Monday, April 19, 2010

Paideia Cup Finals

This past Sunday we (Paideia Men's Varisty) played Amherst in the finals of the Paideia Cup. We had played them on the last game of Saturday, losing 4-15. It was a solid drubbing where we failed to successfully deal with their 1-3-3. After a tough start to a semi-final against Columbia, we rallied in the 2nd half to win decisively (13-9). We had good momentum, and although a little banged up we felt prepared to face Amherst again.

The lone bright point from the previous day was that we knew we could play solid defense against them and get some blocks. We we're hoping to get a few of those breaks and stay in it this time. The game felt completely different than the one the previous day. We stopped their 1-3-3 and forced them to go man. We certainly made them work on offense. But, while we got a few blocks, we only mustered one break and lost 15-7.

This was my first time coaching against Amherst. What surprised me (although according to Mike this is normal) is that in a final that they had won handily they played only 9 deep. Don't get me wrong, I am no stranger to riding your horses when the time is right, and maybe it was out of respect for our team, but subbing only 9 deep felt strange. They didn't play as many points on the weekend as we did, so maybe that factored in, but Tiina told me (and I completely believe it) that her boys could run a few more like that if they had to. While our boys ran their legs off and did a great job against 5A athletes, I could see the struggle on their faces at the end of each point.

As Amherst went tight with their rotation we were "forced" to do the same. Only they have stronger horses and ours were destined to get tired in an ever losing battle. I don't normally call subs, but the times that I have my goal has been to use my bench to fill in space (on D) and run my best players hard in key moments to get breaks. Instead we ran just as tight, scored a few when things worked well, gave up breaks when they didn't, and aside from some spectacular single plays could never get those breaks back. I feel like I could have tried to sacrifice our defensive points with weaker lines in hopes of being more consistent on offense, but I don't know if it would have mattered much

Hats off to Amherst for a great tournament. I wont be there, but I will be incredibly impressed if any team can beat them at Easterns this year. If they win it will make 2 years in a row that Paideia has lost to an eventual "National" champion in the finals of our own tourney. If only we could find a way to play ourselves in the final.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

'Teachable Moments'

This is a question/thought that has been brewing since before I got permission to post. I'm pretty sure it's been addressed before, but I think giving a specific scenario will clarify things. At present, I'm working with a team whose talent distribution is clustered at the top and the bottom tails. We've had a TON of development, so this question is unlikely to come up much as the series draws nearer. Still, it's worth discussing.

Earlier in the season, we brought a raw set of rookies to their first spring tournament. As to be expected, when they got out there, they looked like puppies in roller-skates on a linoleum floor. Between games, one of our rawest rookies was throwing with an older teammate, and the vet was really loading him up with tips. Everything from how to dictate on defense to cutting break on the endzone line to where to put his knee in order to throw an IO break.

For me, it was too much. I asked the vet to lay off him, expressing that I'd given the rookie 2 things to work on all tournament and we'd get to other stuff in the future. We had an argument about how to teach rookies, and I played the "I'm the coach do it" trump card, game over.

The questions here are:

What is the best way to go about teaching a rookie who has little to no experience playing Ultimate the whole of the game over the course of a season? What times are best to offer advice?

The veteran in my story seemed to be employing a sort of inundation method for teaching the kid. Tell him everything he might ever need to know all at once and then hope that the stuff that doesn't stick immediately remains tucked away, set to emerge once the player finds him/herself in the appropriate situation. This kind of teaching might also involve telling a player ten things he or she did wrong after any given point. I guess doing this also means a coach/mentor rarely has to worry about forgetting what s/he wanted to tell the player at any given moment.

For me, early tournaments are an opportunity to for young players to play the game without necessarily having someone hold their hand. This year, I tried to give rookies two or three things to think about over the course of the tournament (lanes to cut into, look upfield then dump at 6, etc) and then remind them about those things, point to point. I think a lot of what new players need to learn are (relatively) intuitive, they'll learn them as they watch good players do them or as their fellow new players do them wrong. Additionally, overthinking every little aspect of the game and then being nagged about what you've done wrong makes the game less fun, jeopardizing player retention.

