I’m going to talk about the ‘off-season’; that period of time after all the big tournaments have concluded, but before you have to get back into peak condition ready for everything to kick-off again the next year. First, though, I need to take you back to April 2015.
President Obama had just shaken hands with Raul Castro, signalling a significant thaw in American-Cuban relations. A time of reconciliation. A time of optimistic anticipation. My right ankle too, had nothing but the soft, green turf of the sporting field to concern itself with, what with Tour 1 little over a month away. But much like Khrushchev’s hopes of establishing a military base on the doorstep of the USA, these daydreams were to be crushed by the Cuban missile crisis of fate.
I was playing on defence, marking my man, when the disc went up. We both gave chase, but he had position on me. I was at full speed though, so there was no backing down. We went up, we collided, our feet tangled and we went down. My man retained his balance, whereas my right foot was tilted to the side. I landed on the edge with all my weight and heard a crunch. Just like that, my ankle was fractured, with my hopes of playing that season pounded into dust, like so many fragments of bone. I didn’t even get the D.
So, while my team-mates were off competing, I was beginning my recovery. The summer was already waning when I felt able to start running around again. I knew my fitness would have suffered, but within a couple of minutes into my first training session I was sweating like a bacon-flavoured postman wearing squeaky shoes dashing through Crufts. It’s amazing how out-of-shape it’s possible to become when you spend a few months sat on your arse. My off-season, then, was going to be less about recuperation and more about rebuilding any semblance of my former athletic ability.
Now, like many well-adjusted people, I’m not too keen on the gym. In fact I think the last time I went to one was when I was playing Pokémon Silver. I’m definitely the sort of person who plays sports for fun and gets fit by accident. But if I was going to be able to fight for a place on the team in the run up to the 2016 season, that was going to have to change.
And change it did. Sort of. I still haven’t been to the gym, but my whole attitude to fitness has shifted. By being reduced to a pasty mess, lungs burning after every sprint, I have been forced by necessity to commit to my fitness in order to enjoy playing ultimate. I turn up to training even if it’s near gale-force and raining, I hit up the running track even if I’m knackered from work, I think about what I should be eating even though I could buy two pizzas for £1.50 in Lidl. All of it has stemmed from making a commitment to the sport. I was either going to have to train hard or flounder.
During our winter trainings we worked on the new tactics and techniques cooked up by our omniscient Braintrust committee. Bizarrely, having my pace hampered by the injury was a blessing in disguise. Since I was going to be exhausted after every cut, I had to think very carefully about where I was going to go. Long-gone were the days of outrunning my defender to the open side, looking up-field for a couple of seconds then inevitably dumping the disc to a handler.
Our off-season has been focused on learning to play as intelligently as possible; using body positioning to completely remove the threat on defence and working on timing and fluid play within a horizontal stack on offence. During these development stages I’ve found that it’s important to take your time to get it right. The off-season is your chance to practice everything at your own pace, laying the groundwork for when it all gets more intense later on in the year.
One of the main things I’ve learned from our training sessions has been to try and take the first good option as soon as it presents itself. As a cutter, I know that the handlers are going to want to make a pass within the first few seconds of receiving the disc, so if I make a lazy cut or run somewhere without thinking, I’m wasting my energy and blocking the lanes. Breaking bad habits doesn’t happen easily and all too often I’ll find myself making a stupid cut just because I haven’t received the disc in a while. It’s been worth it though, as I’m no longer looking for the safest or most obvious cut, but rather, I’m starting look for the right option, be it under, deep, break-side, open, or even just standing still and waiting for the opportune moment.
Every Thursday night there has also been a chance to work on our fitness at a local running track. I took no notice of this last year, but this season I have forced myself to go as often as possible. The sessions have been absolutely invaluable to developing everything we have been working on in training; I can barely keep track of all the benefits (zing). It’s amazing how difficult it is to think straight when you’re absolutely knackered, so setting an hour-and-a-half aside every week to focus solely on fitness has allowed me to keep a clear head whilst playing games. We also get to do lots of testosterone-fuelled macho things, like high-five every couple of minutes and say ‘Come on lads!’ Un-ironically.
But now off-season is over. We have all been marinated in the sauce of development and it’s time to start cooking in the pre-season tandoori oven of practice. For soon we shall be served up upon the dinner table of competition and when that time comes, our skills must be rich and flavoursome, if we are to have any hope of tasting victory.