Bert Cherry – March 22, 2022
Coming back into playing team sports after a hiatus for the pandemic, I’ve noticed an area of training that’s easy to overlook when spending more time working out alone than playing with others. Team sports like ultimate require understanding of where you are in relation to other players. This skillset uses visual, auditory, and touch cues, and these are things we can and should develop! Being able to check over your shoulder quickly and process that information is something your brain needs reps at, just like throwing a certain throw or changing direction. If we’re spending a lot of time alone getting faster, it’s our responsibility to each other to be able to manage that speed in-game! Training these systems will help increase your sport performance, but more importantly, help you avoid causing dangerous plays.
Here’s a rather humble-looking play from the Western Ultimate League that showcases these skills on defense, at three-quarter speed:
This shows the initiating play after a centering pass. You can see the full context in the game footage online. Steph Lim starts out in the middle of the field and accelerates toward the receiver. The offender, Kody Lippincott, turns back toward the throw as Steph gets closer. This leaves Steph a short moment to change her path in order to avoid a collision, which is both her responsibility and through effective practice, in her capabilities. Rather than continue the line to try and get a block that’s now occupied by Kody, Steph drops to the ground, hops up, and sets a mark.
In this sequence, Kody notices Steph likely through hearing the sound of footsteps and potentially through peripheral vision, processes that information, and responds by stepping forward. Steph sees the adjustment in Kody’s path, processes that information, and responds by moving toward the outside line and dropping to the ground instead of pushing off and laying out, which could have happened in an alternate universe where Kody doesn’t attack the disc.
When a lot of our time is spent playing various pickup games and practices, we have more opportunities to refine these skills. When we spend chunks of time just working on our own or in really small groups due, it’s more difficult to get the skill practice of sense-process-respond. It’s not impossible, though, and a worthwhile skill to refine with dedicated practice, even if you’re playing lots!
A progression I like to follow in field workouts is working on the physical skills alone, then layering in one sensory system at a time to practice each in turn, then work on multiple senses at once in a high-reps situation.
Let’s use our example from Steph’s play in the WUL, defensive movement, to trace through this progression.
I see a few skills that Steph uses to attempt the defensive bid, pull up, and recover.
We can train these skills in field workouts by:
The biggest sensory input here is visual. We can train the visual system in similar contexts, or in more removed contexts to build patterns in the brain for seeing and responding to stimuli. Let’s be clear here – I’m not advocating to practice dropping to your knees to avoid a training partner over and over again. That sounds pretty rough!
To practice responding to a visual cue for accelerating vs decelerating, you can face a partner and play a game of visual red light – green light. Arms up means go, arms down means slow down/stop.
To practice responding to the offender accelerating in different directions, you can stand in front of your partner. They lunge (or run!) to one side, and you sprint in that direction.
To practice multi-directional acceleration and deceleration, you could play a game of “follow the leader” with a partner. When playing as the follower, keep enough distance that you have room to slow down without running into the leader!
These are simplest to plan when you have at least one partner working with you, but I’ve used random people doing other things at a field as my visual cues, like starting my sprint when that kid kicks a soccer ball. Think about how you could practice auditory or touch cues for these drills instead of visual!
Some aspects of play require processing multiple senses at once, or in a repeated fashion. Think about looking up for a disc while finding your matchup with your body (gently) so you know where your space is to go up and try to grab it! We practice this integration of visual and touch sense systems with 1v1 sky balls.
In our example here, playing reps of win the box or another 1v1 defense drill would help train responses to the visual and touch senses of playing defense, as well as the visual and auditory senses of seeing the disc and hearing an up call from teammates. You get a lot of really specific practice at putting all these skills together, and just need three people! If you’ve only got two, you can play “win the box” for about 10 seconds instead and still get to work on integrating two senses.
The Next Level for Practices
I love bringing forward these themes in team practices, and building drill progressions around these ideas. What we’ve covered so far are elements we feature in our field workouts for ultimate wherever we’re able, as so many of these foundational skills can be built as individuals or in very small groups.
As a final layer, if you’re planning a practice around defensive positioning and footwork, think about ways you can drive scrimmage time to reinforce the work you’ve done in drills (the dream!). In this case, you could focus on everyone looking for examples of a defender pulling up when they could have gone for an unsafe play instead. Encourage cheering for that non-play! At the end of the scrimmage, you can huddle everyone up to shout out the people who pulled up, and maybe even have a special little prize ready for those folks, like a piece of candy or a fun sticker.
As we train, we all have a responsibility for the safety of ourselves and others. At Strive & Uplift, we think deliberately about how to include these concepts in our field workouts. We want to make sure that our programming sets folks up to get faster and more explosive, but also manage that speed safely! These are some of the most important skills we can develop, so let’s put in the work, friends!