At practice, however, the training wheels are on. I'll comment on pretty much everything I see them doing wrong and I'll make a point of reminding them about it if I see it again or praising them for changing their habits. Still, I try not to ever give more than one criticism at a time as I feel like a player acknowledging one fault and applying themselves to changing it is preferable to them forgetting two.

Additional paths to player improvement?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Paideia Phenomenon

In a comment from a previous blog post "Mike" wrote "How did you (or your team more specifically) build up the ultimate culture to get where it is now at Padeia?"

It's a tough question to answer because I think there is a large confluence of factors - some of them controllable but many that happened by chance or circumstance. I'm guessing that's true for the other great Ultimate programs - Amherst, Northwest School, Hopkins, to name a few. I'll try to break down what I think are the main factors and other folks familiar with the program can add anything in the comments that they want. I'd also encourage those familiar with other top HS programs to chime in on how they became successful.

To begin with, it really is a strange phenomenon. Paideia, a school with under 400 students in the HS, has regularly been one of the top HS Ultimate teams. More impressively, the alums have consistently performed at the top level of College and Club Ultimate, winning championships and awards. Several alums have been named to the US World Games team including Dylan Tunnel ('02), Jolian Dahl ('03), Adam Simon ('01), and Miranda Roth ('00). The team started in spring of 1993 and has been at or near the top of HS Ultimate since 1996.

So, on to the factors, I'll try to go by timeline:

It would be impossible to explain how Ultimate grew at Paideia without talking a little about Paideia. Paideia is a small, private school founded by parents in 1971. It grew out of the same roots that the sport of Ultimate did: Informal, skeptical of tradition and authority, based in mutual respect. At Paideia, kids call their teachers by their first name. Few classrooms have desks in them. Students are given a good deal of latitude in terms of their class choices, dress, and behavior. It isn't uncommon to see barefoot students or a student wandering around the classroom while the teacher is lecturing (I'm looking at you, Will Arnold).

The school is supportive of student endeavors and it is easy to start new clubs and get official school sanctioning for them. While in HS, Moses Rifkin started a "Simpsons" Club (for watching the Simpsons) while a couple of us started a group called "Comemos Montanas" ("we eat mountains" a group dedicated to gluttony). While I worked at the UPA I heard from a lot of students and parents who had faced apathy, skepticism, or even serious pushback from their schools when trying to start an Ultimate team. I faced a great deal of apathy from the school I coached in Colorado. At Paideia there are no such issues. In fact, many of the players on the team are children of teachers at the school.

Also important to note, Paideia has no football team. I think this is both representative of the culture but also a serious advantage. When the Ultimate team started, soccer was in the fall at Paideia and so the only other spring team sport was baseball. If you liked to run, Ultimate was your sport.

Alexis Revilock-Frost
The player that probably had the biggest impact on the program is one most outsiders have probably heard nothing about. Alexis was Paideia's first stand-out player and he set the bar in terms of talent. He was 5'6" and incredibly quick and explosive. At the very first practice I attended in fall of 1993, Alexis, a sophomore, had a lay-out greatest. Imagine that? Moses Rifkin, Josh Markette and I had just joined the team and we thought that was the type of thing that was normal and expected. He was also relentless - always moving and running and working hard. But beyond his talent, Alexis set the stage for the culture of the team. Quick-witted, smart, fun, and positive, he had a personality that drew people in. Because he was a dominant player and we looked to him as our leader, those personality traits pervaded the team.

Atlanta Summer League/Ultimate Community
All of the most serious Ultimate players began playing in Atlanta's summer league early on and got a great deal out of it. The community loved the Paideia kids, we split up and played on a bunch of different teams and we were treated like the community's little brothers and sisters. The community was competitive but fun and very close knit and I think it made all of us even more committed to the sport. It's different now - the summer league is much larger, there are a lot more HS players, and the Paideia kids typically put together their own team. Players who play in the summer league can still get a lot out of it, but I don't think they get the same feeling of being "special" because they are the kids.

