Dominic Norton

"Even at the top level, success still tends to come down to players doing the basics correctly"

What's your background in Ultimate?

I accidentally started playing Ultimate at the University of Birmingham, having chosen Birmingham partly because of the quality of their swim team. Big shout-out to Jenny Torpey (frisbee coach) and Nick Wakeham (1st team captain) particularly, for helping me fall in love with the sport and move entirely from swimming to Ultimate by the end of term 1.

In my 2nd year I had my first exposure to club ultimate as I joined the group heading to Leicester every Tuesday to play for EMO. I played 5 seasons with the club, including 2 ridiculous years where I commuted up to Leicester from London after work on Tuesday afternoons, culminating in WUCC 2014 in Lecco.

I then played with Kapow and a brief stint with Clapham, before playing my final 2 seasons of Ultimate with Deep Space.

A combination of things, including recurring knee injuries, led me to the decision to stop playing after the 2018 season.

Where / who do you coach?

I’m currently one of the two non-playing coaches for SYC.

Prior to this I was club coach for my final two years at university, completing my UKU level 1 back in 2009, and did some coaching as one of the captaincy team in both of my seasons with Deep Space.

For the start of the 2018 season with DS I was rehabbing from injury and unable to train or play – this gave me my first real experience of coaching Ultimate from a non-player perspective and I immediately recognised how much more effective I could be at noticing areas for improvement and tactical opportunities in-game, when not having to worry about playing.

How did you start coaching?

My first experience of coaching was with my swimming club as a teenager. I started supporting with some of the younger groups when I was about 14/15 and then took my ASA swimming teaching and coaching courses as soon as I was allowed to: level 1 at 16, then level 2 at 18. As I became a more senior member of the club, I became more involved in coaching and by the time I left for university I was coaching a few times per week, on top of my own training.

Why do you coach Ultimate?

I’ve always enjoyed coaching, there’s something special about helping an athlete get better and go on to achieve their goals in a sport.

For Ultimate specifically – I think Ultimate as a sport lends itself to coaching because it’s so complex; from footwork, to throwing, to cutting angles and tactics, there’s so much to optimise. I like how much you can get down into the detail but how, even at the top level, success still tends to come down to players doing the basics correctly.

What do you enjoy most about coaching Ultimate?

Coaching at tournaments is fun and all, but the bit I really enjoy is working with a player over a period of months to get better at something.

What have you learnt from coaching Ultimate?

Coaching Ultimate has taught me a lot about people. People talk about soft and hard cheeses in terms of receiving feedback, but I think that’s overly simplistic. I’d say most of coaching is just about getting to know the individual players you’re working with and finding how you can work together to help them achieve their goals.

Coaching definitely also made me a better player as it forced me to think more expansively about all elements of the game.

What’s been your coaching highlight to date?

Hearing feedback from players, years after the fact, that my coaching had a positive influence on their playing careers and their lives.

This has happened a couple of times now and means more than any game result could.

What are your top three tips for a new coach / getting started?

1. Be clear on whether you want to teach or coach. Teaching is about imparting information for the learning of others; the teacher has all the answers. Coaching is much more about working with someone and providing structure, support and space to help them find a solution (ie. the player has the answer, you’re just helping them find it).

The two ideas are often conflated (In my opinion there’s a lot of ‘coaching’ Ultimate that is actually teaching and requires an entirely different approach and set of skills)

2. Search for a culture that matches what you’re looking for. If you want to attend 3 training sessions a week, provide tons of feedback, do game film analysis etc., then make sure you coach with a group of players who want that level of coaching input and are going to match that commitment. Similarly, if you just want to show up once a month and give a few tips, find an environment that is looking for that.

3. Remember that you can’t make people care. As Christian ‘Bobby’ Zamore told us repeatedly at EMO – “We don’t get paid for this s***”. Players will all have other things going on in their lives that effect what they are willing and able to put into becoming a better Ultimate player. You can agree player expectations, you can build an environment which people want to be a part of, but players will only show up and work if they want to. Be there for the players who want to put in the work.

Any other tops tips?

· Be open to feedback and approach feedback you receive with curiosity and humility – Just because you’ve put lots of hours into planning a session or designing a zone doesn’t mean it’s good.

· Linked to the above – try to build psychological safety within the team. Everyone achieves more when it’s ok to fail.

What’s coming up next for you?

Unless something major changes, I’d like to remain with SYC for the full 4-year cycle, hopefully helping the team qualify for then compete at WUCC in 2022.