Notes & Musings From My Coaching Experience

Agni Nakshatra is Chennai Ultimate Frisbee’s free annual introductory bootcamp + mini-tournament in which volunteer coaches spend time teaching new players the sport.

I got to spend some time with some enthusiastic folks who turned up to try out Ultimate for the first time ever.  Some of them had heard about the sport from our media coverage for Chennai Heat, others had seen us throwing on the beach and there were a few who were, well, just inquisitive after hearing from their friends!

This served as an opportunity for me to polish some rusty coaching skills. I made some notes during the course of the bootcamp (for my own benefit). I have shared them here along with some things I learnt during my AFDA level I coaching certification (renewal due!).

Prepare, nail down what you are going to teach (and visualize!)  

Prepare for class. There is no substitute for this.

Make a checklist of what you are going to teach. I usually force myself to put it down on paper; it seems to make things clearer to me. Make sure you have everything (equipment) you require  – 1 disc for every two players (preferably), at least 8 cones, a notepad and a whistle if you like etc. Beginners always seem to learn faster than I think they would. To be on the safer side be prepared with more than you think you can teach in the given time frame. If the new players surprise you with their speed of learning you’ll be prepped to move onto the next lesson or you can choose to save that for the next session.

Use your experience from previous sessions to decide what you are going to be teaching. If this is your first time, ask experienced coaches for an outline or look up one of the many resources online.  Have a plan for the entire duration of the lessons – If you are going to be teaching for 5 weeks you want to be planning on incorporating more than you would if you had only 2. (Running the same drills for 3 more weeks ain’t the answer!)

Learn some key words that capture the essence of what you are trying to say – I’ve heard Ben Wiggins say ‘Drive into the defender’ (Thanks RiseUp!) while Jason Lopez caught my attention with ‘secure the disc’. Its amazing to be able to learn from these guys. Simple yet powerful cues. I’ll definitely be using those!

If you can visualize; do that. I’ve realised that it helps me greatly to be able to visualize before hand. It not only helps me with my flow but also helps keep me calm. (Please read the note at the end of this post.)

When you are clear with your planning, you should be able to share an agenda with the players. This often helps them recall lessons as they can come back to the agenda months later.

Introduce yourself & Get to know everyone

Introduce yourself by telling them your name and where you are from. Mention the team you currently play for and also the highest level you’ve played at (I’ve represented the country at Worlds etc.) Wear that jersey proudly. Also mention what you will be working on for the day.

The sweetest sound that someone can hear is their name. Learn it, address players by their name and be amazed at how easy it is to get them to tune in when you talk. As an Ultimate coach, go the extra mile and be genuinely interested in getting to know the players and what they do in their time away from the sport.

Keep the group size manageable. If there are more players than you can confidently manage, consider recruiting additional coaches and splitting the players into groups.

Encourage a friendly atmosphere where new players know that they have the liberty to make mistakes and learn.

Safety considerations and discipline

Everyone is there to have fun. Sure, but there need to be some rules to make life easier for yourself as a coach and to keep the atmosphere conducive to learning. Outline your expectations at the start of the session and be fair and consistent with implementing the rules. Avoid physical punishment, shouting or criticism; they don’t indicate how the players’ behaviour should be modified. Positive reinforcement is the best way to stress desired behaviours.

A few safety considerations:

The need to call ‘heads up!’ – If there is a disc headed towards someone not expecting it (read: missile) learning to call heads up can help prevent a painful bump on the head.

“Stop!” or a blow of the whistle – Call used by you to get their attention. Everyone stops whatever they are doing and listens. If anyone is acting in an unsafe manner, re-emphasise the non-contact nature of ultimate frisbee and if necessary take the student aside and caution them strongly or remove them from the game

“no dangerous play at any cost” – In my opinion, one of the most important rules. Eg: If someone has to initiate physical contact in their attempt to get to the disc you’d rather have them bail. If there is an obstacle on the field you want players to be aware and not run into them.

Make players understand the importance of returning all discs and cones to the equipment bag after the session to minimize losing equipment.

