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Tuesday Tips: Achieving the Balance Between Improving and Winning

Finding the balance that allows you to achieve short-term and long-term team goals is a delicate tightrope walk.

UNC's Towel Squad.
UNC’s Towel Squad. Photo: Jolie Lang — UltiPhotos.com

There are three common goals that many teams and players share every time they go out to play ultimate: have fun, get better at the game, and win. Ideally, all three of these goals are achieved — and, importantly, in that particular order.

However, the reality is sometimes a harder road. Depending on the situation — the when and where of the game, the group you are playing with, and your own personal desires — the prioritization of those goals can be entirely mixed up. At a tryout tournament, for example, your desire to get better individually likely supersedes your desire to win as a team. On the other hand, the College or Club Series, for many, is the time to leave it all on the line to seek victory at almost any cost. Hopefully, fun is the priority in all instances, but sometimes — say those fall tournaments or practice scrimmages — grinding through some difficult reps in order to improve as a group might trump having a good time.

Many captains and coaches have faced the dilemma of toning down the team’s silliness for the sake of amping up focus and work; many have also dealt with a team being so focused on outcomes that they sacrifice development and the basic joy of play. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk over the course of a practice, a weekend, or even a full season, especially in this day and age of do-or-die rankings across a slew of regular season tournaments, where every game can matter towards a Nationals bid. But it is a vital balance to get right to maintain a positive team environment, live up to the Spirit of the Game, and achieve peak performance.

Here are some suggestions for how to balance competitive growth with fun and winning:

Situations and Priorities

People play this sport for any number of reasons. As such, goals and priorities are going to vary from team-to-team and tournament-to-tournament, which is entirely normal and fair. So it’s a good idea, before you go into any competitive environment, to be sure the team is on the same page about it’s goals and expectations. In some instances, the priorities will be obvious1, but in other instances it’ll be harder to decide what your team is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve either short-term victory or its long-term goals. By openly agreeing upon priorities at the start of any practice, tournament, or season, you not only manage expectations, but you also provide clarity on where mental focus and energy should be directed.

Generally, even for teams who highly value winning, the earlier the tournament is in your season, the less important it is to come out on top. In fact, if your focus is to win later — when trying to spark a post-season run — then the regular season should be focused more on getting better.

In many ways, shifting the focus of the regular season away from victory is freeing. The very best thing about regular season tournaments is that they are real-time measures for progress — formative assessments that can guide your team’s (and personal) growth. Rather than relying on your superstars to make big plays non-stop or shying away from practicing new strategies that aren’t perfected yet to avoid losing, use the regular season to find out what aspects of your game you need to work on and then get meaningful reps. Not only will this allow you to improve, it will give you a mental edge knowing that your current performances aren’t the peak of your potential.

Keep in mind, though, that winning doesn’t just happen by miracle. Winning, like everything else, takes practice. The more you win, the more confident your team is, and the more you’ll know how to get it done in different circumstances. Never assume that some “secret weapon” you’ve never unleashed before can necessarily carry you through to victory.

So once again it becomes a balance, a game of knowing how much you should work on yourselves and how much you can do to still win — whether for those rankings or for your own mental confidence. The perfect combination is finding ways to improve while still pulling off the victory: it’s good on all counts.

What Can You Do to Play and Improve While Still Winning?

There are a few things a team or an individual can focus on that will help them improve as a group, but still give them a shot to practice matching up against teams, adjusting their game, and winning. Use these suggestions as points of focus throughout the regular season (especially early on) to drive home good habits.

First and foremost is an offensive focus that is absolutely critical to any team at any level: making good decisions with the disc.

In ultimate, the team with fewer turnovers wins. And while nobody ever actively tries to give the disc back to their opponent, turns are bound to happen, especially as you are learning to play as an individual and as a team. But rather than focusing purely on limiting turnovers at all costs, it is important to use them as learning opportunities to recognize what went wrong and what could have been done differently.

Start by keeping track of turnovers during games or scrimmages at practice, not just the number but also the characteristics of the turnovers. Over time, you will start to recognize what types of decisions improve your completion — and ultimately scoring — percentage. As a squad, if you’re working on possessing the disc and limiting turnovers, ask your players to really be aware of what decisions they are making. When possible, give individual feedback based on common turnovers. For example, tell your handlers to rein in the longer passes and taking every “it was a good matchup” shot. Encourage cutters to move the disc faster or make shorter, safer passes with lots of resets. Hit your set plays only when they’re really open and don’t be afraid to go backwards.

By learning to value and possess the disc through good decision-making, not only with you cut down on team turnovers, you will start to score your goals through skill and discipline, not luck or athleticism. If you can get your team to focus on this, and improve throughout a weekend or season, you’ll see victories naturally pile up along the way and the confidence increase as well.

