by | July 21, 2015, 9:27am 19

Sorry is such a strange word. We use it to convey dismay, sympathy, regret and so much more, but I’ve noticed a startling trend among the the girls I help coach. They’ve been using it in a completely different way: shame. They say sorry as a way of admitting that they are ashamed of something they did — a bad throw or a dropped disc — and they immediately express this shame to themselves and their teammates.

I habitually used the word “sorry” throughout my college and club years. If I made a mistake, I knew I had to admit that I was ashamed of what I did so that everyone on my team knew that I would try and do better next time. I especially claimed defeat on a bad throw, thinking I should have know better than to loft up a hammer into the wind. I found comfort in the word sorry, but knew that I never felt quite right after saying it, especially at practice. We’re supposed to make mistakes at practice because that’s how we learn what we’re capable of when it comes to game time. So what if I throw a hammer into the wind and it’s knocked down by the defense? Now I know that is a risky throw. I shouldn’t be sorry — but I am.

After all, I rarely heard it from my male counterparts, especially at practice or league. Ridiculous 50-50 throw to a double teamed receiver while there’s someone completely wide open coming under? They just shook it off. Completely forgetting the force? Eh…next time. Meanwhile the first word out of my mouth always seemed to be “sorry”. “Sorry about not throwing to you earlier.” “Sorry about that pass being a little behind you.” “Sorry my dump cut wasn’t exactly where you needed it.” My teammates would hear these and simply shrug. “You’re fine, don’t worry about it.” Meanwhile I was still ashamed of not being perfect.

That’s the thing about sorry. We shouldn’t be saying it. Yeah, there are moments where we can use the word “sorry” for things like accidentally tripping someone or even punching them in the face on the follow through of a big huck. We should never be saying sorry for a mistake that we make — it happens. It does not merit the word sorry.

Sorry is such a defeatist word and women especially use it all the time. I’ve heard the word sorry on every team I’ve coached, from college teams, to club teams, to youth teams. We don’t need to be so apologetic for the choices we make, whether it’s on or off the field. We should be taking risks, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. “Sorry” puts up this wall that stops us from playing to our potential and therefore stops us from playing our best.

So how do we change this word? How do we remove “sorry” from our repertoire? There are a couple of ways I’ve learned from some amazing coaches over the years. One is to replace it. Say “yogurt” or “balls” (the latter being my favorite, but not the best for youth players). The other is to use positive reinforcement. When someone feels they have made a mistake, have them shout “I’m a star!” (perhaps even having them do a star jump in the process), and get their teammates to respond “Yes you are!” Feels pretty great, right?

So if you happen to be out playing ultimate and start to say “sorry”, think twice. If you hear it from another player, tell them they don’t need to say it. We can all use a little boost of confidence. Instead of shame, celebrate mistakes and then learn from them. Don’t be sorry, be a star.

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  • Brondo

    As a male player, I say sorry any time I feel I messed up – whether that be poor execution, or a poor decision. I think lots of other males say it as well.

    I certainly don’t have a problem with anyone NOT saying they are sorry, but for me, it works as a way to consciously recognize that I did something I would prefer to prevent in the future.

    Threw right in to a poach? “Sorry” – and I hope my brain remembers not to do that again in the future. It’s like a slap of elastic band to remind yourself you could have done something better.

    The point of the article is well made though – and I do think there are a number of players, particularly new players, who feel they have let down their teammates in some way and they need to express their shame – it would be great to eliminate that.

    With that in mind, if somebody turfed a disc to me, and then immediately yelled “I am a star!” I would think they are a little strange.

    • Chris

      Brondo, I do a very similar thing to you, I say sorry for my mistakes as a way for me to move on from them. Once I apologize, the play is totally over in my mind, so I can focus on what’s next. This came about over time, because I would always dwell on my mistakes.

      Here’s Reid Koss on this same topic:

  • Dominick

    I got annoyed at the members of one of the youth/beginner teams I coach always saying sorry so I banned the word. I explained that no one was allowed say sorry because no one had done anything wrong.

