Tuesday, February 26, 2013

For the Improving Player

This blog is for b-teamers. Specifically, for b-teamers who want to be a-teamers. 

I am particularly well suited to write about this goal because when I started I was the worst player on the C-team and eventually played on the A-team during a season heavy with veteran talent and with a max roster. During my four years at Illinois I learned a lot about improving at ultimate, both the technical skills and as an athlete. 

There are a million facets to improving at any sport or game and if you are lucky you have friends with whom you talk about these things on a daily basis. I was fortunate enough to have several people who fit this description. I am confident that if I had gone to a school where I did not meet these friends I would never have made as much improvement. 

The majority of this post will be a list of topics I have discussed with someone else and the conclusions that have been drawn that are either a) counter-intuitive or b) extremely important in my judgment. If I were actually able to get all of my thoughts about ultimate written down it would probably be 500 pages long and full of speculation. I will attempt to limit this to only the things I feel the most strongly about and things which are not esoteric. If I did not impose this limit it would include things like ‘good players go after second chance discs like it’s the first chance’.*

*Many of these now included in post script.

Getting Better

How much can a player improve in one year? I was in the unique position of being a terrible athlete and having terrible disc skills as a rookie. I tried very hard to improve both of these throughout all four years with varying success. 

In general I think a player can expect to move one rung up the continuum each year with significant dedication. If both disc skills and athleticism are granted a grade between B- and A+, where B- is a bad b-team player and A+ is an all-region A-team player, you can go from B- to B or B+ to A- given one full year of play and practice. Where this actually places you in terms of the team isn’t an exact science. In many scenarios an “A” athletic player with “B-“ disc skills has been used as a defensive specialist on the A-team to great effect. 

In practice, however, we see many players stalling athletically at A- or A and skills-wise around B+ or A-. This has led to a poisonous assumption that people have reached their ability ceilings. I have theories about why they both happen.

Athletically is the most interesting, so I’ll start there. It is very easy to maintain one’s athleticism when one is between the ages of 18-22. You can party five nights a week and eat mostly sugar and maintain your level of athleticism. This goes for if you are a B- or an A+. You have heard of the great players who drink mostly soda and eat mostly candy. If you are trying to reach their level this can be confusing, discouraging, or anything in between. Most of the players who fit this mold played sports at a high level in high school, and have logged more hours of workouts during those four years than you will be able to make up in the next four. If you have any hope of catching them you will have to be extremely dedicated and you will have to forego some things that they will enjoy. It is up to you to figure out if that is worth it. If they are not working as hard as you they will hit a plateau, and you will keep improving. The important thing to note about this is that improvement is extremely difficult, while maintaining is extremely easy. If you become lazy it is an extremely abrupt fall from improvement into maintenance, and that is not a good thing.

Because an A athlete is already dominating most of his matchups with ease, and because he doesn’t run into A+ players very often he will almost always fail to reach A+. Look around, there are probably 5 players demonstrating this on any high level team during any given year. This explains a great part of the disparity in the athletic quality between Ultimate and NCAA sports*. This seems like a bad thing at first, but it means that a player doesn’t have to have been a star athlete in high school to compete in college. 

*The other great explainer is that NCAA athletes are usually genetically predisposed to athleticism and are taller, but since you won’t be playing against any of them this isn’t something you should give much thought. 

Skills plateaus are also interesting, and people fail for essentially the same reason. They simply don’t realize how hard you have to work to improve a skill. In my experience it takes about a year of practice to add a throw to your game, from non-existent to game-ready. A throw is not a broad term. An invert-forehand is a throw, a short hammer is a throw, and backhand is not a throw. People wonder why they can’t throw a huck like Kennedy, but the answer is staring them in the face. Kennedy has thrown thousands of more hucks in the last four years than almost every player to come through Illinois. He has stayed after practice to work on throws more than you have thrown on the quad or with your friends in frat park combined. It isn’t close. The number of repetitions you are shooting for to improve a throw is going to be in the thousands. Once you accept the scope of this challenge you can begin attacking it appropriately. Tons of people recognize this and there are some D3 schools who demand each player carries a disc in their backpack at all times. That’s a dumb rule, but if you aren’t throwing almost every day you are probably not going to impress people with your throws. 

It has often been said by very good throwers that throwing on the quad in sneakers is not helpful. To an extent they are right. The difference between a focused throwing session with a goal and cleats is night and day to throwing with a buddy on the quad. But getting in 300 extra throws between classes each week is also an order of magnitude better than doing nothing between practices.

