A few years back I started playing city league soccer with a bunch of Sockeye guys. I had played as a kid and though I loved it, I drifted away. I ran track in high school before finding ultimate in college. All those 25 years of sports, from the time I was 5, I had played defense. So when I went to playing city league soccer, I was surprised to find that I was a much better striker than a defender. There were some technical reasons (I had speed, but no ability to head the ball, etc.) but mostly it was mentality. There was something similar between striking in soccer and defending in ultimate.
Mia Hamm wrote, “I am a goal scorer and rarely are goal scorers successful. If it is only when [you score] you gain confidence, you are going to be miserable.” Defending in ultimate is also about failure. You can play the best, most technically sound defense in the world and still look like a fool. That constant drumbeat of defeat can be crushing and powerfully motivating at the same time. The trick is to carry the defeat with you and at the same time nurse a prodigious ego. That’s why defenders looked pissed off all the time; their psyches are split in half and hating each other.
There is something too about taking chances. Playing defense, particularly once you become good at playing off-man, is about chances. When Sockeye plays zone d, the criteria for success is one good bid each point. Not a block, but one bid. It isn’t the block, but the opportunity for one that makes a good defender. Can you, through your vision and creativity, manufacture the possibility of a turnover? This is identical to the goal-scorers mentality. Yes, you want the goal (just like you want the block), but a good opportunity is a measure of success as well. Goals, like blocks, are rare. There comes a time in both soccer and ultimate when opportunities become wasted and creativity needs some blue-collar finishing, but it is the set-up that makes the mindset.
So when I am up in Burlington this weekend watching NW Regionals, I will watch the team strategies and the drama of the tournament, but for individual play it will be the defenders I will watch. The grind and the hustle. The flash and block.
Photo of Alex Nord by Scobel Wiggins