Finding Ultimate in ’89 – Part 2: Learning the Game

by | April 7, 2017, 8:00am 6

I have been playing ultimate for 28 years. I am also a writer. After a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to combine these two skills, I settled on writing a series of stories about my life as an ultimate player which, if all goes well, will also be turned into a groundbreaking psychedelic rock opera entitled Tommy unless someone has beat me to that already.

For those who missed part 1, it can be found here.

The year was 1989.

I had just played my first ultimate game and I loved it.

In one sense, it was like my entire world had come into focus and, in another much more accurate sense, I had just recently upgraded my prescription glasses. In the first few minutes of my first game, I felt that I had finally found my sport after years of fumbling footballs, getting cut from basketball teams and being pummeled in the face and stomach with soccer ball after soccer ball no matter how much I pleaded with them to just stop already.

And though I was new, and had no real idea of what I was getting into, I was ready.

I had my cleats (the infinitely heavy, hightop Nike Land Sharks), I had a disc (my parents’ much-used orange Whammo), I had some slightly-too-sheer shorts (fashion choice) and I had gumption, or at least I thought it was gumption – turns out it was heartburn. And I was ready to dominate on the field using my cleats, disc, shorts and whatever else it took or, failing that, I was ready to participate in the hopes that ribbons would be awarded to all at the end of the season unlike the horrors of little league baseball.

The problem was, as I realized midway through my second game a week later, that I couldn’t really do anything.

At all.

Defense was impossibly hard, catching was an endless adventure, marking the thrower was an exercise in futility and throwing? Let’s just say that my throws, while horribly laughable, helped make my teammates’ throws seem infinitely better in comparison. You’re welcome.

Sure I showed up (80% of life, I read somewhere!) looking the part, but nothing I was doing on the field would been considered “playing” or “helping” or “not embarrassing himself permanently” by even the most generous and hopefully near-sighted observer. I spent my time in this second game, running around resembling some sort of farm animal being led to slaughter, holding the disc as if it was potentially explosive, and seeming “scared” and “freaked out” and “white with panic” when attempting to guard someone. It was clear to my teammates that I wasn’t going to be “bringing home the championship trophy” for us any time soon despite the clearly-homemade matching t-shirts I had made for the team before the game that said as much that were meant to inspire and hopefully make me a new friend or two..

I had to face the facts (something I never did – seemed a tad bit aggressive), I could either be satisfied being a glorified cheerleader, something that just a week earlier I would have yelped ‘YES’ to if offered, or I’d have to put aside my ego (fits in a small handbag), admit my failings (I prepared notes!) and put in some hard work (I didn’t know the meaning of hard work, literally).

As I lay on the ground, stretching, attempting to both catch my breath and not let on to anyone nearby how hard it was for me to catch my breath, my ultimate future flashed before my eyes. In this future, I saw myself having pinpoint long throws, awe-inducing endzone grabs, graceful leaps into the air, a vastly improved lung capacity and, for some reason, hair like a pony. Different story for a different day.

But how to get from point A to point B? How to go from this young man of 20, laying on the ground writhing, to this dream version of my future self?

I had tried nothing and was all out of ideas.

I wanted this future as badly as I wanted pizza for dinner, or maybe slightly more but it was hard to tell as I was really hungry for pizza. I sat up and resolved then and there to work harder than I’d ever worked before, which wasn’t saying much, but I had to start somewhere. I looked around and realized that I was alone on the grass and that everyone had gone home hours ago leaving me a cryptic note on my forehead saying “we got bored, hope you’re okay.”

I was okay. Really okay. I stood up. It was time to get to work.

After with conferring with my friends, who were like Gods of ultimate in my eyes due to their rippling muscles, white teeth and cryptic natures, I made a plan.

Step 1: Learn to throw.
Step 2: Learn to catch.
Step 3: Learn to play defense.
Step 4: Learn the rules.
Step 5: Only speak monosyllabically whenever possible to maintain my sole focus on steps 1-4.

So I grabbed a friend (without a cane – too hard to pull off without hurting his neck) and with my trusty frisbee, we threw. Day in and day out, wherever we went, we threw that plastic. We always had a disc with us and we tossed it constantly whether in parks, on the beach, on our busy side street playing the fun game of trying not to hit cars or trees or pedestrians, in that order. And yet, despite the hours of throwing, and the spectacular leathering of my skin, progress was very slow.

And then I realized, after someone told me repeatedly via direct message (which was exceedingly laborious back in 1989 – involved tons of folding of paper, driving back and forth and unnecessary gas usage) that it wasn’t good enough just to throw, but that I needed to learn to throw properly. Ahhhh, ‘proper’ throwing! Of course! It all made sense.

I realized that I needed to learn from the best, so I sought out the best throwers and decided to copy their every move. I started by taking mental notes, but my progress was slow so I took the next step. How was I to know that videotaping him in his backyard without his written or verbal consent was crossing some sort of line? But learn I did.

