Step Change or Incremental Progress: How These Players Reached The Top

Oct 16, 2018

With Club Nationals coming up this weekend and the off-season beginning for most teams, I've been thinking about what separates elite players from the tier below. I decided to ask a few Nationals-level players some questions to learn more about their journey to the top.

words that are hdden


Alex Davis

Vancouver Furious George

Was there a specific moment when you decided to take your game from average to great? Or was it simply a matter of steady commitment and progress over time?

In 2007, I had just moved to Vancouver, and I was at something of a crossroads. At that time, I had been playing competitive ultimate for nearly four years, and through a combination of hard work and good luck, I had won the Canadian university championships a couple of times, and I was among the first Canadian men to play at the then-UPA college championships.  But I wasn't elite - not even close. And there in Vancouver, I was living in Canada's ultimate capital, home to the Women's, Mixed, and Open national teams.  In this town, I wouldn't be able to coast; to reach the next level, to crack into a major roster in club ultimate, I knew I would have to dedicate myself to the craft, and that it would take literally years (if at all).  And that wasn't an automatic decision, because Vancouver has a lot to offer in the way of sports.  It might as well be Canada's playground, given the variety of choice.  I was thinking about getting into cross-country skiing again, not to mention trail-running and rock-climbing.  I would go running up into the coastal mountains with my backpack and log big elevation gains.  And of course, none of these options were especially compatible with the kind of physical conditioning I needed for ultimate.  I was really looking at one or the other: what did I want to be competitive in?

So yes, for me, pursuing the world stage was a conscious choice.  I made the decision, and I deliberately sacrificed my other competitive and recreational interests to be the best I could be at ultimate.

What piece of advice would you give to players who feel they’ve plateaued or haven’t figured out how to break through from regionals to nationals caliber player?

My advice is to think strategically.  Make an honest assessment of where you are, what you have, and what you might be able to develop.  Get expert opinions; consult strength and conditioning experts, and some top players with similar body types.  Then figure out what you would have to change about yourself to make yourself useful in an elite-level role (and be specific about what that role is and what skills it will require).  You may need to make sacrifices (as I did) to make that possible.  Then you have to decide if you want it enough to make those sacrifices and dedicate yourself to changing your body, thinking, and skills to that end.  And be honest with yourself; can you do all that and enjoy it, knowing that there is always a risk that it still doesn't work out?  If you can choose a specific target, one that is best tailored to your abilities, and willingly dedicate yourself to its relentless pursuit, knowing full well that you may still miss on your best day, then you've already got the mental game you need to succeed.

Name one person who helped you along the way. What was their role? Mentor, training partner, coach, emotional support?

My girlfriend at the time, who heard out my thinking over dinner one day, and decided she wanted to aim for the top too. She later became my wife.


Kristin Franke

DC Scandal

Was there a specific moment when you decided to take your game from average to great? Or was it simply a matter of steady commitment and progress over time?

I grew up doing individual sports (swimming, gymnastics, running, etc), and so my own training bent was always toward individual improvement, even once I started Ultimate. I started playing competitively in Hong Kong, so when I moved back to the US, I knew I wanted to take a stab at elite women’s ultimate. I met a Scandal player who encouraged me to tryout, and I figured, “Why not? What do I have to lose?” If anything, that’s the moment that took my game from average to great. I was surrounded by teammates and competitors who were pushing me to play my best and keep on improving.

What piece of advice would you give to players who feel they’ve plateaued or haven’t figured out how to break through from regionals to nationals caliber player?

If you’ve been trying out for new teams, and not making it, then reach out and ask! Most leaders of teams are happy to give feedback about what you can be working on for the next round of tryouts. Then, set a goal, make a plan, and use your offseason to work on it!

Name one person who helped you along the way. What was their role? Mentor, training partner, coach, emotional support?

In 2008, about two years into playing, I met Sandy Hartwiger (former Ring of Fire, current Boneyard player) when he moved to Hong Kong for a year. I’d barely been playing, but he helped me start thinking strategically about the game, giving me tips and introducing me to “The Huddle” website. When I first tried out for Scandal, he was my cheerleader from afar, giving me moral support, and a voice of elite experience, through tryouts, my first season, and the years since.


Raha Mozaffari

Philadelphia AMP

Was there a specific moment when you decided to take your game from average to great? Or was it simply a matter of steady commitment and progress over time?

Steady commitment, though focused by opportunities for sure - each club season, national team tryouts, the standards and encouragement of my teammates. Important for me was playing at a high level at a young age. I was encouraged by a college teammate to come out for club after my sophomore year. Playing club, and then competing nationally gave me references and exposure to the top players - that experience helped me improve and establish goals for how I wanted to have an impact. Getting to tryout for national teams, starting with the World Games in 2009, helped raise my expectations for myself too.

