How to Survive Your Rookie Year on an Elite Club Team

by | March 21, 2011, 7:00am 0

Photo by Alex Yuen

Firstly, I can’t really explain everything about what it’s like to play for Riot. That would take more space than Skyd Magazine would be comfortable with, and I’d likely wander dangerously into the realm of “Too Much Information.” However, I can try to give you a small sense of what it’s like to be a rookie on one of the best Club Ultimate teams in the world.

The Practice

Riot’s 2010 practice schedule consisted of a track workout and practice during the week, and one longer practice on the weekends. A few “double” practices were scheduled throughout the year, and our retreat weekend required two full days of practice and a team bonding extravaganza during the intervening night.

Generally, I’m not very fond of practices. Okay, maybe they help you get “better” and allow you to “develop” and “learn” and “build a base of familiarity with your teammates,” but  the schedule tends to take on a monotonous rhythm as the season progresses. It’s not really the practice that gets old. Honestly, if I wasn’t at practice I would probably be off playing Ultimate somewhere else, and, fortunately, Riot practices are very well-planned and (usually unintentionally) hilarious. Yet practice requires discipline and focus if you want to get anything out of it, and  that can be challenging. As a rookie I had a few barriers to overcome from the beginning.

First, there was the feeling of being a faulty cog in a well-oiled machine. I experienced this same feeling during my first year of tryouts. It’s that moment when someone yells “Button hook drill” and you’re like “Button what now?” You look around at everyone else, scanning for the confused faces of people you can stand by (or behind), and you make sure you’re at the back of the line when the drill begins. I’m of the ilk that needs to see a drill happening several times and then run through it several times before I’m comfortable and/or confident, so these confused moments occurred frequently during my first month or so.

And then, of course, even when you have the drills down, you’ll still have days when nothing feels right. Maybe the entire practice will be dedicated to hucking in general, with a drill that showcases your atrocious forehand huck in particular (totally random, non-empirical example…), followed by a scrimmage where nearly every turnover involves you. These days are inevitable.

So what can you do to counteract these feelings of inadequacy? Easy: Get over it. Everybody makes mistakes, and while you’re entitled to feel frustration and to express that frustration, you must draw a line when it begins to make you feel worse and play worse, and when it brings down the team. Maybe it took me three years of tryouts to figure this out, but whatever. Do as I say!

You can also rest assured that it’s probably too late to cut you anyway.

The Travel

This was my first year playing on an elite Club team (Worlds/Nationals qualifying that is), and my first real opportunity to get away from the West Coast to play Ultimate. This year Riot traveled to Austin, Texas; Prague, Czech Republic; Sarasota, Florida; and, of course, Santa Cruz, California (x2). If you live in Seattle and opt out of driving to Santa Cruz, the plane tickets alone average out to about $461 a pop. Admittedly, Prague wrecks the curve for that calculation, but it’s still a credit-destroying figure in a given season. So here’s my advice to you:

  1. Get a job – Seriously. Get a job. Any job. You bum. If you play on a traveling Ultimate team, your journeys will be much smoother if you can pay for them.  Or you can hope that your team treasurer likes payment plans. Or you can start up your own Ultimate apparel company and sponsor two of the biggest tournaments of the year (one of our rookies did this and it seems to have paid off).
  2. Buy plane tickets well in advance – I’ve never done this before, but I hear it works out really well for those who have tried it.
  3. Stick with your wiser, more experienced teammates – With a few notable exceptions*, your veteran teammates will help you navigate the unfamiliar, over-stimulating streets of new cities with their sharpened wits and up-to-date technology. Throughout the year, many disasters were averted simply because I could pass the responsibility for the situation off to someone else who had either gotten out of sticky situations before, or knew a clever way out of said situations. An example:

Some of my teammates and I decided to see the Nutcracker in Prague. We purchased our tickets for the Metro, rode it to the downtown area, and exited at our destination. I was talking to my teammate… let’s call her Mildred, for the sake of internet anonymity. She had not purchased a ticket, and as we walked through the crowd a large man suddenly stopped the teammates walking ahead of us and asked to see their tickets. My eyes widened and I looked over at Mildred. She was gone. Employing the skills of a wily veteran (and ninja), she straight up disappeared. That’s great, I thought to myself. The rest of us had purchased tickets and everything would be fine. The guy rounded us up (Very easily. We were all wearing those Worlds cleat bags.), studied our tickets, and then looked around. He gestured for us to follow him, and headed off to a more discreet area of the facility.

Now, I can’t remember the exact order of events, but the security guard basically told us that we had purchased the wrong tickets, so we would have to pay the maximum fine. This was about $50 U.S. per person. Another teammate, let’s call her Frannie, explained, in a very reasonable manner, that we didn’t actually know we had purchased the wrong tickets, would gladly pay the difference, and that we would not be paying the incredibly steep fine for an honest misunderstanding. He pointed to the block of text on the ticket where it explained the nuances of the fare system – in Czech. Frannie explained that we couldn’t read Czech. He refused to back down. We refused to back down. Another security guard showed up. Belinda (another teammate) only paused in ridiculing the police officer’s tactics when her nose started bleeding. He threatened to call the police. We dared him to. He started to call the police. We reached a compromise. I believe we agreed to pay something like two fines, instead of six.

