Changing Team Narratives [Pt. 2]: How to Recognize and Reframe the Stories that Damage Your Team

Expectations about the way things should go can keep your ceiling out of reach.

What if this was the USA National Team at WUGC? Photo: Paul Rutherford —

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Welcome to our continuing ultimate story time about the stories we tell ourselves. Some college teams have already played their first tournament and are reflecting on what they learned about improving in the next few months. Some teams insist on looking outward and blaming others for their results. And many are in between.

There is a time and place for telling and sharing stories about your team. Long car rides, airport delays, and crappy hotel breakfasts all provide great venues for sharing tales of past team adventures.

That’s not what I am talking about here. The stories that damage teams are the ones from the past that are carried into the present and future. The ones that are based on random events that define how your team competes. We have all heard some version of these before:

  • “We never warm up until the second game on Saturday.”
  • “We always struggle coming out of a bye.”
  • “We can never beat this team.”
  • “We will always beat this team.”

On the surface, these statements may seem rather benign. However, how your teammates think about themselves and how they approach every game is often influenced negatively by these stories. In my experience, from coaching, teaching, watching games and talking to players, the three most common destructive narratives are:

  1. We just wanna have fun
  2. We are owed success
  3. We will win if everything is perfect

In the next few weeks, I will take a deep look into how these stories may materialize on your team and how you can change their trajectory.

Narrative #2: We Are Owed Success

How it Manifests

This is a common narrative rattling around most teams that have enjoyed some competitive success in the post-season. As soon as the last tournament game is over, and the team has been eliminated, players start making plans for next year. Already they are dreaming of who is returning, who may join them, and how they can travel to better tournaments. Discussing the future keeps the focus away from what may have been a painful ending. But if these conversations extend much beyond the trip home, your team may be setting the stage for the exact same conversation a year later.

Once you start training and playing again, this belief that someone owes you something can still infiltrate your culture. Past results still hold too much importance. Your elimination game is watched and dissected ad nauseam. Alums reinforce it. Coaches sometimes reinforce it. This becomes an unnecessary burden that players carry as they are trying to prepare for the new season. Why do that to yourselves?

How it is Damaging

The team that believes that it is owed something becomes complacent and wants to believe they are invincible. This kind of team believes they can summon forth an appropriate level of play whenever they need it. If you are playing an “easy” team, you become annoyed that you have to try in order to beat them. Don’t they know that you crushed them last season? Let’s bully them with bad calls because they don’t respect how good we are. And if it is a challenging team? The second you go down a few breaks, everyone is thinking, “OH NO IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN.”

This is not how competition works. Every game needs to be a fresh commitment from the entire team. This does not mean you pretend that you have never played them before. Obviously you form a plan based on your knowledge of their personnel and strategies. What you don’t want to do is assume, or predict and talk about what your margin of victory will be based on past games. If you bring these outcome expectations into a game, you are focusing on the wrong things. And while you ignore the right things, some other team will make you pay the price.

Only one team can win a title. No one owes you anything.

How to Fix It

Learn the lessons from the previous season and then move on. The important lessons have to do with culture, preparation and strategy. Preparation includes learning how other teams and athletes manage their mental game and figuring out a system that will work for your team. Defeat can motivate but there is no reason to believe that past suffering automatically rewards you, or that past success guarantees the same results.

Stay away from thinking about what you want the final score to be. Stay in the moment and focus on the task in front of you, whether it is clearing hard for a teammate or setting a strong mark. Learn methods to do this. Assume that every team you play will challenge you in some way and prepare for that.

Substitute tales from the past with new ways to define yourselves:

  • “We are a team that competes for an entire game no matter what.”
  • “When something bad happens on the field, we lift up our teammates from the sideline.”
  • “We will earn every point.”

Beware of outside voices that try to define your team. I used to ask players to ignore ultimate media during the season but that was a fool’s errand. Now I ask them to read it critically and to not discuss it at practice. I don’t expect that to work either but I still remind them that the only source that can define your team is your team. And, yes, I fully realize I am writing a series that is trying to define your team from afar.

The past holds very few answers for those who want to improve their performance in the future. Focus on the now and stop looking in the rearview mirror.

Final Thoughts

I understand how compelling it is to believe your team has reached a certain level of excellence. We want to trust that our development has our team steadily improving and that a less capable team cannot knock us off. And yet we all know that is not true. Athletes and teams backslide all the time and learning how to fix these mental lapses at practice and not tournaments will serve everyone better in the long run.

One of my favorite writers Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “The game of keeping what one has is never as exciting as the game of getting.” Embrace this philosophy within your team and on the field and good things will happen.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the founder and director of the National Ultimate Training Camp, as well as an assistant coach for the University of Massachusetts women. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is running sports psychology seminars for coaches and players, mainly through the Global Ultimate Training School, which she founded in 2020. More info can be found at was inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame in October 2018.


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