This article is Part 3 in a 5 part series from Ben Wiggins on succeeding in the sport of Ultimate. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)
Day 3 – Fitness & Experience
Fitness: Completely irrelevant, except in everything
More and more, I see developing players overemphasizing their fitness in terms of talent. For the most part, you are as tall as you are (and you can’t really change that). A focused track program might give you a half-step on your sprints over the course of a year, but it won’t make you faster than a naturally fast player. For that matter, a 100-yard dash or serpentine agility ladder time are not talents. Deadlifts don’t score goals. If you are training your body without applying that to the actual sport on the actual field, then you are wasting your time.
There are many great players that do focused, body-only training. For a large number of them, they’ll eventually head out to coordinated and well-designed practices to turn those physical abilities into actual talent. For most of them, they have previous experiences that guide their new strength or speed to make it useful. If you are watching these players and only copying the physical parts, then you are missing the most important parts of what make them good.
Every year, I watch in frustration as motivated players unleash huge amounts of energy to prepare for tryouts. That energy, however noble, seems to be pushed into physical talent training. To say this another way: I see players that cannot yet catch and throw at the top club level ignoring those parts of their game to add ten pounds to their squat weight or to run two track workouts a week. No matter how fast that player becomes, they still don’t know where to run. No matter how many Air Alert sessions they complete, they still don’t catch consistently enough to play on the team.
Fitness is not the game. At the same time, fitness is absolutely crucial for both preparation and execution.
Fatigue kills reliability and mental toughness, and your ability to play through tiredness at a high level is emphasized in our sport. For the most part, the kinds of track workouts that Ultimate players do are not designed to make you faster, but they are designed to allow you to run at your top speed more often, with less recovery, and with less mental effort. Those aspects make a huge difference in catching and throwing. For the vast majority of us, increasing our reliable skills through preparation is a far more important goal than gaining an inch in a worthless vertical leap or shaving a third of a second off of your 200-yard time. This is also why playing ultimate is, in my opinion, the best way to train for ultimate.
Maybe most importantly, fitness and training gives you confidence. Your own training can give you confidence (and so help fight off the pressure of big moments) by giving you a reasonable justification for why you can be successful. If you think that your opponent has trained more than you, you are more likely to subconsciously find a way to let them win. The training that you watch your teammates do gives you confidence in them, and can help create an atmosphere that is conducive to great execution. This is why I think the most important training regimen that you should do is the one that you are convinced works. If you think it works, then you get these execution benefits. If you aren’t sure if your training is worthwhile, you leave that advantage on the table for your opponent. It works in the same way as sweet uniforms. If you think you look good, you tend to play better. You make your thoughts into reality by reacting more confidently to the story you are constructing in your head.
Train to play. Train to practice. Without fitness you remove your foundation. It is not coincidental that breakthrough years for many players come when their fitness training is improved (see: NFL running backs in contract years). But don’t train just to be faster and stronger unless your sport judges wins and losses specifically on those things. Even Olympic sprinters and weightlifters will tell you that the skill, preparation and execution aspects of their game frequently determine a winner even if that winner isn’t necessarily the strongest or fastest human.
I’ll take this opportunity to call out Ron Kubalanza as one of the best self-trainers I have ever met. He was constantly looking for the next big way to jolt his body and produce a positive response. From Crossfit to Yoga to Snertz to just about anything, Ron tried it and made it part of his game. It would be a challenge for a new player just to follow his workout routine. But that routine was only effective insofar as Ron also honed his skills on a daily basis. He demanded reps at practice and ran drills at game-speed. If he missed a throw in a scrimmage, you could be sure that his next water break included a few of the same throws until he felt that ‘groove’ on his shots. And that doesn’t begin to capture the ways that he relentlessly thought about the game in conversations, spare time, and on paper. Even if a player could follow Ron’s routine, it would be useless without the talents and habits that it came with.
Lastly, execution encompasses a measure of how efficiently you can play. The natural friction of a tournament weekend pulls strength out of you. If you can move between tasks without sweating the small stuff, that is energy saved. When you watch a Gwen Ambler or a John Hammond or a Tim Halt warm up for a game, you are unlikely to see a lot of wasted motion. Casual observers are likely to decry their laziness. What you should see is that, 36 hours after their first warm up, they are energetic and ready to go for the second half of the tournament final. Especially with smaller teams, efficiency is key for keeping performance high. If everything else is equal, the most efficient player will win eventually.
Experience: Why so useful?
With surprisingly few exceptions, the more experienced teams tend to win. In my mind, this is because experience is a double-barreled shotgun of usefulness.
