Photos clockwise from top left by Ken Forman for UltiPhotos, Jolie J Lang for UltiPhotos, Danny Clark, Kevin Leclaire for UltiPhotos, and Nina Buenaflor.
Identifying your strengths and weaknesses is a key part of improving as an athlete. While last month, we asked our panel of elite players and coaches about how they've worked on their strengths, this time around, we're considering weaknesses. We reached out and asked, "What weaknesses in your game have you overcome?"
Read on for tips on adapting your throws, becoming an all-rounder, shutdown defense, and more!
Of course, there have been countless weaknesses in my game that I have worked on over the years, and I would also argue that all elements of my game are ongoing projects...Still, I can identify one of the more salient examples where I targeted an issue and was able to perceive the results in real time: learning how to throw for the situation rather than for myself. A lot of my early development as a thrower was focused on the aesthetics of throws, or the effectiveness of throws in isolation. I would often think: what is the smoothest, or freshest, or most powerful throw I can produce right now? Or what throw can I bring out that can reach the most inaccessible point on the field? I focused on amassing a large arsenal of throws and would often lean into using the one that felt most impressive at a given time. This was actually less about pride and more about misunderstanding the purpose of a thrower's role on the field. For many years, I thought throwing well was about staying ahead of the curve. Often, it paid off, but it's no secret that blindly bold choices can lead to turnovers if the system and the communication aren't there.
I remember playing with Scandal at Chesapeake Open, I think it was in 2013, and coach Alex "Dutchy" Ghesquiere told me to stop throwing bladey hucks. "Flatten all your hucks out," he told me. "We'll score more points." I was throwing these giant blades on purpose. I felt confident that I could put them anywhere. But they were sharp and precise, and not leaving any margin for error. I was annoyed, but I acquiesced...and instantly had the most efficient game of my career. Sitting my hucks out in space gave my speedy receivers opportunity to run them down. I started saving my blades for more precise situations. I saw it was my paramount responsibility to make my throws catchable.
A couple years later, talking with my friend Markham Shofner about receiver windows, this seed of understanding blossomed a little more. Some cutters are short, some cutters are tall. Some cutters have soft hands, some don't. Some cutters have lightning quick reflexes, some have big reaches, some move so fast they have trouble changing angles on a dime. The best thrower is the one that can hit all of them. Every new cutter is a challenge in throwing adjustment and I simply love to embrace that challenge.
When I started playing ultimate, I was in college. I was a three sport varsity athlete, including track and cross country. I could run for days, and I was generally one of the fastest people on the field (when playing against women... which didn't actually happen much in college, since I played on the open team). So, when I did start playing women's club my senior year, it was refreshing to play only against women, and I felt like my speed advantage was why I made the team. In fact, I distinctly remember the captain of the team at the time coming up to me and telling me that I made the team but that my role was "to go down field and catch goals, and if I caught it and wasn't in the end-zone, [I needed to] dump it directly back to a handler." Because of this, I spent the first few years on Scandal as someone who was just used for my speed, and actually couldn't throw very well. I knew this was a weakness in my game, and so I took the opportunities afforded to me outside of the club setting (leagues, fun tournaments, beach, etc.) to slot myself in as a handler so I could work on my throws. I also spent many hours throwing with teammates and friends outside of practices to simply get in the repetitions and create the muscle memory needed to consistently deliver throws how I wanted them.
What I would say is that this transition happened slowly. I slowly became a more reliable thrower, and as I've aged, I've actually transitioned into a true hybrid where I handle as much as I cut. I still have off days, where my throws aren't exactly how I want them, and on those days, I quickly just push myself down field and go back to my comfort zone of scoring goals. However, it took years and a lot of practice and time outside of club practices to get truly comfortable with the disc in my hand.
I also want to give a quick shout out to Bob Liu, who gave me a one on one throwing clinic that totally changed the way I viewed throwing and how to develop as a thrower. It was something he was gracious enough to do again for the team I coach (Grit), and I have used some of his techniques as building blocks for drills, as well as adopted his methods for teaching others how to practice throwing more effectively.
The biggest weakness in my game has always been my throwing ability, and it's one that opponents frequently tried to exploit. Combined with being a pretty good deep cutter, throughout my career, teams were more than willing to sit a couple yards behind me and force me under. While I've spent a lot of time working on improving my throws, I long ago accepted the fact that I would never be an elite thrower.
