Tuesday Tips: Creating Personalized Ultimate Improvement Plans, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Strategy and big picture planning are vital, but players should also focus on individual improvement to help teams reach their goals.

Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

Everyone wants to improve. Whether as a team or an individual, many people can relate to having that conversation after a big tournament: What did we do wrong? How can we get better? How can we win it all next time? Unsurprisingly, teams that can take a good, hard look at themselves as a whole — and at each individual player — often find more success on the field the next time around.

That is not to say making improvements is easy; in fact, it is downright difficult. In many instances, even diagnosing the problems correctly can be a challenge. Nothing is worse than spending a few weeks of offseason training — or even worse, critical in-season practice time — working on something that doesn’t make a big impact.

Improving is especially difficult because solutions must be personalized. One-size-fits-all does not work for every team and it definitely doesn’t work for every player. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and everyone learns in different ways. To truly make changes and improve, you need to find, evaluate, and create a personalized plan to address each issue. It isn’t easy, but there is a clear path to follow.

Diagnose The Problem

The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. It is easy to look at results and identify the acute decisions or actions that led to them, but it’s much harder to analyze the underlying causes that led to those symptoms. Like doctors, we must first think, “What is the true problem here?” Only then can we find the solutions.

The end-of-year car ride home is a classic example of this process with the right intent, but the wrong formula. As you look back on the weekend and season and discuss how things went, the conversations tend to be filled with vague generalizations like, “we suck at defense,” or blame hurled at individual teammates that are born of frustration and disappointment. These conversations rarely go anywhere productive.

Instead, take some time after the last tournament or game to let emotions calm and then take a look at what happened so you can address issues honestly and in a constructively critical manner. Remember, generalizations and vagaries are the enemy here; look for specific opportunities for improvement, both for the team and for the individuals that make up the team.

This is hard. People don’t always want to focus in on individual weakness, but that is why it is so difficult to improve. Don’t avoid those topics. Find every single team problem and, if possible, break it down even further into individual needs for improvement amongst the players. Strategy and big-picture planning are important sure, but nine times out of ten, it is execution and individual matchups which make the difference. If players consistently makes the same mistakes or fail to fill their roles, then the team strategy will likely fail.

Here are some good ways to diagnose the real problems in a team to improve.

  • Utilize Data: If you have stats, use them! There are data analytics in nearly every professional field these days, and sports is one of the prime users. Much has been made of a lack of accurate or useful ultimate statistics, but even looking at basics can help pinpoint individual weaknesses and needs for improvement, especially when coupled with memories of game situations.
    • Example: If your team only pulls in-bounds 50% of the time, you need to pinpoint your pullers and find a way to correct that problem.
    • Example: If “Player X” generates the majority of team turns or if a majority of your team’s turns happen in the redzone, you need to diagnose a plan to correct this critical issue.
  • Watch Video: Video is twice as useful as raw numbers (largely because you can always go back and recollect accurate statistics based on the video). Watch with a hard eye. Pretend you are scouting your own team as an opponent. Find the weaknesses and see how they can be exploited.
    • Example: Does your team fail against zone defense often? Why? Are your cutters ineffective inside zones? If so, mark down specific situations to go over with teammates and correct the problem.
  • Formalize Observations: Informal observations will work if you have neither of the above (although work best if added in conjunction with at least one). However, don’t just have a long, wide-ranging conversation about all that went right or wrong in a game. Make it as formal as you can by taking notes and trying to collect more data to support what you’re feeling or thought you saw. Send out a survey asking the team to list personal weaknesses and team weaknesses (as well as strengths, goals, and more).

Focus On Communication

Again, thinking of the end-of-season car ride example, communication can be the toughest part of this process. When discussing team problems, too frequently the conversation can devolve into either personal insults or pulling punches on details just to save feelings.

But it’s a reminder that is what it has to be — a process. Make it clear that the team itself is being continually analyzed and that every single player, captains included, are being evaluated together with the goal of team improvement. Knowing that it isn’t personal can make it easier to own weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.

When discussing individual improvement, be constructive, and above all else, respectful. Acknowledge strengths primarily, then weaknesses. 

