Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We don't need psychiatrists, but do we need coaches?

A few posts back I showed an article on Great Britain's cycling psychiatrist. I suggested that our sport probably doesn't need psychiatrists in its present state. This week I thought I would punch myself where it hurts, and as the question - do we need coaches in this sport?

Pictured Above: Cito Gaston and the brain trust.

My thoughts on this topic came up from this article. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the original studies, but the basic premise (without the study) of the article is questioning the benefit of managers vs. the superstar in baseball. The results from the article suggest that managers can have a greater impact on a baseball team than stars.

Unfortunately, we don't have a huge range of statistics on Ultimate to do a similar study, but we can ask the question (how useful is a coach). As in all our discussions, we need to consider some variables such as the level that the coach is working at, and what the coach brings to the table compared to the player/captains, and the experience of the coach.

First off, I believe the player/captain can do all the activities of the coach except when they are on the field playing. While on the field the captains can't watch the bigger picture game, and I argue, that the big picture game is a process that is hard to do while playing. The nature of the game means that players get tired, have to worry about there own game, and focus on details such as the last play. So, from a simple argument, I believe the coach can provide a benefit over captains doing the various organizational jobs.

Still, how important are coaches/managers in Ultimate? Here are a list of activities that coaches can do, and my opinion if a coach will change the game result regardless of playing level:
  • Call lines - slight advantage
  • Make team strategy adjustments - slight advantage
  • Deal with player adjustments - advantage
  • Identify opponent plans - slight advantage
I'm sure there's more items on this list, but that's a starter list for now.

I think the coach helps in Ultimate, but like all positions the coach needs experience on the job, and will make mistakes. The benefit for the captain can be significant (minus the pain of letting go of control), and if this person is your star or stars, then the impact is even more significant. If an Ultimate coach make more significant an impact than a star-player is still questionable. Ultimate sits in between baseball and basketball in terms of individuals impact on the game (arguing stars in basketball can takeover a game), so I'm not sure how the coach impacts Ultimate. Something to think about.



ellsworthless said...

This probably falls under one of the slight advantages you have listed but, it is great having a coach be able to a player on the team what they are doing wrong. While that is obvious, the scenario plays out that Player A would like to tell Player B that their mark is shit and they need to clean it up. Instead of Player A trying to talk to Player B, leading to an argument. Player A can tell the coach what they think, and then the coach has the baton.

Also, now you are taking orders from someone that ranks above you, instead of taking orders from a peer. This doesn't eliminate the defensiveness, but it helps.

Sport Management Steven said...


One of my favorite articles on your blog.. thus far.

Phil Birnbaum is actually a very low level ultimate enthusiast in Ottawa. Hopefully he will be able to help people like us in gathering and crunching better stats in the near future.

As for the article, it's hard to make conclusions of the value of coaches and superstars without seeing the actual method and the numbers.

Ideally, I would reject the notion that coaches are more valuable than key players on the outcome of a game. However, I am a huge proponent of having skilled coaches for the strategy, line calling and communication aspects of the team game.

How much of a difference does a good coach make over a bad one? According to academic studies in Major League Baseball, the difference is 5-10 wins per year. Not a huge effect in a 162 game season, but enough to make or break a playoff team contender.

Further, a Canadian study by Mcteer, White and Persad found that mid season coaching changes in the NHL had little or no effect on team performance. If you don't change the playing talent, you don't get any better over the long run. I did a review of this article but don't have a full text link.

lank89 said...

i think another area where a coach could be a valueable addition is come practice time. When teams have different player/captain/coaches who are all friends with everyone it sometimes gets hard to rag on guys for not showing up to practice or giving their best effort. with a coach you get a person whose job is to make sure everyone is doing their best at practice and making sure everyone knows the systems. so that come game time they really don't need to do much.

Mackey said...


5-10 wins is just as much as a superstar player's value over an average major leaguer (if we're talking about a position player--a pitcher needs to be truly exceptional to add that kind of value). Given that managers are paid some 5-10% at most of a superstar player, the value is certainly lots higher.

As for the necessity of coaches in ultimate, I'd offer "definitely." Dartmouth went from no formal coaching my freshman year to having a couple coaches who would come and visit every so often my senior year, and the difference is definitely siginificant, at least, at the college level.

The best example of this in my mind is Harvard--that they've continually performed so well year after year is, in my opinion, a good reflection of the ability of Harvard's coach, Josh McCarthy, to continually leverage his players in the most effective fashion. Good players come and go, but good coaching (or a good system) allows teams to continually thrive. Even in games in which we've beaten Harvard I've always come away feeling like we were outcoached.

A lot of it is due to his ability to scout the other team and then instruct players in how to use that information in real-time (yelling from the sidelines to take away a player's preferred cutting option, for instance). It's not something I've seen many (any) other coaches do with such frequency or such effectivness.