How Can I Get To The Next Level?

Hustling like a hamster

If you’ve been playing for a few years, whether this is your third season as a club practice player or your eighth season getting buried in pool play at Nationals, you know how frustrating it is to be stuck. You want to advance as a player, you want to be more awesome, and you want to get to that next level. You’re doing everything right and you know it! You run 200s until your eyes throb at track practice, attend group weights classes or hit the machines at the gym to get stronger, throw with your captains, attend every team practice, and even get extra reps at mid-week pickup.

You love this frisbee game, but it’s getting a little frustrating packing so much work and so many workouts into your week just to feel like you’re running in circles. Literal circles on the track, but it actually feels a lot like a hamster wheel: the harder you work and the faster you run, the more tired you become…without actually going anywhere. It feels tempting to back off on those 200s in the last ten meters; the gym feels like a waste of time; everyone hates defensive footwork drills so why do them at all?

person with headache
Get down off that table, kid!

Let’s get this out of the way: you probably are doing everything, just as you’ve been told to do to get better. But “everything” is exactly why you’re not getting better any more. As you advance as an athlete, there comes a time where doing less–MUCH less–is the only way to keep improving. You’ve been fighting, hustling, running, and dragging yourself up a long, steep path that you thought led to the mountaintop of athletic prowess… but really it just led to a clearing full of sort-of pretty flowers, sort-of comfortable grass, and sort-of awesome views. No matter how “hard” you’re working, in one way or another, you’ve become complacent and have hit the much-dreaded training plateau.

Solving your problem: The Socratic Method

At your next training session, imagine you are your body. You can focus on exactly one thing at a time and be awesome or focus on lots of things and be confused. So, rational brain, try to answer your body’s question after that training session: “What am I supposed to improve so this workout is easier next time?”

At the end of your training week, again answer this question for your body: “What am I supposed to improve so all of those workouts are easier next time?”

Perhaps you see the problem with “everything.” If your goal is to run faster but you slogged through five extra 200s, will your body try to improve your speed or improve your pacing? If your goal is to squat more but your Cardio Strength class did 100 bicep curls “to feel the burn!”, will your body try to build up your legs or toughen up your arms? If you ran 200s, worked agility ladders, threw party balls at practice, played low-level pickup, sat out two reps at weekend practice from an ankle tweak, did the machine circuit at the gym, and you really wanted to improve your marking, but … who has the time? … what is your body supposed to improve so all those workouts will be easier next week?

Remember, it can be awesome at one thing or it can be confused by several.

Solving your problem: The Tim Ferriss Method

I might be exaggerating. Your body can probably handle TWO things: one technical, one physical. If you’re ready to level-up as a player, you need to do dramatically less and do it better.

Technical Skills

Pick ONE disc skill–high-release backhand, hips low and hands wide while marking, sharp under cuts, getting the right touch on a disc in a crosswind–and intensify your practice. Let’s assume you want to improve the sharpness of your cut under. Set two cones 3 yards apart, 5 yards from your starting point. From a standing start, sprint at those cones and don’t start to slow down at all until you reach the first one. You have to have completely changed direction before reaching the second cone.

To be clear, that means fitting your entire “slow down–stop & plant–push off” sequence in a 3 yard space with a 5 yard run-up. Keep taking reps until you either slow down noticeably or blow more than two cuts from being unfocused. Repeat that session the next day. The following day, lengthen your run-up to 10 yards. You’ll be moving faster, so making your cut in the same amount of space will be harder.

Repeat every day, adding distance to your run-up until it is impossible to make a turn in 3 yards. Then, take two days off, reset to 5 yards of run-up, but squeeze the cones to 2 yards apart. Repeat the process. This might last three weeks. At the end of it, you will turn better, sharper, and harder. You may not have improved your defensive footwork, but you weren’t doing that anyway! But at every practice, your body will know exactly what it has to improve in order to make that workout easier. (Then, you make it harder anyway, ha!)

