5 questions with Mark Jacunski Ultimate Frisbee

On May Delphine said quite a bit about Ultimate Peace and about her coaching experience in her “5 Questions With…“. If you missed this one or the others – check them out!

This month we’re going back to London. Such a magical place with an interesting Ultimate Frisbee scene! I’d like to introduce you to Mark Jacunski and his take on the Ultimate life. Have you ever wondered about the differences between university and elite levels? How about North America and the UK? Are you building a college team, but you don’t know how to go about it? Keep reading. 🙂

 

5 Questions With Mark Jacunski Ultimate Frisbee
Photo by Rachel Turton

Name: Mark Jacunski
Number: I like 23 but I have been relegated to all sorts of numbers ending with 3
Height: 1.8 m
Plays Ultimate Since: 2009
Team: Fire of London
Cutter/Handler: Cutter
Favourite throw: In game, a completed one. Otherwise, the around-the-neck air-bounce overhand
Favourite type of the tournament: Fewer games per day, that way you can play more “fresh” ultimate
Favourite division: I’ve got to say Open, but I’m liking the increased acceptance of females playing on open teams in the UK!
Favourite thing outside of Ultimate: Skiing

 

1. How did you first get into Ultimate Frisbee?

I first got into Ultimate by joining my high school team in 2009, in Toronto, Canada. This was the result of years of trying different summer pastimes as a teenager. I had always been a skier, and in 2008 I became a ski instructor, but I never had anything to focus on in the summer.

I liked the idea of getting good at something athletic, and really enjoying it, so I tried football (not American football), basketball, rollerblading including roller hockey, biking, and running. While I did spend a lot of time rollerblading, none of those sports stuck. Part of the problem was that people at my age then — teenagers — would have already been playing football or basketballs for years, and were far better. This made it difficult to become part of a team, to become accepted, so to speak.

At this point, it should be obvious that Ultimate was a great sport to get into. I was 17, still devoid of any dedicated summer sport, and while the top teenagers in Toronto had already been playing Ultimate for several years, they were too rare to make any single high school team good. One such player, Isaiah Masek-Kelly (currently playing for Toronto Rush), decided to set-up an ultimate team in my high school with the support of a couple of teachers who had previously played. I knew that I liked throwing around a disc, having done so at summer camps in the early 2000s. Once one of my closest friends decided to join the team, I quickly followed suit.

 

5 Questions With Mark Jacunski Ultimate Frisbee

 

2. What does this sport mean to you?

Ultimate to me is shorthand for many things. For one, it is simply fun to be in a park and throw around a disc. Playing ultimate at a high level is also both thrilling and fun. By trying to push the limits, Ultimate is also a reason to direct my workouts towards a fitness goal. The exertion involved is, as for many people, a way to keep not only physically well, but mentally as well. Finally, joining a team is a way to get out of the usual social circle, to meet people from a wider breadth of backgrounds.

5 Questions With Mark Jacunski
Photo by Alexander Cook

3. You have been the captain and the coach of King’s College London university team. What are the biggest challenges and how do you build long-term goals for the team?

Developing and maintaining a university Ultimate team in the UK can be fraught with difficulties. There is only a small pool of incoming students who have played, not everyone who has played wants to continue, and if they do stay, they tend to stay for just three years. Additionally, as we all know, Ultimate can be very unforgiving at the beginning. It can be so difficult to complete even a short simple pass, let alone when two defenders are involved: the marker and the receiver’s defender.

Hence, one challenge is the balance between drilling and enjoyment. Without drilling the throws, catches, and fundamental ideas such as dumping, enjoyment may be stifled by frustration. Conversely, a lack of variety and never seeing or experiencing awesome plays or throws can also limit enjoyment. In the last two years, I tried to combine my knowledge of coaching from ski instructing and my knowledge of learning from my formal training in post-secondary education to create a full-year ‘curriculum’ to help guide this balance. I don’t think it was successful enough, but I still think that coming into each session and season with a goal is key to the success of the season.

Among the reasons for not attaining success with the curriculum is the second challenge that the team faces: the huge rate of attrition. We tend to lose at least a third of our attendance rate for each of the first couple practices, which does not even let us begin to develop dedication in new players. Nonetheless, our explicit short- and long-term goal has always been to maximise not only the skills of our new players but also the strength of the competitive team.

