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You Think You Know Me But You Don’t

What my mental health taught me about Spirit of the Game and the ultimate community.

Slow White's Ari Nelson at WUCC 2018. Photo: Jolie J Lang -- UltiPhotos.com
Slow White’s Ari Nelson at WUCC 2018. Photo: Jolie J Lang — UltiPhotos.com

This article is part of the Clear Cut series on Ultiworld that features writing and storytelling from elite players and coaches. If you are interested in writing for the series (or have ideas for it), please contact editor@ultiworld.com.

Content warning: this article discusses trauma related to sexual assault and harassment.

If you have met or played against me, there are two versions of myself you could have encountered on the field. On some days, I’m the one on the sideline who’s laughing, singing, and having friendly conversations with the other team. On other days, my loudness, strong emotional reactions, and intense focus on my own team can come off as more confrontational or even aggressive. In other words, on those days I do not fit into the normalized idea of a spirited player.

Unfortunately, thanks to the mixed effects of a traumatic experience and mental health, it doesn’t always feel like I have a choice about which version of myself I present. I hope the ultimate community can accept and support both.

***

Let’s rewind a bit to when I first started playing ultimate.

My story starts in middle and high school. Beginning at age 11, I experienced seven years of on-and-off bullying. My senior year of high school I was emotionally harassed and sexually assaulted, so devastatingly that one night I ended up in the hospital.

In that moment, my ability to respectfully say “no” went unheard. One of the main culprits of my harassment got one day — ONE DAY — off from school and then was welcomed back by his friends and ultimate community (my community) with open arms. Meanwhile, my voice had been taken. I quickly and abruptly learned that the only person I could depend on was myself. I needed to be LOUD and stick up for myself in ways nobody else would.

Back at school after this incident, as I unconsciously put that lesson into practice, I was given many names – a classic one was “dramatic.” I “won” the senior superlative of Biggest Diva. At the same time I was also known as “the one good at ultimate.” While working through my trauma, I began to see the latter qualifier as some type of measurement of my self-worth. Through the beginning of college, my time on an elite club team, and even my time on the U24 Womxn’s National Team, in my mind I was only as worthy of being loved and respected as I was good at ultimate.

Fast forward to June 2020. Amidst the turmoil of the COVID crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests gaining momentum across the country, I picked up and moved to Colorado. I had planned a full summer of working with children with autism, playing with Molly Brown, and getting to know the Colorado ultimate community. Like so much else, all of those plans got thrown out the window with the outbreak of COVID. Instead, over the course of one long and difficult week, I unpacked, repacked, and left.

On my fourth night in Colorado, I had a psychotic episode where I lost control of my emotions and mental functioning, resulting in acting in ways inconsistent with my morals and norms. Seventy-two hours later, I was driving back to my parents’ house in New Jersey. Just a few days after that, I checked myself into rehab.

***

Here is where the dialogue begins: does the ultimate community really understand mental health and support those who struggle with it?

Before we go any further, there are two stigmas associated with mental health that I want to address. First, rehab means rehabilitation — the use of therapeutic means to restore someone to an improved condition. Society often puts a negative connotation on rehab as a place where terrible people who made the choice to be addicts or alcoholics go to detox. Addiction and alcoholism are not simply bad or irresponsible choices made by inherently bad or irresponsible people — they are diseases. Many people who suffer from them are just like me — we struggle with mental health and/or rough pasts and need help to recover from trauma. Rehab is for anybody who needs rehabilitation. Second, the phrase “psychotic episode” isn’t as scary as it might seem to some of you. Before I learned what it really means, it scared me too. All it means is that the brain stops sending the correct signals, and the person dissociates from their words, actions, or body. In my case, trauma had rewired my brain on how to react in stressful situations. So, having an episode does not mean I am “unstable” or “insane” or any of the negative descriptions that are often associated with the term “psychotic” — my brain simply just stopped working correctly. Which, again, is something that can be addressed through rehabilitation.