Long story less long: The situation could have deteriorated very quickly or been very expensive if we hadn’t been in the company of a teammate with more wits than the rest of us.

So if you eventually make a Club Ultimate team with which you travel to exotic lands, find this person on your roster and stick by them. Or become a ninja and learn how to avoid the situation entirely.

Photo by Alex Yuen

The Rookie Job

Your rookie responsibilities are like a new puppy that the team has put in your care, and your teammates are like 24 moms reminding you to take it for a walk, feed it, take it to the vet, clean up its poop, and give it a bath. Some of your teammates might be helpful at first, but they will all ridicule you mercilessly when you forget one of your tasks. They will remind you about the puppy at every opportunity (all of them, at different times) and you will still probably kill it. Accept this and move on.

The Play

Playing with Riot in 2010 afforded me the unique opportunity of participating in a World Championship before attending a National championship (college or club). I didn’t really know what I was in for.

First there was the heat. Coming from a climate where Summer consists primarily of mild temperatures, soft breezes, and the occasional cloud will not prepare you for the land-locked Czech version of Summer. The face-melting heat started as soon as we stepped off the city bus, walked a couple blocks in the wrong direction, reoriented ourselves, and then started on our kilometers-long trek to the Hotel Juno (maybe it wasn’t that far, but that’s how I’m choosing to remember it). As we walked, the Sun seemed to inch closer. We stopped in a patch of shade to apply sunscreen and a lady we met on the bus – from California (Or maybe Texas? Somewhere hot.) – raised her eyebrow at us. We continued along the baking landscape and the worry set in. Many of our teammates had arrived long before and played a scrimmage against the Australians earlier that day, and I was already having a hard time walking with my bags. I couldn’t imagine jogging in this heat, much less sprinting around in a game to 15.

Photo by Alex Yuen

Then there was the level of play. At most tournaments, Riot has one team to worry about and prepare for (Although now it looks like two is the magic number… darn it, Canada). That’s pretty much the state of U.S. Club Women’s Ultimate right now. Worlds was a little different, however, in that a handful of the teams we encountered had different styles of play that caught us off guard. There was Germany throwing hammers as casually as open-side flicks, and Japan making precision hucks with far more accuracy than many of our short-range throws. Our quarterfinals game against HUCK, a Japanese team, was far closer than we would have liked. But they were great and it was fun.

The culmination of my playing experience at Worlds occurred the day before the Finals, which was a day earlier than planned (Sigh). And it was not in the semi-finals vs. Fury. The hardest game, by far, was the bronze medal game against Brute Squad. Imagine this (and I’m sure that a few of you can): You just put everything into a semi-finals game that you lost. Everything. Every ounce of adrenaline and emotion and hope. All of the sobbing after the final point probably took that last bit of salt that you didn’t sweat out. All of the Gu and Shot Blocks and Nuun are gone. The sun is trying to kill you (If you’re from Seattle, you probably have a strained relationship with it anyway). It’s the last game of a five-day tournament and the hardest warm-up you will ever have – time for a meltdown. Which brings me to my most important bit of advice: take care of yourself. If you want to survive your rookie year, don’t die in Prague (or Austin or Santa Cruz or Sarasota). Drink water, replenish your electrolytes (Gu, Nuun, and pickle juice are my favorites), eat, and wear sunscreen.

I also think it’s worth noting that this was one of the few times that the Women’s final actually surpassed the Open’s in quality of play and entertainment. The game was close and clean, with few calls (calls made the difference, actually. That’s how close it was.) and a crowd that was both involved and riled up. It probably helped that the teams represented different countries, too.

After Worlds, we continued with the longest season ever as we prepared for Nationals. Compared to Prague this tournament was a legitimate vacation – white, sandy beaches and bungalows, a mode of transportation we could control, and people who knew exactly where we were going.

Despite these differences, both tournaments were remarkably similar in how they played out for Riot: Dominant the whole way, with only one team getting in the double digits against us, and then getting knocked out in the semifinals. There’s a lot to be said about subbing, warming up, game-time psyche, etc. And we discussed all of that. But as a rookie, one thought stood out in my mind, and it’s the only one that really matters: There’s always next year.

Photo by Alex Yuen


It feels like the 2010 season just ended, and already we’re preparing for 2011 tryouts: Mini tournaments, preseason workouts, etc. And I’m no longer a rookie.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed when I think about the time and practice I’ve put into a single activity that offers very little in the way of monetary returns (though I’ve recently discovered the wonders of the Patagonia discount, and it’s awesome!). But that’s just when I’m being an idiot. Because even though it can seem like you’re pouring your money into a big, time-sucking hole that no one cares about (Person: Hey, what did you do this weekend? Me: I played in an Ultimate tournament! Person: Is it, like, a competition? Me: …Yeah, pretty much.*POUT*), you’re simultaneously making lifelong friends, staying incredibly active, and traveling to beautiful cities to meet groups of people you would have never met otherwise. It’s not something that everybody gets to do.

*Riot’s notable exceptions are abundant. I mean, you’d think that a doctor would know that stopping to pick up a stick of gum in the middle of the street as a tram is barreling down on her is a bad idea, and you’d think that once she saw the tram, she would stop trying to rescue said inanimate object. But you would be wrong.

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