Tuesday Tips: Four Steps To Become A Flexible Thinker In Ultimate, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Flexible thinking can change your game, while rigid thinking can hurt your performance and harm your team's progress.

Washington’s Steven Benaloh makes the play at Stanford Invite 2018. Photo: Rodney Chen–Ultiphotos.com

Adaptability and flexibility that is, being able to deal with uncertainty—are key to high-level performance in a team sport like ultimate.

On every team, some players use flexible thinking, while others display rigid thinking. Flexible thinkers thrive on change and the unexpected—they are naturally adaptable. If you always have a to-do list and you don’t like it when something arises which isn’t on your list, then maybe it’s time to work on your level of adaptability.

What are flexible thinking and rigid thinking? And why is it so important to develop flexible thinking in ultimate?

Definitions Flexible Thinking And Rigid Thinking

With rigid thinking, you tend to have a state of mind:

  • That focuses on expectations. You have very high expectations of your teammates, your coaches, and your team. When these people don’t meet your expectations, you feel disappointed.
  • That seeks to control.
  • That clings to the idea of what should be and what should happen in your life and within your team. When you join a new team, you may tend to imagine how your coach should act, or how your teammates should behave. Frustration and disappointment arise when you feel it is going in the wrong direction.

Developing flexible thinking is necessary to perform in sports, and to navigate through life when facing obstacles. With flexible thinking:

  • You learn to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and change. You can quickly learn new strategies, or follow a new game plan in the middle of a game. You can also adapt to a new coaching style without affecting your performance.
  • You manage to redirect your attention from one task to another, like taking on a new role within your team, or rapidly switching your focus from offense to defense after a turnover.
  • You let go of your expectations of others.
  • You become open to possibilities. You tend to look at the bright side of every situation. You develop the ability to turn things in your favor.

Talented athletes who use rigid thinking will have a hard time reaching their full potential because they will spend too much energy trying to control instead of going with the flow.

Flexible thinking leads to success because it makes you think about things in a new way, from a different perspective. Therefore, you become able to figure out new solutions to successfully navigate in an unpredictable environment.

Flexible Thinking Allows Players to Switch Gears

Let’s say we practice a defensive drill, person to person, and the player on offense does something that was not part of the initial drill. For example, they could have cut in an unexpected direction, or they could have faked differently. How will the defensive player react in that situation?

Rigid Thinking

The player who displays rigid thinking could be caught off guard. They may begin to feel frustrated because of the offensive player’s behavior. In some cases, he might even stop running and tell the player he did not follow the coach’s instructions.

For the player who uses rigid thinking, having rules, controlling the environment, and doing what should be done is very important. It becomes a problem when it takes the player’s mind off the game because he dwells on the negative.

Flexible Thinking

The player who displays flexible thinking could feel excited about this unexpected challenge. Their mind will be alert and they will seek a solution to achieve their goal, which is to cover their player effectively. Because of this, chances are that they will quickly adapt to the new situation.

It doesn’t mean that this player agrees with their teammate who stretched the rules, but they will quickly redirect their focus to the task and do what has to be done to perform.

The Flexible Thinker goes with the flow.

  • They know what is under his control and what is not.
  • They do not let his ego get in the way of playing at his best.
  • They not try to control something they cannot control.

Flexible Thinking Requires Unlearning

When you are selected with a new team, you will have to deal with new leaders, a different coach, new teammates and maybe a new role within your team. Facing all these changes, you will have to keep a flexible mind to seize opportunities, adapt quickly and work your way up.

If you are constantly telling yourself that you don’t feel comfortable with your new role, or that you have no connection with your teammates, then you are focusing on problems, not solutions. A flexible mind can think outside of the box and be creative. No matter what the situation is, no matter how chaotic, if you are a flexible thinker you will find a way to make this a win-win situation, for you and your team.

What Is The Primary Goal Of A Flexible Thinker?

The primary goal of the flexible thinker is to do whatever it takes to keep performing, no matter the situation. They know that their team needs them at their best 100% of the time.

The primary goal of the flexible thinker is not controlling opponents, or teammates, or the coaches’ decisions or strategies.

The flexible thinker is not trying to control what is happening around them; they seek control of what is going on inside themselves. They want to master their mind.

Without a flexible mind, you spend time thinking about problems instead of solutions. You get more and more frustrated, stressed, sad, or feeling sorry for yourself because you have no control. Your attention is focused on the past and what happened. Meanwhile, you are not aware of what is happening right now and how to make the best out of it.

