Here’s a thought:

I’ve coached thousands of players, and after five minutes on the field with teenage ultimate players, I can tell you who are going to be the leaders. I can point out characteristics that indicate potential (like public speaking, confidence, and quick decision making). I can equate a young handler now with an old handler who, decades before, started their journey towards being a respected advisor or team captain. I can pick out the future bosses.

I can do all that, and I will be wrong.

I can pick out the future bosses.

I can do all that, and I will be wrong.

For the purposes of this article…

I’d like to concede that successful leadership is complex and difficult to describe. If there were a simple formula, then we wouldn’t have problems with leadership. Congress would be functional, and all team decisions would reflect the best interests of the group. Rosters would be submitted on time. But leadership takes different forms and a wide variety of pathways towards getting people where they want to go. Or where they should want to go. Leadership is tough to define, and I won’t try here. Go read Clausewitz or Delpit for yourself.

Leadership is also based in community, and it was within the Moho youth ultimate community that I was taught this abrupt lesson. Moho was a non-tournament-focused, non-school-based team of individual ultimate players in Seattle. At its worst, it brought together motivated players to share techniques and scrimmage together when their individual schools didn’t yet have teams on which to play. At its best, it combined great coaches and as many as 80 players driven to a great education in our sport. When Miranda Roth gave an in-depth footwork lesson in layout blocks or Sam O’Brien led an hour-long drill session in working near a sideline, that education translated vividly. It wasn’t funded, but it gave rise to a generation of great players (see: Seattle club ultimate, et al.) and was the precursor to the superior and better-supported Seattle Fryz program which focused a bit more on tournament play. That’s our setting. Now here’s my lesson.

Of my first class of Moho players, I could have easily and very wrongly picked out the future leaders. There were tall, well-spoken, outgoing and confident players that you just knew would be easy to follow. They were stalwart players even at a young age, and they had the attitude and conviction to improve in the game. Other players gravitated towards them, and I am happy to say that some of these players did in fact go on to be the kind of names that, when they show up on a roster, people notice. So I wasn’t ALL wrong, was I? At least the leaders came from the group that I would have picked, with the understandable chaos of youth leading some people to choose different paths or identities or even different pursuits entirely.

My lesson, though, came in part from two specific players who I would never have spotted as future leaders.

Player 1 is a weirdo. She talks awkwardly (and runs even moreso). She laughs at herself and sometimes falls down while she does it.

When she analyzes a situation, she sometimes can’t help but skip past the lesson and go straight to the cynical joke about it. Some of that cynicism may come from the fact that she often is forced to match up in practice against a slew of women that will go on to be among the best athletes in women’s club ultimate…in those match ups, she is often overwhelmed. Sometimes her personal life comes out in her practice attitude; she hasn’t quite figured out how to be emotionless while on the field. She doesn’t dress in a way that says sports…unless sports means skateboarding in an abandoned factory.

Player 2 is a malcontent. She plays with 100 percent effort at all times, which makes sitting still in lines a problem.

Guile and creativity are lost to pure footspeed and rage while she plays. She can barely speak in the huddle (resulting in my not actually knowing her real name for three years). She is trying to craft an identity while lost in the abyss of high school and confusion. She’s athletic, which she uses to fall on things and generally injure herself a lot. Probably not surprisingly, she doesn’t ask for help very well. She fears a world in which people are looking at her while she throws a forehand. She dresses like her first choice invisibility cloak is at the cleaners.

(I am pointedly not telling you who was who, because it is nearly irrelevant.)

These two players became, after their own pathways, Shannon O’Malley and Alyssa Weatherford.

When I hear about them now, it is typically from young coaches who reference them as the highest word in ultimate. Or parents who want to know if they can possibly find a coach like them. Or young players trying to learn how to use their voice in the same way as these two examples. These are world-class players and nationally recognized coaches and innovators who are changing the sport for the better on a regular basis.

Nothing in those descriptions screams “future leader.” They aren’t lone exceptions; the most experienced among us all have these stories about the many unpredictably great future teammates, leaders, players and coaches. The more you do this, the more you realize that predictions are worthless, and something un-foresee-able is driving the way that young people grow.

If that is all you read, great. TL;DR: You are coaching a future leader right now, but you don’t yet know who.

