Ramp up Your Summer Pickup Game Performance

You never know when you might get drafted to play basketball, flag football or even toss a flying disc. Here's how you can be better in each.

With all pickup sports, the top goals are simple: Get some exercise and have some fun. (After all, it is summer … and you're probably not in a contract year.) However, to stay in the game -- and be picked for a future one -- being a good, if not great, player goes a long way.

Here are three top warm-month pickup sports and how you can turn it up a couple of notches in each.

Pickup Basketball
If you're playing pickup basketball, often many other players are waiting on the sideline to get in the next game. In other words, helping your team win, and staying on the court, is motivation numero uno.

Offense: Consider this your chance to be that unselfish, pass-first player you always wanted to be. Meanwhile, observe how your man plays you. Does he slough off until you have the ball? If so, fake him out: Go go one way then quick-change direction. And to get layup opportunities, rush for those open spots on the floor.

Defense: Of course, playing defense is half the game, but you'd never know it by looking at most pickup games. If you’re on D, distinguish yourself by shutting down the guy you're guarding. Quickly diagnose if he favors going left or right, then force him away from his strength -- even top-level players often struggle going away from their strong side. Similarly, most players are either penetrators or shooters. Make the penetrator throw “bricks” and crowd the shooter.

You may be surprised at how far these strategies can go to throw off the mental game of your opponent.

Flag Football
First, know the basic rules: Flag football usually consists of seven-man teams rather than 11, all players are eligible to receive a pass, and you need 20 yards (rather than 10) for a first down.

Speed: And now, the stating of the obvious: Speed kills the competition, especially in flag football. Whether you need to get open on passing routes, sprint away from diving defenders, or -- if you're the quarterback -- buy time in the pocket, speed is prized. The best way to achieve it? Always break -- while heading downfield, of course -- toward the sideline after getting the ball, since defenders tend to hover midfield. Also, the fast guy doesn’t lose his flags.

Ball handling: Ability here is also key. To prevent the fatal fumble, carry the football in the arm farthest from a pursuing defender. When catching the ball, always make your hands do the work -- spreading your fingers and keeping them relaxed to ease the catch -- before bringing them into your body. And use the lateral pass, when the opportunity’s there, to further advance the ball and surprise the opponent.

Defense: On defense, adopt an aggressive style that often forces opponents to make blunders, like fumbling the ball or throwing interceptions. Also, attempt to funnel opposing players toward midfield for easier flag grabs.

Ultimate Flying Disc
Like flag football, Ultimate is a fast-paced sport played with two teams of seven people on grassy, football-field-sized turf. Play starts when the defensive team throws the disc to the other team. Once a player catches it, he has 10 seconds to pass. If the 10 seconds elapse before passing or if the disc is dropped, blocked, intercepted, thrown out of bounds or simply not caught, possession transfers to the other team. Passes can go backward or forward.

The hardest part is learning the three throws: the backhand, the forehand (aka flick) and the hammer. You'll need to know how to do all three because the defense will force you to throw to different sides and release at different heights.

The backhand is your standard throw: Grab the disc with your thumb on top, index finger on the inside edge and the other three fingers extended underneath. Hold the disc parallel to the ground and point your feet perpendicular to your target. Bring your throwing arm across your body until the disc is near your nonthrowing shoulder. Begin the throw with your shoulder leading and straighten your elbow. Release it with a snap of your wrist when it's directly in front of you. This toss is usually used to throw left (or right for left-handers).

The forehand is that awkward flicky toss you use to throw to the right (or left for left-handers). Proper form may require practice: Extend your hand as if to shake hands. Place your index and middle fingers on the inside edge of the disc, and your thumb on the outside top. Hold the disc parallel to the ground, right side up. Bring your arm back and bend your wrist so it's perpendicular to your forearm. Drop your throwing shoulder several inches below your other shoulder. Begin the throw with your elbow leading the way. Flick your wrist with a quick snap so your middle finger is the last point of contact with the disc.

The hammer is the loopy upside-down throw that will also require practice to throw … and catch. Its grip is the same as the forehand. Draw the disc back along your head to your ear, much like you're throwing a baseball. Hold it almost vertically, with the top of the disc parallel to your cheek, the palm of your throwing hand about where your ear is, and the disc a little behind. Whip your arm forward, bringing the disc over your head, as you step forward. Extend your arm in front of your body and twist your elbow forward to snap your wrist to give the throw some good spin. The natural spin of the throw released upside down will pull the disc away from vertical toward a horizontal float.

