A month or so ago I wrote a post entitled Your Hard Work is Not My Hard Work which aimed to help the coach or captain of a developing team understand the motivations and psyche of their players. The heart of the article was that for most players there is some piece of hard work that they are unwilling to do. As a captain or coach you have to finesse your way around this block. Today, I want to talk to individual players about that block and about getting from good to great.
I can clearly remember the moment I decided that I’d do what it took to be great. Sockeye had just won World’s in Vancouver (1997) and I was sitting in the hot tub at the fields (because Ultimate was still cool then) with Carleton cronies Deb Cussen, Roger Crafts and Allon Katz. I was smugly wearing my gold medal when Allon looks at me and says, “You may have won, but at least I played.” In response, I said…nothing. What’s to say? He was absolutely right. As a second year player coming off the bench, my playing time fluctuated with the mood of the sub callers, the quality of the opponent and the result of my previous point. In the final I played one point. Allon, playing as a rookie for the last of the Kenny Dobyns led NY teams, had spent the week as one of his team’s main 3-cutters. They lost to us, Florida and Skokks to miss the cut for Semis, but they competed and Allon was a big part of their success. So as I sat there, saying nothing, I decided that I was done riding the bench. I would do what it took to make sure that it didn’t happen again.
The decision to be great is the same for every player. The path after is different. Everyone’s strengths are different and more importantly, their weaknesses are different. Take MC of Sockeye for example. His early career with GOP, CUT and Sockeye was solid but not great. Somewhere around 2000 or 2001, he decided he wanted to be great. I never talked to him about it, but I saw him do it. Always a good athlete, he built on that strength through relentless fitness and conditioning. However, like all players who make this journey, it was in addressing his weakness that he excelled. Mike has never been an intuitive player and while cerebral and rational are excellent traits in work and like, they are awful on the ultimate field. (Read this for a wonderful explanation.) So Mike set out to train his body to remember what his mind wanted it to do. I’ve never seen a player spend as much time and energy working on cutting patterns and mechanics as Mike.
Unlike Mike’s path, which was physical work, my own path was purely mental. Growing up in the sloppy environs of 90s Midwest ultimate, I had never learned to be controlled or careful or exact. The demands of Northwest club ultimate were something different entirely. I wasn’t tall enough to be tall or fast enough to be fast or precise enough to be a thrower. If I wanted to be great, I was going to have to play as close to perfect as I could, all the time. The change was both small (there was no external difference) and enormous. I began to approach practice like I had approached big games in the past. I was focused and diligent throughout the warm up. I was overly serious, because I needed to be. I played every point desperately. I wouldn’t say it was fun and it certainly wasn’t easy, but it was satisfying.
It is easy to say you want to be great, but much more difficult to actually make that change within yourself. The change is the essential piece, because once you make that mental shift, the rest of the work will be clear. It will begin with a fair assessment of yourself as a player. It is easy to be over-critical at this stage, but if you had no strengths, you wouldn’t have gotten as far as you have. Once you have made the assessment, the work should follow. Don’t neglect your strengths, that is why you are good. But relentlessly attack your weakness. Best of luck.
Photo of Mike Caldwell by Scobel Wiggins