Saturday, October 10, 2009

Low Numbers at Practice

What do you do when you don’t have numbers at practice? A nasty fever-coughing virus has taken out key players on our team for a week or more, and with a large, consistent, athletic class studying abroad this semester, rare is the day when we can field 14 girls at practice, let alone 12 or even 10. Despite going to a small school, practice attendance has never been an issue in the past, or when it was, it was after the series had ended for us, and so we were content to play hot box or 5-on-5 for an hour before calling it quits. But what do you do when eight people show up to practice healthy enough to play one week before your first major away tournament? Even when we have enough to play 6s, it does not allow us to practice zone offense and defense accurately, and even with 14 girls at practice, we are automatically playing without any subs, and so the pace of the game is much slower than game pace…and the old adage is true…you play how you practice.

It’s not only the illness that is taking players out. Injuries, lingering injuries, are taking their toll on old and new players alike. This speaks to athletic abilities in general on our team, but also to an institutional lack of support for club sport injuries through the athletic department. And then, you have the freshman issue. The freshman who is not quite sold on ultimate yet, who decided to sign up for a hundred other activities and committees and finds homework loads their first year different from high school and sometimes comes to practice but not always…but would I come to practice as a freshman, too, if week after week we were scrimmaging without full numbers? If older teammates shirk practice for unknown reasons, would I, as a freshman, feel it was acceptable to skip practice because I had “too much work” or “a meeting”? You see, this freshman issue is related to another issue, that of older players not coming to practice for no apparent, good reason. And then can I, as a captain, send out a strong email to my players, telling them how important practice attendance is, knowing full well that the people who will be the first ones back after such an email will be the ones who may not have waited long enough to heal their injuries or nurse themselves back to full health? I stood on the sidelines today in a feverish haze, barely able to shout out instructions to the eight girls who were doggedly playing hot box at our “practice” today, and thought “is this supposed to be my senior year of ultimate, is this the buildup to the spring semester that everyone on the team has agreed will be one of our best seasons to date?”

Certainly practicing at all is better than not practicing, and you can still run drills and help people with their throws without full numbers. There is benefit in playing smaller games of 5-on-5 because it does give newer players more touches on the disc. But sometimes, especially when I am sick on the sidelines, too, I feel like our little team is falling apart, and after having dedicated so much time to making our team better, it is frustrating to be reduced to lackluster scrimmages at this crucial point in the season. You simply cannot effectively teach and practice team skills when you don’t have a full team.

I am sure this problem is not limited to my school. In fact, I’m sure other bagel fodder schools deal with this problem far more than we do, and what I’m experiencing now, for a few weeks in one semester, is what other schools have to deal with week in, week out at practice. I don’t know what to do about it, though. “Recruit!” said one of my teammates today, after that frustrating 8-person practice. We have never actively recruited, save manning a table at the freshman organization fair the week before classes start. At a school as small as ours, and considering that we practice right in the heart of campus, I think visibility is hardly an issue for us. What is an issue is emphasizing to freshman, but, almost more importantly, older players, that practice attendance is vital to being a member of the team, a point that I had thought was clear, but may need to be reviewed-- again, and again-- until we can stop playing hot box and start playing ultimate.


UBER_IHUC said...

Great to finally hear from this blog again- seriously I think many of your posts talk about some strong ultimate issues that really don't get addressed that often. I mean CUT isn't complaining about low numbers.

I may not exactly come from a "Bagel Fodder" school, but I was on a Bagel Fodder B Team last year and numbers were ALWAYS an issue. We would tend to get only twelve guys showing up to practice or something and that really hampers a lot of the things that you can do.

Mostly, I can only sympathize, but I found that what worked best for us was pushing those who were ditching practice to come, letting the injured and sick rest (at least until the critical time in the spring), and then making that small number practice absolutely as tough and as furious as we could. It is so easy to just say "screw drills with these low numbers, let's scrimmage". Instead, I think the best attitude to have is to do everything possible with those low numbers, even just drilling marks and throws, talking strategy, or working one on one with an individual for what they need (how often can you do that) while others throw. Go out and make those dedicated and healthy players the best you possibly can, and the whole team should benefit.

Wow I rambled.

Lou said...

You have two problems, really, low numbers and lack of commitment from returners.

We (at Oregon) rarely play 7s at practice and when we do its not for very long. We play a lot of 4 on 4 and 3 on 3 using a small field.

