Friday, March 14, 2014

Mario’s thoughts on how non-US teams can close the international gap, plus THE MENTAL GAME!

by RISE UP Ultimate

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 4.34.02 AM

Ultiworld posted an interesting article, and Mario shared his insights based on his wide variety of international playing and coaching experience. Read below for his thoughts, or click here to view the original post and discussion. 

The Gap

A bit of context to shed light on why I feel like I have an educated opinion on this topic.

I just finished the first edition of the RISE UP World Tour, an 8 week tour where I led trainings and clinics for top players and coaches in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and Minnesota. Alex Snyder joined me in Australia and New Zealand. I’ll also be leading trainings in South Korea this May. I play for Sockeye, a top program in the US with a rich history in the past decade of elite level play, as well as sending coaches around the world to share what they know. I’ve been on teams that have played and won international tournaments including Paganello, Windmill Windup, and the Pan American Ultimate Championships. I commentated and did analysis for NGN at the 2012 world games, 2012 USAU college championships, and for Ultivillage at the 2012 Junior Worlds. All of this means I’ve had a pretty intimate experience with the international community, as well as with the top level of ultimate in the US. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

Also, as a heads up, I’m much more familiar with the men’s game than women’s, so my apologies up front for the overuse of male examples.

Why the US is ahead, and getting farther ahead…

Talent/athlete resources. In the US, sport is a HUGE part of growing up for the typical middle class family. From age 7-18 kids play sports, and not just one, usually multiple. By the time kids are 18, the best of the best have risen to be the top athletes in their high school. And I’m not talking about ultimate, just about great athletes that understand how to win at sports, because they had COACHES who knew how to train them to win at sports. What am I getting at here? Will Driscoll, Tyler Degirolamo, Dan Heijman. What do all 3 of these guys have in common? None of them played ultimate before they were in college (I’m pretty sure), all of them are elite players in the current game, and all of them were phenomenal high school athletes relative to their peers. Another similar example, Alex Snyder, one of the most decorated ultimate players (male or female) of all time, was a fantastic high school basketball player AND was learning ultimate at the same time. After she decided she didn’t want to pursue college hoops, she moved forward with ultimate. The point is, the US draws top athletes who’ve moved from their previous passion to a new passion, which sometimes ends up being ultimate. Get them in a good ultimate system with a good coach and they’re on their way to the elite level, pushing the boundaries of the sport. I don’t know if this type of youth sports culture exists as much in other countries, but so far I haven’t heard or seen many top athletes converting to ultimate from anywhere outside the US.

Purebreds. Stubbs. Freechild. Mickle. Janin. Leila and Dylan Tunnel. Darch. Chicken. Lindsley. Roth. All started playing ultimate at a very young age AND are all phenomenal athletes. If they wouldn’t have played ultimate, they could have excelled at another sport in high school. Also of note, 7 of the people I mentioned went to COACH Baccarini’s powerhouse, Paidea High School. Tiina Booth may be one of the best mental game coaches at the youth level (and probably any level if she had the time), but Baccarini is consistently putting out the most players who excel at the highest level of the sport. A few more names… Harkness. Castine. Kanner. Montague. Sparling-Beckley. Hibbert. Pottinger. Purebreds.

COACHES. The actual gameplay of ultimate is evolving extremely quickly even at the top level. I’ve often talked with players who won US club championships in the early 2000s. They say the game is totally different, faster, more athletic, more skilled, and more strategic. I’ve watched film from back then, and I agree. Currently, the best ultimate in the world is being played in the US by the top club teams. Key members of these teams are now starting to put that knowledge back into their communities as coaches at the elite club and college level. Gesqhuire. Payne. Wiggins. McCarthy. Snyder. What this means is that people who understand the current top level of the game are now putting more effort into just developing players and strategies. The best are getting better, and this is trickling down everywhere in the US.

Quick note on Japan, it’s not an accident that they all look, play, and throw the same way. They were coached to be that way, we should learn from them.

So what’s the key element to all this? How can the world close the gap? 2 things: infrastructure and coaching.

Infrastructure. The youth need a place to play. They need leagues. They need university teams. This starts with the governing bodies and federations, which need to do the leg work and create the opportunities for people to play. This is no easy task, and it will require a ton of thankless admin work, committees, and the sweat of hundreds of volunteers. Then, if you have all these teams and new players, you’re going to need coaches.

