Witmer’s Wisdom: Improve Your Athletic Performance Next Season

Change your approach to change your results.

A layout from a player on Washington DC Agency at 2022 Mid-Atlantic Regionals.
A layout from a player on Washington DC Agency at 2022 Mid-Atlantic Regionals. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

While we’re all getting ready to watch highlight reel plays at nationals, let’s take a moment to think about what you need to be doing to create more of your own highlight reel plays next season.

Any dedicated player has had days when they don’t feel like training – days on the track in the rain or snow. It would be nice if we could fast forward through these days in real life and paste them into a movie montage. But, to get to the highlight reel plays in September and October, you need a plan for what you’re doing in January.

Some athletes can get away with little training. They have been successful with seemingly no organized plan, even competing at the elite level. But are you one of them? Now is a good time to reflect on what you need in order to get what you want out of next season. Freak athletes aside, most of us need an organized plan to reach our full athletic potential.

How did last year’s plan (or lack thereof) work for you? What can you do better?

Thought, reflection, education, and planning now will increase your chances of success next season. So let’s look at some ways you can either tweak your current off season training plan or build one from scratch if that’s what you need.

If this past season wasn’t what you wanted from yourself athletically, now is a good time to tap into those feelings and generate motivation (and a plan you can stick with) to be more aligned with your desires for next season.

Ideally what you want is a plan that you can stick with consistently, that keeps you healthy, fits in with your desired time commitments, and produces the results you want on the field.

Maybe you just need a few tweaks. Maybe you want a complete revamp of your plans. Here are some tips for how you know what option you need and how to proceed.

Small Tweaks, Easy Wins

If you’re mostly happy with your athletic performance, then maybe all you want are a few small tweaks.

This is the approach to take if:

  • You are mostly happy with your athletic performance
  • You feel pretty good during the season, after tournaments
  • You don’t want many changes in your habits. You’re open to some changes, but you don’t want to expend the energy to do something drastically different.

If the above sounds like you, here are three small ways you can tweak what you did last offseason to get just a little more from your efforts.

1. Strength Training

If you have never participated in strength training, investing a little time here will get you the best results per time invested by far. If you’re intimidated by the weight room, it will be worth the investment to hire a personal trainer to help you learn the basic lifts and movement patterns. If you can learn and practice lunges, squats, deadlifts, bench press, pushups, and pull ups you’ll have a great foundation for further experimentation if you want to go that direction in the future. You’ll quickly realize that 97% of all lifts are derivatives or combinations of those movements. Gaining proficiency in these loaded movement patterns can open up a lot of possibilities for you.

If you don’t think you’ll love being in the weight room, take a “something is better than nothing” approach. Replacing a conditioning session with one or two 30 minute, moderate sessions will help with your strength endurance, durability, and perhaps counterintuitively will help your on-field endurance by improving your running economy.

2. Core Training

Functional strength and stability in your core affects how efficiently you move, how quickly you fatigue and how far you can throw. Learn a variety of exercises that challenge core stability rather than simply relying on crunches. Consider making core training a high priority and doing it first in your training sessions rather than treating it as an afterthought. A few sets of situps at the end of practice is not the type of core training you need.

Because your core is made up of a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers, you can do a bit of core training every day. A simple circuit can take just a few minutes. When creating a core circuit, I aim for three exercises that target a variety of planes of motion, at least one stability exercise, and at least one exercise with a rotational component. Here is just one example of a complete core circuit you can use.

3. Rethink Your Conditioning

If you’re still going out for runs of several miles to get in shape for the season, you can easily improve your rate of adaptation and your specificity of training for ultimate by switching over to interval training. Check out my classic article Ultimate Conditioning 101 for more details and workout ideas. Or watch the video and do a quick sample workout that incorporates the principles I’m talking about.

It basically comes down to doing work/rest ratios more similar to what you do on the ultimate field and making sure that you do movements in a variety of directions instead of just a straight line. By number and of downloads and location data, I am pretty sure there is likely at least one ultimate player doing some sort of conditioning workout from our six week SAQ and Conditioning program every day and every hour on any given weekday.

The Complete Revamp

If you’re really not where you want to be as an athlete – perhaps your training is haphazard – then maybe it’s time to burn it all down and start over.

This is what I did for myself when I created my own plans that then became the foundation of the Ultimate Athlete Project Strength and Conditioning program.

Here are some indications that it’s time to reconsider your approach:

  • Your athletic performance is not translating to performance on the field.
  • You’re getting burned out from your current approach.
  • You’re not able to stick with the plans you have for yourself.
  • You want different results than before, so you need to take different actions.
  • You have limited time and your training needs to be efficient and effective.
  • You’re getting older and want to remain competitive with younger athletes.

These are the common reasons I see for athletes who are ready and willing to begin a focused athletic performance program like the UAP. How would an athletic performance program be different?

1. More Focus, Adjusted for Different Points in the Season

Instead of staying generally fit, you’ll have a more specific focus to your training which will vary from month to month. In the UAP our athletes change focus every 4-6 weeks. Sometimes you are focused on pure strength, sometimes pure power, sometimes functional strength and range of motion, and sometimes conditioning.

Instead of asking the question, “What type of strength training is best for ultimate?” we use almost every type of protocols at different times of the year. This is so that we can ensure our athletes have all of the building blocks they need to be a durable, strong, powerful, and functionally-moving athlete.

2. Eliminating Things You Don’t Need

Part of being efficient with your time is being willing to eliminate training time that isn’t producing maximal adaptation.

It can be really challenging for our athletes at the beginning phases of the UAP because we have a focus on maximum adaptation per workout vs. maximum output per workout. Sessions are sometimes short. This feels counterintuitive to folks who are used to higher volume, general fitness programs.

It’s common for athletes to wonder if they are doing enough. But for those who stick with it, they come to learn that less really is more when it comes to things like agility and power adaptations.

3. Being Ultimate-Specific

The truth is that any athletic performance program will make you better at ultimate. Anything that makes you a better athlete will help with your ultimate performance. But if you want to be as efficient as possible in your training, it helps to begin with the end in mind.

Getting sport-specific in an athletic performance program is about paying attention to the little things. For ultimate you’ll want your core training to incorporate a large rotational component, for example. And you’ll want to be doing exercises that proactively look after your shoulder health. You’ll want to proactively take care of symmetrical hip stability in order to counteract the forces of hard pivots and pulling the disc. You can see a few examples of exercises I recommend for hip and shoulder maintenance here.

If you’d like to further explore what a more focused approach to your physical preparation might look like, sign up for my short email course on Off Season Training.

PS: Help Us Understand Club Training

The UAP is in the middle of a small research study. We’ve been surveying US club players to get benchmark data on what club players do to prepare for the season. This survey covers everything from throwing practices to physical preparation to Game IQ. If you are a club player in the USA and haven’t yet filled out the survey, you can do that here.

We’ll be analyzing the results soon and sharing our findings with the ultimate community. You’ll be able to see how you stack up against preparation habits of others at your level. I’m also excited to give our non-US readers a closer look at what US club ultimate looks like.

  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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