As an aside, your throws are worse than you think they are. This is because the people marking you 95% of the time are either garbage at marking or aren’t trying. When the game is on the line you will be playing against someone trying really hard to take away your best throw. Despite my own best efforts I have only one throw that I have complete confidence in with wind in my face and a strong mark, and I worked pretty hard on a lot of throws.

Play Time

Play time often seems like it’s out of your control, and to a certain extent it is. Reps during scrimmages are often determined largely by who wants to play, and who doesn’t step off the field. In that regard you can get almost as much as you want of the next best thing. Practice reps are also a great place to give newly acquired skills some use. The best place to develop a skill is during drills, once you start to gain confidence they can be used in practice against your own team, and then when you start to see openings in games you will be ready to use them.

The rest of this section is specific to b-team play time.

If you are getting limited play time, i.e. <5 points per game, you should attempt to gain as much as possible from each one. Everything you do should have 100% of your focus, and setting small attainable goals such as three layouts per day or 100% completion on dumps/swings for a day are useful. You will still be getting the bulk of your improvement from drills and scrimmages. Utilize them as much as you can.

If you are one of the main players on the team and are getting significant playing time you have more flexibility. You will have tons of scenarios and should use every one of them to your advantage. You will play against teams that are much worse than you are and can learn to exploit mistakes ruthlessly. This is an ability that will serve you well when you play at a higher level. The people you will play then won’t make as many mistakes, but they will almost all make some, and it will be your ability to take full advantage of mistakes that makes you a valuable player, rather than your ability to simply beat them at their strengths. Along the same lines you will want to play as flawlessly as you can on defense and without the disc on offense. Even if they are not taking advantage of your mistakes you need to be conscious of them. It is very hard to discern these yourself, so you need to find someone whose opinion you trust and ask them for feedback often. There will be a ton of people willing to talk to you about ultimate, but only a few will have worthwhile feedback. Identify them and milk them for all they are worth. They will become your best friends.

If you are one of the lucky players playing near 50% of the points you have a golden opportunity to build tournament stamina. I can’t find the quote, but I’m pretty sure it was Stupca who said that the only way to build tournament stamina is by playing them, and he is right. There will be moments where you are tired from your bookends on the last point and now with the game tied 11-11 you’re still in. This is the opportunity to take over the game with your will. Instead of easing off the gas pedal you should be stepping on it. When you are one of the main players for the B-team you can be sure there are ten other guys who would love to be on the field in your place. Even if your 70% is better than their 110% you would be doing yourself and your team a disservice to not take advantage of the situation to better yourself and play for your teammates.

People’s Perception

If you are working very hard to improve, chances are you are improving each month about as much as your teammates are each semester.* It takes a long time for people to notice you’ve gotten better. This has several causes. Because people have seen that most players are largely stagnant and are probably stagnant in their own development they assume you are as well. Until the improvements become enormous they are very easy to miss. This effect becomes very pronounced when you are nearing and passing those of your teammates. It is in the nature of people to think they are slightly better than average, and this will blind people from seeing that you are approaching or surpassing them in ability or athleticism. In the long run this will not matter, and that is pretty much the idea you must console yourself with. 

*I previously said most people are stagnant, but there is a general rate of improvement that everybody has just from being around ultimate for 12 hours a week. It comes from a mostly passive absorption of knowledge and learning of one’s own strengths and weaknesses and how to compensate.

Skill Improvement

There are only twenty or thirty programs in the country with as much raw skill and ability as Illinois. This means that you don’t have to search youtube to figure out how to pick up a skill. There is almost certainly going to be someone on the team who has mastered the skill you are looking to gain.

You should identify the best one or two players on the team when it comes to the skill you want and ask them about it. If you are still having a hard time make them hang out with you and video tape the whole thing so you can go over it later.

Once you know what you should be doing, you have to practice it until it is easy. If you can’t figure out a drill to work on it ask someone smart. 

Work on a good mark first. Almost nobody in ultimate actively works on their mark anything like as much as they work on any other facet of the game, and by having a good mark you will be immediately valuable. And a player with a bad mark is pretty much useless despite other skills.

The next most valuable tool is a short-range throw, one forehand and one backhand. It can be any release point, any curve, and executed with any fake. It should work in windy conditions and against a high quality mark.

Making cuts offensively and playing defense against them requires a blend between skill and athleticism. Copy someone whose style you like. Ask them how to defend an upline. Ask someone else how to get open breakside. Ask a third person how to give and go. Stealing all the moves you like the best won’t make you a copy, it will give you your own distinct style.