To take advantage of my skills as a cutter and minimize my biggest weakness, I worked to do two things as a thrower:
I never overcame the weakness of my throwing ability during my playing career. While my throws were passable, they were never good enough to even put me in the top half of most teams I ever played on. With the development of one throw that I knew I could get off in nearly any situation against nearly any mark, and moving the disc before the defense was ready for it, I found I could minimize the impact of this weakness.
I think one of the biggest changes that I made to my game was around my positioning on defense and effectively not being scared of being beaten deep or getting scored on. Early in my playing career, the general message as a defender was to avoid being scored on and too often I see players content to stand deep of the cutter they are marking and just give them the unders.
Back in 2011 when I first started playing with a different coach, Sion Scone, he started telling me to push anyone I was marking deep. At first I would resist—"why would I let anyone beat me deep?", "what if I get scored on?" I remember saying. I (reluctantly) did as I was told and that next point got a block on a great deep receiver on a slightly underthrown deep shot. Traditionally I had always pushed him under out of fear of being “beaten deep”.
What I realised quite quickly was that by standing deep of my mark and letting them eat up easy yards under, I really was not doing a great job for my teammates. When playing defense you aren’t only marking your cutter, you also have to consider who is on the disc. If you have a thrower you know has not completed a good deep shot yet, why should you let your cutter towards the disc? Even the best cutters in the world would struggle to get open on a team of non-throwers, so why not use that to your advantage?
The same principle applies for standing too far onto the open side when near the endzone and allowing space for an easy break throw into space. Even though you are doing your job of not being beaten open side, you are not truly helping your team by giving the cutter and thrower another relatively easy option.
If you wanted to give this a go, test your limits in games that don’t matter as much, perhaps at training or summer league. Set yourself a goal of not being beaten under all game. It will feel scary at first and yes, you probably will get beat deep a few times, but I also think you will play better shut-down defense for the majority of the points you play.
Obviously there are things you can do to help this strategy work: gym sessions, track workouts, footwork drills, body positioning, watching your opponents’ best cutters and throwers, and then practice practice and more practice!
But the first big step for a lot of players is to no longer fear being roasted deep. It happens to everyone!
I was fortunate enough to have had an athletic background, being part of the athletics varsity for 13 years, before I tried ultimate. Fortunate, I say, because at that time when I started, girls were not really utilized on the field. Most of the time, girls were simply asked to stand in the endzone and wait for their guy teammates to pass them the disc, and if ever they got the disc outside the endzone, a dump was automatic. That worked for me since my speed and quickness allowed me to score.
I started out on the D line, so basically, all I was told to do was to (1) not to let my girl get the disc, (2) and on a turnover, run to the endzone and (3) catch the disc. I had a job and I did it well. This got me a spot in the national team training pool just 6 months after I started playing. Things then started to change. I wasn’t feeling “okay” anymore. Playing with and against more experienced and better players really highlighted my areas for improvement. Running and catching wasn’t enough. I had to throw.
At that time, in the Philippines, a backhand was considered the easy throw as opposed to a forehand. Given this, defense always chose to force forehand. Again, that worked for me since I was a lefty. It was backhand for me all day. Yes, it helped me then, but in the long run, it made me limited. I never got to really work on my forehand. I knew I had a terrible forehand but I didn’t care since I rarely got to use it. Boy, but those times I had to use it, disaster. Other teams started to notice this too. It came to a point wherein our opponents would force our whole team backhand just to have me throw a forehand. I didn’t want to be a liability, so I knew I had to do something.
Playing in a team sport, I knew I first had to have everyone in the team know what I wanted to work on. I did extra throwing outside training days, as well as before and after training. I did more throws with a mark to simulate the pressure defense brings during actual games. Besides doing additional throws, I also requested to be one of the handlers during smaller tournaments to get more reps and more pressure on my throws. Of course, I had some bad throws here and there, but I saw myself improving, and that kept me going. It really helped also that the whole team was very supportive.
Today, I may not be known to have a killer forehand, but I can now say that I’m a better player, a more complete one. My goal is to be a better player by maximizing my strengths and at the same time, minimizing my weaknesses. I always keep in mind that, when trying to achieve something, it isn’t just about hard work. It’s also about being aware of your current reality, being humble enough to accept it, having the courage to go out of your comfort zone to face the challenges, and maintaining positivity all throughout the whole journey. I am a work in progress. We all are.. and that’s such an exciting thought.
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