Team Building Lessons From A New Captain

Last weekend, VLS Soda came away with gold at Aussie Mixed Champs Division 2 after a big win against a QLD side that was far stronger than us on paper. I captained the team, alongside Samantha Kong and Dave Kahn. It was my first experience co-leading a team with such a vast range of experience levels, and I learned a lot along the way. Here are a few quick tips and tricks to guide your team to on-field success, regardless of experience levels.

1. Be conscious of your impact

Particularly in D2, a lot of players don’t have the experience to navigate the pressure situations you will inevitably face at nationals. Effectively leading from the front is an essential tool for any captain.

Every single time you are visibly negative or dejected during a game, it would have been more beneficial for your team if you had displayed a different emotion. The moments when your team are down are exactly when it is most important to be in control and deliberate about the emotions you project.

You have the power, through the way that you act and the decisions you make, to shape the experience of the players on your team more than you realise. Meaningfully complimenting a player and audibly recognising a good decision or contribution is never going to negatively affect them, especially if they don’t often receive that positive feedback.

2. Use structure to ease pressure

There are times on every team's offense where it's great to watch - the cuts are timed well, the throws are perfect and the defence doesn't stand a chance. The value of an effective offensive structure is twofold: it makes these free-flowing situations occur more often and provides direction for all players, regardless of experience level when the going is hard.

Direction for all players, regardless of experience level

This shows one of the proudest moments I've ever had as a captain. Our young handler throws the disc to the middle of the field on stall zero in a pressure situation with 0 prompting. This is something we had worked to reinforce all season.

Our team leadership identified early that most of our turnovers happened when playing from the sideline. To counteract this, we decided our offensive focus for the season was going to be reliably getting the disc to the middle of the field and going from there. Team buy-in to the structure allows throwers confidence in the spaces they are throwing to and creates familiar movements for (especially inexperienced) cutters to recognise. This has the added benefit of making it easier to integrate the full depth of the roster into your offense and taking the pressure off your key players.

It's all well and good to say “Okay sweet, we'll just use that (miscellaneous) structure.” But if the central tenet of your offense is that you want to get the disc off the sideline to the middle of the field, then your players need the skills and to develop the instinct to do so when it matters.

Practice getting off the sideline on a stopped disc, over and over again. Run thrower-marker with players envisioning the throw as a centre-ing throw. Stop a practice scrimmage and praise someone when they centre the disc early. Shout “MIDDLE” at the top of your lungs every time the disc is on the sideline throughout the season (the team finds it funny after awhile). A strategy’s effectiveness might seem obvious to a captain, but it’s your job to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Whatever your chosen strategy, when you encounter obstacles as you run these drills, work through them slowly with clear explanations. Provide logical, clear alternatives and solutions to any opposition tactics that might work to counter your strategy. Make the team believe in your structure. If it is an effective strategy, once they buy in, you’re golden.

3. Make opponents uncomfortable on defence

Identifying any strengths of the opposition’s offence and neutralising them is the gateway to effective defence. Have at least two defensive options at the ready that can be employed depending on the scenario. We found success in the conventional wisdom of playing match defence when you can win one-on-one and zone when you can’t.

The joys of playing defence in Division 2 are that most teams tend to heavily rely on a couple of players, and as such it can be a little easier to design strategies to frustrate their offense. For example, in our semi-final, Manly relied heavily on a strong female core of primary cutters and throwers. We initially struggled with these match-ups and switched to zone defence. These players were less effective at breaking a longer male mark, and when they moved behind the disc, Manly lacked strong cutters to really punch through the zone.

Similarly in the final, Two-Min had a number of male Aussie reps who were strong throwers and a very strong female deep receiver. This was evident in their first three offense points, which were closed out using the above connections without much difficulty. In response, we utilised a trap zone with the break side wing aggressively pushing towards the third handler to stop that big swing. This invited the cross field overhead to a less confident receiver, resulting in enough turns for us to get a run of breaks.

In both our semi and our final, zone defence took us from 3-3 to 6-3. Once the opposition started confidently working through the zone, we switched back to hard match defence to tire them out. By that stage of the game teams would be feeling the pressure of being a few breaks down, which combined with fatigue caused them to rush their hucks and be less consistent in their resets.

At training, practice focused strategies that are useful in a range of different scenarios. Have your males mark their players underneath and your females push their match-ups under. Do it vice versa and every combination therein. Explain in what scenarios you might employ such strategies. Practice alternating zone + match defence to make your offence adaptable and to keep your defenders on their toes. Having a range of tactics in the tool kit allows you to adapt based on opponents strengths and also gives the team confidence that they are prepared for any opposition.

What have you found success with in your club or team? Contribute to the discussion in the comments below :)