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7 Mental Traps Your Team Must Avoid

How many of these hit home?

mental trapsThere’s blood swirling in the water around the men’s club scene in the Northeast. With the loss of key players on Ironside and GOAT, second-tier teams have been stocking their rosters with young hungry athletes, eager to get a shot at Frisco. The team that I coach, Dark or Light, along with Big Wrench, Garuda, Phoenix and others, is anxious to take advantage of those who flounder and misfire.

But before we become delirious about what appears to be the widest open door in recent years, let us take a look at the competitive traps that lie ahead. Having just come off a long season with the UMass men, I am well aware of the pitfalls that await a team during tournaments. As a matter of fact, I sent a version of this list to my team in April, after we experienced a dismal Centex. It seemed to help, as Easterns was a bit better, and then we hit our stride at Regionals and Nationals.

So whether you are getting ready for a summer league mid-season tournament or prepping for the U.S. Open, take a look at the road that is ahead of you. Cultivating a sense of self-awareness is crucial to success and perhaps this map will help you and your team find its way.

1. The “This Team Sucks And We Can Work On Stuff” Trap

I have been caught by this particular trap repeatedly. It usually happens during the first or second game on Saturday. The leadership takes a look at the other team warming up and decides that this would be a perfect time to work on an new offensive set or zone, one we may not even have practiced.

The message is that these opponents are not worth our full effort. Players almost immediately lower their level of energy and start eating, rolling out their quads, or checking their phones. If a coach announces that “we should beat this team 15-6,” then do not be surprised when your team is annoyed and distracted when you are down 6-8 at half.

2. The “We Beat This Team Before And We Don’t Have To Try Hard” Trap

This trap bares its teeth at any point in a tournament and can actually occur multiple times in one weekend. If it happens in pool play, you can sometimes redeem yourself by learning the lesson and still advancing. I sometimes think it is good to lose a pool play game, if your team needs a reality check.

I often overhear conversations about past games when warming up to play a past opponent. Your players may like to talk about the last big play or how someone cheated or the final score or how well so-and-so played last time. While some of this may simply be nervous chatter, it can also be an indication that you have cleared out a space in your brain for THE OTHER TEAM. The more you think during competition, the worse you will play.

3. The “Let’s Watch This Team During Our Bye And Talk About How Awful They Are” Trap

This drives me crazy. Why does anyone think it is a good idea to line up on an opponent’s sideline and ridicule someone you will play later in the day? During a bye, do your best to get away from the sideline or field. If someone has to scout, and I think it is probably too late for that, let one or two people go; the rest of the team should give their brain a rest. Eat, hydrate, tell stupid stories, but do not watch and heckle. You can save that for when you are eliminated early on Sunday and you are nursing a sad beverage at your sad sideline party.

4. The “We Can Beat This Team But We Are Still Annoyed About Our Last Game” Trap

So you are now in the crossover game late on Saturday and your entire team is exasperated that you did not close out the previous one. Maybe it was a combination of #1 and #3, but, for whatever reason, you are now fighting to stay in the upper bracket. However, many players still want to discuss exactly what just happened in the last game.

Why did we sub in the bench so early? Why can’t so-and-so catch? Read? Know what the force is? Who gave that cutter the green light to throw whatever they want?

Your team eventually arrives at the new sideline, but their focus is still back at the old game, along with wet socks and banana peels. You know what happens next.

5) The “We Are In Consolation, This Sucks, I Am Checking Out” Trap

We all know what this looks like. The top players are bummed that the team has been eliminated and they want to relax immediately and put the last loss behind them. If you don’t watch out, they will take off their cleats and put on their sandals and sweats. The bench, however, is anxious to finally play. They take the field, often with little support from the players for whom they cheered all weekend.

If you want to see how divided (or united) your team is, then this is when a crystal clear picture will come into focus. Jon Nethercutt spoke recently about how fun it was for the starters to cheer for their bench players during their inconsequential loss to Oregon in pool play at Nationals. Now that, my friends, is a team who knows what is important.

6. The “We Can’t Believe We Are Up Two Breaks, When Will They Come Back?” Trap

This one is the opposite of #2 and is particularly painful. If you can’t believe your team has a lead, then the other team also senses that it is temporary. You know you are falling into this “Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory” trap when everyone is visibly surprised when you keep scoring. Players glance sideways to see how the other team is responding. All of a sudden, you are discussing why they moved their O line stud to the D line and what that really means. What that really means is that, while you were obsessing about the other team, your team is now down a break.

I am not sure this trap is avoidable. We are so wedded to a hierarchy of outcome that, even if we are winning, we are wary of anything that upsets the order of our own little world. My experience is that you have to lose a few times, or sometimes a bunch of times, before you can finally beat THAT team. But it will happen.

7. The “We Only Need One More Point So Let’s Lose Our Collective Minds” Trap

You can see this at any tournament, summer league game, or pick-up session. Some teams employ this exhausting strategy for an entire game, or season. You can tell when your team is fully embracing this trap when everything you have discussed, practiced, or fine-tuned is thrown out the window. This usually occurs when the pressure ramps up and players revisit the first time they ever played ultimate, replete with terrible choices, execution, and attitudes. You can almost hear everyone on the field shouting, “WE ONLY NEED ONE MORE POINT!” And the more you hear that, either in your brain or from the sideline, you are certain to not score that point.

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For those of you who are a fan of Dr. Goldberg  or some other sports psychologist, you probably have a good idea of how to identify and avoid these traps. For those of you who want concrete solutions to these problems, I will address those in my next column two weeks from now. While I do suggest some obvious solutions in the seven traps described above, I will also:

1. Give you the tools for recognizing a trap before your entire team falls into it.

2. Offer concrete solutions to realign a team with its purpose once it has gone off course.

3. Explain the strategy that you can rely on when your team comes up with new and exciting ways to sabotage its performance.

That’s all for now. I need to get ready to chum the waters at Devens, in preparation for this week’s Boston Invite. Duuun. Dun. Duuun. Dun. dundundundundundun…

  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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