A club season can be difficult and taxing. Learning to trust teammates both new and old, buying into the team philosophy, and putting in time, money, and effort all come along with the journey of achieving a season-long overarching goal.
This year, I did this not once, but twice, spending months on a roller coaster to prepare for two separate but simultaneous seasons with two teams with very different goals and timelines: the first was the World Ultimate Club Championships with the overall one-seed and defending national champions Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust, and the second as a captain of my women’s club team, Madison Heist.
To spare the debate on “pickup players” for Worlds, I’ll address it straight away. I am not continuing on with Drag’n Thrust for the 2014 Club Series. I will return to captain Heist, a team that I very much look forward to competing with again over the next few months. Yes, I was one of those “roster addition” players to a team at WUCC in Lecco that performed to the best of its ability and won a World Championship.
I feel like there will always be this asterisk next to my medal that has to note “she was just an addition.” I feel like I have to preface this huge accomplishment by saying “I used to play for Drag’n before I moved away” or explain that I had some connections that made me a good fit for the last roster spot. It is 100% true. Although I do not compete as a full-member of Drag’n Thrust 2014, I have a long history with the players and team itself. Some of the players on the 2014 World Championship team played crucial roles in helping me play and succeed in Ultimate. This stems from when I attended my first practice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2007, to playing club and qualifying for the semi-finals at Nationals with many of the team members on Alpha Cobra Squadron in 2008. I was around when Drag’n was founded in 2009; after failing to qualify for Nationals in our first season, we turned the momentum around and qualified for semi-finals in 2010. It’s a surreal experience to see the successes of the team since 2010.
Watching from the stands in 2013 as Drag’n took home the gold, my feelings were mixed. I was extremely excited for the team and for my friends to accomplish such an amazing task that thousands of players in the States dream about (heck, it is a goal I continue to dream about). In my spot from the bleachers surrounded by families of my friends, it was hard to overlook the multitude of “what-if” questions that poured through my head as I watched my friends and former teammates celebrate a National Championship. However, my thoughts quickly turned back to building Heist and planning for another club season in Madison.
This was until I received a call from James Hron in February. He asked me if I was interested in being added to Drag’n as the 28th player on the roster. To be honest, that phone call was at the top of the “things I never would expect” while carrying in my groceries at -25 degrees outside. My constant over-thinking mind quickly raced and asked him, “why me?” In moving to Madison, starting a team and pouring all of my efforts behind it, I had lost touch in many ways with the current Drag’n team. But he was prepared to answer, outlining why I fit well and reassured my familiarity with the players, coach, and play style. My extremely supportive and ultimate-enthusiast husband, Dave, reassured me that we had no reason to say no. So I said yes.
Over the next five-and-a-half months I undertook the grueling task of pushing myself as hard as I could while living six hours away from the team. The mental struggles of training for two teams where I have very divergent roles wore on me. In preparing for Worlds, I struggled with the very same mental battle as I did during my last season on Drag’n Thrust: being a non-practicing player on a practicing team. The last time this happened, I ended up moving to a different team. This time with Drag’n, the stakes were not only raised, but I also felt like I was undergoing a mental struggle all alone Winning a World Championship in a team sport was not something I could not fully understand in isolation without working alongside my teammates.
With Heist, the struggles were very different. I felt like I had to make more happen for my team. I felt like I needed to take on more to make the team better. My teammates reassured me that they could take on responsibilities, I just needed to delegate. I felt so guilty walking away from my team during Colorado Cup, which conflicted with Worlds, in such a crucial part of the season. They reassured me that they were up to the task and that others would step up.
Throughout the months that followed, I exchanged countless emails, texts, and phone calls with Jake Henderson, one of my close friends and coach of Drag’n. I am a perfectionist and wanted to maximize my time with the team. Part of seamless on-field execution stems from getting reps together in practice and in games, working alongside each other in sprints, encouraging each other to push harder in every shared minute. Being a successful part of a team stems from the ability to trust each other completely and wholeheartedly. To win a World Championship, it means that you and your teammates execute better than any other team in the World. How do I get that feeling from being by myself in my preparation for this tournament?
In late June, I attended a weekend practice/tournament in the Twin Cities. I was nervous because the teammates I played with years back largely played on Drag’n Thrust’s O-Line; while, my role would fit me on the Drag’n Thrust D-Line. I would have to quickly learn how to integrate with a bunch of new players on a line that does not run any sort of structured offense. The Drag’n D-Line offense is all about taking advantage of match-ups on the fly and letting players with the mismatch do the work. From my point of view, how was I supposed to know when someone had a mismatch deep, under, in the air, etc. when I didn’t even know their full range of skills? I was supposed to gain this knowledge while playing in a tournament with a very limited roster against regional teams that I knew very well. Alicia Carr, one of the lone D-line players with whom I had some chemistry and history, assured me that I would fit in swimmingly.
All-in-all, I played the one of my most conservative offensive performances of my life that weekend. I didn’t throw a ton of hucks, I tried not to do too much, I tried to ask a million questions, and deferred to my teammates. I didn’t play the fiery, streaky, field-position game I have adopted over my time playing ultimate. I felt like I didn’t really push myself or my teammates to “get on the same page” because I was too afraid to make mistakes. I felt a pressure to perform perfectly every time I stepped on the field and execute 100% to earn my teammates’ trust. I left feeling frustrated, but hopeful that I could do it a month later in Italy.