Despite my best intentions, my throws wobbled and veered off in random directions. It wasn’t safe to be around me while I was throwing if you weren’t dressed for a construction site, and even then. With each turfed throw and broken nail and family of ducks rudely displaced from their home, I wondered if I was long for this sport regardless of my passion.

Our team practiced once a week at a local elementary school. Each week, a different teammate would take their turn attempting to remove the wobble from my forehand, to no avail. They would often have these long, hilarious chats in front of me, dissecting my flick as if it was an under-anesthesia patient in the ER. I tried and tried to straighten and smooth it out and, along the way, experimented with a variety of grips and mental states, and still that disc refused to obey even after I resorted to embarrassing begging.

At the practices, we’d run through a few drills and scrimmage as we attempted to get better for our game the following Wednesday. I, for one, was tired of being the worst player on my team by any measurement used. Being a laughing stock was getting old regardless of how cute and infectious the laughter was. I still wanted to become a star, but I was even willing to compromise (my middle name!) and become “this side of competent” or “less below average” or, if I was lucky, “good”.

Scrimmages were the answer! I needed reps and experience and layers of sunscreen. I needed to get knocked down, only to get up again, and then get knocked down again before wondering if I had concussion type symptoms. I was determined to use these scrimmages to get ahead and, despite my slow progress, that even the nicest teacher would label as “nice try” on my report card, I was still just so excited to learn, sort of like an excited drooling and yappy puppy dog, which I brought along to a practice for comparison’s sake only.

And I was determined to be a sponge (harder than it sounds) and soak up all of the suggestions and comments and sudsy water I could get. The advice was as frequent as it was bewildering.

One person told me “I was running too much”, while another told me to “get on my horse”.

It was suggested that “I would only improve by attempting throws in game situations”, while someone else suggested that I should “never throw forward for any reason whatsoever because we are trying to win.”

One teammate offered that I should “fake left and cut right”, while the same teammate told me that she wouldn’t be accepting any more rides home if I continued that practice while driving.

As I sat afterwards at my parent’s dining room table, nursing my injuries both real and imaginary, I whined and whined about how hard it was to be a beginner.

Even though I was only 20, it had been a long time since I had been “the new guy” at anything and it was frustrating! The other sports I played (tennis, squash and racquetball), I was proficient at and had the confidence, attitude and leg warmers to match. It had been years since I was flat out bad at something and it was constantly humbling to be so inconsistent on defense, as a thrower or while attempting to secure the rare frisbee thrown my way. (Note: a disc thrown out of pity is hard to distinguish from a regularly-thrown disc while sweating profusely.)

I wanted to improve so badly.

I wanted to really learn this game.

I wanted to be an asset on the field.

And sure my friends cheered me on and were supportive, mostly, but my interest started to waver by the end of my first season. It is just so hard to stick with something, anything, you are learning until you can see that you are progressing and improving and not beating your head against the wall, even if you are (I wasn’t). I couldn’t see any progress, at all. Despite not wanting to be labelled a quitter, I was debating an indefinite hiatus, a change of course, a ride off into the proverbial sunset (real sunset way too bright).

But, I didn’t.

Now, I’m not wanting this to sound like a made-for-TV movie unless you are an interested Hollywood executive, then I’m all ears (two, to be exact), but this story does have an overly-sappy happy ending. Somehow, against all odds (that’s right, my ‘friends’ were gambling on it!), despite myself, I actually started getting it.

Throws became crisper and ended up where they were intended, cuts were more purposeful and powerful, discs started being snatched repeatedly out of the air and defense…well, at least the rest of my game was improving. After hours and hours and hours of practice, slowly skills started to rub off on me like an infectious disease (not that I would know anything about that). As each game came and went, I slowly realized that I was turning into an ultimate player. And as my skills and confidence grew, my role on my team shifted from being “just some guy” to “even though he is just some guy, he is wide open and he screws up a lot less than he used to” to “the left-handed, red-haired assassin” (to be clear, no one aside from me, alone in my bedroom, writing in my diary by flashlight ever uttered those words).

I got thrown to on a regular basis, became a threat to score, finally put two and two together (four!) and started generating some real spin on my throws and cracked open the secret chest revealing all of the benefits of being a lefty. The wobble, the endless and clueless running around and the general hopelessness was in the rearview mirror. Also in the rearview mirror, for some odd reason, a huge number of black unmarked vans. My first set of cleats were replaced with a lighter version, my old frisbee was replaced by an Ultrastar, and my shorts were still slightly too revealing. Baby steps.

I was now ready for the next level.

Tournaments.

Stay tuned for part 3 of my ultimate story coming soon.

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  • Sam Newman

    Thanks dud this was very helpful.

    • Tommy Paley

      I hope you meant “dude”! And you’re welcome

  • Iona Marshal

    Thank you we needed this for our english class.

    • Tommy Paley

      Thanks Iona!

  • Sam Newman

    I loved the way you described your experience and you inspire me!!!! <3

    • Tommy Paley

      Thanks Sam, just seeing this now – appreciate the comment!