This article is Part 4 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 4: How should individuals train?
Here is my condensed list of the ways that I think individuals should train to be the most effective and efficient in their improvement.
Regardless of your goal, there are likely to be some parts of your game that you do not need to work on. These are things that you can do [talent] consistently [preparation] under pressure [execution]. These are also likely parts of the game that are relatively less important for you (going deep when you are a handler, for example). For these aspects, you should still practice and prepare as needed to keep the skills sharp, but they are not your main focuses for improvement.
The aspects of your game that you will work on are either strengths that you are trying to improve into super-powers, or weaknesses that you are trying to bring up to the level of the rest of your abilities. For both, your game will improve in some combination of talent, preparation and experience.
Improving talents (learning to do sport-specific actions that you can’t do now)
Find a coach. This might mean finding someone with a history of teaching this skill well. It might mean finding a way to get an honest opinion from a teammate or (better yet) a long-time opponent. This might even mean video-recording your own play so that you can act as your own coach. Whatever you do, you need an objective opinion to tell you what you can change and what you do well already.
Develop this skill by progressing the difficulty of your deliberate practice. If you can’t throw a 10-yard hammer, get a bag of discs and go outside and learn. Videotape yourself and watch film of other people doing the same thing. Build or set cones in a target, and hit that target. Once you’ve started to develop the skill in this controlled environment, get a throwing partner that will cut for your throw. Progress towards using this skill in informal scrimmages or swilly city-league games. Eventually, you can gradually develop rightful confidence in that ability in higher and higher applications until the point where it is usable in a relatively high-level game.
Intermediate playing opportunities are hugely important. If you are always playing high-stakes Ultimate, then you have no lab in which to perfect new talents. You can try new ways of marking at Goaltimate or give a test drive to new defensive footwork at a low-level hat tournament. These are games in which it may be easy for you to guarantee that you can win the game. You can dominate with your strength, but can you improve your skills enough to dominate with your weakness? Weaknesses can become functional or even strengths.
If you are trying to improve a perception, there can be great benefit to be gained by playing relatively bad Ultimate. If you can play turnover-free Ultimate in the wind with unpredictable teammates, then you are forcing yourself to work on disc placement, quick decisions, and improvisation. Elite players in the pressure-hurricane of Nationals cut surprisingly similar to rookies at Saturday pick-up. You can play in these games with your own secret goals in a way that can improve your game while still being fun and being part of the fun that other people are having, too.
If the perception that you are working on can only be realistically simulated with top-level players, then you need to find a way to lure these players into a game with you. Winters are great for this. Find a field, invent a reason, and get 13 people that want to play to join you. They don’t all have to be there for the same reasons that you are. Many will come just to play some disc. Make it a cross-town challenge, or scrimmage against a local college team with two clubs in a small round robin. Does this sound difficult? Yes! But improving is difficult. If what you really need are game reps, then go get those reps. Buy the plane ticket to a tournament and pick up against top teams. Do what Jaime “Idaho” Arambula did and go to 32 tournaments in a single year from the sprawling metropolis of Twin Falls, ID! Find out when the local top team is playing informal scrimmages and get on that list if you can. If there is an area that you’ve identified as important, it may be difficult to get the reps you need. The one thing that you know is that no amount of bench press will replace that on-field learning.
Skills that are more physically demanding need to be developed by linking the physical preparation with the game-specific movements. Deadlifts do not equal jumping blocks. Work smart with the weights, and then find ways to build the bridge between the purely-physical and the actually-helpful. Play flyers up, play deep in the zone in pickup, go to a winter tournament with people you haven’t played with before and work on your anticipation, learn how to stretch and rehab your muscles for Sunday jumping after a long Saturday. Without the coordination, the lifting is useful. Without the lifting, you are unlikely to improve your range. The combination can help to rapidly build your capability for covering the field. At some level, the ability to transform physical tools into game-specific talents is the difference between athletes and players. Earlier, we discussed the player that can dominate but doesn’t. I think this is where this player lives.
Improving preparation (learning to do sports-specific actions more consistently)
If you have disc-skills that need honing, then you must touch a disc every day. I didn’t say “can”. I didn’t say “should”. I said “must”. There is no substitute for daily practice. The confidence, touch and accuracy that come with 10 days in a row is unknown to many players, but there is absolutely nothing like it. A day’s worth of touches can be as little as a few minutes, inside, by yourself. Averaging between 10-20 minutes is probably about right, with the understanding that physical rest days can be important as well. A professional baseball pitcher might not throw fastballs on every single day, but during the season they absolutely touch a ball and a glove every day. Could you imagine a soccer or basketball player that had in-season days in which they avoided a ball entirely? No way. I’m currently working on an individual skills camp, and if/when it happens players will be required to touch a disc every day for at least 20 days prior to showing up. There is no substitute for daily muscle memory with the implement of your sport.