The US Juniors Team
In the summer of 1994, three players from the team Roxanne Reighard, Alexis, and myself played on the US Juniors Team. We competed in Colchester, England and finished 2nd to Sweden. That year all 20 people who applied for the team made it. While there may have been a lack of rigorous standards for making the team, it had a huge impact on the team back at Paideia. It exposed us to other HS players playing around the country (including Fortunat and Mattias at Scarsdale, Marlowe at Amherst HS, and Ben Worthen and Sam Rosenthal at Newton North) and made everyone realize how far we could go with the sport. We saw NYNY play toward the end of their dynasty and were inspired. And the attitude of worlds - the level of fun, competition, and respect resonated with us and reinforced our passion for the game. For those that didn't go, they realized that this was something to aspire to. I believe Paideia has put at least 2 players on every US Juniors/U-20 team since then including 4 girls and 3 boys on this years' teams.

Michael Baccarini
It's hard to put in to words the impact Michael has had. The first thing to note is that Michael wasn't Paideia's original coach. Jamie Epstein and Fred Peruvier were the initial coaches in spring of 1993. Jamie coached the team in 1993-1994. Michael began coaching the team in fall of 1994. Before he began coaching he worked in Paideia's after school program and began throwing with Josh Markette and Jason Simpson. Michael has a true coach's mind for the game. He is great at breaking down fundamentals and giving feedback. I guess, even before that, he is one of the best at identifying fundamentals, something that was generally missing from the sport through most of the 90's.

But beyond his skills as a coach, Michael has brought two other big attributes. Michael is a great storyteller. He has a keen memory for events and can take players that have graduated and make them heroes. He can make plays that you haven't seen (and even some that you have seen) legendary. Most of his stories involve a dramatic piece of flying, as if the player briefly defied the laws of gravity to make an incredible play. This sets players expectations for themselves high and makes them want to be in one of Michael's stories. (Unfortunately, Michael's favorite story to tell about me is a cautionary tale about me "losing my psyche").

The other huge factor that Michael brings is that he is the PE teacher at Paideia. Remember that Paideia is K-12, so Michael is teaching kids long before HS. He can get discs in their hand at an early age and get good athletes interested in the sport. I'll leave it to your imagination what that means.

Moses Rifkin and the 1996 Amherst Invite
Moses was a remarkably mature HS kid. Moses took it upon himself in the spring of 1996 to call up Tiina Booth and tell her that we were interested in playing at the Amherst Invite. We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves in to or what to expect. Michael didn't even have a credit card. I have no idea how we got up there, but Moses made it happen. It was our first HS tournament and we expected to get crushed. Instead, we (a very scrappy co-ed team of 12 players) found ourselves in an intense game with Amherst (a varsity team of great athletes - all boys) in the semifinals. We lost 14-11 but it fanned the flames and that game and tournament was a watershed moment for the team. We finished 3rd and won the spirit award (we were exceedingly proud of both) Alexis graduated a few weeks later but that event made it clear that the team would continue long after him.

Early on in the Ultimate program, the parents of the Ultimate players recognized that this was something that their kids loved to do. Several of the parents got involved with Paideia's Sports Booster club. I remember many nights where my dad, Jason's Mom, Harper Alexander's parents and others would sell beer at the Georgia Dome for sporting events or concerts to raise money for the sports booster program. Once they'd established some clout they were able to make a case for the Ultimate team to get greater recognition, status, and access to resources. In 1999 Paideia gave the Ultimate team varsity status.

Ok, this is probably a Kyle-centric view of history. If so, I apologize. Several of the early Ultimate grads (Moses, Pauline, Harper, and me) ended up at Brown during the late 90's. At that point, Brown was at the top of the college sport. In addition, Brown was being directly influenced by DoG who was at the end of their championship run and the thought leaders in the sport for most of the 90's. We took ideas and concepts directly back to Michael and he incorporated them in what he taught the HS team.

Tony Carter ('00) and Miranda Roth ('00)
Another Paideia Ultimate alum you certainly haven't heard of is Tony Carter. The team had had other varsity athletes, some that excelled at those sports, but Tony was a bonafide opinion driver in the high school. A varsity basketball player who was universally well-liked, Tony started playing Ultimate his senior year. Younger athletes saw Tony make the jump to Ultimate and realized that is was a legitimate sport.

You've probably heard of Miranda. Miranda began playing Ultimate in the summer after her Sophomore year I believe. Girls soccer was a spring sport and Miranda was a captain of the Girls soccer team starting her sophomore year. Her senior year, Miranda quit the soccer team for the Ultimate team.

