Tuesday Tips: 11 Ways To Mentally Prepare For A Superior Matchup, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Use self-talk, visualization, and focus to limit your opponent's top threat.

With her combination of speed and size, Sandy Jorgensen is one of the more daunting matchups in ultimate. 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

We’ve all been there.

Your name is called and you are asked to match up defensively against a very good opponent, perhaps one you are even certain is superior to you.

In many ways, this can be an amazing opportunity, one that many have waited long to have — a chance to measure yourself against the best. On the other hand, there is no doubt that it is going to be a challenge. Facing off against a great player one-on-one, especially when the game is on the line, is no easy task. Your job is a tall order and winning the battle against this opposing player, while definitely the dream, is perhaps pretty unlikely.

What to do then? What’s the best way to approach such a matchup?

Physically and strategically, there are a few things you can do to limit an opponent’s superstar. But the key to equalizing, or even beating, this matchup begins in your head. Many players might mentally crumble in the face of such adversity, or give up in exasperation. The ultimate failure here is to simply say, “she’s too good” and walk away shaking your head. If you are unduly intimidated, you’ve lost the battle before you’ve even begun. On the other hand, cockiness and recklessness are recipes for disaster. Mental poise and preparedness is what is called for.

The key is to find ways to mentally prepare for this matchup to limit or best the opponent. Here are eleven ways to do so:

1. Observe and watch for trends.

If the opposing player is better than you, you had certainly try to be smarter.

A good ultimate player is always watching and studying the opponent. Ideally, you have some heads-up that you’ll be taking this particular matchup and you’ll be able to study the opposing player in preparation. If not, it will come down to observation on the fly.

Every player has certain tendencies and areas of strength. Many times, these tendencies turn into outright patterns, especially in terms of initial cuts and plays. Learn and adapt as quickly as you can. Likewise, take note of what the player’s strengths are so you can come up with a plan to counter them.

Here’s a trick: When watching a matchup, have two sets of eyes on the player — you’ll need a sideline buddy, especially when you’re on the field — avoiding looking at the disc; after the point is over, take ten seconds to recap what your thoughts are. See if you can spot a trend in what the opposing player is trying to do or likes to do.

2. Practice positive self-talk.

Positive thinking is essential here; you have to build your own confidence through either mental or literal self-talk.

A great thing to do waiting on the sideline or jogging to the end zone when your name is called, self-talk is a key aspect that is often dismissed or lost in the crowd of thoughts of a chaotic game.

Start with the basics: reminding yourself of your own strengths, of how good a player you are, and the fact that this is your chance to really shine and make a difference. If the adrenaline wasn’t already flowing, it soon will be. Remember, even a little fear can be a good thing to get the body running at 100%.

Next, hit those observations. Remind yourself that no matter how good your opponent seems, he or she has weaknesses and tendencies. No one is perfect; everyone can be beaten. And, at the very least, if you can’t beat the person, you can limit them.

Think of this is a low-risk, high-reward opportunity, at least personally. If you lose this matchup, something expected has happened. On the other hand, if you win… let’s just say you have everything to gain here.

Still, you want to be ready for your team. Find something that motivates you and visualize it. For some, it’s positive emotions of winning, celebrating, of family or friends. For others, it is the competitive thoughts, the pump-up song running through your head, the thoughts of your workouts and endless practices, of fighting for your tired teammates. Let this guide you. Remember, you’ve done all the hard work already, now it’s just time to see how it shows through to maximize your own talent.

3. Analyze and predict.

While psyching yourself up, don’t forgot about the opponent in this situation. Remind yourself of the strengths of your matchup — not so you fear them, but so you can be ready for them. Be humble and cautiously optimistic about what you can do, but poised so you don’t waste the chance with undue risk-taking or overexcitement.

Talk to yourself about what specifically might be coming. Go over the observations in your head, see the score, the strategy, and the positions on the field, and then make some predictions. Given the situation, figure out what the opponent might want to do next. Don’t guess randomly or overcommit to these suppositions. Instead, have an idea in mind, and if you’re right, you can be stride for stride with your opponent on defense. If you’re incorrect, adjust accordingly and keep this process of analysis and prediction going.

As the great General Sun Tzu wrote, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

4. Visualize success.

Continue the process of self-talk through visualization. Now, instead of thinking of your own motivation and imagining your opponent’s next move, visualize what is about to happen on the field of play.

This is often best done when standing on the line preparing for a point. You know your strategy now and you can literally see your matchup. Imagine what you are going to do on the next play; dream now of defensive glory. Are you going to have a furious mark and get a handblock? Are you going to force the opponent deep and then sky her? Are you going to lay the cutter out on an under?

See it happening and tell yourself it is going to happen over and over until the disc goes up.

These aren’t purposeless fantasies. Science has repeatedly shown that visualization increases confidence and can even improve performance. Many times a player will picture a situation in his or her own head, and the body will do the rest in the heat of the moment.

