Witmer’s Wisdom: How To Coach Yourself This Season

Creating mental maps can help you improve on your own and function as your own coach.

Linda Morse at New York Gridlock tryouts.
Our focus on ourselves can help us improv through internal feedback. Photo: Sandy Canetti — UltiPhotos.com

There’s no doubt that good coaching can have a dramatic impact on a player’s growth. Starting to play in high school and having access to great coaching in college are obvious advantages. But just because you did not have those things at the start of your ultimate career does not mean that you are doomed to be behind forever.

Here are a few tips on making the most of the coaching and connections that you do have this season.

Many players approach practice with the idea of trying to deliver whatever the coach is asking for. They attempt to do whatever the coach says to do. This seems logical. But it puts pretty much all of the responsibility on the coach for your improvement as a player, and none of the responsibility on you. In this framework “no news is good news.” You are open to feedback. Maybe you even ask for feedback. But if you don’t get actionable feedback or if the coach does not have the capacity to give individualized feedback to you, then you are stuck not knowing how to improve even if you want to. This may avoid the discomfort of receiving critical feedback for you, but is not useful to your development as an ultimate player.

The best ultimate players do not wait around for feedback in order to make improvements to their ultimate game. They make comparisons between their own ideas of what they are supposed to do versus what they actually execute. And they make comparisons between how they make decisions and execute skills and how other skilled players make decisions and execute skills.

The difference is subtle, but important. It’s the difference between blindly following the directions of someone shouting at you from the passenger’s seat versus following the blue line on a GPS system. In the first scenario, you might know what to do, but you don’t really know why or where you are. In the second scenario, you know where you are in the context of the bigger picture and can see immediately when you are deviating from where you want to go.

So how do you build a mental map of what you’re supposed to be doing on the ultimate field?

Creating The Mental Map

A mental map of how you operate on the field is made up of three parts:

  • How you collect information
  • How you interpret the information
  • The decisions you make

To take more control of your own playing, you can start by bringing some awareness to your current mental maps.

Where are you looking when you have the disc? What do you see? How are you deciding if a cutter is open? When are you deciding to throw it to them?

Because motor skills and fast-decision making are controlled by the nonverbal part of your brain, you will never 100% know how and why you are making certain decisions on the field. The nonverbal brain acts on pattern recognition and clues that your conscious mind might not be able to notice.

However, you can pick up clues about how your mental map works and compare it to others by asking the right questions.

Comparing Mental Maps

The fastest way to improve your ultimate game is not by gathering more information about ultimate, it’s by learning how to think about ultimate. If you want to perform like an elite ultimate player, start exploring their mental maps.

If you ask a player why they did something on the field, you’re likely to get a general answer. Or the player may not be able to articulate why they did something because, as we mentioned, decisions are made in the nonverbal part of the brain. Asking questions with the mental map framework in mind will help you to ask more specific questions that uncover more of how the athlete is thinking.

Here are some questions that can you help you with this process:

Collect Information

  • What do you look at when you first get the frisbee?
  • What are you looking at when you’re on the mark?
  • How often do you look back at the frisbee when you’re covering a cutter?
  • Can you hear the sideline when you’re on the mark?

Interpret Information

As follow-up questions you can ask things like:

  • Why is that important?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is that a general rule?
  • When does it not apply?

Decision-Making

I encourage my athletes to focus on decision points. The question of “When did you decide to do X?” is an important one.

As a quick example of why this is important: often novice players think defense is simply reactionary. They simply do not realize how many decisions are made in positioning before the disc is in the air. “Stop chasing your player around” is a common thing I heard yelled from the sideline in college. But if a player thinks that defensive decisions are made after the disc is in the air, then chasing their player to stay close enough to make a decision is the action that makes the most sense to them.

  • When are you deciding to change direction?
  • When did you decide the player was open?
  • When did you decide to look for the reset instead of waiting for the cut to develop?
  • When did you decide to poach off your player?

If you get surprising answers to this type of question, then you can be certain that your mental map needs some adjustment.

The goal here is not to interrogate your teammates. But, if you can learn to ask better questions, you’ll learn the game of ultimate much more quickly. By gaining access to how highly skilled players see the field and make decisions, you can improve your game IQ very quickly in a few months.

Comparing Mental Maps

Comparing your mental maps to the mental maps of others will help you learn to think more specifically and clearly about how to play ultimate. After a few conversations, you’ll feel confident that you have a good mental map of how to gather information, interpret it, and make decisions.

The more accurate your mental map, the easier it will be to navigate your own ultimate development. With a good mental map you can now compare your own decision making and skills to the ideal mental map in your head.

Comparing your own performance to your ideal takes focus. It’s easy to just zone out and play and forget everything that happened just a few points later. The focus required for this kind of practice is a skill. You might not be able to maintain perfect focus for a whole two hour practice session. But you can start by focusing on just one piece of your ultimate mental map at a time, like just your mark, instead of everything related to defense. Or see if you can maintain more intense focus for just a few points at a time.

Practice frequent reflection so that you can learn more from each point you play. What decisions did you make during the point? What did you see? Did you anticipate correctly where the disc was going? Or were you just reacting to what everyone else was doing?

Parting Thoughts

Many clients come to me because they haven’t had elite coaching before. They often come to me with a nagging feeling like they are missing something because they didn’t learn to play in an established youth or college program.

While having access to great coaching early in your ultimate career is obviously beneficial, what I’ve noticed about the top end of elite ultimate players — and this is backed up by research on elite performers in many areas — is that they spend significant time and effort on their own or in small groups in deliberate practice on their fundamentals. They also spend significant time thinking about ultimate, watching ultimate, and speaking to their peers about ultimate.

This means that most of the work of the best players actually happens outside of team practices. Which means that missing out on high quality team practices early in your career is not enough to hold you back from having success in your ultimate goals.

If you have ambitious goals and want support as you make the journey into more competitive levels of play, you’re invited to join my Level Up Your Ultimate Game group. It’s where I share more about the latest work I’ve been doing. The focus is on the mental side of training. And you’ll hear more about the work I’ve been doing with my 1-on-1 clients.

  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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