Getting Hurt Sucks

By Jake McKean

Getting hurt sucks. No matter when it happens, it is always the most inopportune time: training always seems to be going well; this year was always going to be “your year”; it’s always right before a big tournament. We all go through it, some less often than others, but this sport is incredibly demanding and injuries are inevitable. Fortunately, most injuries are not career ending. And often, many players return stronger (physically, strategically, emotionally) than before their injury.  But the way a player returns post-injury, is tied directly to the actions they take during recovery.

2007 was a doozy of a year, let me tell ya! In February of that year I had shoulder surgery to fix a torn labrum. It was the winter and I had never had surgery before, but figured it couldn’t be that bad and I might get some extra sympathy attention from the women’s team. 3 weeks later I still couldn’t shower without shrink wrapping my left arm, I was sleeping in a reclining chair, etc.  It was rough.

By the end of March of that year, I had just been cleared to take my arm out of the sling.  College Sectionals (now Conferences) was in two weeks. I was chomping at the bit to get playing again. I was a college captain, the college series was the most competitive part of my ultimate career to that point, and I simply loved to play. I warmed up with my team at practice, got into the first drill, and immediately tore my ACL…

With a second serious injury in less than 6 months, I was feeling fairly distraught.  And as much as I would like to say I conditioned hard, my “recovery training” continued with more focus on the social aspects and less on the actual recovery.  In retrospect, this recovery approach was something I did wrong.  Two years later I was 25 pounds overweight, playing in a knee brace and still getting pain in my shoulder.  If I could go back, I would have brought more focus and determinate to the physical therapy part of my recovery.  

But there is one thing I did right: I watched every minute of ultimate I could.  Whether it was DingWop (local club team) practices at Park Point, Ultivillage high light videos, or women’s full game footage, I watched it.  I was a captain and an offensive handler for our developing college team, but my field awareness was minimal and my strategic sense was novice at best.  But I studied the game.  And I studied great throwers and handlers.

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Jake Mckean. Photo by

I would walk the sideline as the offense progressed downfield.  I was always behind the handlers and never watching the disc.  I would watch the flow downfield, or more appropriately, notice the open space.  It was during this time that I developed my progression of looks.  This progression of looks is akin to a quarterback’s reads and check downs in football.  A regimen of where you should look on the field to find the greatest opportunity for your team.

For the purpose of my progression I consider opportunity to be synonymous with putting the defense in the most compromised situation.  (Note: This progression is not necessarily applicable to players who just received an offline throw; their first priority should be to make the swing continuation.  Of course there are some offenses predicated on the disc in the middle of the field, like a split stack or German, but we are speaking in general here. I would argue that this progression is appropriate for zone offense as well.)

First: You have to look at the deep space. You just caught the disc in motion; on an in cut, a strike cut, or a swing. The defense that was just in good position may be vulnerable now. Look past all the chaos in front of you to see if you have the space, angle, and receiver to deliver a knock-out punch to your opponent.

Second: Let’s say you don’t have anyone going deep, or maybe it is a stiff headwind and hucks are ill-advised.  The place you can do the most damage to the other team is by getting the disc to the break side.  Is there a defender poaching the lane? Has your cutter created the opportunity for a flat break by cutting hard to the force line? Be confident, step out, and break the mark; it will pay off and your team will have you to thank for it.

Third: The object of the game is to score by advancing the disc down the field. If your first and second reads are not options, then the next best thing is to gain some yards and make a force side gainer.  This could be an under from the stack or an up line from a handler.

Fourth: You only have 10 seconds with the disc, so don’t spend too much time waiting for the perfect downfield look. Scanning the previous three spaces (deep, break, force) should only take a few seconds. By stall 5 it is time to commit to possession. There is the still the opportunity to find yourself in a better position after you have it. So look to the handlers for a horizontal swing; preferably to the break side. If we can get a slightly better angle to attack downfield then we have done our job.  When all else fails we dump the disc. The defense is not put back on their heels, but we still have the disc.

What makes this incredibly effective is when receivers and throwers are in sync. Cutters: go deep, cut break side, let your throwers help you out. When you become one dimensional as a player your team becomes one dimensional in turn. And as soon as you get that disc know where you want to look, turning for the dump immediately will not develop you or your teammates. If this progression does not work in your system, determine what the appropriate steps are for you. Whatever you do, be intentional.

This is what I learned from a year on the sideline. Hopefully you will not have any big setbacks in your playing career, but if you do make the most of it. Ultimate is a thinking person’s game; the more we study it, the better player we will become.

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