Photos by John King and Scobel Wiggins
In a move that may confuse and stun opponents and fans alike, the Rainmakers have announced Monday that for the 2014 season they will have two head coaches, Mario O’Brien and Steve Gussin.
Neither gentleman will be assistant coach to the other’s head coach, but those not on the team likely won’t see the behind-the-scenes communication and clear distribution of roles and duties between the two.
“I think it might be hard for the community outside of the team to understand what the role is,” said O’Brien. “We have different responsibilities in terms of what gets done and what happens with the team. We’ve identified certain things that I’m going to be taking more of than Steve is.”
Gussin will serve as the game day coach, where fans will see the former Portland Stag player calling and adjusting lines, plays and strategy points and communicating with referees.
O’Brien on the other hand will be taking the helm in a more big-picture sense, identifying opportunities for development, cultivating team culture, and administering the team’s mission and vision.
“What the fans won’t necessarily see is that Mario is putting in a lot of the architectural work,” said Gussin. “He’s leading practices, and he’s designing a lot of the systems that we’ll be employing this year.”
“Player development is something that I’m really good at and something that I’m really excited to give to the team and it’s something that I’ll be taking the lead of,” said O’Brien. “In general, if you were at practice and you were in the background seeing the inner workings of the team and how things work, your perception would be that I’m the head coach; but if you come to games, your perception would be that Steve is the head coach.”
“There are very defined worlds in which each of us is the ‘lead,’” said Gussin. “So far, I think the coaching dynamic between us is working really well. We’re both very process-oriented, we’re both all about setting and meeting goals, and we’re both heavily invested in helping this team to be great.”
The reason for this particular separation of duties is that, in addition to his coaching duties, O’Brien will again be donning a jersey to play in games this year. This isn’t to say however that O’Brien abandons his coaching responsibilities while acting as a player.
“I don’t completely flip off coach mode,” said O’Brien. “I’ll still be giving feedback and communicating with my teammates and pushing and holding my teammates accountable to get better, but the focus will be much more on playing than coaching. That’s what the team will need from me at that moment.”
Neither coach is a stranger to Major League Ultimate, but they have taken on very different roles from the ones they filled last year. In the 2013 season, Gussin spent his weekends frustrating the Rainmakers as an offensive cutter with the Portland Stags. However, this isn’t an exodus from Portland for Gussin.
Born and raised in Seattle, Gussin went slightly south to Evergreen State College for his undergraduate years before returning to get his master’s degree at Seattle Pacific University. He has coached high school teams across the Seattle area, been one of the YCC U-19 coaches for several years, and has spent summers leading DiscNW youth camps. Gussin’s playing history is equally Seattle-centric. Along with fellow Rainmaker Danny Trytiak, Gussin helped start Ballard High School’s Ultimate team in 2002. Gussin has also spent most of his club career playing with Seattle club team Voodoo.
O’Brien, who wowed fans and opponents alike with his strong handling prowess and shutdown defense on last year’s Rainmakers O-line, has stuck with Seattle and filled the gap left by the departure of Ben Wiggins.
A recent transplant from Portland, O’Brien said,“I’ve been pretty deeply connected to the Seattle Ultimate scene for the past few years via [Seattle club team] Sockeye. I was invited a few years ago by the Sockeye captains to be part of the tryout process and to come to some tournaments. At that time it didn’t work out for me to come and play with Sockeye, but it truly was because of the friendships that I developed and the commitment to getting better at Ultimate and the multiple opportunities I knew I would have to engage with the Ultimate community that really helped me turn the corner with regard to my decision to move to Seattle. ”
When speaking about his unique position with the Rainmakers as a player-coach, O’Brien believes it is important to consider the context.
“I went from joining [Portland club team] Rhino in 2008 to captaining Rhino for 4 years after that,” he said. “In 2013 I joined Sockeye only in a player role, and was absolutely refreshed by not being a captain, and just focusing on improving as a player. In the background of all that going on, I started RISE UP with the mission of providing excellence in Ultimate education. To say the least, I learned a lot, and gained some criticial perspective on what it takes to be a great player, as well as what it takes to be an effective leader. When you’re trying to do both at the same time, you’re not going to be as good at either. Through my travels with RISE UP, I’ve talked to hundreds of fantastic coaches around the world, and have come to understand that ‘burn out’ is a very real and common thing amongst Ultimate leaders. It’s something I think many club captains struggle with, specifically because they try to do so much, and they don’t balance their coaching, playing, and personal expectations effectively.”
Still, O’Brien’s experience in each of these roles and his transitions between them have allowed him to psychologically segment his capacity to do each, putting him in a seemingly contradictory position to be successful at both.
“I think I’m going to be a lot better about managing my expectations,” said O’Brien. “I think that’s the number one thing that player-coaches in Ultimate haven’t been able to figure out. They always feel like they’re letting the team down because they’re not playing as well as they could or they feel like they could be doing more as a captain, as a leader, and I think I’ve really learned to manage my expectations and understand that you can’t do it all. That’s the way it’s going to work for me on this team, just focus on specific things at the right times and rely on my teammates and the coaching staff and trust them to do their roles because that’s how we’re going to win as a team, that’s how we’re going to find success.”
Beyond their personal histories in Ultimate, the co-head coaches both cite their professional experience as educators as being central to their coaching philosophy.
“My coaching style and my teaching style are very linked,” said Gussin. “When I’m coaching, I’m all about learning. I often feel like I’m in my classroom, because I’m prioritizing a lot of the same things – having a clear learning target for everything that we do, creating context of why that learning target is important, giving opportunities to practice that learning target in several different ways, and giving meaningful opportunity for assessment at the end. Good coaching practices and good teaching practices are very similar.”
O’Brien agreed: “With everything I do, I’m all about teaching, having people understand, and finding ways to get people more bought in to the community. In order to achieve that goal you need to give context and you have to find a way to make it make sense to whoever you’re communicating with, and I think that’s a very part of my philosophy as a leader. I’m not a top-down, direct instruction, militant leader; I’m a teacher.”
“My coaching style is really defined by my educational background as well,” said Gussin. “In both scenarios, I have to be very positive, very feedback-oriented, and very consistent – I can’t get too ‘up’ when things are going well or too ‘down’ when things are going poorly.”
The co-head coaches are truly amped for the season to get underway.
“I’m super excited for my role with the Rainmakers because it allows me personally the opportunity to grow in those roles but also to share that experience with a group of guys that I care about and an organization that I think really does care about growing Ultimate in the right way,” said O’Brien.
“My goal this year is to help create a great experience for our players and for our fans,” said Gussin. “That means having practices where they feel like they are improving, both individually and as a group. It means getting our players in the best possible scenarios to help them be successful. It means helping the players play great Ultimate (which the fans are going to appreciate) against great competition. This year is going to be a blast. I think the fans are going to see a really good product on the field, and I’m excited to help bring it to them!”
With their shared enthusiasm and process-driven approach to coaching, the dynamic co-head coaches are poised to lead the Rainmakers into a strong second season. Stay tuned for player profiles and an announcement on season ticket deals coming soon!