Don't let the bad games grind you down.
April 17, 2018 by AJ Abes in Opinion with 0 comments
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We’ve all been there.
There are nice ways to say it—maybe you “struggled” or “came up short.” Perhaps you had some costly turnovers, made some inexcusable decisions, or got absolutely roasted deep on double game point. While there is no official stat for it, you know suck when you see it.
These things happen. I’ve sucked during plenty of big games. Whether you’re a top-level star, or a beer league off-handler, you’ve probably played in some games that you really wanted to win, but then you blew it. And I don’t mean the team blew it. I mean you. You blew it. And now there is an endless loop in your head, replaying the Not Top 10 every time you close your eyes.
Whether you just blew it at Worlds or your co-ed rec league, there is more meaningful ultimate to be played. The college season becomes club season and the club season becomes league season and league season become reckless indoor season before the whole process repeats itself. We are blessed to live an era where you can basically play ultimate all year-long.1
The trick is not letting your bad game become a bad year. As a coach, I’ve seen young talent plateau because a bad tournament sets a negative mindset. Sometimes a player goes out there and tries too hard, forcing throws and cuts in a desperate attempt to bounce back from a poor outing. Even worse is when a player just seems lost, not wanting the disc or playing too timidly to have any significant impact on a game. It’s okay to have a bad game. It’s okay to critique yourself harshly after a loss. It’s not okay to let a bad game spiral into the next season.
So I present to you some tips for getting your swagger back. It’s not a series of quick fixes. Ultimate is equal parts mental and physical. And bouncing back will require you to focus on both, as well as testing your strength of character.
Set Micro Goals
I cannot stress this one enough. Most of the times I’ve seen a season spiral out of control for a player, it’s because expectations were far too grandiose. I’m cool with some high expectations, but setting big goals can majorly backfire. Setting big outcome targets like “we are making nationals this year” ignores all the little steps that go into making that happen. Also if that doesn’t happen, you feel like your whole season is a waste.
Micro goals celebrate all the little beautiful victories along the way. Tim Herra wrote a really cool piece in the New York Times about “micro progress”2 and the power of getting started. To summarize, just like the good feelings you get from everything from chocolate to exercise, it all comes down to sweet, sweet dopamine.
Making progress towards a goal (or even tricking your brain into thinking that you’re making progress) releases a surge of neurochemicals and good feels. Those posi-vibes are key to making a comeback.
After a bad game or tourney, set easy and achievable targets. “I will go to every practice next week” or “I will have less than three turnovers at the next scrimmage” allow you to celebrate the little things. Take it a step further by making your goals effort-based, and not outcome-based. “I will not play any lazy poaching next game” and “I will sprint down after every pull next tournament” put the ball solely in your court. In this realm, just a desire to improve turns into actual improvement.
Bad seasons happen when you overthink your big picture performance. By setting minute, attainable goals you can get your game back on track. There is no better way to break the mental narrative of failure, than to get out there and register a win… no matter how small.
Hit The Gym
While the gym may be a second home to some, other players might find this environment uncomfortable. Complicated looking machines can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Don’t let your ignorance of gym etiquette detour you. Hitting the gym is a great way to regain some of your dominance. Perhaps the most simple reason is that your athleticism is still closely tied to your performance. It doesn’t matter what defensive scheme an opponent draws up, it is hard to stop a high level athlete from imposing their will on the game. In watching men’s NCAA March Madness, it struck me that for every Loyola underdog, there are dozen games in which nimble point guards throw themselves into the lane, only to be denied time and time again by some 6’ 4” piece of solid muscle from a powerhouse program. Being bigger, faster, and stronger matters in all sports and all divisions.
Ultimate is no different. You will be open more often and catch more 50-50 discs just by being a better athlete than your defender. A better athlete plays better ultimate and the gym makes you a better athlete.
There are also are some more subtle mental reasons for going to the gym.
First and foremost, the gym is inherently personal. It’s you versus you. Why did you lose that big game? Sure, maybe you had a lot of turnovers, but maybe it was because nobody was popping against the zone. Or maybe you got burned deep, but you were covering a former track star. Weather, competition, and your own teammates can all contribute to your mistakes.
In the gym it’s just you. Your successes and failures are your own. No matter how good of a player you are (or that you want to be) you probably cannot single-handedly get your team to Nationals. However, you can still put up some personal records on the squat rack all by yourself. This kind of personal success allows you to mentally overcome shortcomings and focus on personal improvement.
A final reason a gym regiment is helpful is because it is inherently quantifiable. You can see mile times decrease on a treadmill, or weight increases on a leg press. It is much harder to plot your progress on an ultimate field, when so much of your game is summed up qualitatively. I’ve never been a stats-heavy coach. I think sometimes kids play great and it doesn’t show up in the stat sheet—or conversely, the stats sheet says they played great but from watching them you know that they played like garbage. Your numbers don’t tell the story of your progress on the field, but they are telling of your progress in the weight room. Having firm, trackable data will support your mental come-back narrative.
