Thursday, May 17, 2012

On Beginnings

I've been having a lot of conversations with college players as they process the end of their season and begin regrouping for whatever comes next.  As tough as endings can be, with them come new beginnings, and those can be tough as well.  :)

It's a bit hard to summarize all of my thoughts on this topic, especially as I struggle through endings and beginnings myself, but I thought I'd share a bit of Melee '08 with you as your team begins the next part of its journey.

Coming out of the '07 season, we lost our best all-around player, our best thrower, our coach who spent many years molding Melee as a team, and a group of seniors who had taken the team from being a low finisher at Nationals to a semifinalist.  I was not in a great place as I felt a lot of personal responsibility for our loss in the game-to-go, just a year after I had experienced the same thing my senior year at Cal.  To top it off, I was sad to see the seniors depart in such a disappointing way in such a chippy game.  Losing is hard; losing while watching all of the teams in your Region cheer against you is devastating.

Leading the team in the wake of this ending was difficult and required a bit of "fake it till you make it" on my part as I turned the devastation into motivation as best as I could.  The great thing about new beginnings is that the possibilities are endless.  You decide what you want your future to be.  For me, a strong sense of TEAM and a re-commitment to a better relationship with our opponents were incredibly important, and after taking a couple of weeks to process the end of our season, I set out in earnest to accomplish these things.

Next season has already started and the evolution of your team is already underway.  We're making decisions on a daily basis that are shaping the direction we're headed.  Running, throwing, lifting, setting personal and team goals, spending time with teammates, figuring out the perfect release point for that io forehand, making plans for fun tournaments this summer, dreaming about next year.  Every day is a new beginning for what is to come.  And it's the process, not the ending, that matters most.

Below is an excerpt from a message I sent to Melee that season.  It details a bit of our team's vision and what we set out to accomplish.  Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren't.  And you know, I remember the wins and the losses to some extent, but what I remember most is that it was one heck of a journey.


"Others may have far more ability than you have. They may be larger, faster, quicker, able to jump better, etc. but no one should be your superior in team spirit, loyalty, enthusiasm, cooperation, determination, industriousness, fight, and character. Acquire and keep these traits and success will follow. Define success for those under your leadership as total commitment and effort to the team's welfare." - John Wooden

We have all put in a lot of work over the past few months, but the hardest work lies ahead.  Winter workouts, spring training, months of intense practices, and some of the most competitive tournaments in the nation stand between us and Nationals. 

At the end of these six months, the nation will know what Texas Ultimate is all about.  We respect our opponents by playing intense, competitive ultimate, we play with a love for the game and our teammates, and we respect the other team’s calls, expecting our opponents to do the same.  We always strive to model Spirit of the Game, playing with the utmost respect for our opponents and our teammates. 

One heart, one mind. 

Something that sets a GREAT team apart from good teams is heart… the willingness of every single player to lay it on the line for the TEAM.  There is no room for selfishness or personal glory here.  When the team wins, we all win.  When all 23 of us are on the same page, no one will be able to stop us. 

One point at a time. 

Every time we step on the fields is a chance to improve and make this team better.  Take responsibility for making that happen and hold your teammates to the same standard.  Game to 1, every time we’re on the line. 

Soak up every moment of the next six months.  It’s going to be an incredible journey. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Callahan Thoughts

There are a number of worthy nominees for this year's Callahan Award, but I wanted to write a post detailing my thoughts on four candidates in particular.  Without Limits is dependent on "partner" teams- the college and club teams who co-organize our tournaments and clinics.  These four players have been the backbone of Without Limits during an especially uncertain time, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with them.  It has been their commitment to growing women's ultimate and their dedication to their teams, their events, and the division as a whole that have strengthened my belief in what we are trying to achieve. 

As voting for the Callahan Award begins, I wanted to write a few thoughts about each of them and give them a small bit of recognition for all of the hard work they have put in.  Leadership and dedication to the sport of ultimate are two core values of the Callahan Award and I believe that these players have demonstrated that no one can rival them in those two categories.

