Tuesday Tips: Mental Strength Advice From The Stoics, Presented By Spin Ultimate

It's time to stop worrying about all the things that are outside of your control.

It takes mental toughness to remain positive and focused, even during adverse conditions. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

This article was written by guest author Mark Davis, coach of Arizona State Caliente.


“Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” – Epictetus

This may seem like a truism not worth giving a second thought, but what if I told you that understanding and appreciating this can make you a mentally strong athlete?

Many of us know the type of player who looks just as at home in a downpour and 20 mph winds as on a cloudless, calm day, that person whose resolve and performance only seem to strengthen when adversity sets in and others start complaining. They seem to be able to find inner strength to stay focused and play at the peak of their ability no matter what the external circumstances. I think this is a perfectly good definition of mental strength — and it also happens to be the standard operating procedure of the Stoic.

I am neither a real philosopher nor a real Stoic; I’m an ultimate player and a coach. But I think there are some insights we can borrow from the basics of Stoic philosophy that can apply to being more mentally disciplined and cultivating mental strength — particularly on the field, in high stress situations.1

Understand The Power And Limits Of Your Mind

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Seneca

This passage, written by the Roman philosopher Seneca, represents what I think is the primary insight Stoic philosophy offers for a competitive mentality. In competition, there are going to be plenty of factors that are outside of your control, that just are the way they are at that moment, and you have to deal with it. Maybe the weather is rough, maybe you have a short squad, injured players, or a logistics snafu, maybe you aren’t getting playing time or you have made mistakes, maybe some team is making terrible calls, or maybe your team is just objectively outmatched.

Whatever the environment is and whatever has happened in a game or tournament up to that point are things that are outside of your control. If you stake your mental or emotional status on these factors, you are opening up the possibility that you will be mentally or emotionally unstable — you are making your mental strength dependent on the odds happening to fall in your favor.

So what is within your control in any given situation or competition? Primarily, your mental state, your attitude, and your future decisions and actions. Build a mindset that is staked only on these things and you retain control of your mental and emotional stability.

Understand The Transient Nature Of External Conditions

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius

If what you need to get fulfillment and satisfaction out of playing ultimate is good weather, exceptional teammates, maximum playing time, no confrontation, and always winning, you are setting yourself up to be miserable and inviting negative mental states when those things are not present. Allowing yourself to be miserable or in a bad mental space because something you want is missing is not conducive to performing at your highest levels.

Weather changes, teammates get hurt and sometimes underperform, confrontations happen — all of which can occur regardless of what you think or try to do to prevent it. Over your career, teammates will come and go, injuries will come and go, coaches and winning and losing seasons will come and go. Sometimes things fall in your favor and sometimes they don’t.

Your mind and your attitude remain with you, under your control. It is up to you how you react to the circumstances presented to you, though the the circumstances themselves may not be entirely up to you. If everything you need to get fulfillment and satisfaction out of playing ultimate is internal to yourself and your mind, then you are in control of your mental game, and external factors will have no major effect on your emotional state during competition — again the very definition of mental strength.

Embrace Adversity

“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.” – Marcus Aurelius

Just as the more you practice catching pulls, the more comfortable you will be with it in an important competition, the more you practice being cold, in the wind, under stress, and outside your regular comfort zone, the more likely you are to feel comfortable with those condiditons in competition.

Practice being that mentally tough player. Embrace the cold weather, make sure you go to all the rainy practices, guard the best player every chance you get, mark the biggest trash talker, don’t overreact to bad calls, go throw when you see its windy out, go run in the cold. Embrace adversity and challenge yourself because you know its difficult and it will make you mentally stronger.

Challenge yourself because doing so proves to yourself you can. Each time you do it, you are reinforcing the confidence and comfort that you could do it again and be just fine. View adverse circumstances as opportunities to exercise and prepare that aspect of your game, and you will become stronger for it.

Don’t Waste Energy On Things You Can’t Control

“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” – Seneca

You have a finite amount of mental resources — being fully focused on competing will take most of them. Spending those valuable resources worrying about or complaining about things you have no control over is a waste.

Expending mental energy on logistics, tournament formats, conditions, other teams, bad calls, etc. will not help you compete, it will not make you happy, and it will not allow you to be a positive influence on your team.

Take the power to influence your mentality away from external factors. Don’t wait for the right circumstances to come to you for you to be zoned in. Don’t let your readiness and mental state be tied to anything but yourself. Don’t give yourself anything to complain about.

Should external factors align in your favor, take advantage of it if you can, enjoy it if you want, but understand the transitory nature of it — don’t become attached and dependent on those things. It is not within your power to always have everything be the way you want, but you do have the power to not want what you haven’t got, and make the most of whatever does happen.

Give Strength To Your Team

“Love sometimes injures. Friendship always benefits, After friendship is formed you must trust…” – Seneca

This article has so far been focused on the individual, but as we all know ultimate is a team sport. Team cohesiveness is a huge focus and factor for competition, and I actually think the Stoic philosophy has plenty to contribute here as well.

Once you’re on a team, what your teammates do is largely outside of your control, so according to our Stoic model, you should not attach your entire well-being to them. if one should get hurt or do something terrible, you need to be able to continue to focus and perform.

However, if you are not dependent on it, there is nothing wrong with using any supplemental and additional motivation or energy that comes your way — it’s a bonus you can do with or without, but having it is better than not having it. Teammates can be a huge source of motivation and energy, and you should absolutely use that to help you perform, even though you don’t necessarily need it to be able to be a fierce competitor.

Appreciating this should make you realize that being a good, mentally strong, stoic ultimate player should always involve you holding yourself to be as good a teammate as you can and a source of energy and motivation for your team. This is something you have complete control over, and it can have a big positive impact; it is worth carving out some mental energy for.

Just like you work to not let external factors influence your physical game and focus, they should not influence your ability to be a good teammate.


“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Gaining control of your mentality during competition is something no one can do for you, and if you aren’t purposeful about how you go about it, you’re less likely to end up somewhere you want to be. If you feel like your mental game could use some work and aren’t sure how to go about it, try looking to the Stoics.

  1. If I betray certain aspects of true Stoicism in the process, I apologize to any actual philosophers or Stoics. 

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