Witmer’s Wisdom: Three Small Fears Holding Back Your Game

Your ultimate fears are hurting your performance. But they don't have to.

North Carolina's Rebecca Fagan makes a catch over two defenders at Atlantic Coast Regionals 2017.
Many players are afraid they will let a cutter get past them in the deep space. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Since September, I’ve been doing a lot of coaching of athletes via Zoom. We’re diving into mental training techniques. As a result, we’ve uncovered fears that have proven to be the root cause of poor decision making and suboptimal performance.

After many hours of coaching, including lots of speed coaching with athletes in my Level Up Your Ultimate Game group, I’ve noticed a few common patterns that hold athletes back from playing to their full potential.

Fear of Getting Beaten Deep

Many players come to me with concerns about their defense. Often what athletes think is caused by an athleticism deficit is really a positioning or commitment issue. The most common positioning issue stems from a fear of getting beaten deep.

Getting beaten deep is noticeable. No one wants to be “posterized.” If your person scores, that does not feel good. Even when you have a legitimate play on the disc, there’s a shame associated with getting scored on. But when your person gets the disc underneath repeatedly, somehow that feels less bad, even if you’re not generating a lot of pressure on the offense.

The problem with being afraid of getting beaten deep is that it inhibits athletes from making a full commitment to prioritizing pressuring under cuts, even when that’s what the defense’s plan is.

I have seen this fear play out in shorter players and in taller players. No one is immune!

Many shorter players default to forcing their marks under. But simply because you are short does not mean that your mark knows how to time a good cut or read a disc. Nor does it mean that every opposing thrower can huck with accuracy.

Taller players have all the more reason to dictate on defense, force your player deep and attempt to make a real defensive play on the disc.

If you have knowledge of your opponent and forcing them under is a strategic choice, made from a place of observation and reason, that is fine. But if it is your default because you are afraid without evidence, then you are not contributing to your team’s defense as much as you could be.

Whether you are short or tall, the fact is that deeper throws take longer to reach their destination. You have time to catch up, read the disc, or get help from teammates. Shorter passes give you less time and opportunity to apply pressure or make adjustments. Deep throws are also harder to hit accurately, creating chances for defenders to break up the play or for receivers and throwers to miss one another.

If you think being overly afraid of being beaten deep may be a problem for you, then try a mental adjustment for a few weeks at pickup and in scrimmages. If you find you are getting beaten deep more often than you want to, then you can make adjustments in your positioning based on experience.

I would also encourage you to consider how often you get beat deep under. How much pressure are you applying to under cuts versus deep cuts? And what might you change if you valued those two directions a bit more equally?

Fear of Turnovers

Just last week someone wrote to me that their goal for this season was to play “zero-turnover ultimate.” I totally get it. That’s what I wanted for myself as a handler, too.

Wanting to keep possession of the disc is commendable. When you start playing ultimate, being able to keep possession is a challenge. Players who throw fewer turnovers are valuable. Being able to put together a string of passes with good decisions to open players is enough to score and win games.

But at a certain point, most players can throw dumps and open passes with a high degree of consistency. As you start getting into higher levels of play, you’ll want to start thinking a few passes ahead. Instead of simply completing the next pass, start thinking about how to position the receiver for the best angle of attack.

There are many times when a higher difficulty break throw is more beneficial to the offense than a pass to an open player near the sideline. The decision to break the mark comes with an added degree of risk. And, if you are among the skilled throwers on your team, it is a risk that is your responsibility. You’ll want to start making decisions for the good of the team, not for the good of your zero-turnover stat sheet!

Fear of turnovers can cause good throwers to shrink their impact rather than expand it.

If you have good hucks and are always looking for the reset, you’re likely not contributing as much as you could be to your team’s offense over the long term. For example, downfield defenders can apply more pressure underneath when throwers are afraid to look to the deep space. And the mark can apply more pressure on the open side if players are afraid to look to the break side.

This may be a case of “what gets measured gets managed.” Zero turnovers is a measurable goal, even if it’s not the highest quality goal. Humans aren’t designed to think statistically by default. Of course making more difficult choices with a higher risk can leave players feeling doubtful about their choices if they don’t pan out.

In coaching athletes on this issue, we again want to separate where decisions are coming from from the outcome. Being afraid to generate a turnover is not going to produce the overall best decisions. Being determined to find players in the break side lane or to look deep when you have no mark is going to generate better decisions and outcomes for your team overall, even if you throw an occasional turnover.

Fear of Being Disliked for Being Overly Confident

I have talked to three athletes just this past week about how they minimize their own accomplishments due to a fear of being cocky and therefore disliked.

The relationship between confidence and skills is tricky to manage. Everyone wants some magical “right amount” of confidence in their skills. We all know players who are more confident than they should be and players who are less confident than they should be. Confidence, as a feeling, is a terrible indicator of actual skill. And yet many players are afraid of having just a hint too much.

Players who are afraid of being disliked for overconfidence simultaneously seek external validation for their abilities and reject external validation when it arrives. They deflect compliments, forget the good things they do on the field, and hold on to the mistakes they make.

This would not be a problem, except that many players believe that if only they develop certain skills, or make a certain team, then they will finally feel confident. If they can clear their predetermined bar, they will feel validated.

In reality, confident decisions are what help you to most rapidly improve your skill. A confident but incorrect decision gives you feedback about the validity of your choices. But a lack of decision or hesitant movement on the field gives your brain no feedback, or incomplete feedback, about the quality of your choices.

As a quick exercise to help you overcome this fear, think of all the players you know. You likely know or are acquaintances with several hundred ultimate frisbee players. Of those, how many do you dislike due to overconfidence? I’m guessing less than 10 or 20. That’s less than 5%.

If you think you may have a fear of being disliked for being overly confident, consider that the odds of that actually happening to you are less than 5%.

The truth is that what we don’t like is cockiness. Cockiness is a false confidence — a coping mechanism for underconfidence. So the best strategy for avoiding being disliked due to confidence issues is to fully develop your authentic confidence rather than a false modesty.

From a performance perspective, overconfidence is preferable to underconfidence. So if you can’t do it for yourself, for the good of your team, get to work on owning and loving your own ultimate abilities.

Fear as Information

Being afraid is okay. In fact, noticing when and where we are afraid on the field gives valuable insight into why we make the decisions we make. On the field, decisions happen so quickly we may not even realize that our thought processes are being driven by fear rather than strategic commitment or logic. Much of the training I do with athletes is to help them recognize their feelings and use them as information rather than as a basis for decision making.

If you’d like more coaching on decision making with confidence, come talk to me! You can learn more about this topic, and even watch a few speed coaching sessions, in my Level Up Your Ultimate Game group on Facebook.

  1. Melissa Witmer
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    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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