Olympic Hopefuls: A Roundtable Discussion (Part 1)

How exactly do you train for the Olympics? What do you do on a day-to-day basis, in terms of weightlifting, cardio and other training specific to your sport? And what do you eat? Men’s Life Today talked to three U.S. Olympic hopefuls -- all in very different sports, but all of whom are affiliated with the New York Athletic Club -- about how real champions prepare to compete on sport’s biggest stage. These were our participants:

Jake Herbert, wrestler, age 26, born in Naperville, Ill.; 2009 World Freestyle, silver medalist

Seth Kelsey, fencer, age 29, born in Colorado Springs, Colo.; 2010 World Championships, silver medalist

Jarrod Shoemaker, triathlete, age 28, born in Maynard, Mass.; 2008 Olympian, USA Triathlon 2010 Elite National Champion


MLT: Most athletes today do some form of strength training. Can you tell us about your weight-training regimens?

Kelsey: “Pretty typical is three long lifts -- one hour and 45 minutes each session -- on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We do squats, Olympic lifts, single-arm dumbbells, a lot of full-body movements. We always do core -- hanging leg raises and that kind of stuff. Also for fencing, we do a lot of forearm work.”

Herbert: “Right now, we lift three times a week -- Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- for about an hour and a half. We have a strength coach there for us, and it’s all geared toward explosive, fast-twitch muscle fiber stuff. So we’ll do successively heavier sets of front squats, cleans, close grip bench, explosive push-ups off the medicine ball, dead lifts. We also do weighted pull-ups. Our coach wants us to get to the point where we can do them with a 100-pound plate strapped to us.”

Shoemaker: “We’re not doing squats and cleans, or really any traditional weightlifting. As endurance athletes, it’s more focused on enhancing and strengthening the core and on functional flexibility … very discipline-specific movements.”

MLT: What’s the most kick-ass cardio workout you do?

Shoemaker: “We do a really hard, tempo-running workout: 2 x 2 miles with five minutes rest between. Then run a mile [2 miles, five minutes rest, 2 miles, five minutes rest, 1 mile]. I’m getting down below a 4:45 pace.”

Kelsey: “What we call our most terrible circuit workouts: incline sprints, kettle ball swings, push-ups and pull ups. Nonstop, five times.”

Herbert: “We do treadmill sprints: 30 seconds hard, 30 seconds off. And every time we do one, our coach raises the incline. And then ups the speed. We do a total of anywhere from 22 to 40 of these, and at the end, you’re on max incline and running 14 miles per hour for 30 seconds.”

MLT: Sounds like you push yourselves to exhaustion.

Kelsey: “I need to know how my body feels when it’s drop-dead tired. Because any moment of hesitation in my sport and you get hit.”

MLT: So I imagine recovery must be a big issue too.

Herbert: “We drink a recovery shake after each workout, to get the amino acids back in us. I get a lot of sleep. And stretching’s huge!”

Shoemaker: “Massage once a week at least, chiropractic once a week, and I shoot for nine hours of quality sleep a night. That’s the most important thing I do for recovery.”

MLT: Let’s talk nutrition: What’s the breakfast -- and lunch and dinner -- of Olympic champions?

Kelsey: “We do a fairly low-carb diet. No refined carbohydrates -- i.e., no white flour, sugar or potatoes. I don’t think those do anything to enhance your training.”

Herbert: “In college, I was living off of Hot Pockets and ranch dressing. Now, I’m eating a lot of fruits and vegetables.”

Shoemaker: “There’s nothing crazy about our diet. We try to eat fresh and healthy, and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. We have a pretty high percentage of carbs, but protein is one of the best things for rebuilding muscles, so we try to eat plenty of quality proteins too.”

Photos: Courtesy of New York Athletic Club

Stoke Your Competitive Fire!

Champions share a hard-to-define quality. It’s a combination of competitive drive, focus and desire that makes them winners -- in sports, in the classroom and in life. You want to be that guy, but perhaps you think you can’t be. Maybe you believe that the winners of the world are born, not made.

If so, think again.

Research shows that the will to succeed is as much a factor of nurture as it is nature. A 2009 study compared competitive drive among members of a primarily patriarchal tribe in Tanzania and a community in India in which women have greater authority and social standing. The researchers -- from The University of Chicago and Columbia University -- found that in the Tanzanian tribe, women were less competitive. But in the Indian community, the reverse was true: The women were more competitive than the men.

The implication: Competitive drive is a learned behavior.

“Granted, some may be born with a mentally tougher edge,” says Greg Chertok, a sport-psychology consultant who works with young athletes at The Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, N.J. “But any athlete -- any person -- who is willing to put in the work can develop this as well.”

Here’s how to develop the competitive drive and mental toughness of a champion.

1. Identify your opponent

First, stop and consider who or what it is you’re competing against.

“Most of us think of competitiveness as the drive to be No. 1,” says former NCAA wrestling champion Matt Furey, author of a 2009 memoir, The Unbeatable Man. “That’s OK sometimes, but chances are you’re not going to be the best in the world at whatever you’re doing. So does that mean you’re going to hide your talents under a rock? How about, instead, you let the very best you have shine?”