Four Steps To Become A Flexible Thinker

How can you improve your level of adaptability as a player and as a team? Here are four steps you can follow to develop flexible thinking:

Step Back: What Is Under My Control?

Every time you face obstacles and adversity, as soon as you recognize that you start dwelling on the negative, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is under my control in that situation?
  • What can I do right now to keep my mind focused on the right things?
  • What can I learn from that situation?

For example, in the middle of a game, you are not happy with your playing time. You voice your frustration out loud, you compare yourself to other teammates who have more playing time, you stop helping from the sideline, and you dwell on the negative. But at a certain point, you realize that your behavior is not appropriate. You stop, you take a step back, and you answer the three questions.

What is under my control in this situation?

When you think about it, you realize that playing time is not under your control, but that the way you see the situation and your behaviors are under your control.

What can I do right now to keep my mind focused on how to help my team?

You decide to talk to one of your teammates who is on the field, to help them play better defense. It helps you stop focusing on yourself and your problem.

What can I learn from this situation?

You may learn that having less playing time triggers strong emotions in you. Now that you are aware of that, you can start thinking about how you could see the situation differently and what you could do to deal with your emotions when you don’t get to play as many points as you would like.

The real challenge at this step is to have the willpower to let go of your desire to control the situation. You must switch your focus from the problem to finding a solution to deal with the new situation—not solutions to come back to what you would like it to be.

Take A Breath, Clear Your Mind, And Relax

After you have become aware of thoughts and emotions rising and how it affects your behavior, take a pause and focus your attention on your breath. Close your eyes and just breathe four or five times, slowly. Inhale into your chest then your upper abdomen, and then your belly. Slowly release the breath in the same way, smoothly exhaling the air from your belly, then your upper abdomen, then your chest. Clear your mind, relax and come back to the present moment.

Observe And Plan: Change Your Perspective

Find another way to look at the situation. You could imagine you are someone else with a different point of view and a different personality. How would this person react when facing the same problem? Once you transformed your perspective, set a new goal and make a plan to reach it. Figure out a way to turn things into your favor in the long run. No matter the situation, you can learn something positive from it and become stronger.

Is That My Ego Talking?

The more we advance on the path of becoming a high-level sport, the more we are challenged by our ego that wants to be acknowledged, seen and recognized for his accomplishments.

Winning championships is all about becoming a better person and a better teammate. The more we get free from our ego and its constant desire to shine and control, the more our team can accomplish together.

Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who works with the Seattle Seahawks, said in a conference that in our society we learned that, “We must do more to be more.” We believe that we need to accomplish something to be someone.

The problem with this idea is that,as soon as we feel like we don’t have the space to do more (not enough playing time, not getting the disc on the field, too small of a role) our ego shows up and says, “Hey, I am here! I exist, I want to be recognized, I need to shine!”

To win a championship as a team, we need to start the other way around.

As a team, we need to be more in order to do more.

What does it mean to be more?

  • Being a good teammate.
  • Being authentically you, not trying to be someone you are not just to please people.
  • Being aware of thoughts and emotions that are rising, of what behavioral patterns are connected to it and of how it affects your performance.
  • Building your self-confidence by knowing who you are and acceptance of yourself, not by your accomplishments.
  • Being compassionate toward yourself and others.

Here are some behaviors to help you let go of your ego and accomplish more:

  • Stop thinking about what coaches and players think about you. Just be the best teammate you can be, and that will be enough. You will be enough.
  • When your team scores a point, but you didn’t touch the disc on the field…who cares? We scored. Be happy for your team and teammates’ success.
  • Never let down a teammate because you dwell on the negative. Stay fully present at the moment with them and with your team.
  • Instead of trying to draw attention to yourself, be humble and care about others. Ask yourself how you can help. Focusing on your team makes you detach from problems, thoughts, and emotions.

Stop Resisting And Learn To Accept

Constantly wishing things and people were something other than they are can quickly become a heavy burden on you and your team. Be aware that sometimes, we attract situations into our life that help us learn acceptance so that we can find peace, harmony, and serenity within ourselves. And that is the state of mind that will allow you to achieve greatness in ultimate and life.

  1. Guylaine Girard

    Guylaine Girard is the former head coach of the AUDL's Montreal Royal. She lives in Montreal and has been coaching for 25 years. You can check out her blog and follow her on Instagram.

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