Photos by Jeff Bell – UltiPhotos.com

Andrew Lugsdin, head coach of the Vancouver Nighthawks, has been a fixture on the Canadian ultimate scene for more years than he’d care to remember.

Right from the beginning, his combination of size, skill, hard work and competitiveness made him a star. He was an outstanding player on Ottawa waX, who came 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the Canadian National Ultimate Championships between 1992 and 1996. He then moved to Vancouver and immediately became a core member of the emerging Furious George dynasty. With them he added five more Canadian championships, as well as three first-, two second-, and three third-place finishes at the UPA (United States) championships. On the world scene, his stints with Furious George and Team Canada included a bronze medal and a 4th place finish at the World Ultimate Club Championships plus three gold and two bronze medals at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships. With a trophy case that full, it is no surprise that he was elected to the Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame as soon as he became eligible.

Sometimes great athletes have trouble moving into the coaching ranks because they can’t find a way to connect with players who don’t share their ability and work ethic, but this hasn’t been the case for Lugsdin.

Nighthawks captain Morgan Hibbert, who played alongside Lugsdin for Furious George and Team Canada for many years, experienced that transition from the inside.

“Going from being teammates to having him as a coach was quite seamless,” said Hibbert. “When I played with him, he was always a captain and a leader figure who coached the team. Luggy and I were even captains at the same time at various points, so having him as a coach with the Nighthawks basically feels like old times.”

Nighthawks O-line stalwart Kirk Savage, who has spent much of his 20-year career in top level ultimate playing against, alongside or under Lugsdin, concurs.

“The hardest part for me was to not have him on the field with us,” said Savage. “His approach to the game has been very consistent – from player and captain to coach.”

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But even if your approach to the game remains consistent, when you change roles from player-captain to coach, your approach to the players has to change too.

When you are a captain of a team and you ask your teammates to do something you think will contribute to team success, you can exhibit leadership by getting right in there and doing it alongside them, showing them that you are more than willing to make the same sacrifices you are asking them to make. But if you become a coach, that’s no longer an option; you need to find different means to exhibit that leadership.

Hibbert has watched Lugsdin make that transition, stepping back a bit, adopting a role more like that of a mentor, encouraging the players to take ownership themselves, relying more on encouragement than his own emotional investment in the team.

“Luggy coaches based on desire and pride from within,” said Hibbert. “He helps guide you to get to the place where he wants you to be technically but he expects you to have that burning desire to win yourself. I really respect that type of coaching; it puts the onus on the players as in the end we are the ones on the field.”

“He is a relentless coach who demands the best out of his players,” said Savage. “He has high expectations and expects us to achieve them. He supports his players but at the same time expects them to bring max effort. Luggy works best with players who have drive. There is no one better at taking that drive and moulding it into winning ultimate.”

Along those lines, this season, Lugsdin plans to adopt an approach that was very successful during his time with Furious George by getting the Nighthawks players to set up a leadership group among themselves. This allows the players themselves to take on some of that responsibility Savage and Hibbert talk about, adding impetus to what the team hears from the coach.

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Some coaches have a system they use regardless of the particular players they have available. At the other end of the continuum, there are those that look at the players they have and try to develop a system that best supports those players’ talents and abilities. Lugsdin tries to follow a middle path, something that will be doubly important this year due to the major turnover in the roster from last season

“I think that you need to utilize the talents that your players have naturally and put them in places to succeed. At the same time, you need to have a system that creates success for the team and people need to fit within that system.”

“My goal is to try and make the team and the individuals on the team better each year. At this point, I’m not sure what the roster will look like so it’s difficult to predict what our potential will be. That being said, I don’t believe in limiting anyone from what they can achieve. We’ll find out where we’re at on the first game of the season and work to build from there.”

One thing you quickly realize when talking to Lugsdin or watching him in action is that he really enjoys the challenge of coaching in general, and coaching the Nighthawls in particular. He is grateful for the chance he has been given to be one of the first coaches to figure out how to work within the MLU rules, very different from the ones he had been playing or coaching with during most of his career.

“As a coach, the timing element of the MLU game has been interesting and fun to manage. Adjusting offensive plays and defensive sets depending on whether you have 60 seconds, 20 seconds, or less than 10 seconds left was a good challenge.”

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Last year the Nighthawks got all the way to the MLU finals before running into a first half buzz-saw in the form of DC Current. Lugsdin doesn’t see the shellacking they took during those 30 minutes of play as signaling the shortcomings of the West Coast tall player/hucking style the Nighthawks use.

“We were a little tight at the start of the game and things snowballed from there. They came out and seized the game and we weren’t able to match them at the beginning of the game. That was the critical difference in the game. “

Given the roster turnover, it will be a challenge for the Nighthawks to get as far this year, but with Luggy running the show, it could be dangerous to bet against them.

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