Running an Ultimate Clinic

Posted on March 6th, 2012 by Mark "Spike" Liu


This is a guest post by Michelle Ng, founder of Without Limits Ultimate
Photo by Hanna Liebl
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In Fall 2009, I organized an informal gathering of college leaders at an ice cream shop in St. Louis.  Having played in undergrad in the Bay Area and in grad school in Austin, I saw a huge gap in the overall level of play and number of playing opportunities available between the two regions.  Determined to change this, I decided to enlist the help of other leaders in the Midwest and South, and put out an open call to the leaders of teams attending a tournament I was running.

A couple dozen players and coaches from Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, Wash U, and Grinnell showed up to that meeting at Cold Stone.  Players currently leading the charge in the club division such as Keely Dinse (Riot), Tasha Parma (RevoLOUtion), Sam Huo (RevoLOUtion), and Courtney Kiesow (Nemesis) were all in attendance.  It was an awesome group of people with a lot of really great ideas.

I have a detailed set of notes from that meeting.  An excerpt:
  • How do players get better without someone to teach them?  How can we add to their existing base of resources and knowledge?
  • Definite need for captaining clinics to train captains/leaders on how to teach Ultimate and how to be more effective
Some notes I wrote after the meeting:
  • How can we create a culture of "paying it forward" and plant more regional tournaments where skills clinics can make a difference?
  • How can we develop all of these ideas?
  • How do we create buy-in from coaches?
  • How do get people to care enough to show up?
  • What is the first step?
  • What is the long-term vision for this?
In Spring 2010, largely as a response to ideas generated at that meeting, I organized a clinic opportunity at Midwest Throwdown.  We flew in eight of the best women’s club players in the country to guest coach and mentor teams in the Roundup Division, and used this group and other local coaches to run a skills clinic for all of the players at the tournament.  Anna Nazarov (Blackbird), Keely, and the Wash U women’s team were instrumental in making this happen.  

Over the past two years, the idea and execution of the clinics has continued to evolve.  Beth Nakamura (The Ghosts) introduced me to Eventbrite and helped me manage clinic registration last year.  I am running nine clinics this college season.  Six of the clinics are a 1.5 hour component of tournaments, one is a fully integrated tournament experience (Virginia is for Layouts), and two were weekend-long clinics for captains and team leaders (Texas Captaining 101 Clinic, Midwest Captaining 101 Clinic).

For a concrete look at what a Without Limits clinic is like, check out this video put together by Sara Jacobi of Brute Squad.

The rest of this article consists of thoughts on my approach to clinic planning.

Laying The Groundwork

  • There must be a relationship with potential coaches and event organizers.  A clinic is not a plug-and-play element of a tournament.  For every clinic I run, there are always a few key people who help me rally coaches and plan details.
  • A successful clinic cannot be an afterthought.  You must be thinking about the clinic when you plan your weekend schedule, lay out your budget, and manage logistics.
  • Have a handle on the market.  What is the general skill level of the teams attending the tournament?  Who are the “target teams?”  What are the specific needs of those players?
  • The quality of the coaches matters.  I hand-pick my coaches and rely on trusted friends to help me find coaches when I am running a clinic in an area where I don’t have a network.  I want coaches who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, AND engaging.  The quality of the clinic and the players’ experiences are highly correlated to the quality of the coaches.
  • Surround yourself with people who think outside the box.  Over the years, I have been privileged to work with many people who have challenged my stance on what is possible and who feed me new ideas.

