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It Takes Practice

by Moses Rifkin

Like any team, Death or Glory had its own mythology. As a green twenty-year old, very few tales of the past loomed as large for me as Paul Greff’s block against the Condors in 1998. It seemed told and told again: as the deep in the zone at a critical point, Paul hears someone on the sideline telling him to drop and he does, without looking, just in time to get a game saving block. The message was clear - sideline voice won DoG a national championship - and I was hooked. 

Effective communication from the players on the sideline can be a crucial advantage for a team. Sideline communication can improve your team’s level of play by allowing defenders to respond to more than they can see. The sidelines can remind players of strategic goals that get lost in the shuffle and can bring a team together in a new way. I think sideline voice is something I’m very good at. It’s something I’m as proud of, and work as much at, as any more visible part of my game. 

However, I think it’s very hard to do effectively. Playing Ultimate is physically demanding, and having a second job to do when you come off the field is often overwhelming. Most teams are unsuccessful when it comes to sideline communication – you’re reading this, aren’t you? Becoming successful requires a shift in team mentality, hard work, and practice time just like any team concept. 

I would argue that the majority of team’s difficulties comes from players not knowing what to say, or not being compelled to put in the work. On DoG, participation from the sideline was a given. It was woven into what it meant to be on the team. On Sockeye, we spend practice time talking about our goals and strategy for communication. I know that the prompt for this article has to do with how I talk on the sideline, and I’ll get to that. But I think it’s most important to focus on how to lay a team-wide foundation. 

We’ve changed things over the years on Sockeye, but have recently found that it’s effective for each player on the sideline to have just one or two people that they are always responsible for. When Skip or Reid are on the field, I know that I need to talk to them, and they can expect to hear my voice. Everyone has a small group like this. This is a little less daunting, I think, than the amorphous sense that I should be talking to ‘someone’, and allows me to learn what sorts of things these two players need to hear and how to best communicate with them. 

Once we have our posse, each year we spend about fifteen minutes talking about the "why and how" of our sideline communication. By talking about why we do this, why it’s important, we are helping everyone to buy in – nobody likes working hard on the mark, but we do it because we all understand why it’s important. The difference with sideline voice is that it’s not as visibly clear why you need it…but you do. 

I mentioned before that not knowing what to say can be the biggest impediment to talking from the sideline, and so we work hard to define as a team what sorts of things need to be relayed from the sideline and how to do so. We keep our vocabulary simple – ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘no break’, etc. – in the hopes that it becomes easy for everyone to open their mouth and easy to respond to what is heard. The goal here is to take the thinking out of yelling and listening. 

From there, we walk through what each point will look like from the sideline’s perspective. The vast majority of our sideline talk happens when we’re on defense, either pulling or after an offensive turnover. We expect everyone to know the defense we’re playing. We use a simple code for relaying this information, believing that it’s more important for us to know the defense than it is for us to hide it from the other team. In practice we emphasize the importance of everyone understanding each defense as we work on it, even players who will never play it. I can’t remember the last time I was on the field for a zone defense, but by understanding the role of a wing in our 4-man cup, I can help communicate in the way that he needs. 

From there it’s up to me, as an individual, to follow through. Before the point starts, I make an effort to verbally connect with the person I’m talking to ("Skip, I’m your voice"). Much of my success on the sideline depends on being heard amidst the other yelling, and I want him to hear my voice and know that that’s what to listen for. Throughout the point, I try to make sure that he won’t lose that thread, and that means continually saying something – "Skip in, Skip in, Skip you’re fine, Skip you’re good, Skip left, Skip left, Skip mark, Skip mark!" – while staying as close to him as I can. It means following him up and down the field on the sideline, and means resisting the urge to watch the play to see what happens. 

If this sounds like hard work, it is. It takes practice, just like anything else. Just like the timing of my cutting, I find that I feel bad about my sideline voice until around Regionals where I start to really hit my stride – but it’s worth it. When Skip or Reid get a block, I crow to my teammates "That’s my block!". False puffery, sure, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that I do believe that I contribute to their successes (and they tell me as much), and it feels great in the moments that the work pays off. It’s worth it. 

One last thought: we’ve all felt the ebb and flow of a game, and we talk on Sockeye as one way of having some control over the game’s momentum. Staying active from the sideline can feel easy when your team is cruising, but maintaining that same energy when you’re down a few breaks is when it really matters most. Turning the tide doesn’t just happen, and I think rising to meet that challenge from the sideline is one of the things that most teams ignore. 

I encourage you to treat the development of a culture of sideline voice just as you would any other part of your team. Set team expectations for sideline voice just like you do for practice attendance and hold your teammates accountable in the same way. Practice your sideline strategy and implementation. Set goals for tournaments and revisit those goals after each game. Try talking from the sideline (and responding to what you hear, which is another skill unto itself) at practice just as you hope to in a game. 

These aren’t revolutionary suggestions for any on-field skill, and I think they pay dividends just as much for sideline communication. Being good at this as a team WILL help you win games, and it WILL make the experience more fun. It’s not easy, but when you have twenty teammates yelling and high-fiving on the sideline of a sweltering tournament game while your opponents cringe in the shade tent, when you come home from tournaments hoarse and happy, when you respond to a voice to get the block that wins a national championship, you’ll see that it feels worth it. 

huddle issue030 Using The Sideline Voice

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Keep It Calm
by Jody Avirgan

Two Things Durings A Point
by Jeff Eastham-Anderson

Standardizing A Team Way Of Communicating
by Greg Husak

A Strong Sideline Voice
by Tyler Kinley

Tangible vs. Intangible
by Brett Matzuka

A Constant Stream Of Specific Information
by Colin McIntyre

Make It Useful
by Jim Parinella

Sharing The Work
by Logan Pendragon

Assisting The Visually Impaired
by Taylor Pope

It Takes Practice
by Moses Rifkin

Loud + Positive = Good
by Miranda Roth

Provide New Information and Reinforcement
by Shane Rubenfeld

The Zone
by Ben van Heuvelen




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