A subscriber reached out to me recently with questions about cultivating his ultimate frisbee mindset. He wants to play ultimate at the highest level possible, but struggles with fear of failure, making mistakes during games, and letting down his team. These fears manifest as stress and anxiety, impairing this player’s ability to enjoy the game and play to his full potential.

In this article, I’ll be addressing the psychological hurdles that come with playing ultimate frisbee – whether you’re just starting out, trying out for your school team, or about to compete in a championship game. The same fundamental fears bubble to the surface for professionals in high-pressure situations as emerge for beginners playing for the first time.

Once we know what these fears are, we can begin overcoming them. Below are common psychological stressors, and my suggestions for coping with them so that you can enjoy the game more and perform at your best.

I’m Intimidated When I Play With Really Good Players

Sometimes we find ourselves thrown into a situation where the other players are really good. By comparison, our own abilities might feel like they don’t measure up, and this can lead to feelings of unworthiness.

If left unchecked, thoughts like “I don’t belong here” have the power to sabotage our ability to play well during a game and might lead to quitting playing altogether.

But these thoughts are potential clues that we’re on the right track. When we undertake something truly meaningful, something we care about deeply, it’s very common to encounter mental resistance.

This resistance is, as far as I can tell, a piece of legacy genetic programming wired into us at a fundamental level. It’s designed to decrease public risk-taking and increase likelihood of acceptance by our peers.

The Impact of Tribal Wiring On Ultimate Frisbee

Throughout the majority of our time as a species, survival as an individual was only possible if one was accepted by the tribe. Rejection by the tribe meant death. So it makes sense that today, despite no longer necessarily relying upon a tribe to take care of us, the prospect of making unpopular choices can feel unsafe.

Today, this social dynamic is still true for ultimate frisbee, where a team functions very much like a small tribe. Players will be subconsciously aiming to maintain group acceptance at all times.

When playing ultimate frisbee at a level slightly above our current ability, this urge to maintain peer acceptance might manifest itself as a reluctance to play at the edge of our ability. When playing close to our limits, two things happen:

  1. We’re more likely to play both better and worse than we normally do. In terms of our popularity with the team, this pays off when we make great plays. But we also run greater risk of making mistakes and losing social standing.
  2. We will gain a broader range of in-game experience as we try new things, and this will lead to more rapid improvement as a player.

Stable Ultimate Frisbee Teams Breed Resilient Players

When we look at the risks and rewards of playing at the edge of our ability, it becomes obvious that how our team reacts to our proclivity for risk (or lack there of) is likely to have a big impact on how we play.

A strict, “win at all costs” type of team is unlikely to encourage its players (especially its less experienced ones) to try new things in games.

A team that is more “development-oriented” will actively encourage its less-experienced players to stretch their skills during games.

In order to determine whether a team is more “winning” or “development” oriented, you can listen for clues when the team speaks to its newer players. If a team constantly shouts “Dump!” (throw back to a handler) when a new player has the disc, the team is probably more winning-oriented. If the team even supports the new player when she makes a mistake, shouting “Good try!” and other encouragement, you know the team (or at least the player doing the shouting) is more development-oriented.

If you find that your team is contributing heavily to your feelings of stress when playing ultimate frisbee, consider looking for a more development-oriented team if possible. To learn more about choosing a team, read my How to Choose An Ultimate Frisbee Team article.

I’m Afraid To Make Mistakes During Ultimate Frisbee Games.

“I’m afraid to make mistakes because I don’t want to look stupid.” – A quote by everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Of all the mental roadblocks faced by ultimate frisbee players, worrying about what other people think has to be one of the most common impediments to performance.

If you’re afraid to make mistakes, you might be struggling with some of the social acceptance factors outlined above. However, if you’re already playing with a supportive, development-oriented team and yet still find yourself consumed with worry about making mistakes – you might be the source of your own stress.

You’re being too hard on yourself.