During my time in rehab, I learned a lot about my relationship with ultimate and how it contributed to my recent emotional and psychological downfall. One of those lessons is that the normalized interpretation of Spirit of the Game in our sport — a narrow definition of how we must communicate, an expectation of actively friendly gestures and expressions amongst competitors, a need for clean finality in the resolution of disagreements — makes the ultimate field yet another venue filled with biases and triggers for those of us that struggle with mental health and traumatic pasts.

Mental health issues are diseases. If someone came forward and said, “I have cancer and my medication sometimes makes me come off as aggressive,” would you shun or guilt them? Or, would you feel compassion for someone in pain and give them the benefit of the doubt? If those same traits come out as the result of a mental health issue, are you equally able to accept that you don’t know exactly what’s going on in someone’s head — what experiences might drive them to adopt a tone that you find aggressive — and compassionately extend the same benefit of the doubt?

Mental health issues can affect people in myriad ways. I was once in a position where my voice went unheard, to a devastating result. My ability to say “no” was stolen. I was given no space to take up when I returned to school and my community. So, when I am challenged or in a tense situation, my brain tells me to speak louder, to express strong emotion not simply smile and disarm, to focus my attention only on those I know and trust. All three of these things have been pointed out to me as “unspirited” actions on the ultimate field. I’ve been called a “bully” and “too loud,” been told to “simmer down” and “watch your tone,” as well as been on the receiving end of many other negative observations. I’ve gotten these messages from teammates, opponents, and coaches alike. Over time, I internalized all of the criticism as judgment that I was a “lesser than” teammate and part of the ultimate community.

Our sport’s definition of spirit and the way it is performed comes from a very white and privileged perspective. Those who grew up under different circumstances may have a different interpretation of the “correct” way to interact with others or a different perspective on what is civil or appropriate or “spirited.”1 Our traditional view of spirit also does not take into account mental health. Having never experienced trauma is itself a layer of privilege — those who haven’t lived this have brains that function at a different speed and with different norms than those who have. None of these things make someone inherently unspirited, weak, unfriendly, aggressive, or dramatic.

As a community, we can do better. Let’s create a new culture around spirit that provides space for a wider range of acceptable natural responses and acknowledges that we’re not all coming into this space with the same backgrounds, privileges, or emotional dispositions.

If you meet someone on the ultimate field whose emotional displays scare or intimidate you, or maybe whose voice comes off as a little too loud or aggressive for your liking, maybe take a deep breath and try to acknowledge that you may not fully know them and their lived experiences before you assume they are an “unspirited” or “bad” person — whatever that means. Some people may have a past you don’t know about that affects them in ways you can’t imagine. Some may also have a different understanding of the definition of spirit, and biases may be getting in your way. Or maybe some people are just having a bad day and made a mistake. Mental health and trauma are reflected heavily in the way people interact, and being on the field competing with others creates loads of stressful situations! Please give others the benefit of the doubt.

***

As a final note, if you meet or have someone in your life that is a survivor of sexual assault, struggles with mental health, or has another type of trauma in their past, listen to them. As a survivor of all of the above, we want and need allies. Give us an understanding and compassionate outlet when we are triggered. Remember that your opinions about our lives and experiences do not help, and occasionally hurt. Enter a conversation with us with an open-mind. Just us opening up to you about our past and how we struggle now is a call to action in itself — a call to action to support, to speak up, and to educate yourself. It is especially a call to action to let us know you love us regardless of our diagnoses or traumas. Being silent is a part of the problem — we’ve heard silence before, and no good came of it. It takes bravery and courage and vulnerability to share any aspect, small or large, of our stories and our diagnoses. Celebrate it! And if you struggle with a similar story, or have heard similar biased messages on the field, know that you’re not alone.


  1. There is an entirely separate huge conversation to have on this topic that goes beyond the scope of this essay. 

  1. Ari Nelson
    Ari Nelson

    Ari Nelson is a member of the US U24 Women's National team and has competed with the Northeastern Valkyries and Boston Slow White.

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