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.


AFH said...

I'm an ultimate playing parent of a 2.5 yr old.

Paideia certainly has its ultimate cred established.

Could you, just for my edification, post about its cred in other facets of existence in American life? I know where some of the folks you've talked about are, but I'm not too familiar with most of them. Are they successful? Happy? Satisfied? What's the general gestalt of the Paideia grad? In a few years, would I want to send my daughter there?

Kyle Weisbrod said...

Gosh, that's a tough question to answer. I'm not sure how to answer the "successful" question as it probably depends on your definition of success.

I'm in pretty good touch with most of the Ultimate playing alums through the years. All are college grads from schools all across the spectrum (but a lot of us ended up at Brown - 10 or so from the classes from '97-'05. Colorado, Georgia and Carleton are the other big draws). Very few have advanced degrees. Most are still involved with Ultimate, either playing or coaching or both.

One thing that I've been struck with having worked with HS kids for the past 8 years across the country and coming back to Atlanta three years ago is how mature and put-together Paideia kids generally are. I think the freedom and trust the school gives the students helps them develop responsibility.

For better or worse, Paideia grads seem skeptical or in some cases downright reject standard definitions of "success." While many are certainly capable of achieving advanced degrees - being doctors/lawyers/mbas etc, I know few who have gone on to do such things. There are a few HS teachers (mostly w/out masters in education degrees), a couple consultants, a cartoonist/illustrator, an aspiring screenwriter, an urban planner, a fireman/artist, an athletic trainer, and a few of us in random areas of business. I'd say it's very different than my friends from college (who weren't Paideia grads) - a lot of engineers, PhDs (mostly in hard sciences), MBAs and lawyers. From the folks that I keep in touch with that aren't Ultimate players, I don't think the Ultimate playing alums are unique in any way. Paideia alums from around my generation and younger started the beverage company Whynatte? and created a hot sauce called Hotlanta Hotsauce. There are some independent filmmakers, restauranteurs, jewelery makers, and artists. And a few lawyers and doctors. Most seem like interesting folks to me.

At this point I'm just speaking for myself (not sure if this is a Paideia mentality) - In some ways it's freeing not to be bound by others' definition of success but it can be somewhat challenging to define it for yourself.

So, I guess take that as it is. I'd definitely send my kids to Paideia in a second for Junior High and HS (if I could afford it). I didn't go there for elementary or pre-school so I'd look into that a little more.


Martin said...

Kyle pointed out the significance of the trip to Amherst in 1996. It had a profound impact on the people who went, but I feel it also set a precedent that continues to this day.

Paideia kids have the desire (and means) to travel to play ultimate. I'm not surprised at this point, but most of our players have been to NUTC at least once. Many start going at an early age. Kids travel to college nationals pretty regularly. They are going to see their former teammates compete for a title, but the result is seeing the intensity and drive those players bring at a college/club level.

By going to Amherst I think we learned that this Ultimate thing was much bigger than we thought. That we could travel, see great teams, have wonderful experiences and get better. That tradition passes on through Mike's stories and through siblings. The resulting culture isn't contained to a small school in Atlanta, but is connected to a larger National Ultimate culture.

Karen Tunnell said...

As a former Paideia parent[Dylan and Leila Tunnell] I am im- pressed not only with the level of ultimate but with the importance of public service to Paideia graduates. Many become teachers and coaches like Kyle, Leila and Dylan.

RubeRad said...

Hey, I'm excited to have found this blog. I'll be looking around here more, but my goal (starting Jan 2012) is to start an Ultimate club at my kids' young school that will grow into a successful, competitive ultimate program. Right now the oldest grade is 6th, I plan to open ultimate to 3-6th grade. I'd really love tips on how to develop an ultimate "curriculum" that gradually builds up players from fundamentals. I've been playing 20+ years myself, but mostly just pick-up. I'd like to learn more about drills and coaching.

Ken Lao said...

Hi! Randomly stumbled upon this post - I doubt anybody is still reading this, but anyway...

Just wanted to say hi - I'm Ken Lao, Paideia '93. My senior year I was part of the very first Paideia ultimate team - we practiced under Jamie Epstein, who I think taught at Paideia and also played for Ozone and Fred Perivier of Chain Lightning. We fielded a team at Terminus where we got absolutely crushed by all these college teams, who were all really nice to us. Right now, I'm looking at a little mini glow-in-the-dark frisbee that Jamie got for all of us... man, some memories.

I remember I played summer league that following summer before I went to college and learned to throw a forehand, and then I'm pretty sure was the only incoming freshman in college who knew how to throw one!

Anyway, I'll tentatively lay claim to the first Paideia->Brown University ultimate player (started Brown in fall of '93). I was a fine player, but definitely not notable like the rest of you guys, but I feel like my arrival at Brown marked the beginning of... something; I'm pretty sure I was essentially the first incoming freshman to have played ultimate "seriously" before, like I knew what a stack was, had played in a few tournaments, played summer league, and by the time I graduated we had super skilled veteran freshmen (like Alexis, Fortunat, Safdie, etc., who I think arrived my senior year).

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