    Seeing that your team mate was open and attempting to pass to them is a good thing. Making a cut to get open and giving your team mate an option is something to be proud of.

    Initially the players thought I was silly but they’ve since bought into the idea and remind each other there is nothing to be sorry for, we trust everyone is doing their best and are happy to see people pushing their skills.

  • gailfail

    It’s just a huge problem with girls in general. Just watch or read about Amy Schumer’s sketch, “I’m Sorry” which magnifies how much women say “sorry” for every-little-thing!

  • Brummie

    I’ve actively told my players off for apologising on many occasions. I’m convinced that when a thrower apologises for a throw that is still in the air, the receiver hears it and subconsciously thinks “yeah, not my fault”; as a result, many of them give up on the throw. No-one plays in such a way that they are actively trying to turn over. Sure, sometimes we make imperfect choices and often make imperfect executions, but if everyone was perfect it wouldn’t be much fun to play any game, would it?

  • ottopivnr

    Outlaw the word. Have your team replace the word with something else like “slippery”. make it a team rule that you can never utter the word itself, only its substitute, for a mistake (as opposed to stepping on someone’s foot where it would still be appropriate). See how this changes how many times a ‘shame’ word is used.

  • mkt42

    Maybe we need to go back to the days of HackySack, where saying “I’m sorry” is banned (see the 5th bullet point err sack point).

  • Peter

    There is no sorry in ultimate, only sorry ultimate.

  • Full Field Hammer

    As a women’s coach, I definitely have found this really prevalent in the women’s game. I tell my players “No sorries. Save them for when you need them.”

  • Slick

    Crap. Just realized I apologized for every single turnover I caused last weekend at Revolution, and also apologized for almost turnovers for good measure. “Sorry that throw was a bit zippy. Thanks for catching it” “Sorry that pass was a bit low and making you reach” “Sorry I didn’t catch that disc you made me layout for at a crazy angle”.
    Heck, I even apologized for successful assists. “Sorry, that shouldn’t have been a lefty backhand”.

    I might have a problem. Thanks for calling me out on it.

  • Esper

    I used to play with a guy who hd been playing just shy of my whole lifetime, really dependable player. I noticed one day that after a bad throw or a mistake, he’d never apologise to anyone. I realised that if no one expected, wanted or would accept and apology from him, then they sure as hell didn’t need an apology from me as a newer player. I’ve found putting my hand up as an acknowledgement of a mistake is simple enough. Nothing about shame, simply acknowledging in yourself that you got something wrong and you recognise and are learning from the mistake

  • Boyd

    I actually understand the use in team sport. It is an apology for your error, mistake or whatever that might hinder your teammate in fulfilling their task. Not enabling them to try their part of the practice/drill.

    As long as all players know and accept its okay, no even good, to make mistakes during practice sessions, I dont see the harm. I think it’s even good, realising your part of a bigger thing where other are relying on you and the other way around.

    As long as you accept the mistake itself

  • mandywintink

    This is a great article on saying “sorry” in sport but I think it’s truth is much broader. I remember realizing this behaviour in myself and then consciously holding myself back from saying it. It felt awkward and that was telling. Holding myself back from saying sorry helped me appreciate and and embrace my mistakes as a normal part of growing and developing… In frisbee and otherwise!

    • queenofpie

      Yes–this is a great article! I don’t think that some commenters realize that, basically, women are conditioned to apologize all. the. time. I still notice myself doing it in my professional life constantly–even when not actually saying the word ‘sorry.’ Phrases like ‘this is just an idea, but….’, or ‘someone probably already thought of this, but….’ are essentially apologies for having an opinion or an idea.

      This is part of why sports are so important for girls and women and we should all try to work to create practice environments in which it’s ok to make mistakes and sorry’s are not needed/wanted.

      • Clara Stewart

        THANK YOU

  • yayultimate

    This is absurd. Obviously when you make a mistake you shouldn’t mope about it and feel awful, but you should definitely acknowledge that you made it and then reflect upon why it happened and how to prevent it in the future.

