I was recruited by Michelle Ng and Without Limits to write about my experiences in my final season of College Ultimate. 2011 has many possibilities...let's see how they pan out. E-mail me (robyn-fennig@uiowa.edu)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Guest Post #2: JMo and Robyn, Being a Grad Student

Being a Grad Student on a New Team
Saucy Nancy 2011: North Central Region Champ
Robyn: My friend Juliana (aka JMo) from Maryland bounced this idea off of me to discuss the experience of what it’s like to be a grad student playing at a new school. Both of us have had experiences playing with a growing team at a small school and then transferred to a new school to pursue graduate degrees. Walking onto a developing team with a bunch of young talent without being a captain can be a tricky balance to maintain. Here’s a little insight to my experiences this season with Saucy and Juliana’s experiences during the past two seasons with Maryland’s Helpful Corn.
Juliana:   For quite a few grad students, the success of the ultimate team is a factor (or at least a perk) in deciding which school to attend.  Once the decision is made, we face the challenge of integrating into a team with a different culture and potentially different goals than we have.  Figuring out how to have a meaningful season as a new grad student takes some work, so here are a few of the things we’ve learned along the way.
Juliana: Coming from a small DIII school in the Northwest (Whitman College), I had never had a coach or won a tournament.  Although I had played 5 years of ultimate, I knew that the kind of coaching I could get at Maryland would be more personal and more intensive than I would get elsewhere.  At the club level there is far less instruction, while teammates, captains and coaches just expect you to know how to play good ultimate.  The level of feedback from a college coach is one of the major benefits of continuing to play in grad school.
JMo in action at College Nationals in '10

Robyn: I was fortunate enough to have a great coach as an undergraduate in the Central (Wisconsin-Eau Claire). We were a new team, and Pat Niles was able to give us individual help in and outside of practice, but much of it was captain driven. The captains of SOL met with Pat and planned practices, while Pat helped carry out our practice plans. It was a really cool vibe. When I decided to come to Iowa, Saucy Nancy had no coach. I had numerous conversations with my good friend and mentor, Mikey Lun, convincing him to come to Saucy (I can’t take all the credit, I just tried my best to give compelling arguments). He was looking to coach, in my opinion Saucy was the perfect candidate to embark his knowledge on. He had the right style and he wanted to make a difference. Saucy had a young player base eager to learn from someone with experience. I looked forward to letting the reigns go to someone else.

The Age Gap
Juliana: I began playing ultimate at towards the end of my sophomore year of college, but due to study abroad and injuries, didn’t play in the college series until my senior year.  After working for a couple of years, I came to the University of Maryland for grad school with two years of eligibility left.  The women’s team, Helpful Corn, had made it to nationals and then lost in the game to go to nationals the two years before I came to the school.  Needless to say, I was excited. 

This year on Helpful Corn we had no seniors and one other grad student.  As the oldest person on a team with an average age of 20, I brought experience to the team.  I knew how to teach newer players about throwing, defensive positioning, zone strategy, etc.  I did my best to set an example at practice by playing hard and maintaining focus. There were also times when I disagreed with the way drills were explained or the way our strategy was playing out.  But that feedback was best given outside of practice so that our captains were still the clear leaders of the team.  As a grad student you can help teach new players, you can give feedback without it seeming too critical: your teammates will listen to you.  However, because I wasn't a captain, I had to strike a balance between active leadership and supporting leadership 

Me at Regionals 2011
Robyn: I too started playing during my sophomore year. Coming right into grad school after completing undergrad, I was still much older than most of my teammates. We have a million juniors on our team. Most of the team isn’t 21 yet. It’s crazy. It was weird coming to the team with being one of the oldest on the team, but not in a captain role. By the end of fall, I found my groove. I was surprised that everyone was entirely cool with the way I tried to lead... In fact, it felt like this was what my role was supposed to be all along. I mean, I’m not making any decisions or really any criticisms. I’m just trying to give more one-on-one attention. I feel like that is really what my role is: use my knowledge to help my teammates improve. For me, it took the form of one-on-one time, whether it be in practice or outside of practice. It has been fantastic. The time that I have gotten to know my teammates has been phenomenal. I feel connected to each of them personally. I really have a grasp on what they are working on and what they want to improve. I love when they get the lightbulb to go off. I mean, I am often not explaining anything new…just in a new way. I feel that being a grad student on a new team in a non-captain role, spending one-on-one time is the best thing you can do.

Once I realized that I need to own up to that leadership position, everything clicked. There is a difference between leading and controlling. I don’t need to control what goes on. But I enjoy helping others realize their potential. Spending one-on-one time with someone after practice or on the side during a drill is a great, easy way to lead without over-stepping your bounds. That way you don’t take away from the captains or coaches, but listen to what they say, and help your teammates carry out their vision for the team. It’s much easier for people to carry out an active role this way, which is crucial to success in a program like this.