I would say that 2000 was another watershed moment for the program (along with 1996) - it was when the team evolved into full-fledged legitimacy because we got legitimate athletes. This year ('10) the Paideia girls have 7 players that are also on the girls basketball team (which finished 2nd in their division in the state).

I feel like that's a pretty solid synopsis of how Paideia got the way it is. I'd say you can get a pretty good feel from this how players like Rebbecca Simon ('01), Paul Vandenberg ('01), Adam Simon ('01), Dylan Tunnel ('02), Jolian Dahl ('03), Nate Segal ('03), Brad Cochi ('04), Eldon Creer ('04), Mike Vandenberg ('05), Leila Tunnel ('06), Maisie Richards ('06), George Stubbs ('07), Grant Lindsley ('07), Ollie Honderd ('07), Michael and John Terry ('08), Alisha Kramer ('08), Paula Seville ('08), Joe Reidel ('09), Julia Fuster ('09), Chris Kocher ('10), Sophie Darch ('10), Lane Seidor ('10), India Stubbs ('11), and Jericho Barbour ('11). I think that's all of the Paideia players named to the US Juniors team in the 00's.

At some level this is definitely a little self-indulgent. But hopefully this is also helpful to those of you out there hoping to create a successful Ultimate culture at your school.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

On Carts and Horses

During my rookie season at UMN, I saw a teammate throw a high-release flick, the first I had ever witnessed. Being the young, bright-eyed frisbee enthusiast I was, my I was soaked in admiration. Naturally, I asked said teammate to show me how he did it.

He laughed at me and said something smug about how I probably shouldn't add another bad throw to the ugly set I already had. I was insulted and dejected and I gave up on the throw at the time. The guy in question was arguably our best offensive handler that year, a presently dying breed of frail, slow and huck-less, but with incredible finesse on both sides. I really wanted his skillset. Ultimately, he didn't really teach me much that season, but that memory has stuck with me.

Now, I find myself playing the opposite role in that situation pretty frequently, both as a coach and as a more veteran player. Lots of times, I'll catch guys with atrocious forehands or backhands trying to summon a big hammer, a thumber, a scoober, or any number of other "special" throws while we're warming up or at throwing practice. I'm pretty inconsistent about how I respond. For some guys, I react pretty much in the way that the condescending handler did in my story. Sometimes I comment on the inadequacy of their other throws, sometimes I don't. For other guys, I'll give them tips about how to throw that "special" throw better.

Jim Parinella has a decent discussion of "junk throws" and whether or not they should be used here. What I'm interested in discussing here, though, is when and whether they should be taught.

To return to the personal anecdote: The following year, my flick was coming along nicely, my backhand had plateaued at mediocre. So I started throwing some hammers, taking a ton of advice from Charlie. Needless to say, I very quickly developed an addiction that haunts me to this day. From the push pass to the behind-the-backhand, I love 'em all. For me, having a very good scoober and a variety of release points and speeds on my backhand is a necessary thing. While my flick is excellent, my step out mid-to-low release ~20 yard backhand just stopped getting better, despite hours and hours of drilling and asking for help. Hence, I compensate for it by throwing weird, but 95% completed stuff.

So,"special throws" have become a very important supplement to my game. For others? Hard to say. Thus far, my opinion is as follows regarding how I approach my players who are experimenting with drugs...I mean unconventional throws:

-Special throws are vaguely tiered, with some (Hammers, scoobers, high-release backhand) sitting at generally nice to have but dumb to use all the time, others that are cool to know how to use but do you really have to? (lefty, push-pass, thumber) and finally absolutelynotImeanNO (corker chicken wing and friends). I encourage a healthy knowledge of upside-down throws SO LONG AS...

-The player can consistently complete a forehand or a backhand to a moving target 15 yards away. This is usually assumed at higher levels of Ultimate, but sometimes that kid was REALLY fast at tryouts.

-Finally, if I feel like there's a lot of room for growth in the basic throws, I'm more likely to encourage experimentation with angle, io/oi, and release point than I am to teach the finer points of the blade.

Still, I lean more toward teaching kids how to throw weird stuff better than chastising them for doing it at all. The jury's still out, though.