Playing Ultimate on a Prosthetic

by | December 3, 2014, 9:25am 0

This article is co-published on our friends over at The ShowGame and written by Matthew “Jeb” Shepherd.

On the weekend of the 29th and 30th of March 2014, I competed in my first Tour event: Mixed Tour 1 in Cardiff. Playing for Sheffield Steal 2, a promising weekend saw us finish 47th. For me though, playing the event was not about the result, it was the product of years of rehabilitation and hard work to be able to compete as an equal.

I started playing ultimate in September 2009. After meeting a friend who played during the first year of my degree at University of Sheffield, I decided to take up the sport at the start of my second. Fondly christened ‘Jebend’, I played an indoor beginner tournament in Manchester. Unfortunately, this was the first and only tournament I played as an able-bodied player, and persistent pains in my knee throughout the weekend meant that my involvement in the tournament ended prematurely. However, I had caught the ultimate bug.

Matt playing for Sheffield Steal at Mixed Tour 2014. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Moss.)

Matt playing for Sheffield Steal at Mixed Tour 2014. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Moss.)

After many trips to the hospital, I was eventually diagnosed with a bone disease in my right femur, and in early 2010 my leg had to be amputated. Despite this, I still had the urge to play ultimate, and at one of my first fittings for a prosthetic limb I asked my doctor about the possibility of competing again.

Upon returning to The University of Sheffield, my friends from Phat Eds welcomed me back with open arms, willing to include me in the sport and in their training sessions. Due to my limited mobility, I took the initiative to improve my throwing, and started handling at trainings for beginners. I also put a lot of effort into learning to grab the majority of discs, and losing the hesitation to bid when required. With time, I also worked out how to gain half a yard by putting my body in the way, in order to receive the disc as a handler. However, limitations on my prosthetic meant that I was still unable to perform effective cuts.

During my next year at university, I took a coaching role within the club: working with beginners, coaching them, and taking them to beginner tournaments. Through handling for these teams, I gained confidence in my disc skills using a variety of throws to compensate for my inability to pivot effectively.  Why try and throw an around forehand break when you can scoober it?

Whereas this tactic can be useful indoors, it is more risky to try to use it outdoors. Although my team mates were aware that I had a tendency to throw things I really shouldn’t when playing outdoors, I needed to work towards adapting my game. Putting lots of time in, I started to work on throwing inside-out breaks. This created new challenges for me. A limitation of my prosthetic is that I can only put my bodyweight through it when the leg is straight. Getting low when you have no ability to hold weight through a bent right leg is pretty tricky. Pivoting out with a straight leg, I have adapted a technique of bending at my waist, in order to get low discs out.

Although playing like this was enjoyable for me, I still wanted more. So, in the summer of 2013, I purchased a new prosthetic foot specifically designed for running – a blade. Having finished my degree (so no longer able to be involved in the Uni setup) I turned to weekly Sheffield Steal trainings to try out my new toy. Playing regularly, and with some experienced A Tour and GB U23 players, I was able to push myself and improve every session. With the team focusing on a strong Mixed Tour turnout, a target of making Steal’s second team was highly realistic.

Matt lines up with Gotta Catch 'em All.

Matt lines up with Gotta Catch ’em All.

I have to be smart when playing. As moving and changing direction can be difficult, I need to make sure that every move counts – that every cut has purpose. I try to make a strong fake, to prey on other players not expecting me to be able to move the way that I do. Defence poses a whole other set of issues. On my blade I can run, but my speed can be exploited. Using my knowledge of the game, I position myself so that I can take away the attacking player’s best option. When my man is cutting, I always try to stay in the cutting lane, relying on the mark to do their job. I mostly try to force my man under, to take away the option of an open side huck, since I could easily be beaten deep. Working with my teammates, I make sure that I call switches appropriately. This means I need to think whilst playing, and constantly be aware of my surroundings, and I need to be loud to alert my team to weaknesses.

After being selected for Mixed Tour 1, I was nervous heading into the tournament. I wanted to impress. I wanted to turn some heads. Working as a handler in a drilled 3-4 offence, I knew the cuts that I needed to make, and for the most part, I made them with purpose, gaining yards on my D player. I can be effective playing against a zone. Without the pressure of a man constantly on me, I’m able to move at my pace, and attack how I want, helping the team to move the disc up the pitch.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2014 Tour season, competing at 2 Mixed Tours (for Sheffield Steal 2), and 2 Open Tours (for Skyceratops).  Although flirting with the bottom seedings in all events, they were all key in increasing my confidence, and enabling me to put what I had worked on into practise. Playing against people who did not know my game, it was recognised by my captains that I was underestimated by opponents, and that I was able to exploit this.

I not only enjoyed the tournaments, but was also surprised by the quantity of members of the ultimate community who started conversations with me over the weekends, and were intrigued by my story. I aim to play the full outdoor season this coming year, both mixed and open, and with the hard work I am putting into training this winter I hope to turn even more heads as my game improves.

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