You’ve set unrealistic expectations, and you’re causing yourself unnecessary distress by continually falling short of where you think you should be in your progress as an ultimate frisbee player.

You’re not alone, pretty much everybody is hard on themselves to some degree with some aspect of their lives. Maybe for you it’s ultimate frisbee, for me it’s finances, for someone else it’s relationships.

When I find myself suffering under my own oppressive self-talk, the first thing I try to do is recognize and acknowledge that I’m being hard on myself. I then ask myself if I would treat a friend the same way I’m treating myself.

This usually reveals a glaring discrepancy where I realize that I’m treating myself with far less compassion than I would treat a friend. It may also show that the expectations I’ve set for myself are far higher than those I would expect from a friend.

Setting ambitious goals is a great way to orient oneself toward increasing skill and experience. But when the pressure of our own expectations becomes more of an obstacle than a motivating force, it may be time to recalibrate our approach.

Be Kind To Yourself And You’ll Become A Stronger Frisbee Player

This is probably the least obvious way of developing a stronger and more resilient mindset for ultimate frisbee. The obvious thing to do is to “toughen up” mentally and resist, avoid, or deny our insecurity, vulnerability, and fear. But these approaches don’t actually expose us to negative feelings and so we cannot develop a threshold for stress. Nor do we find ourselves capable of actively engaging with and processing stress as it arises.

It’s time to nerd out with a quote from Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Frank Herbert, Dune

To me, this quote is about processing one’s fear. The first line, “I must not fear” is easy to interpret as “I must not experience fear” – but this can’t be true. I think it means: “I must not let fear freeze me in place,” because the rest of the quote outlines a strategy for facing, processing, and emerging on the other side of fear. It’s about embracing fear and allowing it to run its course. Once that’s happened, the only the person remains. The fear has subsided.

Over time, gradual exposure to our fears robs them of their potency. If I fear making mistakes in frisbee games, the worst thing for me to do is never make mistakes during frisbee games because it would allow my fear to persist. I bet it would actually grow.

A better idea would be for me to invest my energy in accepting myself as someone who makes mistakes, is not a perfect frisbee player, and who is continually developing.

If I can accept that I need to face fear in the process of becoming a mentally stronger ultimate frisbee player, then hopefully I will start to see each scary situation as an opportunity to train my mind.

Also remember that these processes take time! I’ve been playing for 20 years, and I still struggle with getting nervous during big games. Subconsciously, I worry a little bit about throwing out of bounds each time I set up for a pull. That’s just part of being mortal!

I Tend To Give Up Easily When My Team Is Losing

Reframe the situation. You are not losing, you are practicing winning against all odds. See your current position as a perfect opportunity to develop as a gritty player, someone who gets better as the odds get worse. Be the underdog. Start getting more excited about Cinderella wins than you are about games where you won easily.

For anyone wondering why there’s a basketball net in a blog about ultimate frisbee, it’s because I train my vertical jump by practicing dunking. At 5′ 10″, training my jumping ability gives me the confidence I need to make plays on the disc regardless of how tall my opponents are.

I Don’t Think I’m Very Talented as an Ultimate Frisbee Player

Does innate talent exist in ultimate frisbee? Yes. I know this from personal experience, and from seeing hundreds of new players enter the sport at vastly different levels of ability.

I’ve tried out several sports in my live – soccer, hockey, rugby, tennis, golf, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and ultimate frisbee. Of all of these sports, I know the feeling of not having much starting talent for just about all of them. But for me, ultimate frisbee was different. I felt as though I started with more talent than I had for other sports. Other people saw it too, and I was invited to play on adult touring teams before I could legally drive a car (which actually made it really difficult to play at the touring level)!

But knowing what I’m going to tell you next is more important than starting out with lots of talent. Talent means very little in the grand scheme of things. It’s a starting point on what is hopefully a long road of continuous improvement. At 34 years old, a team of me today would crush a team of me at 14, 18, or 24 years old.