In other words, stop comparing yourself to others, and start playing the game of life as a healthy competition against yourself -- striving to set and meet goals, and to do your best.

2. Cultivate your competitive attitude

“Excelling often means taking yourself out of your comfort zone,” says Chertok. At the point when most people want to quit, real competitors battle on. You can help develop that go-the-distance attitude by practicing it. During moments when you feel like finishing your workout early or closing the book during homework … make the decision. Do one more set. Read one more chapter. “Flip the competitive switch!” says Chertok.

3. Find your peak performance number

We all have a different energy level at which we perform best. Chertok asks his athletes to find that level on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being cucumber-cool; 5, a controlled intensity; and 10, a Ray Lewis-like, frothing-at-the-mouth hunger.

Identifying and then getting yourself to your optimum intensity level (Chertok recommends deep breathing to lower your intensity, and your favorite music to amp it up) is going to raise your chances of coming up big when the game is on the line.

4. Take small daily steps to success

Doing one thing today -- one thing that will make you stronger, faster or better prepared -- will help get you closer to your goal. It’s a technique used by Olympic athletes during their long years of training between the quadrennial Games. “Every day they try to do something, even a small something, that gets them closer to a gold medal,” explains Chertok.

So let’s say your goal is to be the starting centerfielder on your school’s baseball team. What steps can you take now to reach that goal? Maybe you need to get stronger, throw the ball farther, hit better?     

Here are three days of small, realistic and measurable goals:

  • Today, I will bench-press the heaviest weight I can handle for eight to 10 reps.
  • Tomorrow, I will go down to the field and play long toss with my buddy -- and make 10 more throws each time we do it.
  • The day after, I will go down to the batting cage and take 10 more swings.

Over weeks and months, those extra reps, throws and swings will add up to you being a vastly improved ballplayer.

5. Positively the way to go

In his 2007 book How Lance Does It, author Brad Kearns examines the factors that helped Lance Armstrong come back from cancer to win seven Tour de France titles. He lists a positive attitude as Armstrong’s “Success Factor 1.”

“Lance developed a positive attitude so resilient and a perspective so enlightened that he could pedal his bike through all kinds of adversity and obstacles and emerge victorious,” writes Kearns.

Note that word: developed. When cancer threatened his life, he had every reason to be negative. But Armstrong realized that a positive attitude is a choice. Again, that drive to be a winner, to succeed on the field and off, is not in your genes. It’s in your mind.

So will you make up your mind today to start competing like a champion … to be a winner? It’s up to you.

How to Make First Pick at the Team Tryout

Going out for the varsity football team? The company dodgeball league? The New England Patriots? (OK, scratch that last one -- potential Patriots probably don’t need our advice.) Whatever your team tryout situation, there are six strategies every future hall of famer (or weekend warrior) can use to grab the coaches’ attention:

Be Pre-pumped

As they say, an ounce of muscle is worth a pound of fat (or something like that). Don’t wait until the week before tryouts to hit the gym. Remember this: While you’re lounging around the house nursing a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and watching “SpongeBob,” someone else who wants your position is already up and running, getting in shape.

Stand out From the Crowd
We’re not saying you should draw attention to yourself by, say, singing “Pants on the Ground.” (You probably won’t make the team based on that ability -- or lack thereof.) But doing certain little things -- like running all the way through the finish line, taking that second shot at a rebound, putting out that extra bit of effort during position drills and otherwise playing hard through the whistle -- gets coaches’ attention.

Be a Leader
Maybe you’ve been playing your sport since you were knee-high to a shortstop. But there will be other guys on the field who won’t even know which end zone to run to. Sure, you could just laugh at ’em. Or you could take them under your wing and help cut their learning curve. While you might not believe it (or want to admit it), there was a day when you stepped onto the field for the first time. Coaches respect leadership. Other players do too.

Be Coachable
No matter how good an athlete you may be or what level you’re playing at, there is a hierarchy in sports. Simply put, the coach is the general, you’re the private, and tryouts and preseason practices are boot camp. While working on “mundane” skills might be boring, good coaches put a lot of effort into drilling you with the fundamentals. Slam dunks may make headlines, but free throws win games. Don’t ignore a coach’s constructive criticism just because you want to be the brightest flash in the pan.

Have Skills
Some people are born with them; others have to work a lot harder to develop them. But nothing will get you a spot on the roster faster than having hands of glue, lightning-fast speed or “natural instinct” for your sport. And no matter how good you are, you can always get better. (See Training Strategies section below.)

Be Versatile
Ever since you were a kid, you dreamed about playing quarterback in the Super Bowl. But right now, the coach needs you for defensive end -- or maybe he just thinks your talents would be better suited to that position. Either way, be flexible -- a team player, as they say. Otherwise, maybe you’d be better off taking up an individual sport.