First, the “building-up”. Experience teaches smart players how to prepare themselves for game situations. It also gives them confidence (and hence better execution). There is a real reason that teams don’t tend to win a Game-to-Go-to-Nationals until after they have lost in a Game-To-Go. That experience pays dividends in both preparation and execution. The long winning streaks of teams like Fury, DoG and NYNY go beyond the primes of their star players, and this building-up of experience is a major factor.
Then, the ”waste elimination”. Experience teaches smart players what they don’t need. Are there talents that aren’t necessary for success? It is the experienced player that will conserve their time, and put their valuable training hours into something else. Never going to out jump an opponent? Stop doing vert-training programs, and go play Flyer’s Up to learn how to win the disc without relying on your vertical (hint: use your butt). Never really figured out how to throw a forehand well? Make like Dave Boardman and learn to dominate the throwing game without ever needing a two-finger. Experience cuts the fat out of training, which streamlines the resources that go into both preparation and talent.
One of the most efficient ways to increase experience is to play with new players. After just a game or two together with new teammates, you’ll start to see their slice of the game (knowledge which may have taken them many years to compile). You’ll mentally bank new plays, and skills, and training techniques. One of the greatest training tools I had in college was a once-per-year tournament with a few top players from other college teams. Coming together as Voltron for a fun tournament in Arizona, I was able to hang out with some great people and completely reinvigorate and re-imagine my game. I ruthlessly stole ideas from Zip, Nord, Mickey, Idaho, Rouisse, Timmy, etc. etc. etc. Get out there with new people and play, and you’ll get an inside look into how they do everything from talk in the huddle to run their endzone offense. Honestly, I think that each tournament you play with skilled new players is probably worth 10-tournaments worth of experience. Imagine how many tricks you would learn in an extra year of tournaments? I can only imagine the benefits that the Nexgen players must have taken from their tour, and the ways that this must have changed their individual games for the better.
An excellent insight from Moses Rifkin: Great players don’t just learn the on-field tricks of the trade, they also learn how to talk about them. Whether it is mastering sideline help commands, or finding the methods that best allow a distraught player to listen to your advice, talk is vital in team sports. These skills can be learned like any other, and are extraordinarily difficult to teach. It can be even more difficult in a tight team culture, where many players have learned the same way to talk from the same original captains. Bringing in ideas about sideline language is especially useful.
When I was just starting to play club ultimate, I couldn’t understand one thing. Seemingly every club team had a player that didn’t seem to cut it athletically. A fat/slow handler, or a past-his-prime cutter, was on every roster. Obviously, I thought, this was because those teams don’t have a better replacement available. This might be true for some teams, but the real reason those players were effective long after their springs were gone is that there is so much more to this game than can be reasonably taught in a season. You might only need 1-2 of your players to be able to recognize a zone-front with a match-up deep set…but you really need that perception on your side. Keeping an experienced handler not only protects you from that defense, but it also increases the chances that a young handler can pick up on this very particular and rare skill in the future. You need counter-cutters, or people to beat poaches, just as much as you need dominant athletes in the lanes. I think far more teams have failed for the lack of experience than for the lack of athleticism.
Lastly, it could be no more complicated than this old player knows how to bring it on Sunday. One of the most eye-opening experiences I had was as a 19-year-old brainless runner trying to pick up with a team at my first Potlatch. Thanks to Doug Oetter, who taught me more than I can admit in public about Ultimate, I was able to pick up with a team called Sweetwater from Georgia. Beautiful people, all. One of the team elders went by Rusty and, seemingly, spent all of Saturday jaunting around the field and stretching a lot. He probably didn’t score a goal or block a pass all day as we played through the initial pools. Come Sunday, though, Rusty turned on the jets. He could grapple for marks and run a fast-break like you wouldn’t believe. His hucks were perfect, and he seemed to be around the disc less than a second after a turnover, firing a perfect hanger out in front of me on each rapid possession. We went 5-0 that day on the strength of Rusty’s all-around play. There is no question that I was a far superior athlete, but there is not doubt in my mind at all that Rusty was the best player on the field that day. He’d learned tricks over decades of playing Ultimate that couldn’t be taught in almost that long, and it was a joy to play with. Terrifying to play against.
When you see those players dragging their too-big cleats and sweatpants and chronic injuries around the field, make sure that you respect this. Instead of pretending that you are an upgrade in some athletic fragment of the sport, try to find out why they are valuable and learn it yourself. If you can combine your athleticism with their experience you will be extremely valuable. At the least, you’ll be going into each game or each season with new tools.
Together, experience and fitness are factors that reinforce the talent, preparation and execution of a team. With this framework in mind, I’ll start laying out the ways that I think individuals and teams should train to improve.
Feature photo of Spencer Wallis at NW Regionals ’11 by Scobel Wiggins
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