Please don’t let the humble text fool you; I’ve always been confident in my game. The thing that gets me, though, is that you wouldn’t have picked me to succeed if you’d have had the chance. I heard the whispers as much as everyone else did; I was a showy thrower with a propensity for being beaten deep, and I was never going to make it in big club Ultimate. I’m not tall and I’m not fast. I’ve heard the same things since the first time I mentioned that I was willing to commit myself to our sport.
The fun was never in the championships or the stats. Or the times that I played how I dreamed of playing when the chips were down…although they are certainly sweet to think back on. The fun was in the hard work, the stress, and the camaraderie of teammates that were seeking the same improvement. Sometimes opponents, too. We saw small changes in ourselves that we earned with sweat and blood. That’s the hard fun that you won’t find in giggles and parties. And if this way-too-long article helps just one person have that kind of fun, then it will have been worth the effort to write.
Lastly, you’ll note that I use primarily male pronouns. I’m doing this because it is what I know, and this is a very personal article. Most of the players I played with are male, but I hope that what I say is applicable to the amazing female athletes I’ve seen, coached and played with. For the same reasons, most of the names I mention will be Seattle-based, which is not intended as a slight to anyone.
Day 1: Raise your game.
In the fall of 1999, I was in my first month of captaining the team at University of Oregon. Standing in a light drizzle with our team selection squad, we watched in stony silence as an easy swing pass bounced off the chest of a B-teamer. He was fat, slow, effectively handless, and with enough years of previous Ultimate that we couldn’t blame it on inexperience. With years of college and club Ultimate under his belt, one of my co-captains noted angrily, “there are some people that will never play high level Ultimate”. Unchallenged, he went on to say what I think many people still believe: “Players are born, and we are wasting our time giving the B-team field space. I promise you, these guys will never play a point on the A-team.”
4 years later, I received a smooth centering pass from one of those former B-teamers and threw my first upfield look to another one cutting wide open after beating his man. It was our standard pull play that we’d run in practice hundreds of times together. The difference: this time we were running it in the College National Championship game against the best team in the country.
Players aren’t born better. Those two offensive starters had, in just a few years’ time, completely reinvented nearly every part of their Ultimate game. In that same amount of time, I’d developed from a speedy idiot with a big mouth into a far, far better player even while losing much of my pace and keeping the big mouth. The miracle that happens when commitment turns into success is a big part of what keeps coaches like me awake at night searching for the best way to help.
Far from that championship field, but on the same day, an experienced club player on a high-level team was working on his game. During a Memorial Day break from practice, this athlete was working alone to build a new on-field persona. At this point in his career, it was easy to characterize him as an athletic but somewhat mindless runner. When given a straight line to run in, or a disc thrown in front of him, he dutifully and happily chased it. Often he won. But against the very best players, there was a gap between “winning the plays he should win” and “being a dominant force on the field”. Through a conscious combination of thinking, skill training, physical improvement and just-plain-ol’-hard-work, he was forcing himself to become a new player.
The Mike Caldwell that plays Ultimate today may share some of the same tattoos with that player, but he is a far different and far more difficult problem for other teams to deal with. The work ethic and the drive to find new ways to improve helped him to build something out of himself that was difficult to imagine if you watched him heedlessly cavort around the field back in 2003. Sockeye championships, recognition, a justified sense of accomplishment and more tattoos followed.
During MC’s time on Sockeye, there were several young players that tried out for the team repeatedly. A Sockeye roster spot is difficult to earn (it takes a combination of knowledge, talent, potential, opportunity AND the opening of a roster spot, usually). These players had the tools to do it. Year after year the level of play increased and these few players seemed to get farther and farther away from making the team. In the end, they never did. But even in the face of this unsuccessful process there are few that would question the hardworking attitudes that they brought. Why didn’t they succeed? What should they have done differently? Did they ever have a chance, or was it just back luck? For some reason, great effort was not enough to bring their games to the level needed to be the best pick for the team.
After many years of training in other sports, and more than a dozen in Ultimate, I think I’ve started to put together a general theory on how improvement works. It might not be special to Ultimate, but I’ve seen the growth of great players (as well as the stagnation of great talent) and I think it is a useful framework. You can be a much better player next year. Your team can play much better Ultimate this year. You can have more fun and work more intelligently. Though it probably contains few surprises, I think this framework can help.
I hope it is useful for you in some way.
Words are important.
The words that we use are important. Without a foundation in the words that you use, your path to improvement is yours alone, and you can’t use the resources in people around you. Just like the words you say to your teammates and to yourself, words that you understand matter in real ways. Fitness? Pressure? Working hard? Our definitions of these things are not the same between people, and their differences can have big impacts on how we improve. Confused players, or players that are grappling with flexible or amorphous definitions, struggle. I’m going to use a few words very specifically; Talent, Preparation and Execution are words that I’ll capitalize because I need them to be defined very precisely. Hopefully, if we use strong definitions for these core words then we can start to assess concepts that are more difficult to define.
Our goal in this improvement is to play better Ultimate. Individuals are trying to contribute to more winning games, or play at a higher level of competition, or both. Teams are trying to improve their win-loss record and advance farther in tournaments or leagues. If you are out on the Ultimate field just to get a good workout and hang out with great people…awesome! Those are great reasons to play. But I think this framework is not for you, and might even make it a little harder to achieve those other goals. I’m writing this for the players that want to win more.
Feature photo of Mike Caldwell by Scobel Wiggins