Volunteer With Another Team
I say this one speaking from my experience as youth coach. Volunteering can reignite a passion for ultimate and get you focused on basics. Often times, in the desperate throes of suck, we forget why we started playing ultimate in the first place. Frisbee is fun! And nothing reminds me of that simple fact like watching a group of smiling children fail miserably at moving the disc upwind. Once I saw a whole youth team storm the field after their second point of the game. They were down 10. Kids are really good at having fun even when they should not be. Seeing this firsthand is a great reminder of why you picked up a disc in the first place, and it probably wasn’t because you dreamed of winning a Callahan.
Coaching ultimate also gives you an opportunity to run some basic drills during the week, focusing on little things like holding a mark and maintaining good positioning. Being in a position to explain concepts to players also makes you think about the microcosms of your game. Plays that you’ve made on auto-pilot for years come into question. When a player asks, “Hey coach, when is a good time to crash the cup?” you realize you haven’t thought of the mechanics and principles of a crash in years. Looking at these questions with fresh eyes is extremely valuable in pushing your understanding of the game.
You don’t need to be an elite club player to be a great coach. A high-level coach has a different set of skills than a high level player. Personally, I think I’m a lot better at coaching than I’ve ever been at playing. This is because coaching is all about boiling down the game into a couple simple concepts and communicating them. Don’t get broken. Swing the disc. Clear space for your teammates. And while you’re on the sidelines screaming “stop getting broken” a dozen times, it will probably occur you to you that those simple concepts are still paramount to playing the game well at any level. When you’re trying to bounce back from a bad outing, remembering those banal platitudes will get you back to 100% quicker than working on adding 20 yards to your lefty scoober.
Join A Rec League
If you are a college or club player, playing in a rec league can be a perfect incubator to experiment with things that you would never try at Regionals. For example, you might think that you have hammers because you throw them while warming up all the time, but a rec league lets you get comfortable throwing them in an a very forgiving game environment. Frequently, when a bad game turns into a bad season, it’s the result of mental mistakes. There is no better way to relieve that stress than joining a draft team called Yachty by Nature. This is a great environment to just relax and let the disc fly. Do you usually handle? Go cut. Do you usually cut? Drop back and try throwing some dimes. Go out there and try new stuff. Get uncomfortable. Change is good.
Another reason for extended poor play is lack of confidence. And if it’s lack of confidence that ails ya, there is no better cure-all than absolutely wrecking a rec league.
If you are looking to get your swagger back, nothing will give you a confidence boost quite like hitting a huck you’ve never had the courage to try or roasting someone on a deep cut you never believed you could make.
Take a Step Back
My last bit of advice is to take a step back from your on-field woes. There are several good reasons to mentally put your struggles in perspective.
Frisbee isn’t, nor should it be, your entire life. You probably have friends and maybe some other hobbies. You likely have a job or are taking classes. Nobody’s life is all frisbee all the time. Even Beau Kittredge, having clawed his way to the top of Frisbee Mountain, realized he had to diversify his life portfolio. My point is that even if you’re struggling with ultimate, you are probably doing some other things very well.
Take some time to celebrate the successes you have in other places in your life. Adult life is like spinning plates.3 When you focus your energy on doing one thing well, you are probably neglecting other things that will eventually need to be tended to. If you’re crushing it on the frisbee field, you might be overlooking work or school responsibilities. When you dedicate all the hours of your life to a 175g piece of round plastic, you’re probably not investing enough time into your family life or personal relationships.
I say this not to dishonor the game that you love, but to remind you that it is a game. Any victories you have on the field are fleeting, and they will never fix the part of your soul that needs tending to. The number one thing that causes a bad game to turn into a bad season is a domino effect. And it is a domino effect caused by not having anything else to fall back on when the game does you dirty.
Don’t beat yourself up over a bad game, because truly (and I say this with full reverence of the sport I’ve dedicated a decade of my life to) none of this matters. I’ve played and coached for years and most of my family still thinks I “do FROLF”. We have chosen to dedicate our lives to a fun sport, but its a sport that most people in the world have never heard of. Life is full of big and important things; don’t make frisbee the only one.
The narrative in your head usually only exists in your head. Nobody in the world, not even your own teammates, are going to care about your bad game a couple weeks from now. When it comes to getting your swagger back, the only opponent you need to beat is the one inside your head. So relax. Go out there, throw a piece of round plastic around, and celebrate every little victory you have along the way. Everybody has bad games, but remembering to celebrate all your good play is how you make sure you never lose your swagger in the first place.
Everyone needs an offseason. Don’t try to be your best self during this time. Some hints. Do: Grab yourself a couple of buffalo chicken wraps and relax until the next seasons starts. Don’t: Be a tryhard doing some ladder drills in a half foot of snow. ↩