Playing elite club ultimate was not a goal of mine. I didn’t start playing ultimate until college, and I didn’t really know what club ultimate even was until a couple years after that when a teammate showed me UltiVillage Disc 1. I didn’t attend my first Sockeye tryout– a.k.a. The Combine– until I was finishing my 4th year of school in 2006, and probably only did so because my college team was being coached by a Sockeye player. I was quickly cut, as expected, but I received some good feedback from Will Henry and ended up playing club with a new team called Voodoo that year. It wasn’t until I surprisingly made it past The Combine to the second round of tryouts in 2007 that I seriously considered that I might be able to play at that level.
I ended up being cut four more times from Sockeye before I made it, each time being more painful and frustrating; it got to the point that I had to seriously consider my future in the sport after being cut in 2009. I felt strongly then– and still do– that I should have made Sockeye that year. If I didn’t make it then, would I ever? But the siren song of competition called me back, and continuing to play at a high level with friends on Voodoo kept me plugged in. Finally, I made Sockeye in 2010… sort of. They asked me to become a practice player and said that I’d have a chance to eventually make the team, and after some hesitation, positive feedback from a former and current Fish pushed me to accept the offer. A solid performance at Flowerbowl led to a full roster spot that June.
As I look back at the multi-year process that led to me making Sockeye and compare it to a lot of the resources being published today about how to be a better player, I notice a disconnect between how I got better and what young players nowadays are reading. There are new resources popping up every week about how to become stronger, faster, or more mobile, but very little about how to be a better cutter, a more dynamic thrower, or a smarter defender. This isn’t to say they aren’t being published, but rather that they are becoming exceptions to the rule of what a “how to get better” article looks like. Alex Davis recently wrote a great article about making a role for yourself on a team, while Mike Caldwell’s Cutting Tree and Lou Burruss’s Kung-Fu Throwing from back in the day come to mind as examples of the types of media that are most helpful if you are actually trying to get better at ultimate.
If your goal is to make a team that you haven’t been talented enough to make yet and you are spending your offseason doing nothing but lifting and running, you are not doing enough to make that team. To be clear, you should be doing those things. Pretty much the worst thing you can do at a tryout is show up out of shape, and an offseason lifting program will do wonders towards building a strong, athletic base that will help prevent mid-season injuries. But making an elite ultimate team means you need to be good at ultimate, which means sharpening those throwing skills, becoming a smarter and stronger defender, and being a more evasive cutter.
Admittedly, this can be a difficult proposition in the offseason. It’s hard to get 14+ people together to do anything, and even harder to get field space for a big game. Lucky for you, you don’t even need to actually be playing ultimate to get better at these skills. A friend, a disc, and a little motivation is all it takes to become a stronger thrower. Set yourself a goal of throwing X times a week for Z minutes per day and hold yourself to it. This will be easier if you can get a friend to set the same goal.
Non-ultimate disc games are also a fantastic tool you can use to hone your game. Whether it was playing well known games like goaltimate or mini, or more locally known games like Stop the Chump, I got better at ultimate in the offseason by playing competitive games where I was touching a disc as often as possible, having to play smart, heads-up defense, and consistently working to get open in a small space. If these games are happening in your area, put them on your calendar or tell your friends you will play when someone tries to organize a game. If they aren’t, be the one who organizes a game and get your teammates to play.
The offseason is the best time to get better at ultimate. Just don’t forget to throw a disc while you’re doing it.