Hold yourself to reachable but high standards. You can record your decisions for every touch on the field. Do this for a game or two and you will find a normal turnover rate. Try to beat this rate every time you play. Simply demanding zero turnovers might be a recipe for frustration and overshadow real gains that you are making, especially if you are also working on the improvement of long or difficult throws or if your team relies on you to spark the offense with creativity in your targeting.A top elite hucker at their best completes roughly 3-4 hucks per any turnover in games against high-quality defense. Set your goals accordingly.
In practice, you can do the same thing and create data that will inform your improvement. If you are trying to avoid poor decisions, note each poor decision and try to identify trends in those decisions. You might have great decision-making in the middle of the field, but be throwing 50% of your passes away on the sidelines. This is fixable, but only once you have identified the problem.
Surround yourself with people that practice well. If your best friends are lazy scrimmagers, guard someone else. Sometimes, finding a training partner or scrimmage/drill opponent that tests you every day is the most important step towards your goals. Look for that Lou Burruss, Roger Crafts, or Mike Jaeger that just kills himself to win each drill rep and start trying to beat him. In time, you’ll develop a sense for the level of play that it takes to beat the most consistent opponents, rather than just staying on the field until an inconsistent opponent happens to make a mistake near you. If you come out of practice without some level of mental or physical exhaustion then you have wasted an opportunity to test yourself at game level.
Train your body to be ready to play tired. It would be great if there were ways to train so that you are in such great shape that you are never tired. The reality, though, is that you would probably just find ways to pour more energy into each second on the field. As Seth Wiggins says, “Especially on defense, there is always something more you could be doing. There is another fake or chop stop or hip turn that might threaten or disrupt the offense. You can’t be in too good of shape.” Since you’ll always be playing tired, drills and conditioning that force you to perform skills when tired can improve your preparation. Marking footwork at the beginning of practice might improve your marking talent, but that same footwork practiced at the end of a 400-yard interval sprint is improving your preparation. Another way to say this is: train on both sides of a skill. Train it in isolation from distracting and difficult factors to work on that skill alone. Then, once you have the skill, prepare it for game play by training in the midst of other factors like fatigue.
A way to train hard and practice when tired: Put yourself through ‘complex heavy’ days where you train and then join a game. As long as you are giving yourself the rest, rehab and nutrition that you need before/after then this can be a great way to work on the preparation of high-level skills even when you can’t find a high-level game to test yourself. This helps simulate a tournament day or a Sunday. Going a step further, Riot and Sockeye have both used practice schemes with track workouts either on the day before, or immediately before, practice to help simulate tournaments.
Improving execution (learning to maximize your performance in pressure situations)
Do you play at your absolute best when the pressure is the highest? If so, congratulations…you are extremely gifted and I hate you. For the rest of us, expect to put in a significant amount of work to develop your mental toughness as an improvement in execution. There is a reason that most elite teams carry at least a player or two that, from the outside, look like they are past their prime and maybe can’t run with the athletes anymore. When you see those players, you should know that you are probably looking at a player that executes well when it matters. Their teammates rely on them to fill their role, and they are willing to keep that older teammate rather than risk depending on an unproven younger player, even a much stronger or more skilled one.
There are a number of ways to work on these aspects of your game, and there are fantastic experts out there. Alan Goldberg is one whose books are great reads for people trying to learn to focus on what is really important in the moment. Tiina Booth has very successfully developed methods for convincing Ultimate teams to rely on their own abilities and to smoothly and flexibly deal with unpredictable situations. If you are like me and are one of the vast majority of people that do not do these things well naturally, find one of these experts and learn from them. Read their books, ask them questions, and take those exercises and thoughts that work for you to heart.
Visualization exercises can help. By creating positive and sustainable visions of your success on the field you can give your mind practice away from the stressors of competition. This is not “daydream about jumping 10 feet in the air for the double-greatest”. You can’t do that, so your mind will freeze when it gets in a game and doesn’t know how to translate vision into reality. But you can visualize catching. You can visualize clearing. You can visualize anticipating cuts and locking down your player. You can even visualize reacting to mistakes (both yours and your teammates) in a positive and game-useful way. Turn your down time into practice by training your visualization. Evolution has spent a long time creating a system for improving even when you can’t realistically repeat a physical motion. Some would say this is why we have brains in the first place. Use it. (Inspiration thanks to Pat McCarthy)
Because execution is such a “head” ability, it can be very difficult to work on in the moment. I’ve seen amazing improvement in players that are willing to work off the field towards this goal. These players remove themselves from the stressful situation in order to make sense of it. They use tactics like reading, writing goals, speaking mantras or watching videos that are specifically tuned to getting your own brain out of your way when the first pull goes up. This is hard for some athletes that want to do everything on the field. Obviously, playing is more fun than not. But some of this work is best done away from the stressors that cause the problems in the first place. I think it is worth saying that I have never seen a player overcome mental execution problems just by trying harder. You may need to try something new and very different to what you do for other parts of your game.
Your individual success can be improved, and I think these are some of the best ways to do it. Using these techniques, I’ll go on to talk briefly about some of the special ways that teams can improve their performance.
Feature photo of Sockeye’s Sam Harkness by Scobel Wiggins
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