Captaining a Team in Flux

Published in Ultimatum 2013


When Paul “Sarje” Sarjeant and I put ourselves forward to be captains of Fire of London last year, I don’t think either of us really knew what we were letting ourselves in for. Fire 1 was coming off the back of one of its most successful seasons in recent years, with a second place finish at UK Nationals and ranking 6th in Europe. On one hand we were excited, motivated, and keen to push the team to new heights. On the other, we were both new to captaincy, and were losing nine top-end first team players going into 2013.

Our reasons for running for captains will probably sound familiar to anyone else who has done it. We were dedicated to our team, had ideas of how to improve it and felt like it was the next step in our careers.

There’s no denying that captaining a team is incredibly rewarding and helps you see the game in new ways. You’re suddenly required to understand the game from every player’s position, not just your own. In most clubs you have to take on the responsibilities of decision-making, line calling and even designing plays. It’d be easy to shy away from undertaking something like this, but you can start to get so much more out of your game by tackling the challenge of captaincy. You’ll become the person people turn to when they have questions; you’ll be the one encouraging better spirit, and caring more than ever about your performances.

At the beginning of the 2013 season, Sarje and I thought it was going to be a natural continuation from the previous year. I saw the team’s progress and development as an extension of my own, and could only see one direction: up. We’d achieved so much the year before, and that was surely going to act as our foundation. This misconception was one of the biggest problems in how the team, and we as captains, perceived our season’s success. Finishing 6th or 7th was a failure; losing to Bad Skid in sudden death was a failure; “we should have been in the final”; “we should have won that game”. The ‘should haves’ were endless.

People talk of managing expectations, but no one on our team was doing that, and consequently our expectations were wildly inaccurate.

We learnt that the impact this perception has during games is huge. We imploded on several occasions, and because no one could quite grasp what was happening, we were unable to stop the rot. We hadn’t been there before, and it shouldn’t have been happening. So why was it? It didn’t come down to our plays, or how hard we played on D; it came down to the little things. It came down to getting broken too easily; it came down to trailing our man; it came down to not valuing disc possession on offense.

Had we properly appraised our situation, these faults in our perception and expectation would never have been there. We would have realised that we needed to spend the first half of the season gelling with our new teammates, working on fundamentals and putting the work in to get to where we were the year before. This is a common situation that university Ultimate players and captains will find themselves in. As players graduate, you need to find new talent to fill the gaps, or need to adapt your existing talent to a new system.

Every team needs a goal. If you’re at university it might be qualifying for – or even winning – Nationals. If you’re playing club it might be promotion to B Tour or winning World’s. It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re at, you’ll have a goal.

Fire 1’s season goal was World’s qualification, but we’d failed to properly address the work we were going to need to do to get there. As a team we were focussed on the end goal. We were playing with a sense of entitlement that we didn’t deserve, a sense of arrogance no one should have. We thought we’d win because of the badge on our shirts.

This goal was one of our undoings. The problem is that while this goal can be a huge motivation for your team – it’ll be what gets your players to the track or gym when there’s a million other things they could be doing – it’s not going to win you points, and it’s not going to win you games. The solution is that you need to recognise this as an outcome goal. An outcome goal is the result of everything else you do; by the time you succeed or fail at reaching this goal, it’s already too late. It’s immutable and your players can’t directly action anything to achieve it.

I can’t count the times Sarje, I, or someone else said the words, “Guys, if we want to go to World’s, we’ve got to win this game.” I’ve learnt that these words are useless.

Instead of focussing on the outcome goal, you need to switch focus to what we called process goals. Process goals are about all the things you can influence, and the key to them is that they offer the chance to succeed and fail on a very regular basis. Succeeding and failing allows you to constantly improve. That’s why we run drills: you get 20 chances to do the same thing. If you don’t get it right first time, you adjust something so you do it right the next time. When you do succeed, you can make the goal a little harder.

For example, we had one process goal that was, “Each time my mark has the disc, I will make them pivot at least once.” This led to throwers being unable to take their first option. When we were doing that well, we moved it to “I will make them pivot at least twice.” This was a small thing that each player could focus on during every point and work to improve. It’s easily quantifiable, and you get many chances to succeed or fail each practice.

Some of these things may feel contrived or forced at first, but you’ll notice your performances as a team improving as a result. You’re no longer focussing on trying to win the game; you’re focussing on the things that are going to win the next point. You should still be using this same thinking when you’re winning, but absolutely when you’re losing. If you’re going to dig yourself out of a hole, the first thing you need to do is focus on the small things, and never on the score line.

This was something Fire 1 failed to do in the first half of the season. When we switched our focus, we got the results. At Nationals, we came from three points behind to beat EMO, and nearly managed the same against Chevron. Despite losing that semi-final, the determination we showed in doing the small things right was a huge reward for Sarje and me. It showed we’d started to come out the other side with a rebuilt team and with renewed passion.

When you start as a captain, you’re following on from someone else’s foundation. You’re following on from what you know, and what you’re used to. It’s no great stretch to think that things will carry on in the same vein. This is a major trap. This kind of thinking breeds lethargy and complacency and allows bad habits to persist. Before every season you need to do a full assessment of what’s going to be possible for your team that year. You never know – you could be the next captain of a team in flux, and how you set your goals may be the difference in seeing your year as a success or failure.

After a domestic season that players could be forgiven for wanting to forget, we worked on the small things, and Fire 1 finished 9th at the Extended European Ultimate Championship Finals as the 3rd highest placed UK team, narrowly missing out on a top eight spot after a close loss to CUSB. I strongly believe that had we recognised the position we were in, looked to build rather than tried to continue, and understood the value of processes over outcomes, that we might have found our end of season form much earlier. And who knows where we’d be now...


Alex Cragg