As I think back to my time spent in the Dominican Republic, I think about amazingly generous hosts, players who are extremely enthusiastic about getting better at a sport they love, and overall the best 10 day stretch of my life. I arrived on the 31st and was taken straight from the airport to a town named Bavaro, where I would spend the next two days with some of my fellow coaches and many ultimate players hanging out on the beach during the day and enjoying the nightlife afterwards.
It wasn’t until Sunday the 2nd that all the coaches were finally together. After returning from Bavaro, the last 2 coaches to arrive, Skip and Laura, joined us at a local bar owned by an ultimate player for the clinic’s kickoff get together. At the end of the night, it was obvious that everyone there was both extremely excited to show us a good time, and even more excited to learn from players that they had seen on the many Ultivillage highlights that they’ve watched, and some at Worlds in Prague. For us, we were both excited for everything that the Dominicans had told us we were going to experience off the field, and motivated to give them the best possible coaching experience on the field.
Monday gave the coaches a day in between the kickoff party and the first session of clinics, and the Dominicans had an amazing plan for us. It kicked off bright and early with our soon to be good friend Pepito picking the coaches up from our respective hosts for a long drive north to what we’d been told was a place called the “27 Waterfalls,” where we would be doing “a lot of jumping.”
After a pit stop for some amazing smoothies, we were off through the scenic mountains, safe in the hands of Pepito as he did his best to dodge buses weaving at 85 mph and the occasional motorbike going about 40 mph (and not always in the right direction either). We finally arrived, strapped on our helmets and life jackets, and began our slippery hike through the forest up the mountain, the distant sound of water always in the background. As we reached the end of the trail, we saw what we had gotten ourselves into. Near the top of the river was Waterfall 27– our starting point for the way down the river– a 45′ waterfall dropping into (what our local guides called) a pond… but was more like a puddle. The best analogy for our first jump was a circus performer diving into a thimble of water. Our ideal landing area was about 5 feet by 5 feet, a small area that appeared impossibly small from where we stood. Our fearless leader Pepito, however, took the lead and jumped first, with Dave, Laura and myself following. Skip and Nicky decided that they preferred to stay alive and decided to wait for waterfall #26 to kick off the jumping.
It was an awe-inspiring trip; walking, swimming and jumping down a river that no water park could equal. I am unable to properly put into words the constant and beautiful waterfalls, nearly all of which fell into perfect little pools of water for jumping into. A couple hours later we finally reached our last jump, Waterfall 1.
From there it was a trip to Cabarete for some beach time, where Gritz made its first, but not last, appearance, and our first and last experience with street food. Apparently, it’s not considered safe to eat street food in the Dominican Republic, but Pepito made sure it would be safe before we all dug into some delicious pork sandwiches. The night ended with the long trip home, made much more interesting thanks to Skip’s crossword puzzle iPhone app.
By Tuesday, we were all ready to get down to work and start the task of teaching these eager players as much as possible over the next 6 days. Our first planning session together was done as a group, as we bounced ideas off each other about how best to go about teaching our respective groups how to throw. Dave had advanced throws, Nicky and Skip were teaching beginning throws to the guys, and Laura and I taught beginning throws to the women. Together, we were able to put together a solid list of the goals we wanted each group to achieve, and how we were going to work together to meet them. By the end of our joint planning session, each group had a solid game plan ready to be put into action.
Dave split off to his field at the local University, and the rest of us headed over to the Olympic training facility to meet our groups, about 20 guys and 30+ girls eager to learn. Much to my surprise, and relief, nearly everyone in the clinics spoke mostly fluent English. This virtually doubled our teaching time, as there was delay from translation. After Laura led the group in a thorough warmup, we went through the fundamentals of both forehands and backhands, trying to give them a few focus points they can always to keep in mind in the future. After Laura led the group in a thorough warmup, we went through the fundamentals of both forehands and backhands, trying to give them a few focus points they can always keep in mind in the future. After taking some time to let them practice and to give them some individual coaching, we added in throwing to a moving cutter, throwing after catching at full speed, and hitting a cut at distance. The day ended with 5v5 keepaway and a post-practice stretch.
Day 2 of the clinics had Laura and I teaming up again to teach beginning cutting and defense, while Dave and Nicky led a coaching clinic and Skip introduced vertical stack basics. The goals for our clinic were to make sure that the players, none of whom had ever been taught these kinds of fundamentals, came out with an idea of how to be efficient and effective in their cutting, and how to play defense in a manner that they are able to dictate to their opponent what they want their opponent to be able to do.
On Day 3 I was alone with beginners, teaching vertical stalk to about 10 guys and a few girls, while Skip and Nicky teamed up to teach vert stack to the women, and Dave and Laura worked with advanced throwing, such as breaking the mark. My vertical stack practice began roughly, as the idea of the dump-swing was understood, but the 3-man weave proved more challenging. I think in this, my plan may have been a little ambitious for a beginner’s clinic, but also was a great lesson in being able to understand my audience and adjust accordingly, which would pay off on Saturday. While as a whole our group struggled at times to understand the concepts at hand, their passion for the topic was clear, and multiple people approached me after the clinic had ended and asked questions about how they can become a better player, and about the pros and cons of the different offenses in ultimate.
Friday was a day off from the clinics, which meant a day at the beach. Besides lounging in the warm Caribbean waters, we taught Gritz to the rest of our new friends and played a hard-fought but fun game of coaches vs. locals beach ultimate, with Skip turning into a lobster by the day’s end. Remember, sunscreen is your friend! This day also featured a great interview on the local radio station with Skip, Dave and I talking about the clinic, Sockeye, and ultimate in general to a very receptive and interested talkshow host.
