“How do I get better?” “What are you looking for?” “What do I need to do over the summer to be a starter coming into next year?”
As long, grueling, and emotional as ultimate seasons care, returning players never fail to ask me these questions before we part ways in May. Lately, I’ve been getting them from incoming freshmen before they even get to campus. College players are hungry to improve.
First, let’s discuss something that is under-taught and highly overlooked: mentality and attitude. That more and more players are learning to play before they get to college is a gift—we’re certainly reaping the benefits here in Florida. But it can also be a curse if those players come in with unrealistic expectations or a false understanding of what they bring to the table and the type of player they are. As a coach, I can’t stand when players come into a tryout or open practice as if they already know the landscape. Understand that your first impression is vital to your chances of making a team, and there is a very big difference in being confident vs. coming off as arrogant. Learn and apply that difference.
For example, while explaining a break-mark drill from a thrower’s perspective, I tend to stress wide pivots, believable fakes, and looking past the mark. While just throwing a hammer right over the mark might look cool or be the fastest way from Point A to Point B, doing so disregards everything I just spent valuable practice time emphasizing. Players who come in looking to show off challenge neither themselves nor their teammates. Furthermore, there’s a reason I teach the fundamentals that I do: a player who can fake, pivot, and step out and throw a solid flick or backhand is far more likely to do well in a game than one who relies on a gimmicky hammer. Following instructions shows me you were listening and that you’re trying to execute what I explained. Even if you fail, it looks a lot better than someone who is mostly interested in looking fancy.
Regarding physical skills, there are three things that will help you in the offseason*: throwing and catching, conditioning, and film review.
*and when I say offseason, I certainly mean through the fall. In college, we play for the spring.
Throwing and catching are easily the most important skills for any player at any level. You have to expand your throwing library if you want to improve. Take advantage of the countless tools online to bring depth to your throwing game— out of habit, I do parts of Lou Burruss’ Kung Fu Throwing and Ben Wiggins’ Zen Throwing two or three times a week. Your throwing can always be better, and the most important thing to remember is that repetition is key.
Catching is the yang to throwing’s yin. Make it a point to become your team’s most reliable set of hands during the offseason. Get used to catching in every way possible (with one hand; two-handed pancakes; crab claws; reverse crab claws; with your opposite hand) and with every throw possible (flicks, backhands, hammers, etc). More importantly, find out what’s appropriate for each throw. Is there a difference between catching a flat 20-yard throw with a crab claw and a pancake? How do you attack a disc that’s coming straight at you vs. one where you have no choice but to grab the trailing edge? Learn and practice the best ways to bring the disc into your hands.
Conditioning. In ultimate, we tend to get athletes whose field vision, reflexes, and reactions are conditioned for other sports. Because people often pick up basketball or soccer at an earlier age than they do ultimate, they have drilled those sports’ finer athletic points a whole lot more. This leaves us playing catch up for ultimate, where covering dump cuts or playing wing in a zone might demand movements that players’ bodies aren’t used to. Among the best ways to get used to these kinds of movements is to play a lot of ultimate. You can also train them by making sure to do more than just sprint in your workouts.
In both cases, if you want to progress, you need to make sure you’re well conditioned enough to do these things even when you’re tired. A higher level of conditioning, will allow you to retain information and actions—to make things muscle memory—later in practices and games. Simply put, it’s easier to learn if you’re not huffing and puffing your way through your attempts. Weight training and track workouts are how you make this happen. You will build explosiveness with weight training (squats, cleans, etc.) and will build endurance by running 200s, 400s, and 600s on the track. Also, remember that the most useful throwing is when you’re dead tired. Always throw after you work out.
Film Review. We live in the height of the video age of ultimate. Take advantage of it by watching full game footage of the best games possible. Watching video allows for mental reps, which make the game more predictable. And when the game is more predictable, you don’t have to think as much on the field.
Watch how players on the field cut, how they throw, how they jump and how they get Ds. Choose one player to watch throughout a point. Follow them if you can and visualize yourself in their position on the field. Try and predict what they will do next and see if you’re right—if you are, you’re on the right path. If you aren’t, compare what you would have done with what they did and try to articulate the differences.
I hope you put work in this summer. It’ll pay off this fall and beyond.
Andrew Roca took over as head coach of the University of Central Florida Dogs of War in 2011 after captaining the team as a player the previous two years. His teams have qualified for the USA Ultimate College Championships in three of his four years as a coach, including an appearance in the national title game in 2013. Andrew has been named Southeast Region Coach of the Year four years in a row and was the Skyd All American Coach of the Year in 2012. His primary goal as a coach is to work with a US men’s national team.