I am a fan of insisting on being on time for sessions and warming up before play and stretching after. Entirely up to you to prioritise which rules are most relevant – Have too many and you’ll slow down the learning and possibly take the fun out of it; Too little or none and you’ll struggle to run your session effectively.

Make sure there is access to water or ensure that players bring their own bottles

Using touch to communicate

As a coach you will often find yourself having to touch a payer to communicate a cue effectively. Like for example if you’d like them to tuck their elbow in a little or change wrist position. Make sure it is necessary and appropriate whether it is a pat on the back, attending to an injury or fixing form. A general rule of the thumb is to ask for their permission before touching them. “You are not imparting enough spin to the disc. May I help fix your wrist position?”

Be a role model

As their coach, you are a role model for the new players. Arrive on time and
prepared for class. Speak to them with respect.

If possible, demonstrate the skill you are explaining. Tell the players what they should be paying attention to. Make sure you get the basics right. It is natural for the players to want to mimic your actions.

Don’t take anything for granted

Don’t expect players getting their first ever introduction to know anything. Let this always be on the back of your mind when designing drills, walking through rules etc.

About 2 weeks into this years coaching camp, I had one of the new players walk up to me and ask me if he could have another plate to throw! That’s when it hit me hard. I had failed to properly introduce the disc to him. I had probably used the word ‘disc’ a hundred times but thats not really as good as starting the very first lesson with an introduction to the equipment we use, is it?

If you don’t tell them; they won’t know. Make sure you talk about Spirit and the importance of reading the rules (versus having someone give them a tailored version) and explain the non-contact, friendly, fun nature of the game beforehand.

Ask for feedback

Not only should you look to give clear unambiguous feedback (Keep it positive!) but should also look to seek feedback on what you have taught. It works best when instantaneous. A simple open ended question (such as ‘what do you think..’) often brings out some interesting answers. What you hear from them helps make sure they have understood the application of the drill.

When players talk to you, listen. Maintain eye contact. Don’t talk down to them from a high horse.

Addressing players

The simplest way is to have the group face you in the form of a semicircle. Make sure
you are audible. Be aware of distractions behind you like a game in progress. Discs are unnecessary distractions when you are talking to the players and it is generally a good practice to collect and stack them at your feet before you start.

Players generally have short attention spans. Avoid lengthy speeches unless it is a discussion actively involving the players. Always summarise with not more than 3 key points. Anything more and they probably won’t recall any.

Keep Ultimate fun.

Note: I am not a natural coach, it does not come easily to me. I always have to spend time preparing to make it worthwhile for the players investing time. If I don’t, thoughts often flow in spurts and I lose myself mid-conversation. I often find that I have to mentally prepare myself to be confident enough just to go address a large group. Coaching Ultimate is one of the coolest things I have ever done and it has brought a confidence in me and in my game. I’d urge you to give it a shot regardless of the level you play at. If you’d like to volunteer as a coach, please reach out to me and I’ll hook you up with players you can comfortably work with at your level (regardless of where you are from). We can help you replicate Agni Nakshatra bootcamp or Chennai’s school outreach program wherever you live. The best way to learn / improve your game is to teach!

P.S: A big thanks to everyone who makes this amazing event a success every year and has helped it grow. This year was the biggest yet. Check out photos from this year courtesy Boon.

Source: Mostly from own experiences, AFDA and USA Ultimate (UPA) coaching manuals. Dan Rule and Arvind Ashok have played significant roles in influencing the way I think about coaching. Hat tip!

About Abhinav Vinayakh Shankar

Indian player on a personal mission to keep Ultimate fun and Spirited, his proudest moment in the sport, justifiably, came at The World Championships of Beach Ultimate 2011 (WCBU '11) in Italy, where he represented India in the open division and they won the Spirit Award. Abhinav serves as the Secretary at Chennai Ultimate Frisbee Club, the largest club in the country. Every October, he helps conceptualize and run BULA certified tournament Chennai Heat (A 7v7 co-ed Beach tournament on full size flood-lit fields that draws crowds of over 5000 people!) He trains with fitness coach Arvind Ashok (co-founder of The Quad).

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