The week before WUCC, I was a wreck. I was about to leave Heist to become a Drag’n in the middle of my season. I felt incredibly guilty because I was looking forward to enjoying an experience separate from Heist where I could focus on myself. I received some very meaningful notes/emails from Heist friends that really hit home with me: Worlds was about throwing myself into something new and coming back as a stronger component for Heist. Taking time for me would make our team stronger and help encourage others to step up. They supported me 100% and encouraged me to have one hell of a time.
As a final preparation step before Worlds, I watched extra film on Drag’n and the players I’d been playing with over the last week (Thanks ESPN and Skyd for all the online games you made available in the past few months to enable my learning of the Drag’n D-line). I got to learn the nuances of throws, throwing range, when they bid vs. when they don’t, where they keep going for things vs. when they give up on plays (which is rarely, by the way). I didn’t really share that with anyone, because I’m already a big enough ultimate nerd. But film served as a pretty good way to learn my teammates’ strengths and weaknesses as they were in any particular moment in a game.
The one thing I still didn’t feel was the true personal connection to a lot of my teammates. Sure, we had friendships of the past or we had some Facebook or email interactions, but those do not substitute for those gritty moments in tournaments where I pour everything I have on the line with my teammates. I was nervous and somewhat closed from my teammates because I was afraid to get shut-down.
Things were going great for the two hours after I arrived at the athlete dormitory, but then, the announcement came: the games were cancelled for day one due to water on the fields. My teammates made plans to take a trip to the Villa where many of the Drag’n families were staying. However, still exhausted from traveling and was still far from acclimated to the time change, I chose to stay back and spend some time with my friend Estelle who traveled to watch us play (but was unable to do so when games were cancelled) and get mentally ready, rather than go into town on the train in the pouring rain with my team. I felt like I made a mistake that would only distance myself further from my team.
But in all honesty, re-connecting with Estelle was what I needed to jump-start my week long task at establishing trust. She reminded me how important it is to cherish moments you have with friends and to prioritize experiencing and growing those connections. Opening your heart to an experience, whether it’s living in a cramped, damp container with no WiFi or trying to navigate to a mysterious bus stop in the pouring rain, means acknowledging the kindness of others and reciprocating that in any way you can…with a smile, a chest bump, or even a genuine expression of gratitude. Estelle has this positive, unjaded, and refreshing perspective on life — she always appreciates the generosity and kindness of others. Spending hours talking to Estelle in my container, outside in the rain, and in the warmth of a Lecco cafe was what I needed to open up to my team.
Any sort of hesitation about “fitting in” was thrown to the wind and rain. I walked into our team meeting getting hugs, smiles, and personal welcomes. I reciprocated. People were as excited to see me as I was to see them. It’s surprisingly easy to make personal connections without WiFi, privacy, and having a generally open attitude to being part of 28 other people’s lives. I also noticed that this new willingness to be open to others helped me break out and really connect with other people playing and watching WUCC.
I was finally ready to throw myself into the team mentality and buy in. I believed we could win. I saw it and felt in in everything my teammates did. The D-Line created an atmosphere where I felt safe to explore and actually make mistakes. I could focus on pouring my energy into my teammates, my individual performance, and the game itself. I stopped asking questions and started playing. I stopped overthinking and started doing. I did not need to take on more than I needed. I did not have to do anything special.
On Wednesday, one of our go-to D-Line players, Brian “Strings” Schoenrock, hurt himself quite badly on a defensive bid, subluxing his shoulder. He would remain sidelined for most of the tournament. After that play, a silent pressure started to build in my busy brain. Without one of our biggest playmakers, fiercest athletes, and arguably the heart of the D-Line, what would we do? I sat and talked with Jay Drescher, my big-bids, ballsy, gun-slinging male counterpart on the D-line for a long time on Wednesday afternoon while watching some games. When I started talking about my nervousness about losing Strings, he reassured me that we didn’t have to change our game plan. We had enough athletes to play roles and step up to the challenge.
For the next hour, I sat and talked with Jay about nearly every player on our D-Line and how they had stepped up their game throughout the tournament. Every player on Drag’n bore witness to the small improvements, minor adjustments, and seized opportunities to step up in important moments in order contribute to the team’s successes. No one player had to step up by themselves; it was about supporting each other so that the weight of losing one, two or three players was spread throughout the entire team.
It all came back to what Estelle and I talked about days prior to my discussion with Jay: opening one’s self to really see the big picture and appreciate experiences and connections with others. The experience of playing WUCC with Drag’n has surely made me a better player and a better teammate. I really gained the perspective of appreciating everything my teammates brought to the table. Not every player has to be a complete player on a team; but opening your eyes and heart to get to know your teammates allows you to constantly build up their strengths. No matter how good one individual may be, no one is perfect. Being on a successful team is about acknowledging and embracing imperfection and making it work for you. Successful teammates acknowledge individual faults and allow others to fill the weaknesses when needed. Sometimes you need help deep in a challenging matchup. Sometimes you need to swing the disc rather than rolling the dice deep.
Throwing myself into a team that I really bought into by the end of WUCC helped me to be a successful component of a well-functioning whole. The task of completely trusting 28 other people, regardless of how many reps I had with them or how long I knew them, was something that will change my game forever as a player and leader. I feel like I can really be open to acknowledging all the great things my teammates bring to the table in every moment because I got to be part of Drag’n.
Although as a captain of Heist, I need to focus on the big picture sometimes, it is still important to live in the moment with my team and not get ahead of myself. As I coach Bella Donna this upcoming college season, I do not need to think of all the “what-ifs” and over analyze every situation. Rather, I can watch the strengths of my players and focus on finding the combinations of players that pick each other up and fill the weaknesses of their teammates. I can encourage every member of the team to pick each other up and share the load, I do not need to control everything anymore, and can be a better part of the team as a result.