Stop Thinking. Just Play.

Two young players battle on the field.
Photo by Brandon Wu — UltiPhotos.com

Let’s do a quick review of the mental toughness concepts that I have presented in the last few months. In order to understand today’s column, you must be familiar with these ideas:

1) Stay in the Moment
2) Focus on Process not Outcome
3) Avoid Uncontrollables
4) Nurture Controllables
5) Have No Expectations

You cannot do any of these things unless you have developed a sense of self-awareness, but doing an internal audit is often one of the last things a team will do. Coaches and players often prefer to focus on external factors during a game: What kind of D should we play? How can we improve our endzone offense? How can we stop getting broken?

Until you take a mental inventory of where you are, the strategy you choose is secondary. If you are not mentally prepared to play your best, it simply does not matter what strategy you are using.

The Three Types of Nervousness

As you gather your things and walk toward the field for any game, choose the answer which best represents your inner monologue:

A. We have crushed this team twice this season. No need to even cleat up. The rookies will get plenty of playing time.
B. I am feeling good. A few butterflies, but I am excited about playing this next team. Let’s go!
C. My stomach hurts. I can’t breathe. All I can think about is how important it is to WIN this game. I don’t think we can do it, but I hope we do.

Not Enough Nervous

Answer A represents the players who think they have nothing to worry about. They may be already calculating their margin of victory or how long a bye they can get if they finish quickly. Their warm-up, if they even do one, is brief and half-hearted. No line is called; the first seven out there can play.

Taking any opponent lightly is a huge tactical error for two reasons. First of all, a team that you have repeatedly crushed will often come out fired up. How many times have you seen the situation where one team assumes that they will win easily and then find themselves down 8-4 at half?

In addition, why would you ever want to deliver a mediocre performance as a team? All that does is instill the memory, both physical and mental, of how to play poorly.

Bad Nervous

I am skipping over B and going directly to C, as that often happens when you start out in A. I call this the Doom Scenario, because it is very difficult to turn around. It is also exceedingly common, which means you will have many opportunities to face this situation in your career.

Back to the team that is down 8-4. They went down in the first half because their throws were lazy, they didn’t see poaches, and the D was sluggish. Plus the other team, the one they were supposed to crush, is loud and happy. So annoying.

At halftime, everyone on this team is pissed. Some are not even joining the huddle. Once the half starts, almost everyone has arrived in the Land of Bad Nervous. Because they are focused on the outcome, they continue to make bad choices. Any game plan has been abandoned. The team is fractured and people who rarely make mistakes are dropping the disc and throwing it away as fast as possible. In terms of analysis, it doesn’t really matter whether they win or lose. Damage has been done to their mental game and it will take a while to repair.

Good Nervous

B is the correct answer. This is where everyone wants to be at the beginning of every game, every time. If you are in good nervous, you are excited to play and ready to go. Your team has had a strong warm-up, with lots of noise. Everyone has broken a sweat during drills and you are energized to do your best as a team.

If your team is in good nervous, and you can maintain it throughout the game, anything is possible. Your legs feel light and you can run for days. You throw and catch calmly and efficiently. The field becomes clear and easily readable, whether you are on O or D. Good things happen and sometimes great things happen. Your team has entered Peak Performance, also known as the Zone, and your team should want to do anything it can to get there and stay there.

The Physiology of Nervousness

I am now going to venture into some science, always dangerous terrain for an English major. This is the layperson’s explanation of how the brain works.

The Front Brain is where you think and analyze. It is fine to use your Front Brain when you are at practice, but you should do very little thinking during a game. Thinking while competing slows you down and if this thinking turns into bad nervousness, you will not be able to throw, run or catch well. As you begin to drift away from the present and become anxious, more blood will flow to your brain, heart and lungs. You will have less blood in your extremities and therefore your hands and feet will not work the way you want them to. This is why athletes in bad nervous drop an easy catch, whiff a throw, or can’t run hard. If you want to see more examples of bad nervous, watch some March Madness. I guarantee you will see these kinds of mistakes at the end of many games. When you see a free throw fall short in overtime, you can be certain that the player is thinking too much.

Instead, you want to be in your Back Brain during competition. This is the part of the brain where your muscle memory resides. Responses and movement are unconscious. When you are riding a bike, you don’t think about how the pedal moves away from you and then returns. You just unconsciously make it work. That’s how you want to be during competition. Rely on everything you have learned in practice and just let it come to you. When you are in your Back Brain, you may not even remember playing. If this happens, you are enjoying Peak Performance yet again. The only way to get there is by being in good nervous.

Solutions

It is the rare athlete who doesn’t get nervous. And it is even the rarer athlete who can maintain calm when faced with a game that could end a tournament or season. But there are things you can do to make sure you are in good nervous and stay there, no matter what is on the line.

1. Know where you are on the spectrum. Ask yourself what kind of nervous you are before each game. If you whole team has bought into this concept, this should be discussed in every pre-game huddle. You can’t expect everyone to be in good nervous all the time, but you can expect that everyone knows where they are and take appropriate steps to improve.

2. Figure out what you need in order to be in good nervous. This solution is different for each player, but some things that help are: go for a quick run by yourself, throw intensely on the sideline, visit the port-o-john, listen to music, lie on the ground and visualize, sit under the tent and breathe, repeat some positive self-talk, eat or drink something. Don’t expect to just magically arrive where you need to be mentally. Sometimes it happens, but being proactive is quicker and more efficient.

3. Consistently monitor your self-awareness. Everyone’s levels of nervousness can change throughout the game. If you open up a big lead, players relapse into not enough nervous. If you are down by 3 with an impending cap, it is easy to get into bad nervous. If you make a mistake on the field, you must stop any negative self-talk immediately. Just remember that you are always trying to be part of a team that is in good nervous. You do have the ability to change your inner monologue. The suggestions in #2 still work in the middle of a game. Don’t be afraid to use them.

Being aware of how you are feeling does not make you a weak athlete. On the contrary, knowing how your mental game is affecting your physical performance is a sign of strength. Identifying and improving your level of nervousness will not fix all your problems, but it will, probably more than anything, give you the opportunity to correct poor performance mid-game. And after that, anything can happen.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the director of the National Ultimate Training Camp and a co-coach of the University of Massachusetts men. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is sports psychology, and she offers clinics to coaches of ultimate and other sports. Tiina will be inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame at USAU Club Nationals in October of 2018.

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