Players from both teams gather for a spirit circle after the game.HANNA HART

5 Leadership Lessons From Ultimate Frisbee

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Author’s note: This post is personal, inspired by the Women’s Collegiate Division 3 Ultimate National Championships in Columbus, Ohio May 20-22, 2023.

There was no chance they would win the championship. Seeded sixteenth of sixteen teams, my daughter’s Ultimate Frisbee team, the Knox College Alley Cats, had a roster of ten players and were self-coached facing teams with two or three times as many players, nearly all of whom had experienced coaches. The Alley Cats knew all this going in, but they were excited to be at the championship together, playing the game they love at the highest level they could reach, and they were hoping for an upset or two. However, coming into day three, game six (a “consolation match”) against the Wesleyan Vicious Circle, they were 0-5. Every player was bruised, blistered, exhausted. Part of them probably just wanted to get it over with and go home. But they chose to lean in, support each other and give it their best, and in this choice, I witnessed leadership lessons worth sharing.

Lesson 1—Take responsibility (everyone is a leader). At first, I saw it as a detriment that the Knox team did not have a coach and had to self-coach, but then a player set me right. “I’m glad we don’t have a coach,” she said, “because if we had a coach, we could leave it up to them to call out a problem or make us better. But instead, it’s on us. We have to take responsibility.” The elected captains Beck and Nola lead practices and guide the team, but they are also key players on the field, and all the players support, coach and challenge each other from the sidelines and on the field, without blaming or finger-pointing. Many teams could learn about ownership and distributed leadership from these players.

Lesson 2—Communicate constantly and be aware of blind spots. There’s a lot happening on the field at any given time, and it is essential that players communicate with one another about strategy, field position or who is open. Teammates on the sidelines sometimes say to a player, “I’m in your ear,” meaning that they will be talking to that player and watching their back, seeing the whole field, including what is literally in their blind spot, and guiding and coaching them. The player on the field welcomes the guidance because they know it is in their best interest. Communication is also key to interactions with their opponents. Because Ultimate is generally self-refereed, players are responsible to know the rules and to abide by them, and call fouls on other players (and sometimes even on themselves), discuss the infractions, come to a resolution (whether the foul is conceded or contested) and resume play. There is no official to decide for them so they have to work it out themselves. Collaboration and performance are improved when colleagues and cross-functional partners routinely step back, look out for one another and share (and are receptive to) others’ perspectives, and when they can resolve conflicts without escalating to authority.

Lesson 3—Set personal goals. At the half-time huddle, the score was 8-0, and the team was low physically and emotionally. Acknowledging this reality, the captain asked each player to set a personal goal of something they wanted to work on in the second half. Nola’s goal was to make two “D’s” (defensive plays), Leah was going to concentrate on catching, and Sarah focused on making better cuts. Back on the field in the second half, I saw each of them working on and achieving their personal goals, and the team played better as a result. After scoring zero points in the first half, they scored three in the second half, and every player could be proud of her accomplishment, while also improving team performance. Even in the midst of failing at performance goals, individuals who set learning goals can find motivation and success in personal growth and development.

Lesson 4—Celebrate success. The other team was taller, faster, and had enough players to bring fresh legs and energy to the field after each point. Meanwhile, the Alley Cats were down to two subs, and they had their share of missed throws on goal, dropped passes, and turnovers. But through it all, these young women cheered for every throw that connected (and many that didn’t), every reception, diving catch (and attempt) and every defensive play. They also acknowledged the other team’s effort and play. And then finally, when the Alley Cats scored their first goal, they rejoiced: “No shutouts!” Headwinds and failure will come, but maintaining a perspective that recognizes effort and celebrates wins, big and small, has the power to generate team positivity and morale.

Lesson 5—Culture matters. A founding principle of Ultimate is the spirit of the game, “a set of principles which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.” Throughout the weekend players on all teams—winners and losers—demonstrated spirit: taking responsibility, negotiating infractions, communicating, encouraging and cheering for their teammates (and their opponents), and playing with joy. Culture, like spirit, must not be just a list of rules or a slide deck of values, it is acted out in every behavior, action and interaction, and it depends on everyone taking responsibility for creating and maintaining it. That is leadership.

Thank you Alley Cats: Beck Baird, Kali Christopher, Katherine Zhang, Leah Wheatley, Madeline Hart, Morgan Hopkins, Natalie Fluegel, Nola Walston, SJ Danielson, and Sarah Strauss.