The Invisible Energy in Ultimate.
Is the mental side of the sport holding you back from your true potential?
All of the skills and athleticism in the world means nothing if you cannot materialize them when they count the most. Take a second to check in to your own mental game right now. Do you play to the best of your abilities consistently? Are you aware of triggers that throw you off your game? Regardless of where you are at, here are five valuable lessons of peak performance in ultimate I have learned as a player and a coach. While there are many more ways to lock in mentally, this is a start!
#1: Forgive and Focus Your Way Out of a Lull
I find it hard to believe that anyone during sports is capable of avoiding all mental breakdowns, lulls, dips in energy, mood swings and frustrations. Therefore it can be problematic if you only work on ways to shield, protect and avoid mental lapses. What are you going to do when they inevitably come through?
Just a few weeks ago the pressure was rising at the USA national beach tryouts. It was Sunday, the second and final day. For the first time all weekend the coaches were giving out personalized matchups on the line and I was given the task of guarding 2021’s player of the year Chris Kocher. I ran down to play defense and he ran deep out of a sidestack, scoring easily in one pass. That was a major blow mentally and I really feel that could have ruined me in years passed. Everyone saw the mistake, coaches and players alike. The next two things I did really helped my mental game. First, I ran up to Chris and laughed it off. I joked that there was a decent chance he just ended my tryout. That light hearted approach helped me forgive myself, a critical step in moving past big mistakes. If you are not able to forgive yourself, those plays can take a toll internally. The second part was to shift my focus. No more giving up uncontested goals off the pull. And throughout the rest of the day, that was my focus. And that naturally shifted my thoughts from the past mistake to the present. Hopefully it also showed the coaches I was able to make changes to my game to improve on the fly. We shall see!
Try this: Don’t hide and bury your mistakes on the field. Laugh off a drop. Forgive yourself if you get beat on defense. And then change your focus from the mistake to a way you can tangibly improve on it. Maybe your focus is on watching the disc all the way into your hand. Orbiting to use your body to stop giving up the open space on defense. That is a much healthier use of the mind.
#2: Don’t Neglect Mental Preparation.
One of the ways I reduce nerves and fear about big games or tournaments is to prepare as much as possible. On the physical side that manifests in working out to feel strong and reduce injury. 2021 was a challenging year for me because with nagging hamstring injuries I wasn’t able to train at the level I would like. When I went into games I didn’t have that calming belief that preparation always provides. All of the sudden I’m starting to get nervous about re-injuring my hamstring. The fear of a long point creeps in because I did not do as many shuttles as I wanted to and I was nervous my matchup would just run me into the ground.
It’s certainly true that physical preparation in sports gets more attention from the athletes. But if we avoid preparing the mental side we are setting ourselves up for failure. When I was new to ultimate I would struggle with the force. I would put on the wrong mark and found myself constantly on the breakside of my cutter downfield. Unfortunately my coach noticed these things too. My breakthrough came by heading out to an empty field one day and playing through invisible scenarios. I practiced the force. Then I stood in a stack and alternated home and away progressions to see where I would need to orbit. Looking back I was putting my conscious thinking brain into autopilot. That freed up mental bandwidth to start thinking about other things. How good is the thrower? Where is the disc? Etc. And guess what? The rest of the season I was so much more relaxed about this area of my game and that allowed me to play better defense.
Try this: Incorporate mental preparation throughout the season. Go out to a field once or twice a month and run through situations you want to improve. Even if it is just practicing the force, or stopping an upline. Get out and visualize the differences of guarding the reset off the trap sideline, or the break sideline. Guard an invisible cutter who clears hard. Then run a rep with them clearing slowly. Run your team’s playbook from positions you expect to play. Offense and defense alike. You will see any doubts you have about the cerebral side of ultimate disappear. I promise!
#3: Your mistakes are not as bad as they seem.
When we talk about peak performance the term ‘in the zone’ gets thrown around frequently. Players get locked in and their game takes a turn for the better. On the flip side, I’ve found the most common time for any player to drop a disc is immediately after they have just dropped one. Coincidence? I don’t think so. When things are not going well for players individually their performance takes a hit. Revisiting the previous example you might start doubting your hands. You might tighten up if a fast pass comes at you. Not only do simple skills such as throwing and catching get thrown off when we tighten up, but players also overcompensate strategically to hide their mistakes.
What helped my mental game was the realization that my mistakes are not as bad as I think. It is natural to feel like you yourself are under a microscope, but in reality many of your teammates are so focused on their play nobody sees all your mistakes. Be easy on yourself and do not let what you perceive as a big mistake or a bad game affect your present and future play. Odds are that nobody noticed! And if they did, it probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed to you. It’s ultimate. Discs do get dropped and players get burned deep. On to the next one.
Try this: Help your teammates from overthinking their mistakes by giving genuine compliments on small wins. Simple words of encouragement such as ‘I saw you shut down that isolation cut’ or ‘your mark shut down their first reset look’ can pull your teammate out of a downward spiral and send them into a more positive mindset instantly. Every point has moments of personal victories for your teammates. Let them know about ‘em!
#4: Be Present. And What Does ‘Being Present’ Mean?
Everyone has heard the phrase ‘be present’ at some point or the other. But it is still a difficult phrase to understand and put into practice. There is so much going on in our lives that it becomes difficult not to think about the past or the future. Ultimate is no different. We can think about the score, our past tribulations, future triumphs. We can think non ultimate thoughts. It’s challenging. Thousands of distractions are constantly at everyone’s fingertips.
Removing the major distractions before a game can be a good start. I always find the more overhanging work and life thoughts I have can adversely affect my play. Having a nice clear day with no responsibilities is a great start to being present in ultimate. Everyone is different when it comes to centering themselves so you will have to find what works for you! Others have had success with breathing, meditation, yoga and other exercises.
Try this: Develop the habit of presence off the field so it becomes more natural during the game. Presence usually isn’t something you can just turn on and off. It might seem wise to constantly think about the upcoming game during the week but more often than not it will backfire. All of the sudden the game will start and your mind might automatically look past it to something down the road. Instead, develop the habit of being present in whatever task you are doing. Now once the game starts you will naturally be present to it.
#5: Separate your self worth from ultimate success.
A major instigator to pressure, stress and tightness on the field is if you are worried about how your play affects the way people think and feel about you off the field. Too many players I’ve interacted with, myself included, have fallen into this trap. Fortunately I have come to the realization that what you do on an ultimate field does not define you as a person in the slightest. And if we can all come to that conclusion the game feels lighter, there is less stress, less pressure and in turn you are able to mentally play at a much higher level.
In 2019 I was starting to feel I had to keep up the appearance of being a great ultimate player. I felt I had to showcase my talent each and every play. Game after game. And that manifested itself into two major problems. One is that I started to get greedy on offense. Clogging space, overcutting, taking risky throws. And guess what? I had great stats, some really good games, and everyone thought I was a good player. But was the team hitting it’s potential? No. The second catastrophic mistake when you feel pressured to have a good game is the messaging it sends to your teammate. From their vantage point, it just seemed as if I did not trust my teammates around me. And that hurts a team on every level.
Try this: Set up your teammates for success. Go out there next practice, game or season with the goal to make everyone around you have great points. Be selfless as a cutter, share the disc, and do your part to play team defense. In return, if everyone can start adapting this mindset your teammates will be trying to make you successful! On the flip side, if you start to play selfishly, others will start to do the same. Or even worse, they will just shut down and shy away and leave you to play one on seven.
Did we miss any other mental tips and tricks you have learned in your career? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.