Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Coaching the Next Nick Lance Highlight

by Jonathan Neeley

Everyone likes a good highlight clip, but as a coach you should be directing players away from the ooohs and aaahs and toward what’s going to make them consistently good. You want them to see specifics: marks that are forcing flick rather than just “defense;” decisive clears and deliberate use of the middle of the field instead of “cutting;” release points and arm angles when they watch people throw. When players can identify the distinct movements that add up to an entire play or point, they watch, practice, and play with clarity.

If you coach at any level from middle school to college, chances are good that your players have seen the clip of Nick Lance making a big play in the air in the semis of last year’s Nationals. Put your coaching hat on and take a look:

The “that was impressive” eye test? Pass. Even the uninitiated might notice Nick’s closing speed or how he concentrates on touching the disc rather than how he might land. But from the time the thrower looks upfield to when the disc hits the ground, there’s a whole, whole lot more going on, and the beauty is that it can all be coached– we can break the highlight reel down into skills that our players can master. That’s what we’re about here at RISE UP: Learn. Practice. Take Over.

For starters, Nick Lance has a reputation for being meticulous and cerebral, so who better to ask about the play? Never be afraid to ask players, coaches, or writers questions– the ultimate community is full of kind people who enjoy sharing their expertise, and when you initiate a conversation you’re likely to come away with a new perspective on whatever subject you’re wondering about.

“If you look at the beginning of the cut, I wasn’t actually expecting the throw to go up. I start deeper than my guy and have to turn once it’s thrown. From there I just had a better read on the disc and he didn’t cut off my line to it. He actually makes the line open by jumping with the disc back and to the left instead of coming at it toward the right.”

Notice how Nick uses vocabulary words like “read” and “line” to talk about following the disc’s flight pattern and choosing where he runs to make the play. Terms like these are second nature for those who have been around ultimate for a long time, but it’s important to remember that for newer players, putting a word to a concept crystallizes a pattern.

Nick went on to break down how he ended up in a position to make the play:

“For movement, I anticipate more than I react. Whenever the disc is moving I ask myself ‘where would I go?’ then try to take that away. Always be the fastest thinker on the field and you’ll be all right.

“The key to winning the read is to make sure that you always see the disc get released from the throwers hand. I judge the most about its flight in the first half second. If it comes out wobbly it will turn over and always being the first to react to available information is key.”

Nick gets at something crucial here: superior players are able to see and analyze the field of play. Getting a quick look at what’s happening– it could be seeing a thrower receiving the disc in power position,  what’s happening behind you as you come in to mark, or where cutters are positioned just before a dead disc is tapped in– is enough for your brain to read, evaluate, and anticipate what’s going to happen next. On top of lots and lots of experience seeing plays develop, players can read the game better if they minimize time spent with their back to the disc. You can find resources and concepts for drilling this here and here.

Next, I asked Nick about the jump itself. You can see him get power through his hips, knees, and toes, and he goes up off his left foot without losing a step. Developing players means training them to move efficiently.

“I used to high jump in high school, so my jump and approach comes from that skill set. Something you can bring over from high jumping is approaching in an arch to the direction of your jumping foot. If you’re jumping from your left try to curl left near the jump. I’d you’re jumping off the right foot curl right. Additionally you have to pay attention to your arm swing to give you as much vertical momentum as possible. You should catch the disk with the opposite hand from your jumping foot and swing your non catching hand back down. This gets your center of mass lower while raising your peak reach.”

Defensive shuffles in basketball. Rotational power in tennis. Getting your body in front of the moving object as an infielder in baseball. Other sports have a whole lot much to teach us, and YouTube alone is packed with tutorials on how to instruct those movements.

Finally, Nick talked about the convergence of both reading and jumping for a disc:

“Mixing knowing were to go and how to approach the jump lead to something that is slightly counterintuitive: you have to get to your take off point, but you don’t want to be standing and static in that position when you need to jump because such a position leaves you without any horizontal momentum to convert to vertical momentum. In the clip, you can see me slow down to get myself room to re-accelerate and jump.”

Plain and simple, bringing a number of complex movements together is rarely easy. To improve, Nick recommends a tried and true method: reps.

“Get out and practice watching and reading discs. Do the Big Man drill with your team, where someone is purposely throwing imperfect sky balls and the objective is to beat the other guy to the ideal spot.”

Nick Lance didn’t make this play because he’s “good at ultimate.” He made it because he has put extensive thought and practice into anticipating what’s going to happen on the field, reading discs when they’re in the air, and setting himself up to elevate.

See it. Break it down. Build ways to drill the particulars. That’s coaching, and if you approach ultimate– or the next time you watch SportsCenter– with these steps in mind, your players are going to benefit.