Athletic Improvement Specifics

Most of the rest of this post will be devoted to more specific ideas about improving athletically. I do not think I am in error to say that I have improved as much or more than any other player in the program over the last four years athletically.

The most important factor to improving athletically is time in the gym. It seems obvious on its face, but many people will spend an inordinate amount of time researching fitness and not enough actually becoming fit. You can more easily read about working out for 20 hours per week than you can actually work out that much, but it is important to come close to your maximum useful workout hours and then make them more efficient by learning than it is to come up with the perfect workout scheme before ever starting.

If you wonder what the most time a person can gainfully workout for in a week I would suggest looking to the schedule of NCAA athletes. They probably log about 3 hours of workouts about 6 days per week. With that being said, I personally find that 3 days of lifting for 30-50 minutes and 2 days of track workouts are about the optimal range in addition to whatever full-team practices are going on. Obviously the demands of tournaments must be taken into consideration, but a player on the b-team will likely be less affected than a player on the a-team by tournament disruptions.

Hitting the Gym

The most common question asked by rookies is about which lifts they should do. The best answers are always short and unsexy. People have an innate desire for a lifting plan that looks like a menu at a restaurant. Two pages full of notes about weights and reps and machine names.

The first two exercises are easy. Each player should be back-squatting and deadlifting. There should be upper-body exercises with free weights that address weaknesses. There should be single-leg exercises like split-squats and lunges. Having more than six exercises means you are likely wasting time. There are probably no machines that would benefit you more than a comparable free weight exercise.

As far as specific sets/reps, general advice is best. Warmup sets are your friend. Do as many as you can make yourself do. I define warmup as anything below 60% of your “working weight”. If you plan to finish squats with a set of 200lbs anything below 120 is a warmup. Do the bar, 95lbs, and 115lbs. For working sets you should be doing between 15-30 reps total. 3x10? Fine. 3x5? Fine. 5x5? Fine. 4x7? Fine. Each scheme has its uses, ask someone who knows what he is doing for help to pick your own routine. 

For my thoughts on ab training click here: http://z15.invisionfree.com/Jack_Rabuck/index.php?showtopic=2

Your two goals in the gym should be gaining power and gaining mobility. Mobility is not flexibility. Mobility is your ability to move through natural ranges of motion and does not isolate single joints. To learn more watch the early videos from this youtube channel (this resource is a 10): http://www.youtube.com/user/sanfranciscocrossfit

Once you have a routine in place you will no doubt start to research ways to improve it. In this regard you will have to learn how to search effectively. Google is your friend, but terrible advice is everywhere. Similar to finding people who can tell you what you are doing wrong on the field, it is important to find people who know what they are talking about when it comes to working out.  On a scale of 1-10, livestrong.com would score a 1. I would take advice from yahoo answers before I took an article on livestrong seriously. Tim Morrill is a 7. He has taken strides to improve himself and I expect him to further improve, but there are better sources. Learn how to search a database like pubmed. Learn how to interpret study results.

Foam rolling is great. It is not a panacea. It is a tool to stay healthy, it will not heal your injuries. It is a great weapon against many chronic use injuries like shin splints. 


People spend a lot of time working on their calves because they think it will help them jump higher. Calves produce about 6% of the force used to jump. Improving your calf strength twofold is less useful than increasing your hamstring strength by 25%. Similarly, people spend a lot of time worrying about which supplements to take rather than looking at their diet as a whole.

Ultimate players and society in general don’t eat very well. If you are serious about working out there is no reason you shouldn’t be consuming your weight (lbs) in protein (g) or at least 75% of that number. E.g if you weigh 150lbs you should be getting at least 150x.75g = 112g of protein every day. I suspect most ultimate players are closer to 40%. This brings us to the most useful supplement. Whey protein. Drink it with water if you’re overweight, drink it with whole milk if you’re underweight, doesn’t matter. It is the easiest way to get from 40% to 75%. I buy mine here: http://www.smartpowders.com/whey-protein-5lb-chocolate.html It is cheaper than ON Whey, tastes and mixes better.

The only other supplements I would suggest are Vitamin D3 and creatine. If you do enough research on creatine that you can explain to your mother why it isn’t a steroid and how it works you can decide if it is worth taking or not.

Track Workouts

Track workouts should be <1.5 hours long. There should be a warmup of generous distance, 1000m seems right. The rest of the workout should be between 1600-3200m of total distance. 100m x16 is a lot of running, so is 400m x6. Use longer rest if you want to work your legs harder and shorter rest if you want to work your heart’s aerobic capacity. If you think the workouts you come up with are better than the ones people are currently doing then start your own group.

