A Beautiful Return: 4 Reflections Coming Back to the Field

Hey folks! Jonny Malks here. I’m a player for the D.C. Breeze, D.C. Space Heater, and a former U-20 Team USA Captain. In the past few months, I graduated from William & Mary, started a new job here at Excel, and, perhaps most relatably, got back out on the ultimate field for the first time in almost a year and a half. Resuming my ultimate journey has prompted me to reflect on why we love the game and what we can do to better ourselves while celebrating our teammates and the beauty of our sport. Below are some meditations on how to return stronger than ever! 


We start with teammates because, for many of us, they are why we play. They are the lifeblood of the game, the people that make it happen! However, this is going to be the first time in a long time that we are socializing in big groups, working collaboratively on a sport, in-person, with all of the human dynamics that come along with such an undertaking. This is a natural kickoff point for our conversation because we just want to emphasize one key and common theme that should permeate the tone of this post: gratitude. 

Yes, we’re all grateful to be playing again, maybe even playing without masks if everyone is vaccinated and the shin-dig is being held outside, but who makes playing fun? Who do we throw to? Catch from? Joke with? Hug? Teammates. This section has a simple message. Express gratitude to and for your teammates. Don’t take them for granted. I think that’s a lesson from COVID that will help us not only produce better effort out on the field but also forge closer relationships with those we love! 


A comment that I’ve been hearing a lot from folks who are returning to play concerns the surprise over one’s level of fitness (or lack thereof). I have many thoughts on one’s fitness after a year off (both in terms of conditioning and strength), but I will attempt to condense them down into the following three points of contact from which we can start having honest conversations with ourselves about where we need to spend our energy: 

  • Lifting needs 
  • Conditioning 
  • Game reps 

I’ll go in order. In terms of “lifting needs,” this is something I always say to players looking to improve their game and how they feel after playing: everybody needs to lift. I think that weight training is scary for a lot of folks because they picture long hours in the gym with the goal being to reach a state of “swole” adjacent to mid-2000s John Cena. But that’s not what I mean! The main reason ultimate players should lift is for 1) the primary purpose of injury prevention and 2) the secondary purpose of improved explosiveness and mobility to elevate our play. I put those priorities in the order they’re in because it’s no use being explosive if you blow out your knee or bust up your shoulder or what have you. The best athletes don’t lift for aesthetic reasons. They lift to take care of their bodies and improve performance. We should, too! 

Conditioning is always a relative state of being. I could be in great condition compared to my weekly pickup game and still be sucking air out on an AUDL-sized field next to my track-star teammates (true story). The point here is that I encourage everyone to get their conditioning to a point that they are happy with, whatever that may be. However, at Excel Ultimate, we’re all about bringing the best out in one another and ourselves, and that means working our tails off to improve at the game of ultimate. Try the following iteration on running shuttles if you want to get your cardio up alongside a change-of-direction-style drill. Or check out these track workouts by Rowan if you want to improve your stamina and/or straight-line speed! 

One short note here at the end is that, even if you’re in the best shape of your life after pandemic-bred isolation, nothing is a substitute for some good game reps when it comes to feeling like yourself again out on the field. Make sure that you start slow and build up (in both frequency of play and level of play) so that you don’t tweak anything in your return. This should be fun! And your teammates will be there to support you all the way through. 


You should be throwing every day. This is good advice for in the pandemic, out, and in pretty much every situation imaginable for a budding ultimate player. Everyone looking to improve their game should throw every day! The most athletic player is nothing without the ability to catch and throw consistently, the most talented teams in the universe can be beaten soundly if they commit enough unforced turnovers. If you threw a lot during the pandemic, that’s great – keep throwing! If you haven’t thrown in a while, get on a throwing schedule with a buddy. It’s a safe activity where players can remain distanced. It’s fun, AND it will make you way better at ultimate. Take it from a guy whose main value on the field is for his throws and decision-making ability; throwing and catching are the keys to playing a complete, team game. 

That being said, make sure that your throwing sessions are focused. They can be even as short as ten to fifteen minutes, but in that time you should be stepping out, pushing yourself, throwing fakes, and practicing your full repertoire of throws at the rough percentages of what you throw in game. That’s not to say there is no time for experimenting – we encourage experimentation here at Excel! But everything should come in moderation. Additionally: remember that your catches are just as important as your throws. Focus the disc in every time. Every careless drop in a throwing session is a rep wasted. Stay focused and have fun! 

Triumph & The Myth of “Rust”

The point of this blog post is to help you find triumph in your resumption of your ultimate journey, whatever that means for you personally. Triumph is achieved with hard work, gratitude, and trust, and here at Excel Ultimate, those are the kind of values that we’re all about. 

You know what we’re not about? Damaging self-narratives like the myth of “rust” or being “rusty.” What we have to understand here is that, all too often in our modern era of machines, the human body is compared to technology. Players are praised for having a “motor” if they can run fast for long periods of time, we refer to our brains as “glitching” when we make a simple mistake at work, the list goes on. These little vocabulary quirks can make a large impact on how we perceive and treat our bodies. Let’s reframe the vocabulary surrounding “rust” and change it into phrases like “I have more work to do” or questions about “who wants to get some touches in later today” or encouraging requests like: “see you at the track!” 

The moment we accept the fact that we are never “rusty” and give ourselves enough respect to understand that it takes our bodies some time to acclimate to a sport after a year-plus off is the moment we embrace what it takes to get back. We can’t wait to hear the chorus of all those familiar smiles being broadcast out into the world, a world where we can now, finally, feel a little bit safer to embrace the triumph of creative expression through our beautiful game! 


All photos shot by Rob Gilmore.


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