  • Set Expectations: At the start of a season, have a roles and goals meeting, both as a team and with each individual teammate. These are helpful to get teammates on the same page about expectations and serve as an important opportunity to build trust within the team that allows you to have critical conversations about individual goals.  Try to give every player individual personalized feedback and a chance to talk to team leadership. These conversations should start by valuing that person, explaining what his or her role for success on the team is. Drink or eat with your teammates and hangout. Figure out what their lives are like, and don’t ignore the personal concerns that might get in the way of their ultimate growth.
    • Example: Player X is the best hucker on the team and also one of the primary handlers for the defensive line. Celebrate how so many breaks come from his or her hands. Player X also has a really stressful internship that means she or he may miss off-season throwing practices. Try to find a way to help that player improve chemistry with teammates without compromising non-ultimate life.
  • Get Specific: It isn’t enough to say “we want you to work on your decision-making or your throws or your defense”… be specific to set SMART goals. Point out instances on the field where problems occur and show video if you can. Indicate stat rates that need to improve. Explain, fairly and respectfully, captain and teammate observations. 
  • Celebrate Success: When teammates improve or make progress on individual goals, be sure to call it out as an exemplar of success. Find instances where players self-correct the problem or succeed. Also, show instances of teammates or other players in a similar role that do very well.

If you can point out both weaknesses and examples of what the player should be striving for, you have an honest and very clear one-two punch.

Create A Personalized Plan

The next step is the most important and now it has to be a two-way street. Rather than giving generalized advice, the leadership needs to convey specific targets for change. The player, however, has to be an integral part of this process.

Each player should take the feedback they receive and be the one to create the improvement goals. Then, with the help of the team, he or she should develop a plan of how to get there (and how to measure success).

  • Make sure the individual goal fits in with the team’s role. Remember, individual improvement is great for its own sake, but you want the pieces of the puzzle to come together for the entire team and in practices as well as game situations.
    • Don’t have Player X set a goal to be the team’s main hucker if the team needs him or her as more of a possession throw-and-go player.
  • Every plan should come with details. Create 3-5 action steps of what an individual player could/should be doing to work on the goals. Better yet, include how-to’s or team partners to teach or work with that player.
  • Hear the player’s concerns or worries right up front. Don’t expect 100% commitment to the ultimate task, and be realistic about what to expect from each player. Find what works for the person and what motivates him or her to succeed.

Stress the great things that personalized training can bring. Rather than building a generalized workout or throwing program for the entire team during the off-season, now each individual can have a plan that works best for him or her.

Follow Up

Consistency is key to this process.

It is incredibly important that players and teams keep up with personalized plans to improve. Therefore, frequent check-ins, status updates, and adjustments are necessary to tweak the plans or training.

  • Hold the players accountable. An online check-in method is a great way to keep tabs on everyone and to share progress. Have players write updates about both successes and failures. Again, ideally have teammates support and teach one another if a player is struggling with a concept, mindset, or fitness component.
  • Set benchmarks for each personalized plan (make sure they are relatively frequent). You don’t want to wait until the first big game to test progress. Use workouts, practices, and more to see how things are moving. If you haven’t been keeping data, video, or logs up to this point, start now.
  • Course-correct and adjust the goals as necessary, especially in team practices. As teams grow and change (or as people leave, get injured, or shift roles), individuals will need to be flexible in making small tweaks — or big ones — for the good of the team.

Incorporate Improvements

Start putting it all together with the team as soon as possible. Personalized growth can only translate to team success through practice and collaboration. It doesn’t mean squat if all your players improve a skill if the team itself still makes the same mistakes or has other weaknesses.

  • Make the team plans and goals public. Let everyone see the bigger picture and know what each person is striving for. Individuals should be open about their struggles and what they are hoping to accomplish.
  • When something goes right in practice or the team seems to be improving on a concept, point out the individuals and the specifics that made things work. In other words, be personalized in your praise and keep everyone metacognitive about why the team is improving. On the flip side, if things aren’t going well, try to again pinpoint what’s slowing your growth and put extra effort into those areas.
  • Reevaluate and do it again. Repeat the process as often as necessary (and time allows) until you all grow and your goals are accomplished.

***

Remember, one size does not fit all with individual improvement. Each team is unique, and so is each player. The more specific and individualized you can make your training, workouts, and practices, the better your team will become.

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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