The weekend took all the players out to a polo field outside of Santo Domingo. There would be two 3-hour clinics on Saturday, with one 3 hour clinic on Sunday followed by an open scrimmage and a game between the two club teams, with the coaches participating as well. The male players spilt into their two club teams for individual coaching on whatever subject they chose, with the leftover players forming their own beginners clinic. Dave, Skip, and I would rotate in between the 3 groups during the 3 weekend clinics.
Saturday for me started off with Bushido, currently the top team in Santo Domingo. They were interested in learning how to properly play zone defense, and I was super excited to teach them what I knew. For me, with apologies to all the Fighting Salmon out there, this was some of the funnest coaching I’d ever been a part of. Bushido was the essence of passion, listening intently, asking thoughtful questions, and even bringing a Flipcam so they could review the concepts at future practices. And no one complained when they had to do push-ups when they didn’t turn their head.
After such a great first half of the day, I was unsure of how the second half would go. The concepts I had been asked to teach were more advanced cutting and defense techniques to players who had yet to fully develop the beginning concepts, including some of the same players from Thursday’s beginners clinic. However, after that Thursday clinic, and after a helpful chat with co-coaches Dave and Skip, I felt confident that if I were to present things in the right order and make sure they understood the concepts at hand before moving on, this could be a great clinic. Having only 9 people in the clinic also presented the challenge of keeping everyone fresh, rested, and motivated in the high humidity, 85 degree temps. Starting off with the Buzz Drill and Hollywood Squares gave everyone a good sense of cutting techniques, timing, and footwork, including having eye contact with the thrower, while putting a target box in the end zone made sure that their deep cuts straightened out and gave the thrower a bigger target. Defensively, a simple in-out-in cut drill focusing on positioning and keeping your hips in the right direction took them from chasing the offense to dictating to them, and soon we were able to run a 2 person continuation drill with defense that led to some great play on both offense and defense. In the end, this ended up probably being my favorite clinic. The low numbers meant I could easily give individual advice to players who needed some pointers, and the high reps in each drill meant everyone had a ton of time to perfect all the techniques I was trying to teach. What it all came down to in the end though, was how much the players in the clinic had learned in those three hours, and the giant leaps in skill level they had all taken in such a short time.
The fantastic generosity of our host nation continued after the day’s clinics ended. The Seahawks-Saints game had started just as the clinic ended, and one of the players I had just been coaching, knowing how much I would like to watch, offered me a ride to his place near to where I was staying so I could watch the game on his big screen. He gave me his BlackBerry to follow the game as we drove, offered Skip and I food and drinks when we got there, and then gave us a ride home after the game. Just awesome. (P.S. BEAST MODE!) The day ended as Skip and myself’s host, Kenji, hosted a BBQ, where the main course was a whole roasted pig that had been cooking for hours.
Sunday was the last day of the clinic, but the day that we had all been looking forward to. After one last rotation of team clinics, where I taught a team featuring many of our hosts called ADN (DNA is Spanish) zone defense, and another fantastic lunch of pulled pork sandwiches, it was time to play. First up was a scrimmage between all the guys not on either Bushido or ADN. This was mainly beginning players, and Skip, Dave, myself, and Laura, one of the coaches from Cali, Colombia, split amongst the two teams. The play in this game was not perfect, but it was clear that the fundamentals taught over the past week had an effect on the players and their abilities. Dumps were swung. Cuts were hard. The vertical stack was solid. Both teams played to exhaustion, with everyone deciding that it didn’t matter who won at the end of such a great week.
After a small break, the main event of the weekend started: Bushido vs. ADN. Both teams were eager to play with the coaches who had been teaching them all week and show off what they had learned. Play started with Bushido, playing with me, pulling to ADN, who had Skip and Dave on their side. The first half of the game started with 2 quick breaks for Bushido, as their new zone worked to perfection. ADN was able to answer back and got back in the game with solid handling from Dave and constantly attacking the break side with good dump-swings. In the second half, the coaches switched teams so that both teams would get the chance to play with all the coaches. Both squads featured numerous athletes showing off their skills, with ADN getting huge skies, including one fantastic catch on an admittedly ambitious fast break hammer from me, while Bushido used their young fast players to get lots of open deep shots. In the end, the game ended with a long point punctuated with a big sky catch for ADN. I have no idea what the score was, but I don’t think anyone cared. All anyone cared about, coaches included, was having a great time playing against each other with players they admire.
Perhaps just as important as all of the on-field concepts and techniques that the players learned was what they learned about Spirit and motivation. This was a topic that we had been specifically asked to address with the players. Some of the Dominican players that we were teaching occasionally had issues within their teams, such as players not showing up for practice, and players yelling at teammates for mistakes. Dave and Nicky did a great job of making this an emphasis at the coaching clinic they had on Wednesday, and all of the coaches made a concerted effort to keep attitudes positive and encourage everyone to be as good a teammate as possible.
The week of clinics and fun ended at the home of one of our hosts, surrounded by the many many friends we had all made over the past week. Many discs were signed for each other, stories were told about how great the past week had been, and of course, we played dominoes. We all made promises to return as soon as possible (which we all intend to keep), while promises were made on their end to come to Seattle and tryout for Sockeye. Talks have already begun with one of our fellow coaches to have a similar clinic in Colombia in July.
Overall, this experience was more than I ever imagined it could be. The friends I made are friends I will be in touch with for a long time to come, and the things I learned about how to be a better coach and a better teacher will stay with me for a lifetime. On behalf of all the coaches, I just want to thank all of Dominican ultimate players for being such fantastic hosts to us all and I can’t wait to see you again, on or off the field.