When you play 7s, your inexperienced players don't get touches and don't get reps and don't get better. There's no where to hide in 3 on 3.


Gambler said...

Chiming in a little late here, but some ways to make a low numbers practice more productive are to (1) use better drills, (2) play different versions of 3 on 3, (3) practice playing offense with no D, and (4) round up non-team members to play against. Below is probably more than you want to know about this, but I'm a little bored at work today... :-)

(1) What I mean by "better" drills are drills that really simulate a small piece of a real game. Drills like the go-to drill, 3-person break mark drill, etc. are great for developing certain basic skills, but they don't help develop a huge set of skills you need in the game. Timing, field vision, defensive footwork, decision making, containing on the mark, etc. are usually not focused on in most drills I've seen college teams run. Spend some time getting creative by coming up with new drills that break the game down into some of these other skills that will serve you when you get to a tournament. If you're stuck, solicit help from club players who might have more ideas of drills that will help your team.

(2) As Lou mentioned, 3 on 3 is great. Every player gets tons of touches and it's an intense work-out. I like to have different versions of 3v3 that you can play to work on different elements of the game. One version is on a mini field using the width of the endzone as the length (i.e. 25 yards wide x 40 yards deep) with 5 or 10 yards tacked on the end as endzones. Focuses on fast breaking, changing direction in vertical spacing, quick disc movement etc. Another version is playing 3 on 3 into a regular endzone (maybe starting 10-15 yards out) more like half-court ultimate. With so much horizontal space, the focus for players can be on pairing swinging the disc with give-gos up-line and utilizing the break side of the field. If you have more than 6 people at practice, you can also add a defensive focus to this game by having extra defenders start 15 yards back behind the play where they have to do 10 sit-ups before they can join in and give extra help to the D (making the original 3 defenders focus on containing the O and slowing them down until they get help).

(3) Fury and Stanford both have practiced running their offense with no D to good success. The nice thing is you get to have 7 players playing together and working on flow, timing, etc. this way and you also get people to practice being disciplined because you'll have to set certain rules to have playing offense with no D at all productive. You have to specify an imaginary force for each point and players have to make realistic throwing decisions given that force. Another basic rule is that you can't throw it to someone unless you are able to get the throw off in flow (i.e. you catch, turn and can release the disc right away). You can also make rules like, you have to pump-fake the first person you see if you're throwing down-field. Whenever you add a rule, you should set the goal for your team to be able to score at least 3 times abiding by that rule with zero turnovers.

(4) All you need is 7 players if you can also round up 7 people not on your team. These non-team mates can be men or women depending on what you need to work on. For instance, if you can find 7 guys from your school's mens team to come out a couple times a month, you can practice playing zone O or D against them. It's your practice, so feel free to put as many restrictions on the non-team players as you want (e.g., no over the top throws or hucks against your zone).

Hopefully some of those ideas are useful... :-)

doc said...

Recruiting and commitment are two common issues for most non-perennial powerhouse programs. In my opinion, your veteran players need to decide what the team identity is going to be and then "sell" your team vision to the incoming freshmen. I think the biggest turn-offs for new players are lack of organization and differing viewpoints on team goals from its own players... hence the importance of a team mission statement. (there's really only one viable mission for a team, but thats another conversation)

Some random-ish tips that might help:

1. Practice itineraries... send them out maybe a day before practice and list the things you're going to work on, and how long, etc. Keeps people organized and focused and above all, reminded that there are team things going on.

2. Don't despair! As the captain you have to present a strong front at all times. Being downtrodden at thinly populated practices is a sure way to discourage the weary troops who are willing and able to go to war with you despite the low numbers.

3. You can never make everyone happy. Cater to the players that advance your team mission with their dedication, and leave the others behind, regardless of their skill. I'd rather have 7 players who bought into my system than 14 semi-slackers.

4. The best thing i learned at the coach's conference at nationals was the idea of "sandwiching" your critiques when you have to talk to a player about a particular skill they need to work on. e.g. "Emily, i love the way you use your speed to get open, but i think that right now you also need to try to use two hands to make those catches whenever possible. A great cut that ends in an easy drop is such a waste of your talent. Once you get a little more comfortable with finishing those cuts with strong catching technique, you'll be even more confident with your cuts, and that will be really scary for other teams. Keep it up!" This approach is far superior to the parental tone "TWO HANDS!" yell i assure you.

Thats all i have time for now.

Good luck!

Marc Stachowski
Coach UPenn

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