Janel Venzant (Texas)
I have been Janel's captain at both the college and club levels, and it has been an absolute privilege watching her grow as a player and person over the past five years.  Janel's play her rookie year led our team back to Nationals and helped us take down eventual semifinalist University of Washington in pool play.  Something that has stood out to me about Janel as a teammate is her willingness to lay it on the line for the people she cares about.  I worked hard to get her stick with the team during her first few weeks of college, and that effort was paid back a thousand times at Regionals and Nationals.  She didn't fully understand what it meant to qualify for Nationals, but she poured everything she had into achieving that goal because she knew she was fighting for the seniors who wanted nothing more in the world.

This year, Janel was the lead organizer for Women's College Centex, the largest and most competitive college women's tournament in the country.  Until this season, Janel's strengths as a teammate and leader have primarily been on the field, so fewer things have meant more to me than seeing one of my last college rookies stepping up to run an event that has been the center of my work for the past few years.  The job of organizing Centex is not one that you can truly understand until you've been a member of the planning team-- the amount of work done behind the scenes is overwhelming, and Janel oversaw all of that this season.  Watching Janel pour her heart into this event on top of leading Texas back to Nationals in her fifth year has been incredible.

Kami Groom (Wash U)
I had the privilege of watching Kami at her first tournament ever- 2009 South College Regionals.  Her outstanding play earned her FOTY honors and helped catapult Wash U to the top of the region.  She was absolutely dominant and has only gotten better since.  
Kami is outstanding on the field, proving herself as gamechanger at both the college and club levels.  She is a game changer.    

Kami led the team back to Nationals in 2010 and 2011 and has been a key leader in Wash U's development.  Only those who have seen the development of this team from 2008 until now can fully understand how much this team has grown.  As their former regional rival, I have nothing but respect for what this group of players has accomplished, and much of that should be attributed to Kami.  Every team is a reflection of its leadership, and the Wash U girls are among my most trusted partner teams because of Kami (and the leaders who came before her).  Their "whatever it takes" attitude and their commitment to growing ALL of women's ultimate (even when it doesn't benefit their team directly) gives me great hope for the future of our sport.  Wash U has quietly donated hundreds of dollars to other teams to help them create new opportunities, and has done an incredible amount to grow women's ultimate in the Midwest, both with Midwest Throwdown and beyond.

Earlier this spring, Kami and three of her teammates drove 11 hours round-trip to attend a captaining clinic I ran in Iowa.  Why would the captain of a 3-time Nationals Qualifier attend this clinic?  That's just how Kami is- she's always striving to get better, and that in turn makes everyone around her better.

Lindsay Lang (UNC)
The best part about working on QCTU for the past two years has been working with Lindsay Lang.  She is an amazing organizer, leader, and person who has vision beyond her years.  I really cannot say enough good things about Lindsay.  She does so many things and does all of those things well.  Even though I should be used to this by now, her work ethic and organizational skills still floor me.

A former Junior Worlds player and a member of Phoenix in 2010, Lang has become the cornerstone of the Pleiades offense this year and has turned heads all season.  She is the best player on one of the best teams in the country, who has all of the accolades that a Callahan frontrunner should have.  But I think few know how much she has done for the sport off the field.  She singlehanded grew QCTU in size and competitiveness, as well as added QCTU Qualifier to accommodate more locally and regionally competitive teams.  This was of no benefit to UNC; she did it because she saw a need and she knew she could fill it.  Lindsay has also coached high school ultimate in the Triangle area, has coached at Without Limits skills clinics, and has consistently served as an advocate of Without Limits.  

Because of Lang's abilities as an organizer, QCTU was never a tournament that "needed" Without Limits' help.  Instead, Lang used QCTU to strengthen the Without Limits lineup and has acted as a resource for other organizers and their events.  Lang has done more for me and Without Limits than I could ever offer in return.  When Virginia is for Layouts was struggling to get off the ground, we want to Lang for help and she (and her teammates) gladly gave us every resource they had access to.  Lang understands the responsibility (and privilege) of being the leader of one of the best teams in the country, and she has always responded to this challenge in an incredible way.  Her maturity and her quiet dedication to being the best at what she does make her a fantastic choice for the Callahan Award.

