"The people that you teach inevitably teach you things too – sometimes more than you teach them."
What's your background in Ultimate?
I started playing at the University of St Andrews in 1994, because a vague acquaintance said, ‘You’re tall, come and play Ultimate’. It wasn’t really much of a sport at that time at the Uni level (I remember being offended when an opposing team had the temerity to warm up, as if they were athletes or something!) but over the years the sport and myself gradually got more serious. I never played at an especially high level, but we won a lot of spirit awards and a large number of the people I played alongside went on to have pretty stellar careers, which probably led me to believe (quite wrongly) that I knew what I was talking about.
Who do you coach?
I coach the various men’s and women’s teams at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
How did you start coaching?
I (finally) graduated for the last time in 2007, and by that time I was obviously the old guy on the team that people would look to for some advice. In 2009 I officially became a part-time coach, and since then I’ve built it up year on year to the point where it’s now my only job.
Why do you coach Ultimate?
Who wouldn’t want to?
What do you enjoy most about coaching Ultimate?
Making a difference – seeing someone just ‘get it’ when they hadn’t before. It could be a technique thing or a tactical thing, but seeing a sudden change where someone makes a big leap is just brilliant. And being around ultimate players is always fun.
What’s been your coaching highlight to date?
Ha – our biggest success was when I was too ill to travel and the boys won Uni Nationals without me getting in the way. But I wouldn’t say any of the men’s or women’s medals we’ve picked up would be my biggest achievement – that’s all down to the players. Similarly for the various St Andrews players who’ve gone on to GB recognition in recent years – for many of them my biggest role was simply promoting a supportive environment in which their talent and work ethic could flourish. But I am proud of the times when we’ve lost a few games at the start of a tournament but held it together to fight our way back up. Keeping a group of young players on an even keel is challenging, and certainly something I couldn’t do when I started, so I’m proud when we’re able to overcome adversity.
What are your top three tips for a new coach / getting started?
1) Understand regression to the mean. Shouting at people does not make them play better – it only seems that way because you only shout when they do something surprisingly poor. They were going to get better anyway.
2) What you’re able to actually get across to someone is far more important than how much you know. Coaching is not just giving people information, but finding a way for them to understand it.
3) Find a way to stay calm in game situations. Every little piece of your body language will be picked up by the team, and making them nervous will make them lose. It took me a long time to achieve this, as many players from previous years will attest.
What have you learnt from coaching?
More than anything, I’ve learnt about Ultimate – for 2 reasons. First, the people that you teach inevitably teach you things too – sometimes more than you teach them. And secondly, breaking things down and making them accessible to other people forces you to understand things differently yourself and confront the hidden assumptions you’ve made.
What’s coming up next for you?
Hiring an assistant coach for 2019-20, and then learning how best to coach alongside someone else. I’m too used to being the only voice!
If you want to read more from Benji visit his blog, Understanding Ultimate: The thinking person's guide to Ultimate