Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Hi, my name’s Ashley and I’ve never played ultimate for Australia. To be honest, I’ve never really even thought about trying to do it. I remember back in 2013, I was living in Townsville and a friend of mine went to Sydney to try out for the Australian U23 squad. I thought it all sounded like a bit of a waste of time.
Fast forward to September 2018, and I was privileged to be selected as Assistant Coach of the Australian U24 Mixed Ultimate team, the Bluebottles. Circumstances kind of fell my way a little bit in my appointment (a complicated story for another time), but I was excited for the opportunity. From thinking it’s a bit of a joke, to coaching a U24 team – I guess a lot can change in five years.
This article is a brief insight into what it’s like coaching an elite Australian mixed team while not being a particularly elite player, and an even briefer insight into my brain because I think this article is brief. Apologies in advance.
Building Trust and Respect
There really haven’t been many Australia coaches in recent memory that have never played for Australia in some format. Whether it’s U19/20, U23/24 or beyond, most coaches have a green and gold hanging in their closet. As you know by now, I don’t.
The one thing you get when you’re an outstanding player or have played ultimate for Australia before is immediate respect from the players, especially in the U24 age group. I’d seen it before when friends of mine had played U24 and been coached by well-respected, elite players. These players carry a presence on and off the field that is impossible to replicate. I had to find something else that would instill belief in the players of my coaching ability. Three days after I was appointed, I wrote these three words in my book*: confidence, consistency and care.
Speaks for itself really. If I didn’t believe what I was saying with my level of experience, there is absolutely no way that the players would believe what I was saying. This confidence meant being prepared to the best of my ability for all conversations with players at training camps and at worlds. I watched a lot of ultimate (over 500 hours of footage across the campaign), made a burner reddit account to comment on threads during US tournaments and talked to a lot of people (from inside and outside of ultimate) about coaching, and it was all worth it to feel confident in my decisions.
Hot off the heels of confidence came consistency. If I was delivering an inconsistent message or acting in ways that weren’t true to me, then there’s no way the players would trust what I was saying – no matter how confident it sounded. This primarily focused on my attitude and demeanour throughout the campaign. I’m definitely a bad cop coach, and with the coaching team of the Bluebottles, it made sense for me to keep being that.
Everyone that I have coached will probably read this one and laugh a little bit, but I’ll paraphrase what Max said after worlds. I think this puts it better than anyone else ever has:
Ashley has this innate ability to make you feel a bit like shit, not because he thinks you are bad, but because he knows you can do better.
I truly care about everyone I play with and coach. I’ve been closely involved with the development of a few players who have played U24 campaigns (both this campaign and in the past) and have got a tremendous amount of enjoyment seeing them wear the green and gold. During our campaign, I personalised a lot of the feedback that I gave which I was able to do by ensuring that I watched footage of all our players at some level before we first spoke. I wanted the players to know I cared about their development as players and as people, because I did then and I still do.
Frustrated. That’s the word that I use to describe my week at worlds. Never really at the players, but at myself. And not always in a bad way.
During the campaign, you hear all the players who have been to worlds before talk about how you can’t really prepare for the feeling you get or how you’ll handle the experience. This is probably one of the only things in my life that I have put this much organisation and effort in to and you know what? I still felt unprepared. I was so frustrated, why did I waste all this time preparing if I was going to feel like this? I guess this is what everyone meant when they said you wouldn’t know how you would respond. Thankfully, I got through and with a few valuable lessons in tow. I was lucky to be part of such a fantastic coaching and support staff team, with both big brain ultimate IQ and dependable peer support. It made dealing with this frustration way easier.
There are plenty of moments that I reflect on from the week regularly. Some great and some well, not so great. Players’ injuries, fantastic wins, terrible foul calls, high-fives, just to name a few. One constant that has been with me since worlds, is that I have thought about our loss against Singapore every single day. How did they beat us? What would I change? If I would change it now, why didn’t I just change it then? Why did I have to have a massive headache all game? I’ve typed out about 20 different things to explain my emotions about that game, but I’ve settled on this – I wish that we didn’t lose.
Australia 15 – Japan 7
I don’t know that I love the idea of putting our entire campaign’s success on one game but I think this will go down as a pretty famous win for Australian ultimate - so why not right? I wish that I could say that I spent lots of time planning the defensive strategy to beat Japan, and this result was a deserving reward for that effort. But to be honest, it was a happy accident that started the ball rolling.