Amber Sinicrope (Smith)
Amber's range of experience is unmatched by any other nominee.  Amherst Regional High School player, two-time Junior Worlds player, 7-year Brute Squad veteran, and appearances at both D-I and D-III College Nationals are just the tip of the iceberg.  Her field sense, disc skills, and gritty defense make her a phenomenal player and she has a proven track record at the highest levels of the game, but it is her work with Smith, a small D-III school that should earn her votes.  Amber has poured her heart into the team and the proof is not just in their semifinals finish at D-III Nationals last year or in their top 8 finish at D-I Regionals this year.  It is in the development of the overall skill set of Luna and in their exposure to new opportunities and experiences.  Amber is not content to pick up the disc every time and make every big play for the team.  She is fiercely competitive but also understands that her role with Luna is to maximize every single one of her teammates' abilities for the long-term success of the program.  That kind of perspective is rare in the college division.

Amber spearheaded Virginia is for Layouts this year, by far the biggest Without Limits project ever.  Her vision for creating this opportunity for D-III, new, and on-the-cusp teams, and her drive to see it to fruition created a remarkable experience for hundreds of players.  Amber dreamt up a much-needed opportunity for these teams, drew in some of the best club players and coaches in the country to make it happen, and fundraised thousands of dollars to see it all through.  Amber's unique perspective as someone who has played at the top levels of the game allowed her to see that many teams outside of the elite tier have many fewer opportunities; not only did she recognize that, she did something to change it.

Few players in the college division have the combination of skill, heart, and vision that Amber have, and despite the fact that she is not one of the top teams in the division, she deserves recognition for everything she has put into the sport over the past decade.

Janel, Kami, Lindsay, and Amber-- thank you for being my collaborators AND my friends.  I love you guys and I will be rooting for you on and off the field in the many years to come.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Endings

For me, the best part about qualifying for Nationals has always been the opportunity to spend a few more weeks with my team.  I have extremely fond memories of those precious extra moments earned at both Cal and Texas, (and with Showdown and Molly Brown), and these memories are perhaps sharpened by the heartbreak of the seasons sandwiched in between where I lost three games-to-go in two years.  I share some of the heartache of losing that third game here.  Endings are incredibly difficult, especially when they happen sooner than we'd hope.

It's easy to call a season a failure when we aren't the last team standing, but I believe that a season is defined by more than that.  The seasons I look back most fondly on had drastically different trajectories and outcomes.  I always point back to Berkeley '06 as an example of a unified and happy team that lost two devastating games-to-go and "failed" when it counted most.  But I would choose to go back to that team and season over other years where I've qualified for Nationals with teams that were far less unified and happy.  The success of a season cannot be measured by what you see on Score Reporter.  In my mind, the growth experienced by players on and off the field, the relationships built, and the legacy left for the team in subsequent years are all part of what makes a team successful.

As a small group of teams punch their tickets to Appleton and Boulder, and others close the books on the 2012 season, I wanted to share this 
excerpt from an email I wrote to a college player earlier this week:

"I have spent a long, long time blaming myself for premature endings of seasons, whether that be in games-to-go at Regionals or elimination rounds at Nationals.  As a leader, you are so invested that any outcome other than the one you had imagined seems unforgivable... There are always hundreds of things that you could have done differently, and you wonder if one little thing here or there could have changed the outcome of the season.  Sometimes I am still not sure that I've forgiven myself for the "mistakes" I've made... And the truth is, we can always do better... and hopefully we will, in whatever we face next.  I think the key is to always be looking to the future.  Of course, take time to be sad over the ending of a season and to reflect on the things you could have done better.  But ultimately, you are not defined by the past.  You are defined by how you take those lessons into the future."