What piece of advice would you give to players who feel they’ve plateaued or haven’t figured out how to break through from regionals to nationals caliber player?

The best advice I have is to surround yourself with better players who have had multiple years of high-level experience. Most people are visual learners, so simply observing good habits from elite players and then practicing them will make a big difference. There are a lot of technical aspects in ultimate including running and throwing forms, strength and conditioning routines, agility, etc that can all be practiced. The more difficult aspects to learn are the on-field strategic plays and overall field awareness; thus asking questions like “why” more so than “how” will help hone those on-field quick decisions that are important in improving your game. Watching film is also another great way to learn on-field habits and good play, especially from those that are not necessarily involved in the plays - watching how they create space for their teammates, for example.

A personal example I have is with Nicky Spiva. Now that I have had a whole season to play with him, I really tried to hone in areas that he really excels in and try to emulate his good habits: for example, one on one defending technique and footwork, breakmark throwing technique and sideline talk. I’ve never had anyone talk to me on the sideline as well as Nicky does.

Another example is Carolyn Normile. I just love watching her move around the field. I try to match up against her at practice so I can pick up on some nice habits she has throwing and cutting.

Name one person who helped you along the way. What was their role? Mentor, training partner, coach, emotional support?

My husband Patrick, who has been my teammate/captain/coach throughout the last 13 years on AMP, has always been my inspiration, mentor and emotional support. Ultimate is what brought us together and our relationship has continued to grow stronger because of it. He has the highest of expectations from me on the field, which can be hard at times, but it also pushes me to continue to get stronger every day.


 Nicky Spiva

Philadelphia AMP

Was there a specific moment when you decided to take your game from average to great? Or was it simply a matter of steady commitment and progress over time?

There was no specific moment when I decided to elevate my game. Definitely has been incremental progress over time. 

What piece of advice would you give to players who feel they’ve plateaued or haven’t figured out how to break through from regionals to nationals caliber player?

I think I would ask them why they have reached a plateau and what is/are the factors holding them back? Is it fitness, injuries, throws, spacing, defense, personality, etc.? I also think it's a bit tricky the nomenclature of regionals level player v. nationals level player - I think there are likely a lot of folks out there on teams that will never or very rarely make nationals who are national caliber players that just don't make or have a team that consistently performs at a nationals level - personally thinking of guys and gals in New Orleans, Birmingham, Huntsville, Chattanooga, Nashville - if you aren't traveling to the bigger markets, often times you will just be on a regionals level team, but you may be someone who could quickly contribute on a nationals level team. 

Name one person who helped you along the way. What was their role? Mentor, training partner, coach, emotional support?

Dylan Tunnell convinced me to play Chain and really helped me transition from college to elite club. Kevin Minderhout as well - putting me on the NexGen tour really helped me develop my game and learn from some other excellent young players.


Octavia "Opi" Payne

San Francisco Fury

Was there a specific moment when you decided to take your game from average to great? Or was it simply a matter of steady commitment and progress over time?

It was a mixture of both. When I was first starting to play club, I had the opportunity to play with either a relatively low-commitment, low-practice team or play with a team that I would get to practice with every weekend. I decided as a new player, I wanted to get more reps and spend as much time learning from experienced players as possible. Beyond that, it's just been a series of steady, small decisions to do something to improve my game. Whether that's grabbing 15 minutes with a friend to throw, watching film, or what have you. The cliche that there are no shortcuts is a cliche for a reason.

What piece of advice would you give to players who feel they’ve plateaued or haven’t figured out how to break through from regionals to nationals caliber player?

Don't give up. Everyone hits walls at some point (or multiple points!) in their playing career. Sometimes it's as easy as powering through it, but sometimes you just need to step away from whatever thing you're trying to improve and focus on a different part of your game. It's like writer's block. Don't just keep pounding away at the keyboard; go read a book, go watch a movie, go for a walk, do something to take your mind off of the task at hand so your brain can come back to it fresh and with a new perspective. With ultimate, maybe take a week off, play some different sport, spend time with an unrelated hobby. Just be deliberate about stepping away physically and/or mentally so you can recharge and reset.

Name one person who helped you along the way. What was their role? Mentor, training partner, coach, emotional support?

This is an impossible question. I've been really lucky to have people support and guide me through my development as a player, starting from my college captains, teammates and coach to my teammates, friends and coach now. I guess the common theme among them is that they've always opened my eyes to new levels of the game that I hadn't known before and gave me a higher goal to aspire to - whether through their own play or through them teaching me new strategies and new ways to think about the game.

In order, photos courtesy of Sandy Canetti with Ultiphotos, Kristin Franke, Raha Mozaffari, Alex Davis, and Christina Schmidt with Ultiphotos.

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