If you are interested, I want to lay out a few of the reasons I think we were able to craft an environment in which leadership potential was able to emerge.

Want to develop diverse leaders from your ultimate communities? Something from this list might be appropriate to try for your team:

  • Forcefully provide medium-risk leadership opportunities on all of your players. From leading warm-ups to demonstrating drills to acting as team captain, there are positions of power that can be taken up by even your youngest players. Give them! Our players often asked why their coaches were so lazy. We made them set up drills, decide on team rewards and punishments, even flip before games with adult-team representatives. It’s a lot like building a credit history; when these players get to the point where they need to make big decisions, they have a register of past successes in actual independent decision making that they can draw on for their own experience, context and confidence.

  • Replace in-practice contests that favor the possession of testosterone. While throwing the disc far is a valuable skill, playing players in a competitive situation can devalue those without the physical prerequisites to win. Even “go for improvement, not raw numbers” can be hard for young players. If you keep an obvious tally of their past and present stats, great. If not, stick to contests that anyone can win if they master the skill. As a specific example, you can replace “throw far” with “complete an away pass to a teammate who catches the disc at full speed in a small square of cones.” That skill challenges all of the parts of completing hucks, but a 13-year-old 5’1’’ rookie can work on the same skills as a strong 5’11’’ world-class hucker.

  • Develop a growth mindset. If the term “growth mindset” isn’t in your head daily, it should be. Loosely defined, this is an atmosphere or attitude of improvement in a skill rather than being currently good at a skill. Once you start thinking about this, it is hard to see the world in any other way. Especially in a sport where intelligence and use of individualized tools is so important, the desire and appreciation for improvement is a great way for everyone (especially your best and strongest players) to approach their game. Reminders that every young player would lose a one-on-one contest to their future selves is part of it. By focusing on growth, you make development of leadership potential a real possibility.

  • Make your trade-offs and decisions visible. Where should you set the field? It’s muddy over here, but it is too close to the pavement over there. Should we work on marking or footwork? Marking was lacking in the last game, but footwork will help our rookies more. Which play should we run? We’ve focused on handler swings in practice, but the weather favors looking deep early. As a coach, you make hundreds of leadership decisions every hour with your team. While newer coaches want to foster an air of their own correctness, your future leaders probably learn much more from understanding not just your decisions but also your data and deliberations. Sure, it’s awkward to talk to yourself and even worse to doubt your own mind, but these are rich fodder for a growing leadership brain. I am lucky enough to have given some of my former players situational information such that they could tell themselves, “When I am in charge, I am going to make that decision differently.” That is the start of a leadership identity! And an informed one! You don’t need a running internal monologue to give your players a handful of mental dilemmas to roll around in their growing brains before the next practice.

  • Practice communicating, stop cursing. When Moho players cursed, they ran. If they realized it, then they decided how far they should run. If they didn’t realize it, or if the coach thought their running distance was too short, then the coach decided. But here’s the thing: We really didn’t care about cursing; we cared about communicating. Curse words are a way of papering over inexact or nonspecific language. The listener gets a hint that something is up, but curse words relieve the need to say what you mean and practice forming those thoughts out loud. We want our players to practice communicating, especially if they are going to be leaders and will be communicating to groups or individuals in challenging situations.

  • Raise the challenge level. Easy drills select for the avoidance of errors. Do you want your players simply avoiding errors? No, you want them finding solutions and deliberately practicing their skills. With few exceptions, your team should succeed but never master a drill. By the time they near mastery, you should have already increased the cognitive load or difficulty or game-likeness of what you are doing. I believe young leaders grow most rapidly in challenging environments because they practice struggling. Struggles are formative, as is being around people that are struggling themselves and expressing that in different ways. Very little leadership happens in situations without any struggle because it simply isn’t necessary. If you want good leaders to come from your teams, then put those teams in manageable struggles, and let them grow towards successes even after one or more failures.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for the coaching and development that you do. May your own lessons be learned faster than were mine, and may you be lucky enough to coach players like Alyssa and Shannon at some point in your life.

Dr. Ben Wiggins is a former Sockeye captain and leader. When not espousing his teachings to the Seattle ultimate scene, Ben and his wife Heide-Marie raise their daughter, who already dresses in tiny Riot onesies.