That said, there are certainly circumstances that call for being a little more aggressive in your decision-making. In situations where you are very much the underdog, embrace the opportunity to take more calculated risks in hopes of throwing off your opponent — and perhaps learn something about yourself in the process. Alternatively, if you are in conditions that are not conducive to a conservative approach, frustration can mount in a way that limits improvement anyway; better to employ a pragmatic approach and learn how to pull out an ugly win.

But as often as possible, try to keep your calm and run your gameplan as cleanly as possible. Many teams find this difficult. When times get tough, it is very tempting to let loose and fall back on relying on your best players to make athletic plays in a game of ugly ultimate. There’s a reason most teams really try to play pretty early on, however. As hard as it might be, it will pay dividends for the future as good habits become ingrained in your players.

Trying new roles is another great thing to focus on during the regular season. Whether by reallocating playing time, shifting lines around, or asking players to take on new responsibilities (whether it’s a defensive matchup or a greater offensive focus or risk), experimenting with new roles is one of the best ways to improve the depth and quality of individual players on a team — without necessarily sacrificing a chance to win.

You may head into a season with a sense of who will be playing which roles in the big moments of the game-to-go and a desire to practice with your top seven dominating the field as frequently as possible. But a lot can change over a long season, and there’s not a lot to be gained long-term by constantly running through your star player to win every point throughout the season.

Instead, set up a system early on that allows players the opportunity to get regular, meaningful reps to develop their skills and confidence. This may mean simply splitting into Offensive and Defensive lines or it could be even more open, with 5-6 groups designed to constantly rotate to get people equal time on the field in different roles. This can be the chance to find a new role or position for your talent: asking a cutter to handle or asking a player to be more active or aggressive is great to do here. Not only might this cut down on the injury risk of over-relying on a single stud, but it will ensure that all players buy-in by feeling they were given an opportunity to earn their role as a contributor.

Don’t be afraid to go for traditional chemistry either. Keeping a good offensive group together throughout a tournament can be frustrating if your team is having trouble getting D’s or converting chances, but can really establish strong chemistry within groups of players so they know how to anticipate or react to their teammates in various situations.

Finally, selling out on defense is a great focus for a team looking to both improve and win. In a sport where so much is out of your control, the one thing you can always control is your effort.

While offense tends to thrive on consistency and a somewhat conservative approach that requires nonstop mental focus, defense is an opportunity to be a little more creative and aggressive in how your channel energy, no matter who the opponent or what the game situation.

A successful defense is always going to need to be able to throw multiple looks at an opponent. So matter where in the season you are or what your priorities, when your defense is failing to generate turnovers, don’t be afraid to mix things up and try to focus on something different for a point. Come the games where your main goal is to win, you’re going to have to switch things up anyway! So why not do it earlier on when less is on the line?

Defense is the time you should use those risk-taking or underdog tactics. If you’re in the big moment later in the season, you aren’t going to want to keep things the same if you can’t get breaks. So try a zone, try a poach, switch the force, switch up matchups, be creative! Getting reps of something you’ve practicing even when the conditions are ideal — like trying out a new zone, even though it might not be windy — can still pay dividends for a defense.

There are few things more satisfying than figuring out how to outwit an opponent’s offensive sets or just frustrating them with relentless effort. No matter what your priorities in a practice or tournament, there’s never a reason to hold back your team from making big athletic plays or exerting maximum effort on defense. It not only allows you to practice analyzing how an opponent responds to different looks (especially useful if the opponent has a fairly good offense), but it let’s some cathartic energy out for your squad. Never be afraid to let the group get pumped up and to go after the big plays.

Make sure everyone is playing the same defensive set with the same goals, but then let the dogs loose and let the sidelines go crazy every time you force a turn.

Perception Doesn’t Matter… Unless You Let It

You have your goals and priorities, and you have good ways to direct team focus even while walking the balance beam of competitive improvement and success. Now go for it, and don’t care what anyone else thinks.

External perception of your team really doesn’t matter. Don’t ever be afraid of another group looking at your scores and saying “Well, they only won by two here, they must not be very good.” No one but you will be able to judge how any given game contributed to your team’s growth.

The only time perception matters is when you let it matter. Buying into the hype can be just as dangerous as buying into the failure. Keep your team focused on its own goals and not on what others think… except if you have some bulletin board material that will you get fired up when it matters. Disrespect is almost as effective a motivator as absolute confidence or an opponent’s fear of your attack.

Sliding Scale

As the season progresses, be sure you are constantly reevaluating and adjusting your goals and priorities. At some point, you may decide that winning is more important than getting better. And perhaps, throughout the slog of a season, you’ll have to occasionally tone down the fun in hopes of achieving another goal.

If your team has bought in, it’ll all be worth it. For as your goals shift, the fun and improvement will come naturally as you begin to win more and more, having mastered the way to balance for success.


  1. Like the spring break beach tournament being about relaxing and recharging 

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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