Ah, the dreaded question. I’m sure most people reading this have, at some point, been approached with that query while close to puking after running stairs or 300-yard shuttles on a random high school track. Blinking sweat out of your eyes and peering up at them, you say something like, “Ultimate frisbee.” And you’re not lying! All the hours in the weight room and on the field, the ice baths and the foam rolling – I’m guessing most of you do these things because you want to be a better ultimate player. But is that goal fleshed out enough to really be able to attain? How will you know when you reach it? And how can you make sure you’re training in a way that will get you there?
I attended a seminar with John Hardy a couple months ago, and to say it blew me away would be an understatement. It cast a strong light on the weaknesses of my training approach with athletes (which was a little tough to choke down, I’ll admit) and suggested an alternative. I’d been getting together with flatballers and asking about injuries, putting them through the FMS and other evals, finding holes in their movement, and prescribing correctives and training programs – but at no point was I asking them about their goals in the sport or in the season. Ooops.
My work with athletes last year was rife with both success and less-than-success. Plenty of people I worked with got stronger, faster, more explosive and more resistant to injury. Score! Some people, however, improved their mobility/movement/strength and power in the gym and didn’t get hurt, but also didn’t get faster or more explosive on the field either. The gains they made at the base of the pyramid didn’t magically translate up the pyramid into in-game gains. Not good enough! John’s philosophy is that everything starts with and revolves around goals, and the more specific the goal, the better chance you have to progress towards it. As a trainer (or someone putting together your own program), everything you do in a session and over the season needs to tangibly contribute to these goals. One of the big takeaways for me from that seminar was that I needed to train athletes in a goal-oriented fashion, using all the tools available to me in the whole pyramid (movement, strength/power and skill) and help them understand how everything I’m having them do makes sense in their own small and big picture.
What are my goals and how can I achieve them?
This is a tough question for a lot of athletes. It’s an answer that can and should change from season to season, because hopefully you’re able to achieve your goals as you go along. Also, your role on a given team may change (or you change teams), and you might have a hole in your development that needs to be filled in order for you to be as effective on the field as you want to be. Here are some questions to ask for a goal-oriented approach to your next season:
How do I want to get better this season? Get as specific as possible. This weekend I was in California doing some clinics as a fundraiser for Fury. Maddog was my volunteer for the evaluation portion of my talk, and I asked her about her goals. Her first response was “Run faster, jump higher.” Sound familiar? Great aspirations, but there are a few practical problems. I asked her “Faster and higher how?”, and suggested we look at trying to make these goals more specific. Did she want to get faster in her sprint, or get a quicker first three steps? Offense or defense? Was she losing speed and height during tournaments (i.e. was endurance a factor?) or does she want a higher overall ceiling? Once we have a strong sense of our specific goals, we can look for tools up and down the pyramid to help. Getting a faster first three steps can be attacked on multiple levels: increasing ankle and hip mobility and glute activation, powerful hip extension, pelvic stability, and sprinting technique, to name a few. Once we identified Maddog’s more specific goals, I took her through an evaluation and, based on what I found in her movement, was able to suggest some fixes that would start her on the path to achieving them.
How do I figure out what training will help me achieve my goals? There’s a lot of information out there, no small part of it perpetrated by people like me – how do you decide what to focus on and how to put it all together? Let’s use “getting a faster top speed” as a sample goal. There’s a lot of books out there with a lot of good ideas, and lots of other good ideas floating around the community. But as specific as you are about your goals, you have to realize that you have a specific body with specific issues. So you need to figure out why you’re not already as fast as you want to be. Getting a running coach or knowledgeable teammate to assess your technique is a good place to start; there might be some simple shifts you could make in the way you run that would move you in the right direction, just FASTER. You will probably learn that you need to increase your glute strength and hip extension, since that’s the main engine that drives the running train. When choosing exercises to do that, think about their applicability to running and ultimate. Power cleans are great (no, seriously, they are GREAT) and you should totally do them, but you should also be doing a lot of single leg movements like staggered deadlifts or this RLESS variation from Bret Contreas. In general, try to incorporate more unilateral movements in your training – this will help you balance out the core and leg activation/strength asymmetries created by pivoting and throwing.
But don’t take my word (or anyone else’s word) for what kind of exercises you should be doing – instead, take their information and try this: test and re-test. During the seminar with Hardy he repeatedly would wave his own “red flag” when he imparted information – we always need to question our sources, and always come back to our own bodies and experience to give us crucial information about our progress. In my soft tissue clinic this weekend, I had everyone do a few squats with their arms overhead. Then we did some soft tissue work on the upper legs. Then we re-tested – did anything feel different/better? Then we did lower leg rolling, lacrosse balls on the shoulder/mid-back, some ankle mobility exercises, and hip mobility work, re-testing the squat after each. Throughout the seminar, people were getting real-time feedback about the efficacy of the exercises they were doing – some of them needed the mid-back exercises like whoa, others didn’t notice a difference. THAT’S how you figure out what holes in your development you need to fill. Of course, squatting better is not an ultimate-specific goal, but in a room of 40 people, we weren’t able to do a cutting drill to gauge the differences. So after you set your goals, get an evaluation of some kind, seek out pertinent information, and use appropriate testing/re-testing to see if it’s working!
How am I going to assess my progress? Maddog said she would know if she was achieving these goals because she would be matching up against the same people in practice and coming out on top. A good indicator, but one subject to interpretation and with too many variables. Your goals need to be measurable – you need to know when you’ve reached them, and know how you’re doing along the way. Running faster and jumping higher, checking your progress against your teammates, isn’t specific enough. IMHO, there aren’t very many tests out there that are great indicators of ultimate frisbee on-field performance. Testing “running faster” with a 40-yard dash? Most players are not track athletes, and starting from a 2-or-3-point stance is not natural for you. It’s also not how you sprint in ultimate – when do you ever start running after standing stock-still for a while? How about “jumping higher?” VertTec, right? When do you ever do a three-step approach with no jostling or without having just come out of a dead sprint? I think we need better testing for ultimate, tests that more accurately predict in-game performance. Here’s one contender I’ve been jamming on – let me know what you think. Notice that I manipulated the goal a little bit – the goal should ultimately be to get the disc, not to jump higher, right?
Jump higher (get the disc): On a football field, do a 3-step approach to touch the goalpost. If you can’t touch it, tie a piece of rope or something around it that you can reach with a 3-step approach. Then start on the 30-yard line, facing away from the goal. Have a friend on the line with a stopwatch. Side-shuffle along the 30-yard line from somewhere close to the sideline – at some point, your friend will call out “Go!” and start the stopwatch. You have to turn and sprint to the end of the field and jump to touch the bottom of the goalpost (or your rope). If you don’t touch it, it doesn’t count! Do it three times and take the average of the results. The next time you test, try to hit a point higher than your last point.
Also, here’s a fun Serpentine variation for working on change of direction – easy to test and re-test! (I’m messing with tons of these, combining lateral movement with bail running and a defensive mindset, fun stuff.)
Do you have an idea for how to test “run faster?” Or one for better first three steps, or agility? I’m working on my own, but I want to crowdsource a bit…I’d like to put out a call for better performance tests for ultimate. Add your own ideas (anonymously or not) and I’ll curate the results! :)