Juliana: One of the most important things to pay attention to as a new grad student is the match between your goals and those of the team.  Both Robyn and I lucked out our first years in grad school by playing on teams with the goal of going to nationals.  I wanted to push myself to play harder than I had before (even at the club level).  Thankfully Helpful Corn wanted that too.  This was a pretty major time commitment on top of my graduate studies, so if you are not prepared to put in the time, it could be a disservice to the team.

However, some grad students will find themselves on a team with less ambitious goals. While this may be a disappointment, it is possible that with your help, the team can improve to the point where the team resets its goals.  In order to get to this point though, a new grad student needs to be committed to being a part of the team (win or lose), and not just coming to practice or tournaments when you need a good workout. Earlier this spring, after Helpful Corn lost 5 players from our A-team and we finished 19th of 20 at Queen City Tune-Up, I wondered if this season would be worth the time commitment.  I couldn't leave the team though - I had made a commitment.  In the end our squad of 12 players developed amazing chemistry and took 5th place at Regionals

Robyn: Grad school is much more time intensive than undergrad ever was for me. In my first semester, I ended up only going to two of the team’s four tournaments. It killed me. I purposefully took a light course load during the spring (luckily all the classes I need and am most interested in taking coincided with this), anticipating taking more next year when I am out of eligibility. The more you invest in your team, the more connected you feel. The easier it becomes to take time out of your schedule to make plans with your teammates, to help them improve. It’s a great feeling, greater than I get from reading my assignments…I’ll be honest.

I came to Iowa without really taking into consideration ultimate. Which is silly, I guess. I mean I knew they had a women’s team. Everyone seemed super nice and excited to play with me in Spring 2010. Saucy had a strong regional performance in Spring 2010, finishing one spot behind my team at the time, SOL. I was super excited when I found out that the girls had been drilling in the summer…playing Mixed club…and really eager to learn. The expectations were that we were going to be a good team with making nationals as a goal.

Team Culture
Robyn: I like to think that I played a role in helping to build SOL. I was there when we barely had enough to do a drill at practice, and saw it through until I graduated when we had 25 people on the team. It was nuts. SOL played an integral role in my falling in love with the sport. They’ll always hold a special place. I have always been told that my grad school team will never be the same…from numerous friends from around the country.

I beg to differ. Saucy, has been a much different experience. I have fallen in love with this team from the first day they invited me to drill with them at the end summer 2010 when I moved to Iowa City. KP, Dre, and Timko did an amazing job making me feel like part of the team from day one. They provided so much support while I was recovering from knee surgery. I’ve spent so much time lifting, doing pool workouts, throwing, practicing…it’s nuts. I’ve fallen in love with every single girl on this team. In preparation for nationals, I'm learning all about the team history. Saucy's last national's appearance was in 2005. I'm friends with some Saucy alum and they are really helping me to connect between Saucy alums and current players.

Maryland Helpful Corn 2011
Juliana: On any new team, you will find a new culture and way of interacting with your teammates.  Since most women's players learn ultimate in college, your undergrad team will always have a special place in your heart (Shout out to the Sweets: Whitman men just made it to Nationals!). 

Switching allegiances and being an integral part of your new team will take time to adjust.  Learning the team history, being a part of the cheers, hanging out with your teammates outside of practice are all so important for making a meaningful season.  For example, people always ask why our team is named Helpful Corn.  I love being able to explain with pride that it is a reference to an episode from Season 1 of Daria, and so what if you haven't seen the show or you think the name is silly, we are Helpful Corn and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are Helpful, we are Golden, we are UMDFU.  Helping my teammates grow and watching the improvement of girls who just discovered the sport is as fulfilling as being a coach, except I get to play.  What more could you want?


  1. Love this post and can relate to everything y'all said. :)

  2. Great post! Glad to see this topic discussed.

    I'm curious what programs you two are in. I too played out my college eligibility as a grad student. But as a science grad student (biochemistry), I was expected to spend my afternoons in lab, which conflicted with practice, so I had a very difficult time balancing school & ultimate. You two are probably more dedicated/involved than I was at the time, but just curious if it's easier/just as hard in different disciplines/schools.

  3. I am in a 2 year MS Program in Urban and Regional Planning. I'll be done in 2012.

    J-Mo is a Master's in Public Policy at Maryland. She graduates in 2011.

  4. I did the same thing...played 3 years with the Univ. of Florida FUEL team and then moved up to Chapel Hill for my PhD in Microbiology. Playing out my last 2 years with Pleiades (under the coaching of Lindsey Hack) has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. Now that FUEL is going to Nationals along with Pleiades this year, I feel my life has come full circle.
    Thanks for posting this Robyn!