I’ll set the scene: it’s somewhere in the middle of the Bluebottles vs former Bluebottles BCI showcase game and we’re on defence. I decided to match up Ynez Ruiz with Esh Wickrema for a couple of points, to challenge her and for a bit of a crowd pleasing moment. The accidental side effect of this was Clare Barcham skying Michael Truong for a goal, but the pieces were there. She looked open because everyone else was being guarded one to one, and there were no other female defenders in the area – Truonga, while a good defender, just wasn’t the right kind of defender. This mismatch isn’t revolutionary defensive strategy, but I felt we had the personnel to make it effective.
Ynez/Josh Lipari and Holly Reeve/Harrison ‘Rabs’ Revai were the four players (two from each line) that played and just about perfected this set for the rest of the campaign. Ynez had already done it at BCI so was the logical choice, Holly had just come off playing a men’s season so was right at home and Rabs/Lipari were our two most versatile male defenders. I suspected this strategy would win us at least one game, but I didn’t know which one.
I watched Japan play against Mexico on day one and was surprised how huck happy they were - especially to their women. I also noticed that one of the male handlers never cleared upfield, and was always around the disc. A couple of days passed and we were coming off the back of a tough loss against Singapore, where they played an excellent game of possession ultimate (not necessarily an excellent game of mixed ultimate, but I’ll save that for another time). We had trouble getting our women involved defensively – while they were shutting down their players, those players were never really involved in the play. Before our next game against Colombia, I challenged everyone to find ways to get blocks within the realm of playing match defence. It worked. We created numerous blocks through our female defenders, who found ways to continuously inject themselves into the play (looking at you Laura Emerson). All the girls sat down after our Colombia game and chatted about taking those lessons on to the game against Japan. This conversation was critical to our success against Japan, I have no doubt.
At about 3-3, we went down in the mismatch set, with Ynez marking the male handler I mentioned earlier and Lipari marking their best female receiver. Ynez shut their handler out of the point which resulted in Japan hucking it to a receiver who appeared open before Lipari snuck in for a block. After the turn, a couple of passes ensued before one of the Japanese players stopped the play – he suspected the gender was wrong because the only player open that he could mark was Ynez. Up until that point, he had taken no note that our best handler defender (who happened to be a girl) had been marking him. The smile on my face was maybe the biggest it had been the whole week – we had them.
Our defence evolved to have an open/break bracket added to really force Japan to throw into uncomfortable places. Ynez or Holly pushed their male reset handler straight toward the open side bracket (usually Loz or Kya), who would take that option away while the inside channel was covered (usually by Merc, Maddie or Betty). Our defensive pressure was telling – Japan had no clean holds the entire game. If we had been more clinical in converting, we could have genuinely won the game 15-0. That’s a bit of fun isn’t it?
Latvia tried to do what we did (with some success), but didn’t quite figure it out. It took the USA until 12-12 in the final to play a bracket against Japan and then they won 15-12. Go figure.
Was It Fun?
Yeah, it was fun. We had 29 really great people together and we played mixed ultimate. I'm really proud of that and I know the players are too. It’s a shame we couldn’t play like the Japan game every game, but that’s sport I guess. That shade of disappointment that comes with 7th place will sit with me for a while, that’s for sure.
A lot of my campaign personally was spent trying to prove not to myself, but to everyone else, that I was a good coach. Nic Lelli told me that I had a good frisbee brain, so I’ll take that as a win! Before the campaign, I definitely saw not having played for Australia before as a barrier, and I hope that my experience is one that reminds people that international playing experience is only a contributing factor to making a successful coach, and not the determining one.
Would I go through the experience again? Right now I’ll say yes, but I guess we’ll find out in about 12 months when the next round of EOIs for U24 coaches go out. Maybe I’ll have stopped thinking about the Singapore game by then.
*I made a bit of a meme out of the books that I used throughout the campaign. I consistently used Rite in the Rain books, which are made of waterproof paper and generally quite tough. Before this campaign, I was a pretty consistent book chucker while coaching (I’ve broken a few in my time) and these books are super expensive, so if I broke one it was like $40 a pop. I didn’t throw my book once at worlds as a result, but I slapped it heaps.