Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Environment and Emulation

by Sean Keegan

I first felt the drive to get better at College Regionals in 2006. We had talked all year about Delaware making Nationals again. I was a rookie freshman, having only picked up the game that fall. Despite my constant falling down while cutting and lack of a consistent flick, the captains saw enough potential in my athleticism, desire to learn, and fire to offer me a spot on the A team. We beat a talented George Washington team in semis and were set to take on our perennial regional rival, Pittsburgh, in the finals. It was our first game on Sunday morning, and I remember being amped through warm ups. I envisioned holding that crappy Metro East Regional Champions trophy after catching the game-winning and Nationals-clinching goal.

Photo courtesy of Steve Helvin

Photo courtesy of Steve Helvin

Well, we won on universe point… but I didn’t see the field. Not a single point. I remember thinking that I was good enough to go run around like a crazy man for at least one point.

In hindsight, I can see why I didn’t play. For some of my teammates, that tournament was the culminating event of five years of hard work.  They had spent hundreds of hours working on their throws, skipping class to discuss strategy, losing sleep to bond with teammates. I grew up not really knowing what ultimate was, and the main thing that kept me from getting playing time was lack of experience.

Summer league is underrated

That summer, I took it upon myself to get as much playing experience as possible. I registered for two  WUDI summer leagues in New York– that’s right, I signed up for both the advanced and the beginners league. I knew I wasn’t a beginner, but I still wanted the opportunity to be one of the better players on an ultimate team. An added benefit was that for the first time, I was able to be a teacher in this beautiful sport, and as they say, being able to teach someone else a skill is a true measure of mastery. I honed my understanding of some of the finer points of the game by working to explain them to complete newbies.

In advanced league, I got experience playing with and against players that were better than me. Despite summer league’s casual atmosphere– you know, that annoying overabundance of hammers– there was a lot to gain for me there as a young and inexperienced player. I used summer league as an opportunity to try all of the things I saw my upperclassmen teammates consistently do. That really effective IO backhand break that I never had the guts to try with Delaware? Who cares if the old guy in the visor yells at you at summer league for messing it up?

While it wasn’t the highest level ultimate I’ve ever played, I really attribute a lot of my growth as a player to casual summer leagues. I was stuck as a cutter my freshman year, but in summer league I got chances to handle. This allowed me to see the field from a whole different perspective, which was eye opening and revolutionary for me. Playing in a new environment can give you some great insight as to why certain cuts didn’t get thrown to. Did you cut behind the shadow of the mark?  Was your timing off and the thrower was looking dump? Questions you have early in your career start getting answered before you know it.

Applying it at the club level

Since my first year playing, I’ve maintained two key tenets to improving. First, practice makes perfect. Second, your teammates are your best resource.

Even now, at age 27 and having played at Nationals nine times, there’s plenty still to learn. I still challenge myself to make deliberate throws when I’m just tossing with a friend. I don’t focus solely on whether it got to my target, but rather I picture a field and specific game-like scenarios, and then judge if my throw was on the flight path I envisioned for it to get around a defender.

Here’s an example of how tons practice can (and should) make things instinctive: I recently began working on emulating my teammate Alan Kolick’s around flick break throw, a throw that I literally cannot remember ever being stopped when Alan throws it (granted, that guy was blessed with the inherent gift of being lefty!). I practiced that specific throw hundreds, if not thousands, of times last year in summer league, in drills at practice, and in mini scrimmages against my teammates, but I still hadn’t dared try it in a game until I felt it was ready. Then a weird thing happened: I was watching one of our MLU games recently and saw myself throw that same throw that I had been convinced that I hadn’t thrown in an actual game yet. That’s what happens when things become habit: you don’t even think about or realize you did something new because it’s so well practiced that it becomes natural within the flow of the game.

This story is about practice, but it’s also about using my teammates as a resource. I have the privilege of playing with Alan, one of the best throwers in the world currently. I consider myself a fairly good thrower at this point, but it’d be a mistake to not try to emulate Alan’s around flick break throw. In 2014, I’m implementing the same learning techniques I used when I was a 19-year-old kid learning a flick huck. I found someone that was better and copied them until it became my own natural practice. Always be learning and expanding your game.

I’m now in a new chapter in my playing career: in April, I started playing with a new club team for the first time in 5 years.  Despite the fact that I’m a more confident and better player now than I was when I tried out for Truck Stop all those years ago, I’ve still been focused on learning from the guys who do things better than me and expanding as a person and player.  26 new teammates, 26 new playing styles, 26 new opportunities to learn.

The bottom line? There’s always so much to learn, and so many people to learn from. Never waste an opportunity to get better.