July 9, 2015 by Simon Pollock in Preview with 1 comments
Sunrise in Chicago tomorrow morning is set for 5:29am, but as day breaks in the Windy City, Team USA will already be in the air. Three teams-worth of young players are headed to London to represent the United States at the 2015 Under-23 Worlds.
Each team is billed as a heavy favorite in their division and rightly so –nearly every one of the 75+ players steps onto the field for Team USA with nationals-level experience in the college division, most have seen Frisco in club, and one of them has won both.1 While many opponents deserve recognition in their own right, no other country will boast a set of athletes already so experienced by the age of 23 years old, the level of competition just isn’t that high yet.
The real feat, however, won’t necessarily be meeting the high expectations set by USA Ultimate (all teams are expected to win gold); it’ll be successfully rolling all that high-octane talent into cohesive teams that can stick to game plans, grind on defense, and use their depth to advantage.
That task will be the most difficult for the mixed team. Talent and achievements aside, very few of them have played high level coed ultimate. The transition can be sudden and a little awkward, especially with the weighty outcome goals placed squarely on their shoulders by the national governing body. Of course many of these players will need to adjust from being one of a few go-to stars on a college team to playing with equivalent talent elsewhere on the field, but there are more nuanced adjustments to be made as well.
“One of the things that is challenging for these players coming off of a college season is gauging players’ speeds. The range of speeds on a mixed team is in general wider than on an open or women’s team,” explained U23 Mixed head coach Martin Aguilera. 2015 marks his second tour as the coach of this team and Aguilera, who got his start at Paideia High School in 1992, is a keen observer and well-traveled ultimate lifer with over a decade of coaching experience. A razor sharp intellect informs his breakdown of ultimate strategy2, and many years as a player inform his sensitivities and allow him to identify the best places to focus his training camps.
While the adjustments for speed and talent certainly happen for the other two squads, Aguilera pointed out that because of the spectrum for speed, his team would need to pay close attention on the field. “People have to adjust to space issues…like how space opens up tends to be a little different, just because of pacing and speed of the individual player,” he noted.
It takes a heightened awareness and emotional intelligence to pull oneself out of the instinct-driven action the on the field, what is often called a high “ultimate IQ.”
Coaches and players across all sports often draw the distinction between those who are so possessed by natural talent they rarely need more than their instincts to find success on the field, and those who seem to have a drive to process their in-game experience and have the ability to recognize key moments during the hubbub of play. The latter defines athletes as students of their game, not just willing participants.
Aguilera and his staff have structured training camp for the mixed team to put the team in situations where they’re forced to process, throw across genders, and essentially work together to build their own strategy and flow–in short, if a player didn’t already think about his or her decision-making before, it’ll be front and center when the tires touch down in London. At this level, Aguilera believes the players have enough experience and IQ to weave their own system together, with some guidance. “A lot of times [the players] are able to figure it out. What I try to do is guide them to get to these ‘figuring out places’ a little bit faster –give them some prompts to think about, give them some baseline structure to start with,” he told Ultiworld.
For four days, the team has been working on just that, focusing deeply on the inclusion of each other on and off the field. While the team has likely adjusted to allow some of the familiar faces find their spots easily–Callahan-winning flick hucks from Jonathan Nethercutt, highlight-reel catches from Lisa Pitcaithley, and more–the process should yield some excellent sharing of responsibility and recognition between players of their strengths and weaknesses.
Already in this short week, the connections have begun to grow, and the improvement is showing.
“Our first scrimmage on the first morning of training camp, we had seven turnovers in the first point, five of which were hucks. In the second point we had five turnovers, so we had already gotten better in that second point, but every single point we’re getting better and better,” said Qxhna Titcomb after the team finished a 10-10 scrimmage with a coed team made up of Chicago Machine and Nemesis players last night.
The team is focused on having fun throughout the experience and choosing mindfully to embrace playing mixed ultimate, which few players on the team have done at this level before. As Aguilera intended, the team has relied on its smarts to blend their playing styles, and focused on learning more about each other and recognizing themselves on the field.
“We haven’t focused so much on plays and sets,” said Titcomb. “We’ve been working on throwing to the different gender and doing silly games that have us thinking more about that. It translated on the field [last night].”
Spirit is high on the team’s list of goals as well, and the commitment to making this tournament a fun one for the entire squad should play well to achieving that end. Video diaries and tweets throughout the week gave eager super fans the chance to see players goofing around in between two-a-days.
The key to bringing this team together, and to a gold medal, is that the they learn to communicate on and off the field. Any rivalries from other divisions need to be left consciously aside for the duration of the U23 Worlds experience. These players have competed against each other at all levels, whether in a classic battle between Ring of Fire and Chain Lightning, last year’s club mixed final between Drag’n Thrust and Seattle Mixed, or a Women’s showdown between Seattle Riot and Boston Brute Squad.
With the interconnectivity of the sport at the highest level the way it is, that hasn’t appeared to be much trouble and bodes well for their results.
“The one week training camp is really good, but it’s super intensive,” said Aguilera. “If you aren’t talking a lot during that process and having those communication lines working super efficiently, you don’t get as much out of that week as you could–and that’d be a shame because these players are so good, if they can communicate enough, get on the same page, and have all the conversations they need to have, they can do amazing things…mind-blowing things.”
So far, his players seem to be fully aware of what they’re doing and, according to Titcomb, they’re enjoying every bit of it. “The team has come together so well,” she said. “I think that is in large part due to Martin, [and assistant coaches] Alex [Snyder] and Nancy [Sun], because they’re really putting the onus and responsibility on us, which has been unlike any other team I’ve been on where you look to the coach to give you all the answers. In this situation we’re looking to them to give us the framework and we figure out the answers together.”
The players have bought into the experience and process (identified well before training camp by Aguilera as perhaps the most critical goal) and by press time, they’ll have one long flight and a couple of short days between them before they show the world what they can do.
Additional reporting from Katie Raynolds.
Cheers, Smizz. Stanley Peterson won the college title with Colorado Mamabird and the club title with Johnny Bravo last year, notching big highlights in both tourneys. ↩