Bonus: Training Strategies

As we mentioned above in the Have Skills section, actually having abilities to perform well in a particular sport will take you far. Here are a few general talents you need and a quickie guide on how to get them:

  • Grip: Most sports benefit from -- make that require -- a powerful grip (e.g., holding a racket, golf club or baseball bat; making a shoe string tackle; or putting the right spin on a bowling ball). Training via dead lifts, the “fat bar” or the “Farmers Walk” (an exercise requiring you to walk holding heavy dumbbells) can give you a handshake you can be proud of.
  • Hips: In every sport, from Aussie-rules football to ultimate flying disc, your hips are your prime power source. Instead of doing set after set of abdominal crunches, focus on hip-dominant exercises such as squats, dead lifts, cleans (lifting a barbell from the floor to your shoulders) and lunges. Depending on your particular sport, variations of these exercises could emphasize different speeds, rep ranges, plane of motion, etc.
  • Footwork: Sooner or later, most sports require you to get from point A to B. Nothing will get you the position of equipment manager faster than getting tripped up by your own two feet. Try jumping rope, doing ladder drills -- heck, even ballroom dancing -- to get your left foot to play along with your right.

Conquer the Biggest Mud Runs

If you think an ordinary 5,000-meter race is kind of boring, just add water. And dirt. Then throw in a few military-style obstacles for good measure, and you’ve got a mud run. It’s part serious, grueling athletic competition, and part excuse for thousands of people to act like kindergarteners. Mud runs are booming in popularity, and popping up in different forms -- and degrees of difficulty -- around the country. 

“It’s slower to run in than a road race. And a lot messier. So you don’t care about time, you just compare yourself to how your friends do,” says Jim Gallivan, who entered the Merrell Down and Dirty Mud Run outside Los Angeles this spring, wearing a Beetlejuice costume -- complete with white makeup. (He won a prize for it, by the way.)

Gallivan was one of 3,000 competitors in the sold-out event, which is part of a series of Down and Dirty races -- all in their first year of existence -- being held in four cities in 2010. Another brand-new set of races is the Tough Mudder, which considers itself more punishing than the rest. It doesn’t keep track of entrants’ times, because the goal is just to finish. It’s organizing four events this year and 11 (including an overall championship) next year.

Both the Down and Dirty and Tough Mudder owe their startup success to the granddaddy of mud runs: the Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series, created in 1999 and drawing more than 40,000 entrants for its 18 annual competitions. It’s the least intense of the three. “We try to make our competitions as user-friendly as possible. We want just about anybody to be able to do this,” says Bob Babbitt, the Muddy Buddy founder.

Here’s a rundown of each series -- what each event involves and what’s expected of you:

Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride and Run


Fitness level:

All levels

Competitors per team:



One bike per team, running shoes

The competition:

Each team completes a 6- to 7-mile course that has five obstacles (like crawling on a cargo net, scaling a low wall or crossing a set of monkey bars). Team member No. 1 rides the bike on the dirt course while Team member 2 runs it, until they reach and complete the first obstacle. The team members then switch running and riding duties. The final challenge before reaching the finish line is to crawl through a massive mud bog. If you can run 3 miles in an hour, you can physically compete in this race.

Average race time:

One hour




Challenged Athletes Foundation

Merrell Down and Dirty National Mud Run Series


Fitness level:

Able to handle a 5K or 10K race

Competitors per team:



Running shoes

The competition:

The Down and Dirty is essentially a mud-filled, obstacle-strewn trail-running race. You can compete on the 5K or 10K course. You might find yourself scaling a mountain of hay bales, doing the combat crawl under a cargo net or using a rope to climb a wall -- and definitely ending the race by dragging yourself through the mud. The race is geared toward anyone in decent shape, but prep with cardio work and core strength training.

Average race time:

About an hour for the 10K and 45 minutes for the 5K


Encouraged but optional


Operation Gratitude


Tough Mudder


Fitness level:

Excellent physical condition required

Competitors per team:

You can compete as an individual or within a team of any size


Running shoes, leather gloves (for ropes events), a swim cap

The competition:

A gauntlet of 17 obstacles designed by British Special Forces is placed along a grueling, hilly 7-mile route. You’re very likely to confront a cargo-net climb, underwater tunnels, stream crossings, an obstacle course of flaming straw bales, steep hill ascents and mud. Tough Mudder offers a 17-exercise training program (including a sprint workout, shoulder press, decline push-ups, chin-ups and squats) on its website so you’ll have the proper strength and stamina for the race and its obstacles.

Average race time:

2 hours and 30 minutes


Encouraged but optional; free head-shaving is supplied on-site for the Best Mullet contest during post-race bash


Wounded Warrior Project