    One of my biggest pet peeves about ultimate in general is this entire mindset though, that we should value not offending people over attempting to improve. As someone who grew up playing team sports at the highest level of competition possible through college, I’m not used to this mindset and I believe it is a huge negative of the sport.

    If I mess up, I want to know. I want to be accountable for my level of play. Obviously there’s a point where it’s counterproductive, criticism made out of frustration is not helpful. But constructive criticism is how we as athletes in any sport improve, and acknowledging our own mistakes is a part of that.

    And to tie it back to the article and the comments, if you are playing serious ultimate and you mess up and DON’T feel like you let the team down, I have a problem with it. It doesn’t mean you should dwell on it or make you think negatively of yourself. But you should care enough about your team that you’re giving 100% to helping them win and when you do something that hurts the team, it should absolutely bother you, and you should use that moment to reflect on how you can prevent such a thing from happening in the future. I don’t really care if you say the word sorry but if you’re not thinking it when you make a mistake, you’re clearly not invested enough in your team.

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to beginners/pickup/uncompetitive settings I’m talking mostly of sanctioned college or club tournaments.

  • This is so nice to read!!! You know, I am captan and coach of my women team in Brazil Elektra Ultimate Team, and since 2010, we realized the bad feeling that this word causes when it is pronounced during a training or a game. It turns the focus on the mistake and spreads the feeling from the person who made the mistake to all her teammates. It puts the entire team down. So then we started to prohibit ourselves to apologise for our mistakes. After a bad throw or a bad catch, the action in a game is to think about the next task and in a training, to think about on how to be better next time… After the mistakes, we also tried, in the beginning, to laugh about it, but only to keep smiling and to avoid the bad feeling after commiting mistakes. In a mean time, we felt more confortable about making mistakes and accept that we are humans… I think it was one of the best rule that we put it on, because we create an environment lighter, especially for girls… And the last thing that I can say is that because we deal with mistakes this way, we can keep the heads up even thoug we are down in the score, which increases the chances to win the game.
    Thank you for that!!!

    • queenofpie

      This is great–sounds like you are building an awesome team culture!

  • Steve Bachiu

    I really like this discussion, but I think it is a little bit off base. Hopefully, what I mean will become clear, but what I am trying to say is that the root of the issue is not the word sorry. I thought I should say this early on, because this might get a bit long.

    At its heart, a team is about responsibility and accountability. You have an obligation to all of your teammates to give your best effort, to make appropriate decisions, and to support the team. That means, when you make a mistake on the field, that in some way you have let your team down. Sometimes, it is a minor thing, sometimes, you’ve hung someone out to dry. It is important to acknowledge that. However, on the other side of things, your team is also obligated to you to immediately pick you up, and take that weight off your shoulders. You see this all the time when people interview baseball players. The pitcher picks up his play a notch when a fielder makes an error to take the pressure off of him. Fielders make huge efforts to support a pitcher. Batters feel the responsibility to provide run support for the pitcher.

    There are two different aspects of the “sorry” issue. On one hand, players will often say ‘sorry’, and carry the shame around with them until they are able to forget about it, or redeem themselves in their own eyes. Ironically, this is almost as selfish (self-focused, at least) as the other side of things. That side is where players don’t acknowledge their personal responsibility, and continue to make unwise and selfish decisions. This is an almost exclusively male issue, I’m ashamed to say.

    In an ideal situation, you will have players take responsibility for their actions, and an entire team that immediately rallies around that player. It is a great feeling to know that, if you turf a throw right off the pull, your entire team will kill themselves to get the stop FOR YOU. If eliminating “sorry” from the team vocabulary produces this, then great. Other things that might work – when people call out “sorry”, have people immediately call out “we got you”. Have everyone call out the team name a couple of times, while getting back on defense. What you do isn’t the main issue. Creating that sense of obligation to the team, and the knowledge that the team is there for every individual is the main issue. It is the basic difference between a group of individuals and a team.