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The Captain’s Conundrum

This past weekend saw me returning to Ultimate after a three month break due to an ankle injury that I suffered whilst playing in a tournament. I was making my return in two leagues, an indoor social league and our division 1 outdoor league.

Anyone who has recovered form an injury in any sport can appreciate the anticipation as you slowly rebuild back to a point where you’re game-ready. There’s a sense of excitement, a renewal of goals and a realisation that, although your game has been put on hold for a while, it is time to get back into it and continue moving forward as a player.

Our indoor game on Sunday went quite well. We won but I came out of the game feeling somewhat downhearted rather than excited and glad to be back. Upon reflection I realised that the experience hadn’t lined up to my expectations and it was my role of team captain that had caused the rift.

As some context, the ultimate community where I live is reasonably small. There are a limited number of experienced players, let alone experienced players who are also keen to step up into leadership roles to help teams and individual players. I love ultimate and am dedicated to growing the community here so I regularly captain teams as a way to try and “give back” a bit to the community. The fact that I write for Rob’s site is an indication that I get a kick out of helping other ultimate players.

That said, although I have been playing ultimate for many years now it is only in the last 18 months or so that I have really dedicated myself to becoming a better player. I’ve consumed knowledge as much as possible, immersed myself in individual training programs, taken part in teams and tournaments and learnt a whole lot along the way.

For me the culmination of this effort was the tournament I mentioned, the one where I suffered my injury. The tournament was Australia’s first division 2 nationals and our team, Quoll, made it into the grand final undefeated. This was a fairly unprecedented result. I played well throughout the tournament until about five minutes from the end of the grand final where I was landed on by an opponent. We came away with a silver.

Originally my intention was to continue building after that tournament. I was happy with my performance but areas of improvement came to light as we progressed through to the finals. I was given reality checks in several areas and I have an appetite to work on those aspects of my game. Three months off was far from ideal. Luckily the local ultimate calendar was a bit light on so I didn’t miss too much, but I certainly held on to un-met goals and aspirations with the intention of kicking back into training as soon as possible.

Once I was ready to get back on the field I signed up to the two available leagues with all of these goals and aspirations in mind. I couldn’t wait to get back to work. Along with those expectations I knew for sure that I would be the captain of our outdoor league, and suspected that I would also fulfil that role for our indoor team as well.

Over time I have realised that you have to be a bit selfish to improve. You have to focus heavily on yourself to identify your strengths and weaknesses and keep an eye on yourself as skills progress between the two. You also need to dedicate time to working on yourself physically and the training department.

Captaincy is essentially the opposite of this focus. You have to look outwards to the rest of your team. Your responsibility is in the function of the team as a whole, the experiences that your teammates are having and also giving advice here and there where it is useful. On the field your focus needs to be broader still in order to encompass your opponents. What is working for them and against them? What can you change to gain an edge?

As an example, as a regular player on the field in a defensive point you typically have one role to fulfil. If man defence is the call you are given a player and it is your job to ensure they don’t get the disc. As the play progresses, you can succeed in this role and feel good about it even if the end result is a score against your team. You’ve done your job and done it well.

As captain, any score against your team needs to be considered. You may have done your job as a defender and stopped the disc making it to your opponent but something broke down somewhere and it is your job as captain to identify the whole and plug it. This could be achieved tactically, by instruction or sometimes just by offerring encouragement.

The point that I realised is that I would need to reset my goals, expectations and ambitions as an individual player due to the captaincy roles I was fulfilling on the teams I was in. Putting aside things that I had been looking forward to for three months wasn’t an easy thing to do and initially I was feeling very unfulfilled and confused as to how that feeling had occurred.

The reason I wanted to write about my experience was to highlight to team members that their captains are players too. Whilst a captain may enjoy their leadership role they may well be sacrificing their own ambitions and improvement for the benefit of the team.

I believe there are things that teammates can do to help their captains with their role. There are simple things like being attentive and listening to advice. Broader things such as keeping an eye on fellow teammates, helping and encouraging them can also take some of the load off the captain. There’s also plenty of opportunity for teammates to watch as the game unfolds and help their captain with observations of what is happening on the field.

The good news is that after some further thought and “self-expectation-management” I’m now fully ready to push forward and lead these teams as best as I can. Our outdoor team is relatively inexperienced (given we’re in div 1) and we had a tough game on Monday. However, despite the scoreline, the learning curve across the team was immense and this was thrilling to be a part of.

To all the other captains out there in ultimate-world – I salute you!

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