5. Pick a priority.

Once the disc is up, many things will change. As another famous general, Helmuth Von Mulke, said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In other words, much of what you predicted, imagined, or thought, may now change.

Do not stress; let your body and muscle memory take over and play the game. Mentally, instead of focusing any one aspect, pick the priority to stop. What is your matchup’s greatest strength? Commit to stopping that first, and then your visualization of a great play will follow. For example, if your priority is to stop the huck of a great thrower, then do this first and foremost, even if it means giving up an easier break throw or quick swing.

You have to crawl before you can walk.

6. Limit the opponents options or impact.

Once you’ve picked your priority to stop in the matchup, commit mentally to taking away that option from the player in front of you. If your opponent is objectively better than you are and completely shutting them down is an unreasonable ask, successfully limiting their impact on a point will be a victory, even if a small one.

If you can stop a player from doing something he or she likes, make the opponent work extra hard, or better yet force others to be more involved in the action (hence giving your teammates chances for blocks), you’re doing your job.

It may not be glorious, but this safety first, unselfish team approach is a good baseline from which you can then build. It’s your duty to keep focused on this in your head and make sure it happens.

7. Target opportunities for a block.

After limiting the opponent’s strength, you’re ready to identify your best chance.

Generally, this comes in the opposite area of strength: the weakness of your matchup. A good athletic deep threat, for example, may be much clumsier if forced back into the handler set.

Here’s where your visualization gets the chance to play. After you’ve pushed them into their less comfortable position, stay extra tight on your mark in these situations. If you were giving cushion or showing caution in the area of strength, now is the time to be a little more aggressive, physical, and mentally aware, searching for the right moment.

Focus is key. You have to be critical, analytical, and keenly aware of what is going to happen next to do your best to predict where your chance will come.

8. Be prepared to grind.

Your opportunity to make an impact may not come down to one play, but instead be the process of an entire point or multiple points of harassing your mark. Be ready to mentally slog out the fight for position and victory.

Sometimes these long battles over the course of a game take more mental endurance and strength than physical. It can be frustrating and disappointing to lose on defense against a talented player; however, it can all be worth it if you get better and better, closer and closer, and win the fight at the key moment.

Also pay attention to what your teammates are doing. Sometimes you’ll have the dirty job, but others will be thriving. If the team is succeeding, it’s all worth it. If the team is not, make the changes quickly before you lose. Give yourself a real chance.

Each time you fail, learn as best you can; talk to your teammates and continue to get tips on observation and what tendencies are showing up. Continue to adapt and evolve in your prediction as you see what is happening on the field.

Eventually, you’ll get a chance. The longer you play against this person, the more likely it will be to happen. However, keep in mind, you may not get many. If the moment comes, be ready to exploit it.

9. Decide to take a risk.

Eventually, the time will come to take a risk. Remember, your first priority is to limit the opponent’s impact on the point, but if the opposing player is already finding ways to beat you despite your best efforts, you really have nothing to lose.

In other words, it’s time to make a play and be the confident aggressor. Find a good spot to take a risk where you won’t be giving up an easy goal if you fail; this is preferably around midfield, near a sideline, so it’s harder for your opponent to find a way to immediately score. Flip the switch in your head and come out hot.

Lining up either a layout, jumping a route, or lunging for a handblock are best bets, although drifting back to lure a deep huck or hammer is also viable. Bait a block or sell out on a slight opening.

Let all the adrenaline out in a burst. If you succeed, you’re a hero. If you fail, recover as quickly as you can and get back to the chase.

10. Turn it on or take yourself out.

If the turn occurs, you have two options. The first is to go as hard as you can. If your opponent is tired or if you’re good on the offensive side, this is your route. Expend as much energy as you can muster trying to tire this player out for future battles and weaken his or her mental resolve. There is no greater feat than forcing the turn to then being heavily involved in the ensuing score.

Another option is the opposite: stay out of the play all together. This is where discretion can be the better part of valor. It might be frustrating and it takes mental fortitude, but if this player is especially talented, there is also a good chance he or she is good at defense and looking to atone for their offensive mistake. Sometimes, we can try to do too much and catch ourselves not getting open on the field. If you’re being shut down, or worse almost getting blocked, then you may need to hang away from the disc. Keep your player occupied so they can’t poach and keep moving to burn and tire the matchup, but also only go for the disc when an opportunity is absolutely obvious.

Otherwise, stay out of big hucks or break chances and let your teammates do the work against the weaker players. Unselfish wins nine times out of ten.

11. Gather feedback and loop the process.

After every point, and every game, it is always time to go back to step one. Observe, talk, learn, adapt, and eventually win.

Talk to a teammate after each point about what happened; ask him or her how they feel about the point if you can and self-assess in your mind. Use that point of view to imagine, or better yet watch or hear, what the other player’s reaction is. Frustration is great, anger or disappointment from the opponent even better.

Learning is a process. Successful defense against a good opponent is about a mental game, gaining mental strength, and winning the mental battle in the end.

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    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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