A league that most people never thought would exist, the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), has made it through its first season with the Philadelphia Spinners defeating the Indianapolis Alleycats in the championship game 29 to 22. The league is gaining credibility and even expanding to bigger markets next year, such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. MensFitness.com gets the inside scoop on what it was like playing in the first season of a professional league, and how the nature of the game stacked up against other high-level Ultimate leagues.
The New League
The AUDL brought about several new changes to the game of Ultimate never before seen by players. Referees were an unfamiliar institution for most, as the game has generally been self-officiated on all levels of play until recently, which often leads to more and more discrepancies the higher you go. As a result, the refs sped up the games.
Playing in front of a crowd and in a timed format also provided new aspects to the games. “The biggest difference for me has been that you can just show up and play as hard as you possibly can for one game,” says Brodie Smith of the Indianapolis Alleycats, comparing AUDL games to the more common tournament weekends Ultimate players take part in. “[In a tournament], everyone knows that you’ve got three, four, five games left after your first one, so there is that mental battle of, ‘when do I save my legs?’”
Jake Rainwater, an all-league team player from the champion Spinners agreed, saying it was easier on the body to just play one long game per weekend instead of playing six or seven over the course of Saturday and Sunday.
Why the Pressure is On
AUDL players faced a unique challenge within the sport in playing out the full regular season. Most high-level Ultimate players are used to preparing themselves for only a handful of very important tournaments every year, but they each last a full weekend and feature several games—one after the other. There’s plenty of practice and playing in the months leading up to these tournaments, but they prepare themselves to reach peak physical condition for those weekends, while everything else is lower priority.
The AUDL, on the other hand, forced players to be ready for a 16-week season, plus a couple playoff games for some. With each game carrying the same weight, it changed the players’ approach to the season.
“I definitely started training much earlier in the year than I normally do when playing USAU (USA Ultimate or club Ultimate),” Rainwater says. “I knew going into the AUDL season that I would be playing through until the end of October with USAU’s club series. I have been gradually getting myself in top shape rather than pushing myself too early in the season and risking injury.”
Switching Up Training Routines
Rainwater stresses speed, explosiveness, and endurance in his workouts for anyone who wants to compete on a higher level in Ultimate, although that can also go for a number of other sports that hinge on running and sprinting.
“A workout as simple as sprinting straight-aways and jogging curves on a track can help an Ultimate player so much,” he says. “Hills and stair workouts are two other types of workouts that I believe to be very helpful toward [my game]. Leg strength and explosiveness are keys to becoming a better athlete on an Ultimate field.”
For Rob Dulabon, another all-league player from the Buffalo Hunters, being able to maintain a high level of fitness throughout the season—and even improve as the season went on—was something he was constantly working at, frequently keeping his workouts fresh and doing something different every day of the week.
“Do a variety of exercises and try to incorporate explosive movements,” he says. “I’m always looking for different workouts to try and new exercises to bring into my routine.”
He warned players not to lift too much, recalling a season in which he got his legs stronger than ever but they slowed him down a bit. Here’s an example of a typical training schedule he utilized throughout the season:
Monday: Lower Body Lift
Tuesday: Plyometric Workout
Wednesday: Track Workout
Thursday: Upper Body Lift
Friday: Active Recovery (Yoga typically)
Sunday: Cross Training (Raquetball, basketball, kayaking–variety day)
AUDL Versus Club Ultimate
In a league that is, for the most part, still only able to pay for travel expenses for players, the AUDL doesn’t have the resources to draw all the best talent in the country—let alone the world (although the US does have many of the best players). So, high as the level of play was, it certainly isn’t close to being able to nab all of the best of the best in the sport.
In club Ultimate on the other hand, teams compete in the club series all over the country against one another during the regular season, then during two qualifying tournaments that whittle down the teams— sectionals and then regionals. Eventually, 16 teams make it out of the different regional tournaments to compete for the title at nationals. That said, Rainwater and Dulabon each likened the level of play in the AUDL to club regionals, with certain teams getting a shot at the national stage if they play in the right place at the right time.
Rainwater added that the commitment level and amount of travel was not much of an issue for him, since he plays somewhere just about every weekend anyway. However, Smith and Dulabon differed on that front. Dulabon said the weekly games were more of a grind than club, as there was never a decent period of time for his cuts and small wounds to heal—he just kept reopening most of them on dives and slides. For Smith, the travel and playing on the road made things a bit more difficult.
“You have one team sleeping in their beds at night, waking up the next day getting ready for the game, while another team travels eight or so hours on a bus and then gets off at some random place they’re not used to with a crowd that’s rooting against them,” he says.
There’s also the concern of getting your body ready for one all-out game as opposed to enduring a full weekend of playing. In the end though, the training is still very similar between club and the AUDL, and they’re really just two slightly different versions of the game in different leagues.
“At this point, I think good training for the sport is good training,” Dulabon says. “Whether it is for the AUDL or USAU. The same attributes will make a player dominate in both: Speed, vertical, and ability to quickly change direction.”