Chill, It’s Summer League

A meditation on losing.

This article is part of Ultiworld’s Clear Cut series 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.  A version of this article originally appeared on the author’s Substack.

Losing is part of the bargain, even if you do a lot of winning. Despite taking the region in all but one of my years with Truck Stop, and always making the playoffs with the Breeze, all of my seasons with those teams ended in a disappointing loss. And that’s to say nothing of all the times I fell short in practice.

Of all the losing I’ve done in my career, none has been more illuminating than what happened in Richmond Ultimate Summer League, 2021.

Summer league. That laid-back brand of frisbee where the teams don’t practice and players range from 15 to 50 years old and real effort goes into the rhyme scheme in the post-game cheer. Taking it too seriously is kind of like getting bent out of shape over a game of Scrabble — people do it, but it’s a little silly.

Not that I’m above that.

When my partner Katharine and I signed up, it seemed like a great way to spend our Wednesday evenings. My club career was in the rear view and she was rarely working tournaments as a trainer anymore, and we wanted to reconnect with the sport we loved. Also, we had just moved back to Richmond, and we were glad to have a chilled out way to run around and make some friends.

What could go wrong?

Our team struggled. A lot. None of our games were even close. Everyone was nice, but there were times when we may not have made it 70 yards even without defense. That, and I wasn’t quite as good as I remembered being — my throws had a little less zip, my step a little less pep.

I hid it during the games themselves, but I struggled with the struggling. Each night after games ended, I’d sit in the car and seethe. When we got home, I’d pout as we ate dinner and I’d pick petty fights while doing the dishes. The next morning, I’d wake up feeling disappointed about both the game’s outcome and the way I had handled it.

It didn’t matter that summer league is supposed to be low stakes. We were losing, and I was torn up about it.

Know Thyself

After one too many sullen rides home, Katharine gave me an ultimatum: either we find a way to make summer league fun for me, or we stop going altogether.

Quitting wouldn’t be fair to the team, or to Katharine. I also still felt a special relationship with the game that made change appealing. Our team might have been bad, but I still woke up on Wednesdays filled with bits of the same anticipation I used to feel on Saturday mornings, when I had Little League or roller hockey or a soccer game that afternoon.

All that, plus this: what would tapping out really do for me? In this equation, where it was me + the playing environment, simply separating them seemed like an incomplete solution. I wanted to know what was going on inside of me.

Soon enough, I connected the dots between some personal demons and how I had always shown up on/in relation to the field.

Somewhere along the line, I had picked up the belief that winning or losing said something about my value as a person. I was freaking out because losing in summer league felt a lot bigger than just losing in summer league.

The thrust is here, in a journal entry from the morning after a game:

Last night at summer league, I left with an anger in my left side that’s probably all too familiar. I had thrown a late turnover, and we lost, and I was upset! My first instinct was to shout and let people see that I was mad. But really, I was disappointed and embarrassed and ashamed — wasn’t I supposed to be good at this sport? And aren’t such obvious mistakes proof that I’m bad?

I’m noticing that every time I’m involved in a mistake, or I feel like I didn’t do enough to help us win, there’s the “I’m not good enough” of shame. Lots of “should.” I should be better at this. I should beat my man more often, I should dominate, I should win.

I’m seeing this need… to get noticed. To be good at something and have other people see that, because once they do they’ll think highly of me. They’ll love me. Thinking back, I’ve always had this thing with frisbee that I wanted to be and feel special. Not just your average league player, but someone who is better — can do more on the field, has seen more of the game, who everyone knows. All that. It’s connected to shame, but also to wanting love. It traces to wanting to be something that’s worthy of love.

There are two elements of this situation that I want to unpack a little more, beyond that initial writing.

First, there’s me noticing that anger was a physical presence that took a toll on my body. It occurs to me that if I was struggling to be at peace with losing as a 34-year-old in a lax setting, I sure must have carried a lot when I was really dedicated to competing. In retrospect, I can see it: so much toxicity and unprocessed emotion. Nowadays, when I can feel my nervous system buzzing with uncomfortable energy, I try to use activities like yoga and meditation to soothe myself. Back then, I wasn’t even conscious of the fact that I could use some soothing.

Second, it is a little funny that this more mellow format of play is where this all came to a head. Thing is, I don’t think it could have happened elsewhere. When I was playing club and semi-pro, I was so in it that I couldn’t see myself. I didn’t give — didn’t know to give — myself time or space to stop and recognize what I was feeling.

How the Summer Played Out

Clarifying all this was helpful in that a willingness to change usually has to come before the change itself. But the newfound insight didn’t actually answer the question of whether it was possible for me to go my next game without the evening ending with me sulking.

For that, I’m lucky to have the partner I do. Thanks largely to Katharine, we came up with a few ways to reorient.

First, we’d start taking the dogs. Finn and Spartacus don’t know what a score even is, and they make everyone smile. Also, the responsibility of keeping an eye on them kept me from funneling too much of myself into the game.

Second, we’d emphasize the people we’d see there. We were glad to have recently moved close to my brother and a number of other familiar faces who also played, and it made sense to be more intentional about taking advantage of the weekly chance to interact.

Finally — and this is the big one — we’d go in expecting to lose. If that was the baseline, and yet I was still choosing to go, could it really be such a bad time?

It actually all worked.

Our team mostly kept losing (though we did win a game later in the year, plus we put up a fight in the first round of the playoffs) but I didn’t care. I enjoyed the time with loved ones, and got to know some of my teammates. The dogs were thrilled about a new excursion, and I was happy about their happiness. I thought more about the fact that instead of going on a run or hitting the gym, I was lucky to get to cut and defend and throw a disc and call it exercise.

And when games ended, I got in the car and smiled at Katharine, genuinely grateful for the time together.

Regression Looms

This summer is a new challenge… or, rather, the return of an old one.

Our team is good this year. We’ve won all of our games thus far, and for a summer league team, there are surprisingly few beginners. I’m also playing well– my throws are sharp, my timing feels on, and I’ve gotten a few blocks that I missed last year.

What do you do when you catch yourself thinking old, familiar thoughts?

I’m a little fearful of my ego, to be honest. I worry that there is something baked too deeply inside of me, and that I’ll again hitch my wagon to my team’s and my personal success.

That isn’t what I want to do, though.

As of now, here’s the plan: remember what worked for me last summer. Take the dogs, and sit down with them between points. Ask teammates how their week is going. Stop and be thankful to be out there running around, sweating and making discs fly in all kinds of crazy ways as the sun sets on the best days of the best time of the year. Count these things as the markers of success. And if we win, great– a cherry on top of the sundae that’s already there.

I’m a work in progress. There’s still more to the person I want to be. Just like last year, and all the years to come, summer league is a great place to keep showing up.

  1. Jonathan Neeley
    Jonathan Neeley

    Jonathan Neeley is a writer, facilitator, and mental skills coach whose work is anchored in lessons he’s learned on the field. He started playing over 20 years ago, and he spent his most competitive days in Washington, DC as both a player and captain with Truck Stop and the DC Breeze. He writes regularly on the intersection of emotional intelligence and ultimate, and you can find more of his writing on Twitter (@neeleyjd) or Substack.

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