Work on your form. 

Running makes you better at running.

Concluding Thoughts

Playing ultimate was far and away the most rewarding experience of my college years. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without the struggle shared between myself and my teammates to improve. Whether it was lifting at CRCE with Papa Bear and Steve Haake freshman year before we had a clue what was going on, having competitions with Kennedy,  throwing with Brad at every opportunity, moving heavy weights with Bruns in the basement of the ARC, or being marked by Walden, the entire experience of improving was worthwhile. When you are done playing you will wish you did more to improve. The only part you can control is the degree to which you feel that way. Everyone leaves something on the table, but that means you can always try harder, not that you shouldn’t try at all.

Post Script

The first players down on the pull are often not the fastest players.

Good teams have 4-7 people who love ultimate, great teams have 10-15.

Having a great puller is worth more points per game than almost anything else. It is like having a great kicker in football.

If you watch club nationals footage and think you are just a little below their level you need to re-evaluate yourself and probably start watching at .5x speed to appreciate what you are seeing.

If you want to get better faster than your teammates, play club in the summer. It is only 4 months, but you will gain an entire season of experience that they will not.

Good players go after second chance discs like it is the first chance.

Frisbees float for a long time, timing and point of attack are more important than height jumped.

Most great players try 100% 95% of the time. Most good players try 100% 50% of the time.

Having a signature move is a great thing, not a bad one.

Having a high completion percentage on dump throws and catches is the layup of ultimate.

If there is a hospital disc pile setting up and you aren’t your team’s best jumper, play for the tip.

There is a lag between working out and feeling/seeing the results. I think it’s about 15 days.

Every time a great player graduates you will regret not having learned their signature move from them.

Bad players and bad teams hate physical play. Do it anyway. Real gonna recognize real.

It is much harder to have a bad throw to open space than to a tight window.

Ten seconds is a long time. When they shorten it to 7 or 5 in ten years you are going to wish you had exploited this better. Call fast count and contact every time the mark tries to steal your seconds or your space.

Throw into fouls.

When you are marking watch the thrower’s grip. Very few people are quicker at changing grips than you will be at shuffling your feet. 

Contest foul calls if you were in a legal position. Don’t touch the thrower after stall 6 unless he is about to throw to somebody wide open.

Break side cuts are under-utilized.

Getting the disc to the middle of the field is the most valuable throw you can make in the red zone. Fake the upline throw even if nobody is cutting there, the mark will jump.

Your fakes should look just like your real throws except for one thing.

People like to exaggerate how much a mark can take away of the field. A good mark will take away most of the break side invert and will cause a swing to be at best parallel.

When marking your first step after he throws the disc should be in front of him to stop him from burning you on a throw and go.

Most people won’t chase you at full speed while your teammate catches a warning-track huck.

Telling someone to be chilly with the disc is stupid.

Telling someone to get it back on D is stupid.

The last three feet around a disc in the air belong to whomever wants them more.

A player with a 90% retention rate has twice as many turnovers as a player with a 95% retention rate.

Don’t practice in the rain or the wind, you will never have to play in those conditions.

Most marks don’t shut off the break throw after you catch an incut.

Playing in an ultimate tournament is actually going on a road trip with your friends to somewhere warm and sunny and then playing sports with them against other groups of friends who think they can beat you. Tournaments are the coolest part of ultimate.


Zub said...

Great post. I also played on the B-team for 2 years before getting to play with the big boys.

"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

- Vince Lombardi

If you have shitty throws, throwing 1000 shitty throws will just ensure that you will have shitty throws and that they will stay shitty for longer. Practice makes permanent.

Joseph Serio said...

Fantastic piece Jack. Even though I am unfortunately too spread out in terms of other commitments (work, fraternity, girlfriend, school out the ass) to put 100% into ultimate 95% of the time, but this definitely showed me a number of ways I can get better and help the team in my fifth year of playing next year.

TitoIHUC said...

One of the most well-written articles I've read. The only part I don't agree with is:
"Don’t practice in the rain or the wind, you will never have to play in those conditions."

I have played in both of those conditions. While I agree that you don't need to practice in the pouring rain, throwing in the wind will make you one of the best throwers around. You really learn how to use the discs edge.

A North Central Player

Jack said...

IHUC guy, I think he was being sarcastic there, based on a team inside joke/story about someone saying one day it was too windy to throw.