Thursday, January 30, 2014

Old Faithfuls: Tools for Coaching Any Practice, Any Time

by Jonathan Neeley

Throwing to moving targets, hip orientation on defense, sunshine and a warm breeze. Entire practices spent on resetting and relocating the disc while salsa music played somewhere off in the distance. Group discussions about building community, the fluidity of self-officiation norms, the differences between processes and outcomes, and which North American bands are most popular at karaoke night.

I spent the last two weeks coaching in Panama City with Allison Maddux (Scandal), Francisco Hazera (Truck Stop), Ken McWilliams (Truck Stop), and Sarah Davis (Riot). We ran a series of clinics for the lead up to Panama Ultimate‘s summer league with the goal being to give new players the tools they need to enjoy gameplay and help advanced players focus their progress. It was, in two words, a lot: 150 people of all ages and genders and room for improvement in every area imaginable. Sometimes it felt like an insurmountable mountain.

Panama Ultimate's Felipe Ledezma instructs a group of new players.

Panama Ultimate’s Felipe Ledezma instructs a group of new players.

Thing is, you don’t need a passport stamp to experience the phenomena of overload in ultimate. There’s a lot to juggle when it comes to getting better at ultimate, and it can feel overwhelming! As coaches, there are specific actions we can take that will make us more effective regardless of a given practice’s theme or focus. The following are my biggest go-to’s.

1. Write out your practice plan. Either on paper or on your phone/tablet—just not in your head— brainstorm the points you’ll make and the drills you’ll use to practice them, and then script out the timing. Doing so will remove logistics from the pool of issues you’ll need to think about on the fly, and you’ll go through practice with a sense of calm.

Do you have to stick to the plan rigidly? Absolutely not. But it’s far easier to improvise when you come in with a written plan because you’ve got a stronger sense of both the general feel of the practice as well as how much time you’re working with.

2. Be physically active. Warm up with the team. Set up the cones for fields and drills yourself. Actively demo drills. If your team is doing fitness like abs or sprints and you don’t plan on instructing form or footwork, join in. Coaching is always going to include days that are non-stop fun as well as ones that drag, and in both cases, moving around gives you an energy boost.

You have to remain a coach and not a practice participant; your job is to instruct and support, not compete in deep drills. But if you can manage to do it while maintaining your voice as a coach, getting active will send a message to both yourself and the team that, like everyone else, you’re at practice to put in work.

3. Listen actively. Build time into practice that allows you to do nothing but take information in. Let captains run a drill, separate the team into small groups and give them discussion prompts, sit in the back of an endzone during 3v3.

Ceding the reigns will give you a better short-term sense of how well your practice is going and a bigger picture grasp of how your team operates as a unit. When you’re listening rather than talking, you might notice a player’s body language indicating they’re having a bad day or struggling to focus. The encouraging words you’ll then be able to offer will be far more valuable than making sure the team hears your thoughts on a cut-to drill. Also, observation is critical to implementing my new favorite adage: “Keep, Fix, Try.”

4. Bonus thoughts:

  • Make time for conversation with players outside of practice. It doesn’t have to be about ultimate.
  • Make eye contact as often as you can, don’t cross your arms when you’re addressing the group, and give lots of high fives.
  • Above all else, be selfless. Grab players’ water bottles for them. Carry the disc bag instead of making the rookies do it. 

I’d like to close with a big thanks to Panama Ultimate. Growing as a coach and person with a new group of passionate folks is so very rewarding. Let’s all keep spreading the good word.



  • Alvin

    This is great! More articles and features like this would be super helpful to any new or veteran coach!

    • neeley

      Thanks, Alvin! You help us spread the word and we'll keep this stuff coming.

  • Ana Maria

    Love it

  • Leo

    Smile Energy Eye contact 🙂

  • pvdb

    I like your adage, Neelington. I've recently adopted an adage from a certain very southern defensive coordinator: "Ho, par, ho." Actual english translation: "Whole, part, whole." Teach the whole, break it down into it's constituent parts and work on 'em, and put it all back together. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

  • Alejandro

    Hey! Jonathan, I really liked the Bonus Thoughts.