Written by Adrian King, former Wildfire Head Coach
It’s difficult to discuss Pawel’s first two years in the league without slipping into the language of superlatives. There’s a good reason for this. As a rookie, he threw 85 goals and stacked up 933 completions. Last year, he topped that with a 97-goal season, even as defenders were keen to his threats and tendencies. But, going into his third season, he hopes his biggest contributions happen off the field.
Wildfire’s leadership put in months of diligent recruiting with impressive results. Pawel’s role as captain requires him to help Coach Woods build an environment in which those recruits and returners can thrive. It will be interesting to see the manifestation of this process.
He approaches the game of ultimate with curiosity and brings an evidence-based mindset to leadership. Perhaps this is a natural extension of his side hustle as an economics Ph.D. candidate. If he’s successful in creating a robust Wildfire offense, he will have demoted himself from a statistical outlier and into a role-player. Nothing would make him happier.
When asked about Pawel’s role with the Wildfire, Coach Dave Woods shared, "I recently heard the definition of 'leadership' as: the ability to make those around you better and more productive. In my opinion, nobody embodies this more than Pawel Janas. That guy would do anything for the betterment of his teammates and his team."
Pawel offers thoughts on his journey and a peek at what’s ahead for Wildfire.
What lessons did you learn from the last two years?
Three things come to mind:
Lesson 1: 85% of the work of a captain happens between the previous season’s end and current season’s first practice. There is no fat-season for captains. Recruiting is the most important part that starts almost immediately after Club Nationals. You have to hustle and sharpen your pitch during this stretch. There is really no time for you to stop thinking about the team and all the pieces that you need to get.
Lesson 2: Building meaningful relationships is crucial. I think players value a capable and organized captain but having someone who they trust in a leadership position strengthens their bond to the team. Teams with stronger bonds create a stronger culture and perform better.
Lesson 3: AUDL introduces new factors that you have to balance in every decision, namely business, operations (logistics), and strategy. I would love to call the top 10 players in the world and recruit them to play for Chicago but I know that is not feasible from a financial standpoint. So how do you invest the budget that you are given: do you rent indoor space, do you spend more on pre/post game nutrition, or do you hire a strength and conditioning coach? Can’t do it all. Chicago is lucky to have an owner like CJ O’Brien that listens to the input of his players and captains so decision making with these constraints is exciting but also challenging.
What changes do you hope to bring to the team this year?
Last year, I was too idealistic and stuck on a particular vision for the team. The workload that I thought was necessary led to burnout and poor performance when it mattered most. This year, we are doing things the other way around: we started the offseason by asking the top players what their vision is for the team and then molded a structure to fit those parameters. I’m really excited about the changes and I think we will have a stronger roster as a result.
What's your favorite pastime (excluding ultimate)?
Thank you, next.
(However, when I do travel, I like to climb mountains, on foot and bike. Nothing better than clean mountain air.)
What good books have you read recently? Or, what ideas excite you outside of ultimate?
Two unrelated book recommendations: Cornered by Barry Lynn (an alarmist take on a core econ principle of monopolization) and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (an outstanding book about race and poverty in the justice system). Before starting grad school, I had prior beliefs that many econ questions have been answered. Then I realized that rigorous empirical research isn’t convincing one way or another on the majority of them (in all fields of economics), which is in total contrast with the political discourse in this country right now. I think what excites me the most is actually doing the work, parsing out the facts from data, and ultimately understanding how the world actually works.
What's your biggest paradox?
People seem to think that I’m a top player in Chicago while I’m not even in the starting 7. I hope the roster this year will showcase Chicago’s finest and that I will be forgotten.
What do you do to find success on the field? What's your comparative advantage or best attribute?
Two things here. First, in general terms, I think that success on the field is a reflection of the preparation you do off it. I think my comparative advantage is that I am a hyper self-aware guy and I know what my weaknesses are. I think my second advantage is that I have the time flexibility and discipline to improve on those deficiencies. I don’t allow things to throw me off course and I have a solid vision of the type of player I want to become.
Second, I reject the premise of the question: I have not found success with Wildfire. The team has not won meaningful games. As a captain and a leader, I judge 90% of my success on whether the team fulfills its goals, which it has not in the last 2 years. I feel partly responsible, not because of how well or not I play individually (no 1 player is responsible for an outcome), but because I was in the leadership group that evidently did not prepare the team and did not put it in the best position to succeed.
How did you become the player you are today? What were the formative moments in your career?
Again, two parts to this answer. First is just being in the right place at the right time. I came in to Colorado after a huge exodus of their top talent that made semis the year before. I think we had 10 open spots on the team and we eventually took like 9 freshmen so even I made it. Once I was in the Mamabird system, I just absorbed the culture and listened when an upperclassman opened his mouth. The caliber of competition you play against when you play on a team like Mamabird is second to none. A similar situation happened when I moved to Chicago - there was (and still is) a dearth of O handlers so I got to play primary backup to Brett Matzuka for a whole season, which was a unique experience.
More importantly, I am strong believer in coaching and being coachable. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have world caliber coaches around me for a long time. Jim Schoettler’s (CU, current Bravo coach) no B.S., no empathy coaching style taught me that I need a thick skin to survive as a player at the elite level. Brent Zionic (CU) taught me how to love the game and how to put the team first. Mikey Lun (CU) was the one that got me through an injury riddled 5th year on Mamabird and taught me mental toughness and resilience. Bob Krier’s (Bravo) analytical mind blew me out of the water and gave me a whole new perspective about how strategies ought to look like. Andy Nielsen (Machine) challenged me to understand that my actions influence team dynamics and that everything that comes out of my mouth should be carefully processed, among many other things. Finally, Adrian King (Wildfire) allowed me to have way more input into strategy than I ought to have.
What advice would you give a younger player just starting out in their career?
This is super cliché but understand that there is nothing special about Ultimate: it takes time and effort and you will have setbacks and you will face adversity, just like in any other part of life.
One thing that I was never good at was staying positive during the bad times so prepare yourself mentally for a grind and you’ll be fine. Become more self-aware – stop asking questions about your game and start answering them yourself. Stop watching highlight videos and start watching full points/games. Stop just going to practice and back and start making meaningful connections with your teammates.
Who were some of your mentors?
The four people that immediately come to mind are the following: Ryan Ferrell (Bravo) is the most intense person I have ever played with - I’m still searching for ways to replicate his intensity in practice and games and I still have nightmares. Kevin Kelly has taught me everything I know about being a captain and a representative of Chicago. AJ Nelson is a boss. Walden Nelson is my spirit animal. Alex Evangelides is the best teammate I've had #cutrules
What are some specific skills you're working on to become a better player or leader?
[Redacted – Trade Secrets.]