How can this be? I’m well past my physical prime. Or so you would think! The truth is I’m stronger and faster now than I was at 18, and that’s due to decades of training. The only thing I can’t do as well now as I could 20 years ago is recover. Today, it takes my body longer to recharge than it did two decades ago. But as an ultimate frisbee player, I’m orders of magnitude more skilled, experienced, and useful to my team than I was when I was younger.

What matters most of all, when it really comes down to it, is grit.

I’ve seen talented young players fall apart in championship matches because they’ve let their egos drive their play. And egos are fragile things. An ego is like a balloon, inflated by good plays, outscoring your opponent, and good feelings when the tide of competition is in your favour. Egos tell stories, like “I am winning right now, so I must be a winner.”

The problem, is that egos can’t help but also tell the other half of the story when you’re down. “I’m losing right now, therefore I’m a loser.”

This line of thinking extends well beyond ultimate frisbee and into other aspects of self-perception. American Psychologist Carol Dweck defines this rigid view of the world as a “fixed mindset.”

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University

Adopting a growth mindset will put you on the right track for improvement, make you a more resilient player, and give you the permission to do your best (even though you might fail).

Avoiding a fixed mindset, and ego-driven “stories” about who you are or are not is equally important. This way of thinking is fragile at the best of times, and disastrous at the worst of times.

The Best Mindset for Ultimate Frisbee is a Beginner’s Mind

One of my favourite people in this world is very smart. He knows a great deal about many things. But he’s also careful not to become too attached to any of his knowledge, and this is why I love him. He’s always open to new information, and ready to test it without concern for how it might disrupt his old understanding of things.

You can understand how a person like this is extremely well suited to rapid evolution. Where most of us are naturally drawn to the seduction of confirming our own biases, my friend works hard to challenge them.

Through this constant testing and lack of loyalty to any particular concept, my friend is always able to benefit from the most useful concepts. He is truly open-minded. He is flexible, and presents himself to the world with a true “Beginner’s mindset”.

A beginner has no ego, no inflated self-perception. If anything, a beginner is always aware that they have a lot to learn. This is a wonderful place to spend your entire ultimate frisbee career. It will keep you learning and growing. The moment you think you know it all, you will have abandoned your growth mindset and planted your feet in a fixed way of thinking.

I think I know enough to help other people figure things out a bit faster than I did. But I could be totally wrong about everything I’m teaching about ultimate frisbee. Someday, someone will figure out a far more effective method of throwing a frisbee than I teach. When that happens, my goal is to be flexible enough to let go of old knowledge and welcome new concepts.

Stress Management Techniques for Ultimate Frisbee

Playing ultimate frisbee imposes an unavoidable amount of normal athletic stress on the body. As far as I can tell, this stress imposes the same wear and tear on our nervous systems as psychological stress does. So it makes sense to do what can be done to lower stress levels prior to playing ultimate frisbee so we can be more resilient during the game.

Here are a few ways to naturally increase your tolerance for stress prior to playing ultimate frisbee, which will also increase your ability to withstand the natural stress of the game:

  • Make sure you’re getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep leading up to the game
  • Reduce dietary stressors (caffeine, sugar and alcohol are the main culprits) if you find your stress levels are becoming unmanageable
  • If you feel lonely, you will benefit from spending time with people you love
  • If you feel socially overwhelmed, you will benefit from some alone time

These are some of the external stress factors that can go undetected because they’re not obviously related to how we feel during ultimate frisbee games. But try playing an important game after a sleepless night and it will illustrate by extreme example that our athletic performance declines when we don’t take care of ourselves.

The truth is, as we all know at this point with Covid-19 preventing ultimate frisbee from happening, we’re lucky to be able to play ultimate frisbee at all. When I feel the pressure of the scoreboard, or an overwhelming need to win, I try to take a step back and see the bigger picture of what we’re actually doing. We’re just playing, that’s all ultimate frisbee is.

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