I think the real, implicit long-term goal has been survival, and that the short-term goal has to be more responsive than we have had in the past. In some years with a weaker player base, the goal will have to be to maximise enjoyment and to spread the love of ultimate, whereas, in other years, we may be able to push for real competitiveness. We just have to remember not to sacrifice our new player base completely!

5 Questions With Mark Jacunski
Photo by Alexander Cook

4. What is your impression of uni and elite Ultimate in North America vs the UK?

University Ultimate had a completely different dynamic between Canada and the UK. Almost none of the above challenges apply to Canadian university Ultimate, since there is a much larger player base with more experience, and turnover is 30% slower (most undergraduate degrees are four years there, rather than three). In 2009-2013, McGill University easily had over 50 males at tryouts and over 30 females. You still lose some players, particularly on the second teams, but I remember only a handful of practices — on the coldest, wettest days — when we did not have enough players for a full game with just the second team alone. While I am sure this is not universal in UK universities, KCL begins to struggle with numbers starting in late November, never quite recovering, regardless of the weather.

In terms of competitive ultimate outside of universities, the differences are not as striking at first glance. In the UK, competitive tournaments are largely centrally organised, and the small size of the country allows for games between any teams in the UK. In North America, the enormous width of the continent is an obstacle to playing other teams, and occasionally an obstacle to attending Nationals (round-trip flights across the country can cost upwards of 250 pounds, driving usually takes at least 3 days without stops). Because of this, teams from Canada generally try to participate in US tournaments, including the US nationwide competitive structure that begins after Canadian nationals.

While the structure of competitions is less centralised for competitive teams in Canada, city-based teams seem to be much more centralised, particularly nowadays. I am not as familiar with the structure anymore, but my impression is that most cities have a single pool of competitive players from which they create their competitive teams, from elite to development. Many cities in the UK seem to operate similarly, but London fields about ten teams from six different clubs in the top 32 of the UK. There are differences in philosophy and brand that are perceived to separate these clubs, but player and team development would be improved by setting those differences aside.

5 questions with mark jacunski
Photo by Alexander Cook

5. Ultimate is a challenging sport and injuries are bound to happen. What was your worst injury and how did you deal with that?

I have garnered many injuries over the past 9 years of playing, earning nicknames such as Glass Cannon and winning KCL ultimate’s most injured player award. My worst happened around 2012 when a layout in a non-competitive match nearly severed the posterior cruciate ligament in my right knee. It nigh-immobilised me for a couple of weeks and I couldn’t run or play ultimate for months, and I decided to take nearly the whole winter off from skiing. This injury, like most of my other early injuries, I believe was from my inexperience with field sports; I started pushing my limits at age 17, which is quite an old age to begin being competitive.

More recently, I have had a series of injuries from a mixture of bad luck and pushing the limits, each of which took several months to bounce back from. I’ve certainly learned how to deal with injuries better, and I try to convey these insights to other players I talk to, particularly newer players. These insights are obvious in some ways, but it is their application and recognition in real life that are the challenges. The most important heuristics are: gradually building back up; giving at least 50% more time than you feel you need to recover; and seriously focussing on the fundamentals of athleticism (e. g. working on balance during changes of direction rather than just cutting speed or tactics). I think that following these heuristics, and keeping the goals of improvement and injury prevention in mind, are what has helped me return to playing just as fit, if not more so.

The prospect of retiring has certainly crossed my mind. However, despite my reputation, I do not yet think I am at an age where injuries become so frequent and severe that I’d rather stop playing. Instead, it has always been about balancing my time playing ultimate with my other goals in life. I stopped playing competitively from 2013 to 2015 while concentrating on my research during my Master’s degree. For some time I replaced competitive ultimate with salsa dancing, judo, running, and biking: things that I could do at my own pace. I don’t regret taking the time off Ultimate, and I also don’t regret coming back into Ultimate. The sport really can be superbly fun, and it remains exhilarating to push your limits, both as an individual and as part of a team. These are the things that compel me to stay.

I hope that you enjoyed the interview and learned a bit about Ultimate Frisbee in London, North America, university and elite level. Isn’t the topic of injury prevention interesting? Better safe than sorry. Random thought: Have you ever noticed that the London Eye actually looks like a huge frisbee?

What’s your Ultimate Frisbee story? Would you like to share it? Feel free to message me on Introverted Ultimate or via email. I’ll get back to you with 5 Questions. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

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