This article is part of RISE UP Think Tank: Leveling Up.
Practice and repetition play important roles in skill development, but having someone to oversee and encourage your evolution as a player is the real key to growth. Though the sheer number of visible role models is much greater today thanks to the birth of professional leagues, the internet, and highly-visible USA Ultimate championships, you need a mentor who can really invest in you if you want to take your game to the next level.
People who can offer unsolicited feedback on your game are a dime-a-dozen. The real secret is finding someone who can engage in an ongoing dialog with you about your goals, progress towards meeting those goals, and the paths to get there. Finding a person who can motivate you through the journey of trial-and-error that lays ahead of you is great, but you also need to trust that person’s guidance will get where you want to go. Being open to hearing feedback and implementing suggestions will turn your relationship into a two-way street that will position you to achieve your goals.
When I showed up in 2007 to my first club tryout for Seiche, a Milwaukee-based mixed team, I had been playing for four months. I had athleticism and potential, but when I compared myself to other tryouts, I worried about whether or not I’d make the team. One captain– Mindy Draeger– must have seen something in me, because after taking advantage of every weakness I had in our scrimmage match ups, she taught me some simple defensive adjustments that led to incremental improvements in my game. When she called to offer me a spot on the team, I knew that I would flourish under her guidance.
Within a few practices, I set a goal for myself to earn a starting defensive spot, a goal that Mindy agreed was reasonable by the end of the season. The thing that held me back was my limited macro-field vision– I wasn’t able to see what I now call the play-after-the-play. Mindy, on the other hand, was a strong offensive player who possessed the field vision that I lacked. During stoppages of play or on the sideline I picked her brain about offensive strategy. She would explain how she saw plays developing, where players should clear, and what throws were viable. I could ask her questions and we would have a dialog until I understood.
Mindy started pushing me to explore my limits in practice. She told me to focus on my footwork during tiresome conditioning drills when I was too out of breath to think. She urged me to push the boundaries of how far off or close I should play against different players. Even when I was frustrated, I wanted her feedback. I wanted her to see that how committed I was to improving my weaknesses and becoming the best player I could be. What I lacked in on-field ability, I could make up for in effort to improve.
Mindy knew that I was motivated to compete, and she related. If she succeeded too easily in our on-field match ups during scrimmages, she would say something as simple as “you could have had a play on that,” to provoke more stifling defense. My competitive drive took over. I needed to win my matchup and I needed her to see I could be a great defender. By mid-season, I finally reached that next level when I got my first layout D in a game-situation; it was at practice, on Mindy. It sparked the intensity that I needed to reach my goal. Even though I scored on her and she was frustrated, she celebrated my achievement. She put her arm around me as we walked to the sideline and helped me realize that my defensive game was forever changed.
This story illustrates exactly how important it was for me to have a mentor and the qualities that helped me succeed. You may or may not have someone in mind to help you, but by looking for the right qualities, you can develop that truly game-changing relationship. Here’s how to do your part:
1) Find someone who speaks your language. Can this person draw comparisons to other sports you used to play? Does this person explain things in a way you can quickly understand, or answer questions easily when you ask them? Can this person teach in a way that connects to your learning style (i.e. drawing, explaining, demonstrating, etc.)? Having someone you can understand is fundamental to being mentored. If the feedback won’t resonate, what is the point?
2) Time and patience. Does this person seem annoyed when you ask questions? Will this person try to explain in different ways until you get the point? Will they meet with you outside of practices or games to help you? Having someone who understands when to push vs. when to be patient and who understands that growth takes time plus investment will help you in the long run.
3) Potential to develop an open, honest, mutually comfortable relationship. Are you uncomfortable when they give you feedback? Are you open to hearing feedback, even if it is negative? Do they feel comfortable giving you open, honest feedback?
Finding a mentor could mean reaching out to someone you already know, or talking to someone you don’t know well. Either way, you need to feel confident and comfortable approaching him or her to ask for their help. When we ask people for help, we make ourselves vulnerable to their feedback. You need to be open to hearing feedback and they need to feel comfortable committing to help you by being honest. You won’t ask the tough questions and they won’t want to really push you if one or both of you is uncomfortable.
At some point (earlier than later), you need to have a conversation about your goals and whether or not this person can really help you. You need to decide how much time you both can dedicate and develop a plan you both can stick to. You need to check in with each other to see if you are on track or need to change your plans. This requires an open, honest line of communication.
4) Skill Does Not Necessarily Equal Knowledge. You may want to seek out the player you see on a SportsCenter Top 10, but they may not necessarily be the best teacher. Remember, the best mentors don’t need to be the best players– they need to be knowledgeable, compassionate, and willing to invest in your development.
When you look for someone to help elevate your game, find a person who can be personally invested in your successes on and off the field. Find someone who will push you harder than you can push yourself. Find someone to give you the tough feedback that you need to hear when your effort is lackluster or attitude needs changing. Most important, find someone who cheers loudest when you need support and celebrates your successes loudest when you succeed.
Robyn Wiseman started coaching at the University of Iowa in 2011. She coached the University of Wisconsin women’s B team the following year, and the A team the year after that. Robyn is the Women’s Chair of the Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association Board of Director, where a chief initiative is coordinating lessons for a spring league coached by women. This past summer, she also helped start MUFA’s YCC program. Robyn lists being a guest coach for Wellesley College at the first Without Limits: Virginia is for Layouts as her one of her most memorable coaching experiences, and says the 2014 college season with Bella Donna was the most rewarding . “The team was very young, and I had the opportunity to play a role in their growing passion for ultimate,” she says. “Seeing some of the returning sophomores and juniors step up into more leading roles was exciting, and I cannot wait for next season!”