Coaches. Some of the other experts mentioned things like growing the base, developing depth, and improving at the fundamentals. Great coaches do all 3. Countries need to create incentives (i.e. pay them, or at least cover all of their costs) for their top talent to keep giving back to the community after they get done playing, otherwise they lose the years of experience and knowledge. Grow the base says Jolian and Lou and Cara? You can have all the youth players you want, but if no one is telling them the right things to do, the community won’t improve its playing level. I’ve seen this firsthand, a ton of players who like to play, but aren’t getting better because there’s no one with top level knowledge coaching them. Want more depth on a national team says Bart? That requires good coaching. Getting better at fundamentals says Wiggins? Coaching.

If you were wondering, these are 2 key areas of focus (infrastructure and coaching) for USA Ultimate as well, and they’re already in the implementation phase of their plan, meaning the world is getting that much more behind.

But fear not! You can do this! You CAN do this! We can do this!

The key question the ultimate community should be asking is “If my country doesn’t have strong leadership or elite players, how will they ever get the knowledge of the top teams in the world and then share it?” A few ideas here. 1. Send your best players to the US and get them experience playing with the best. Huge cost, I know, but it will be worth it. 2. Swallow your pride and ask for help from a US team. Sockeye sends players around the world to coach. So does RISE UP. Without Limits is also an awesome resource. 3. Shameless plug, RISE UP. The best tactics, strategy, and skill training from the game’s top minds are being documented and presented in an engaging way that makes it easy to apply it to your own team. We’re trying to be the model of excellence in ultimate education. Brummie mentioned a standardized curriculum of some sort, and we’re trying to create just that.

So, all that said, based on my experience, who’s on the rise on the international scene?

1. Germany. Brought in Wiggins to the national teams a couple years ago. Sent Phillip Haase to Nexgen and Truck Stop. Brought in Tim Morrill recently. Result = Bad Skid is getting really good and the results are showing.

2. New Zealand. They’ve got the right people in the right places doing the right things. They brought in me and Alex Snyder to train their coaches and work with their top club teams. They have a high school athletic director in Auckland who’s created a 5v5 high school ultimate league that’s exploding, as many girls teams as boys. 5v5…..?! THIS IS GENIUS. From a development standpoint, the best thing for growth as a player is more reps and time on task, at any level especially youth. 5v5 means more catches, throws, marks, and opportunities to defend than 7v7. This makes too much sense to ignore, in fact I hope USAU considers this and moves towards less players on the field for younger ages, especially for middle and high school. 5v5 means you need less players to make an actual team, which is a small step towards solving the “we don’t have enough players to make a team” problem. Also, with smaller fields, you don’t need as much field space! Brilliant. One more thing, they have Aaron Neal, who played Nexgen, U23, and GOAT this past summer.

3. Russia. Their investment in bringing in Sockeye and elite club coaches since WUCC in 2012 has had enormous impact on their development, especially with their women. Kate Barabanova has done an amazing job organizing and facilitating these experiences for Russian Ultimate.

4. Colombia. Again, Sockeye coaching influence, good people doing the right things (Mauricio!), and an infectious team culture means this team is on its way up.

If you’re an international team looking to bring in top coaches, RISE UP is trying to lead the way. We love what we do, and we want to help. Email us at


The Mental Game

Hey Liam, Rio here, quick thought about your “mental game” reflection.

At RISE UP events in the past year, I’ve talked with lots of people who ask about the mental game of ultimate. My perception is that people think the mental game of ultimate is a series of quick tips or thoughts or clever strategies or tricks like visualization or phrases like “one break at a time”. These things are part of it, but are the surface level of the big picture.

My idea of “the mental game of anything”, from sport to work to teaching to relationships, comes down to how you train and prepare for both success and adversity. It happens in practice, way before you get to a game. It happens when you push your teammates to their limits while also supporting them. At practice. This prepares them for adversity, and sets them up for success. It happens when your captains or coach remind you to stay in the moment and control what you can control, because all that matters is the point in front of you, which is just a connected series of patterns and situations that you’ve been trained to solve with specific skills and strategies. At Practice.

The mental game of a team in a game will usually be just a reflection of their preparation. What this should tell you about Sockeye and all elite teams is that we LOVE to practice, we love to prepare, and we love the grind, the process, and everything associated with it. We know that this mentality and the actions that go with it are what will give us an opportunity to win. We love winning. We hate losing. We know we’ve done the work and THAT is what gives us confidence. We trust our leaders to guide us. We buy in.

The desire to improve, work, and win and the follow through of intentional actions toward those ends are what separate elite players (and highly effective people at anything) from the rest.

Those are some of the keys to mental game, in my opinion.

  • carlosdavis

    I understand why you put his comments in italics, but such makes the text far, far less readable and caused me to abandon it about halfway through. Thank you, regardless, for the great content you produce.