I'm sure a lot of people would argue that speed is the number one physical trait in Ultimate. The fastest people dominate the game. By now everyone's seen the Greatest Catch Ever, by Andrew Flemming. Next, one could maybe make an argument for size and ups, those monster players that dominate the air; pretty easy to see a great player when Beau can jump over a guy. Or maybe being great means you're a great thrower; the guy that can put the disc wherever he wants in the wind, regardless of the defense (insert any number of amazing highlight clips of sick throws here). However, in my playing and coaching experience there is one thing that comes to mind that supersedes any of these characteristics, and that is drive.
I came into college like many young 18 somethings do, without a whole lot of direction. I hadn't played Ultimate in high school (Hockey was my sport of choice), and beyond an mild obsession with disc golf and a few pickup jungle-disc games, I had no Ultimate background. It wasn't but an off-chance that I saw a flyer for Club Ultimate tryouts on our campus disc golf course and decided to give it a whirl.
I was very fortunate that the captains of the CSU team back then embodied everything that was essential in shaping young players in a way that encouraged them to have this drive I'm talking about. The captains were all fully and completely dedicated to the sport. They were committed to making themselves and the team better and to maximizing the potential they had as individual players. These captains set the tone for my five years of college play that saw the team climb from relative obscurity in the competitive scene to being a consistently competitive team with the best in the southwest region (by no means because of my individual play, but because we had a core of people with that similar mentality).
After nine years of playing Ultimate and three of coaching, the philosophy that I have adopted is that ANY player can be a great player; the core building blocks of that philosophy being: the desire to get better, the will to push yourself hard at all times and the ability to learn and develop all aspects of your game.
This does not mean that you're a great player just because you run hard when you're on the field. It means you're committed to improving yourself. This means maximizing your physical potential with lifting and track workouts. This means dedicating yourself to working out kinks in your throwing form and never being complacent with what you can or can't do as a thrower. This means that you don't have a practice speed and an in-game speed. You only know one way to play, and that is balls-out, no matter what you're doing.
Obviously, everyone has different physical plateaus. There's only so fast you will ever be able to run or how high you'll be able to jump (at least until Ultimate enters into the steroid era, but that's another blog). But never being complacent with any aspect of your game, and pushing yourself to be the best player you can be with the tools you have, is a never ending process. You cannot reach a point where you say, I'm as good as my body will let me be, I've done it, I have achieved maximum Ultimate potential! Think about some of the best basketball players in the world. Kobe Bryant can make an argument for being a top 10 player all-time, and yet his practice regiment and work ethic are as strict as any player in the league.
Beyond the desire to improve is something that I think is best described as a competitive spirit. Do you take it personally when someone gets the disc on you? Do you look back at a point thinking on what you did wrong and how you can improve that? Are you the kind of person that has an incomplete throw and thinks, well if the receiver had bid for it then it would have been complete, or are you a person that thinks if I had put it just a little less O-I there, it would have been complete. The second person in this scenario is the one that improves, there is no such thing as good enough.
I've seen so many players that come into the sport as phenomenal athletes, but they let their athleticism carry them at the expense of the rest of their game. Their throws improve very little and their defense is shoddy except for an occasional highlight play. The biggest asset they bring to the team is the ease they can get open with on offense (a great thing no doubt, but when matched up against a similar athlete who is a better fundamental player they are rendered obsolete). I'll take a less athletic kid that improves drastically over the course of a season over someone like this every time. When you get a truly phenomenal player, is when they have an athletic gift, but they don't allow it to carry their game. They improve their ultimate fundamentals to match their athleticism and then, bam, a truly dominant player. The reason that the great athletes are the players that teams like Sockeye take, are because they are confident that they can improve the rest of their game around the athleticism because teams like that cultivate the right mentality (improvement driven) for elite ultimate.
The overall point of this entry is really fairly simple. To be a great player, you have to want to be great and then follow through on that with your actions on and off the field.