Monday, March 05, 2007

College Coaching Mandate?

When I first started coaching at Wellesley, I felt a bit of pressure to make sure I taught the "basics". Even now, as I coach all year long, I do think that our focus on fundamentals in the fall is positive and necessary. Obviously, if Wellesley was a program with a consistent B team year to year, we could probably jump the A team right into the finer nuances come Sept, but even so, to what extent, in these nascent years of both our sport and, specifically, coaching our sport, are we mandated to teach the fundamentals and offer a broad perspective on our strategic principles?

I have written about "systems" in this blog before, specifically, when discussing my conversations with Gwen in the summer of 05 at NUTC. I said it then, but her words keep ringing in my ears, "We (Stanford) look for the athletes for the A team. We have confidence in the system and we plug players in". I am consistently fascinated by Syracuse basketball and their adherence to zone D. If you go to Syracuse, you are going to play in Jim Boeheim's zone. It is common to hear comments like "Player X decided to attend School Y because he felt comfortable in the "West Coast Offense" or "Option Offense", etc. Pitino makes a living with the full court press...etc...etc. Once a system of success is discovered, coaches attach themselves like tattoos.

So, as Ultimate coaches, are we mandated to teach everything from the stack, dump and swing, hammers, ho stack, to cup zone, 1-3-3, etc, etc? My general sense, now, is "No". I feel much more confident in working toward our team goals (which very well might include many of the aforementioned "basics") as opposed to focusing on "completing the text book". Not only is there plenty of precedent in other sports (Syracuse is just one example) for adherence to a specific system (which is what makes college sports and the natural ebb and flow of their programs, due to, in a small way, the suitability of the current talent for the system, so interesting), but I think it is generally acknowledged that the principles behind the first cut out of a stack are pretty much identical to cutting out of a horizontal set.

The realization that we don't need to teach everything or must work on generally agreed upon specifics can add focus to the program. There were times during my first year at Wellesley when I felt a bit of the "blank canvas" scenario. I think there are many times when a limited palate results in the most productive work. So while this post eschews a mandate, it also suggests definition and intent when it comes to developing systems that will be taught. Players, as they move on from college into club, will adapt and, if they have an awareness of other systems and philosophies, they will learn new ways of approaching the sport. Perhaps our mandate as coaches is actually to nurture such awareness. To make our players realize that they work within a single subset of the available possible options. After all, Carmelo Anthony is doing fine in the Pros...and he played only zone in college.


Tarr said...

Of course, if you had made a list of positives and negatives about Carmelo Anthony in 2003, the positives list would be as long as your arm, and the negatives list would have had one item: "played only zone in college". He was probably the most obvious "can't miss" NBA prospect since Tim Duncan.

One of the great things about starting a program or team from scratch is that you can tailor the system exactly to the players. There's no question in my mind that given equal talent, the team that runs a system more suited to its talent is going to win most of the time. That said:

- At the college or youth level, consistency in your basic method is going to pay greater dividends than constantly shifting the scheme in dramatic ways. When the stars of your team have only been playing for a few years, familiarity with the system is more important than running every play exactly the way that fits those players perfectly. At the club level you may have a bit more latitude to re-invent yourself from year to year.

- There can be an enormous variance in the way a "system" looks, depending on who is running it. You might have always had that deep look in your playbook, but you emphasize it a lot more the year that your captain comes back with a better huck and three athletic freshmen show up. You emphasize short passes and breakmark flow a lot more the year that you have a bevy of experienced players. And so on. The system might not change, but the way you use it does.

tothepool! said...

I also think that one of the very interesting thing about college ultimate as opposed to other sports is that our college teams cross-over with our "pro" teams in a way that is not common in other sports.

Take for instance the U of MN (which I attend). We play a game that is tailored for a team with a bunch of big fast guys that you can draw as a school of 60 thousand (all of the throwers from the area go play for CUT). This is the kind of tailoring that Luke mentioned. However, a lot of our O set play principals, the type of zone D we play, and our ideas about ultimate generally are drawn from Sub Zero. This is a natural thing because our coach was a Zero captain, our captains are often key players, and most of our guys aspire to play for them some day.

I don't think that this is necessarily a conscious decision, but with so much contact, you're bound to see a rapid flow of ideas down the chain (see also the Minneapolis HS ultimate scene). I think it's very likely that the same could be said for teams like Florida and Viscious, Georgia and Chain, or TUFF and Doublewide.

gapoole said...

tothepool, what about the flow of information up the chain? Having played for four years in high school, and having had three separate coaches during that time, I'm bringing something with me into college. I'd imagine that ARHS alums bring a solid foundation of strategy to college and club teams. I heard that the offense developed for the Rutgers men's team has been incorporated into Pike's offensive set, and I think that some of the strategy that the Rutgers women's team uses has been carried into a local mixed club team.

I think Tarr has a great point about the shift of emphasis within a team's system. I know that as the upperclassmen graduated from the high school team, we kept basically the same O and D. We tweaked the zone and moved to a more handler-based offensive system, because we had more handlers than experienced cutters. My frosh/soph year, we had strong deeps and good huckers, lost them my junior year, and back those elements my senior year. I think it will be interesting, though, to see how teams react as ho-stacks become more ubiquitous, or if trapping zones trickle down to more juniors teams. Will improved strategy and advancement in the sport reduce these shifts we see from variation in talent distribution? How different is ARHS from year to year?