A Meeting of the Minds at the 2013 U.S. Open Convention

Posted: July 10, 2013 03:35 PM

Ultimate, as a competitive sport across all levels, is still in its infancy. While the game has been played for nearly a half century, those of us in the sport have seen an incredible growth trajectory begin to emerge in more recent years.

Ultimate, to me, is a beautiful field sport that, at its highest levels, seems virtually effortless. At the elite club or world level, the speed of the game is often similar to a fast break from your favorite basketball team. Turnovers are rare when the sport is played at such a high level which is what makes spectacular defense so impressive, and careless errors so costly.

Players, experienced and expert, realize ultimate that appears effortless requires an incredible amount of work and discipline. As the popular saying goes, championships are won in the off season.

It’s not too much of a stretch to make the same argument about well-run ultimate organizations, whether it’s a long-standing pickup game, a mid-season tournament or a 48-team summer league. Good things start with good planning.

The U.S. Open Championships and Convention is a rare showcase for both the disciplined players and committed organizers who put in the effort required to raise the sport of ultimate to the next level.

These men and women are leaders in the sport, and each year the U.S. Open Convention provides an opportunity for them to learn from one another, network with each other and play against one another. It’s truly an amazing community, but you know that already.

The U.S. Open Convention often is overlooked, given the importance of the early-season U.S. Open Championships for competing teams. Yet, if ultimate is truly to grow as a sport, it is the convention, not the championship, where the foundation is built.

Considering the Possibilities

What is the future of ultimate? Will it become a recognized and celebrated Olympic sport, solidifying a permanent place in the worldwide sporting community with international support and authenticity? Will ultimate be an emerging marketplace, and if so, will the increase in potential economic gain benefit or detract from club, college and youth play?

How is competition changing, and how might players and organizers address and respond to those changes? How do you build a sustainable and successful program or organization, and how do you develop your players and volunteers to create a dominant and sustainable organization?

I am one of the organizers and players that benefited from discussing the answers to these questions and more at this year’s U.S. Open Convention. I shared group discussions with Andrew Roca, the coach of University of Central Florida’s open team, a program on the rise, and Ben Van Heuvelen, three-time coach of the U-19 U.S. National Team.

I caught up with Nick Kaczmarek, head coach of the University of Pittsburgh’s open team. I played against Kaczmarek in college (Pitt blanked us, more than once, I am sorry to report), and he’s developed an impressive coaching record, backed by a sound coaching philosophy. He shared it with me and other Convention participants, and I’m going to implement a few of those lessons with my own team. If you weren’t there, you missed out on a huge opportunity (I’ll be writing an article on his session for the next issue of the USA Ultimate magazine, so you’ll see what I mean).

Here’s the point – the U.S. Open Championships may be where you see layout Ds and 70-yard hucks, but the Convention is where you meet and learn from legends of the sport.

The three-track conference enabled players, organizers and current and potential coaches to focus on specific learning objectives and take away practical solutions that can (and will) be implemented immediately.

Strategies were shared to increase performance through training and nutrition will enable players to become faster, stronger and, probably most importantly, less prone to injury. Organizers learned how to develop volunteers, turn criticism into action and build local leagues and organizations.

Those in the coaching track, including me, benefited from the extensive knowledge of Van Heulven, Roca, Kaczmarek and Dan Raabe, a long-time high school coach and one of the developers of USA Ultimate’s coaching certification training program.

The Future of Ultimate

The future of ultimate rests in two fundamental areas.

I am firmly convinced that if ultimate is to grow and develop into an Olympic-level sport, we must broaden the foundational base. We must build our player funnel.

Organizing youth ultimate players is absolutely vital, one of the reasons two sessions focused on capturing youth and developing players. Building successful adult organizations is also important. Without attracting former varsity or club athletes, without extending the reach of ultimate to triathletes or rock climbers, without giving experienced players a league to which they can invite their beginner friends, the sport can never grow.

I am also convinced – and even more so after this week – that the future of ultimate rests in the successful training and development of passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic coaches.

The next generation of ultimate will look far different from what we have seen in the past decade. If you’re reading this article, you already know that. You’re well aware that high school programs are on the rise, and the success of youth ultimate has already translated into incredible college and club ultimate.

The bar has risen, and it will continue to rise. But if the sport is truly going to grow, we must broaden the base. We must learn to build organizations and teams, we must train leaders and coaches, and we must continue to do so with the passion and spirit we saw demonstrated on the fields and at the Convention this weekend. We must take advantage of opportunities to learn from the experience of others, the sport’s best and brightest.

I’ll see you at next year’s U.S. Open Convention.

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