Navigating the Logistics

Shorter Clinics (Clinics integrated with tournaments)
  • Clinics integrated with tournaments should be no longer than 1-1.5 hours.  People are tired after a long day of Ultimate, so you have the challenge of managing time well and making sure you have engaging coaches and topics.
  • Here’s an example of stations and registration for a clinic I am running this spring:
  • Registration was capped at 210 and the clinic filled within 48 hours.  The tournament has 32 teams, 24 of which are “target teams” for the clinic. 
  • Recruiting for coaches begins 2-3 months in advance.
  • Registration opens 2 weeks before the event and closes 48 hours beforehand.  Registration is advertised on RSD, Facebook, Twitter, and in multiple emails to all team leaders.
  • Prepare your coaches and event organizers.  I give each coach an overview of clinic logistics, context for the clinic, a set of expectations, and a list of attendees (with team and playing experience info).  I provide the event organizer with clinic maps and a full list of attendees.  Players tend to not remember which clinics they signed up for or where the stations are, so over-prepare and find a way to manage this.
  • Coaches and participants are provided an opportunity to give feedback.  Over time, I have been able to refine the types of skills stations that people are most interested in.  Sometimes I’ll throw in a new station or two in to mix things up.
Longer Clinics (Virginia is for Layouts, Captaining 101 Clinics)
  • Plan, plan, plan.  A short clinic is relatively easy to put together.  A bigger clinic endeavor takes months of planning, and a mix of long-term vision and acute attention to detail.
  • Recruiting for coaches begins 6 months in advance.  It is good to recruit coaches before you announce the event so that you can ensure the clinic is feasible and so that you can use those coaches to promote the event.
  • Registration opens up to 6 months in advance.  1.5 months before the event, you should have a good sense for the final scale of the event.  Flexibility is good.  Chaos is not.
  • All of the communication listed under the shorter clinics is 100 times more important for a longer clinic.  For Layouts, I provided each guest coach with an individualized 3-5 page document outlining team goals, practice plans, and quotes from players they will personally be coaching.  I also put together a detailed weekend schedule, planned travel and hotel logistics, and set up a Google Group for communication with the coaches.  A longer clinic is a much bigger undertaking. 

The Big Question: Budget

Of the nine clinics I am running this season, here is how it breaks down:

Cost to Participants
  • The six 1.5 hour clinics are free to participants.
  • Virginia is for Layouts has a tournament bid fee, but there are no “extra” costs for the clinic components.  Each team receives a guest coach for the weekend and access to skills clinics and program building seminars.
  • The Captaining 101 Clinics had a registration fee and included lunch, housing, 12 hours of instruction, 50+ pages of clinic resources, and various prizes.
Coach Compensation
  • Coaches at my shorter clinics receive Without Limits gear as a thank you.
  • At a weekend-long clinic, the coaches are compensated for travel and given a stipend.
Costs Incurred
  • A short clinic has a low barrier to entry.  Your only costs will be fields, printing costs, and the cost of gifts for the coaches.  You can easily incorporate these costs into a tournament budget. 
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Virginia is for Layouts will cost approximately $9k to pull off.  Bid fees do not cover the costs for an event like this.
I see much of what I am doing as an investment in the future of women’s Ultimate.  Right now, I recognize that if I charge a nominal fee (say $5) for a shorter clinic, participation will probably drop 75-90%.  If I charge teams what it costs to create an opportunity like Layouts, bid fees would increase 3-4 times.  Affordability and accessibility are incredibly important to me, and I think there needs to be a balance between asking people to value what you are providing and accessibility.  I have definitely not found that balance yet. 

Closing Thoughts

  • Show appreciation to event organizers and coaches—they are the backbone of a clinic.  Many of my coaches have helped at multiple Without Limits events.
  • Be enthusiastic.  It is contagious to your coaches and participants.
  • Plan more than you think you need to.  When you are managing hundreds of people, anything can (and will) go wrong at any given moment.
  • It takes time.  Virginia is for Layouts took a few months to gain traction.  Three months into the planning, I was convinced we would have to cancel it.  A month later, the tournament was completely full.
  • Pay it forward!  Think about how you learned about the sport.  Who are the people and what are the events that shaped your playing experience?  Try to replicate that for others.
Michelle has run 25 tournaments over the past six years.  Her work has ranged from local hat tournaments to some of the biggest women's tournaments in the country, and from getting new tournaments off the ground to helping run well-known, established tournaments.  Her favorite tournament as an organizer is Women's College Centex, and she believes that the best tournaments are the events that bring together competition and community.
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