Witmer’s Wisdom: The Basic Principles of Athletic Performance Training

The standard training model isn't built to effectively train competitive athletes.

A Shame receiver gets up for a grab at the 2021 USA Ultimate Pro Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

Many players in North America are still shaking off the rust while preparing for Series tournament action.

This post is for all of you who are making the transition from using ultimate to stay in shape, to specifically training to get better at ultimate.

Being ready for ultimate, especially tournament-style ultimate, is about more than simply being cardiovascularly fit. If you want to perform better, you’re going to want to be faster, quicker, and you’re going to need the type of speed that can last for a few games or even a few days.

As you make the transition from simply chasing more fitness, to seeking out some of these more specific athletic qualities, here are a few things you should know.

Athletic Performance Training Differs From General Fitness

Why is training for athletic performance so different from training for general fitness? Everyone wants to be more athletic, right?

But let’s think about it from a business model perspective. If you’re a facility or a personal trainer, your main goal is to keep clients coming back. The surest way to do this for most clients is to have more of a short-term focus on having a variety of exercises and workouts to keep things interesting. And most clients want to feel like they did something challenging. For general clients, especially in group classes, a trainer can’t expect most folks to show up with a large degree of consistency. Good trainers will still provide options for progressions, but there’s usually not a focus on long-term planning.

On the flip side, you have athletes. If you’re training an athlete, you can have a long-term plan because you have a specific event (or season) to train for. With athletes, they are more likely to show up regularly.

The issue, from a business perspective, is that there are a lot more folks who need and want general fitness than there are athletes with the kinds of goals that will keep them coming in consistently to do the types of training sessions required for long-term adaptation. The much larger population of non-athletes influences everything from how standard gyms are built to what kind of information you’ll get on fitness blogs and social media posts.

This is why you’ll need to have some shifts in your mentality if you’re going to learn to approach your ultimate training in a new way.

Focus on Results Instead of Focusing on How it Feels

In training, there will be some workouts that aren’t hard. You might not get to feel like you crushed it. Some days might be easy!

The truth is that workouts that lead to better athletic performance often stress the nervous system more than the metabolic system. We cannot immediately feel stresses to the nervous system. Our heart rate or breathing won’t increase the way it does when we run repeat shuttles. You don’t feel the burn from a max effort jump or short acceleration — there’s no way to feel that you’ve just recruited as many muscle fibers as possible in a short amount of time. Training for a max vertical jump does not feel like a workout.

Low-volume, heavy lifting or sprint work may leave you feeling like you didn’t do much. But low-volume, heavy lifting is what you need to develop true strength and power.

Ultimate players seem least inclined to do this type of training — even though it leads to increases in speed, agility, and vertical jumping — because we have been led to believe that training needs to be hard. And we are the types of folks who decided that playing eight games in a weekend is a good idea! At some level, we like things to feel hard. And that’s okay — just not when you’re doing certain kinds of athletic performance training.

Trust in your athletic performance training and test your results in speed, agility, or vertical jumping after 4-6 weeks in a power development phase. You won’t really believe that “less is more” until you experience it for yourself — either by testing it with measurements or simply by testing your performance against on-field matchups. Few of my athletes do organized testing, but they will notice that they are getting open against players they usually have trouble with, or that they are making more defensive plays than they used to.

Consistency and Specificity Over Variety

For the general population looking for a good workout, variety is extremely important. A personal trainer needs to keep things interesting and somewhat fun or they will lose their clients!

For athletes, variety is less important. Where there is variety, it serves a purpose. The main problem with fitness programs created for the general population is that they often have zero long-term planning. They have progressions, but there is no long-term plan to build one athletic quality upon another.

The body adapts best if you focus on one main athletic quality you’re trying to improve. Rarely do you want to completely neglect any aspect of your training, but you always want to have a clear emphasis. You must also make sure your training goals do not contradict one another. For example, you cannot effectively make serious gains in max strength and endurance at the same time unless you are a beginner to training. Sometimes during the year, you will let some athletic qualities suffer a bit so that you can focus on others. While this can be psychologically difficult and you may fear “getting out of shape,” you will come out in a much better place athletically over the long term than if you try to make gains in everything all at once as general fitness programs do.

A Long-Term Focus — Like Really Long-Term

Having a well-thought-out plan emphasizing one main goal at a time and putting these training blocks in order is what will get you the best results.

In The Ultimate Athlete Project, we start with a preparation to learn proper form and get used to different exercises. Then we alternate between building strength and power through the offseason. Late offseason is when we’ll hit speed and jumping work hard. Preseason is when we’ll focus more on conditioning and move to more sport-specific work.

Most people who join the UAP stay for more than a year — and this is a good idea. At our annual UAP Coaches Conference, Jools Murray and I had a discussion on the idea of “six years to make an athlete.” The main point of the conversation is that there are some athletic adaptations — such as in bones and tendons — that take a very long time. And your body will not create more muscle than it can safely carry on your skeletal structure. So if you’re really looking to make the most of your career as an athlete, you should understand that athletic performance training is a multi-year process. All the more reason to get our youth athletes started in strength training with access to adult supervision.

However you decide to plan your training, I hope you’ll start early and create a well-thought-out plan that will enhance your performance in the spring. To learn more about offseason training, you can sign up for my educational series. Or if you want a complete athletic performance plan already designed with ultimate in mind, you can learn more about The Ultimate Athlete Project and sign up.

  1. Melissa Witmer

    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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