Physical Qualities

On the stronger-faster-tougher body side, pick ONE quality to improve. For most players, the essential quality is strength. Real strength. That’s “pick up heavier stuff” strength, not “double the reps” or “feel the burn” strength. And, to be specific, for most female players, that’s two-legged squat or hinge strength–goblet squat, front squat, deadlift, power clean stuff–and for most male players, that’s one-legged squat strength–pistol squat, split squat, box step-up, lunge stuff. Let’s assume you are a female player with little experience using free weights. Begin with a single 20lb dumbbell, held at your chest cradled in both hands. Instead of complicating the goblet squat, just watch this video and do 3 sets of 6. Two days later, use the same dumbbell and do 3 sets of 8. Two days later, use the same dumbbell and do 3 sets of 10. Next time you go to the gym, grab a 25lb dumbbell and start the progression over at 3 sets of 6.

Keep working your way up to 10 reps per set, then dropping the reps and increasing the weight until it takes more than two training sessions to make that progress without crushing yourself every training day. At that point, pick a new squat variation, start light, and work your way up. This process could last three months or more. At the end of it, your legs will be much stronger and you’ll notice that on the field. You may not have spent much time at the gym, but most ultimate players I’ve met are okay with that!

How much more is 1 than 0?

An Olympic-level coach in weightlifting said, “an elite athlete is simply one who improves every year for 8-10 years in a row.” What he didn’t say explicitly is that an elite athlete contents himself with 1-2% gains every year after passing the beginner level. Check these numbers:

For a weightlifter squatting 600 pounds, that means improving their squat–without obvious struggle during the lift–to 606 lb or 612 lb is a great year! That’s strength work; they have to keep working on their sport skills, of course.

For a sprinter running 10.1 seconds in the 100m, that means consistently running 9.9-10.0 seconds after a year of training is great progress! That’s sport skill improvement; they have to keep increasing strength levels, too.

usain bolt 200m from starting blocks

I get it. You’re not Olympic-level yet. You want MORE progress than this for your year of training. But I have a little math question: by what percentage have you improved if you gain 1% this year over your 0% gain last year?

Let me help: 1 divided by 0.

That’s “infinity percent” improvement.

If you’ve been stuck at the same level for years, wouldn’t even a tiny gain be worth the time and emotional energy you’ve invested? You were working so hard to go nowhere at all. Instead, you can work just as hard on fewer things and actually get better! That’s liberating, in my opinion.

The fear of sliding backward is real. If the only skill you work on is sharp cuts and the only strength training you do is squatting, what about getting more layout Ds, having the endurance to kill game 5 and game 6 and game 7 of the weekend, building 6-pack abs, growing your guns so those beach-weekend tanks look better on you, and cutting down bulls like Mas Oyama?

Remember: “what must improve in order to make that workout easier?” Your body wants to focus, wants to improve one quality, and wants to put that training in the bank. The best news for you: if your leg strength improves and you hustle to improve one disc skill and you play even one time a week, not only will all the skills you’ve already built up stay in place, some unrelated skills will improve. Think about it: you’re not exhausted, you’re better able to concentrate when you practice, and you’re pouring energy into being stronger and thinking more about your disc skills. Everything gets better under those conditions.

How to get to the next level

Frequently when someone is frustrated with their lack of progress, coaches say “play the long game.” Often that means, “ha ha ha, I don’t know just keep working at it; sucks to suck!” When I say “play the long game,” I mean take your 1% or 2% or 5% gains on a technical skill and a physical quality, get absolutely all you can from those focuses, then move on to a new technical skill and a new physical quality. When your cut under is as good as you can make it and when your squat is stalled, move on to mastering a critical break-mark throw and improving your 40yd sprint. When you own that throw and are as fast as you can become this year, move on to increasing your speed endurance and owning 5-rep sets of pullups.

If you are simultaneously patient with the big picture and relentlessly demanding in particular skills, you will get better. In fact, you will make some tiny bit of progress every day, every week, and every month of training. You will be doing less “stuff”, less “work”, considerably less than “everything”…and yet, you will improve at everything.

How good could you be next month if you just focus on one skill and one quality? How good could you be next year?

With all that momentum, you might even work up the moxie to practice your defensive footwork! I bet the hamsters can’t say that.


ATX Speed and Strength offers custom training programs for Ultimate players around the world, with plans for individuals and whole teams. Contact Coach Dunte today to discuss the kind of player you want to become and the type of team you want to lead!

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