It was the morning of the Open Finals in Sarasota, 2006. I’d traveled to Florida, as I’d done every year since marrying MC in 2000, to see my family and support him and Sockeye in their quest for a championship. I was walking along the sideline towards Sockeye’s tent and feeling jittery. I hadn’t seen MC that morning or talked to him since last night, and as I walked I wondered how he was feeling. Was he excited? Nervous? Did he feel prepared, mentally and physically? As I got closer to the tent I started to hear the music: Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” That’s good, I thought. Then I saw MC come out of the tent – he didn’t see me right away, but paused a few steps out and started doing some truly fabulous dance moves. And just like that, I knew it was gonna be a good day. I knew he, in particular, was going to have a good day.
That day I knew what “a good day” was instinctively, but after being on the sidelines at ultimate tourneys for 20 years (first as a fan/supportive partner and now also as a strength and conditioning coach), I feel I have a deeper understanding of what “a good day” looks like, feels like, and how to cultivate it. But I’ve also learned that every ultimate team is different, and every year you spend on a given team will be different. There are team cultures set out in mission statements, while others form around a specific group of people in a specific year. Some teams value a super positive “lift each other up,” vibe, striving for personal excellence within that support structure, while others thrive on cajoling, yelling and lighting fires under each other. Some bring it hard to every practice, some blow their wad at tournaments and skive off in between. Some do everything together outside of practice and some hardly come together socially at all.
There’s no formula for what a winning team looks like. The thing is, all of these types of teams teams have won medals. I knew Sockeye was going to have a good day in 2006 because I understood the team culture and could see that it was really jiving and clicking for them before that game. But no matter what the culture for your particular team is, there are things you can do to help contribute to its success, and at the top of that list is how you prepare yourself to play your best game when it really counts. I knew MC was ready to play his best game: I saw it in his confidence, how easily his body was moving, his clear-conscience smile when he turned my way. In this article I’m going to look at what you can do in different parts of the season leading up to the big games to make them your best games. Fair warning: we’ll be delving into the deeper waters of sports psychology and mentality with this one.
During the season:
In the gym: Yes, you should be lifting during the season. Just keep the volume lower than the off-season and stick to key exercises. But how do you decide what to do? Spend a little time thinking about your goals for the season: do you want to get your first three steps faster on defense? Improve your speed in changing direction? Be the best 3-cutter on the team? Stay healthy and avoid re-injuring your shoulder? What about your goals for the next tournament? What about your goals for today? Get specific. Then get after it. There’s limited time in our daily lives for training for ultimate – you need to make the most of yours. Ask for help if you need to – that’s what people like me (or experienced team members) are for! Make it a habit, schedule it in, and don’t cancel on yourself.
At practice: First of all, commit to being there. Not just showing up, but being mentally present. Even if you’re on the sideline with an injury, even if there’s rough stuff going on in your life, try to be there as much as you can. There’s a whole other article to write about whether you should play or not if you have an injury or a developing issue – for now, check out this 2012 blog I wrote about which inner voice to listen to and which you can most likely discard. Go hard. Bring tournament-level focus to every scrimmage. Play your best game now – don’t save it for some later time! Make working hard a habit.
Self-care: Your body will be there for you if you’re there for your body. Sounds woo-woo, but it’s totally not, I promise. Prioritize getting enough sleep, and if aren’t building rest and active recovery days into your weekly program, start.. Get on your foam roller/lacrosse ball at night while you’re watching TV. Yoga’s a great balance for frisbee, and not just during the off-season! If you have an injury, address it, don’t just tape it. Being hurt is extremely difficult – trust me, I know. Educate yourself about your injury, seek help, and follow through on rehab. And lastly, try to identify and fix the underlying problems that caused the injury in the first place.
Mental health: Big tournaments and games are stressful, and stress has an annoying way of mobilizing and enlarging negative and/or destructive thoughts and emotions. Give yourself a better chance to combat those feelings by engaging with and managing them outside of competitive situations. Get a therapist. Take up meditation, daily walks, or go on weekly mini-retreats. Develop, as much as possible, faith and trust in yourself and your ability to create and maintain emotional balance while you also make plays. In a meeting with Mario (RISE UP) today, we were discussing mental toughness and how it applies to training and performing at a high level. He shared with me a phrase that Alex Snyder coined during her RISE UP experience this winter: Be the One. Using her phrase as a jumping-off point, set aside a few minutes in a quiet place exploring this idea. What does it mean, for you, to “be the one?” What does it look like, feel like? Does it mean you can make that tough upwind throw for the goal, or punch it in on D when you get the turn? What about “being the one” when things go wrong? Keep grinding when the field has turned to mud? Miss the layout goal by inches, then get right back up and in the game on D? Make “the one” real in your mind – if it’s real in there, you can make it real out there. Having supportive teammates is a wonderful thing, but keeping you together emotionally and functioning in your role in a big game shouldn’t be their responsibility – it should be yours. Be kind (but firm) with yourself about preparing for the mental pressure. :)
The days leading up to a tournament shouldn’t be considered days off, but rather just a different kind of prep. You should avoid going hard in the gym, and your team should at most have a light practice or track workout. You want your body to be relaxed and have all the energy you’ll need at your disposal. If there are holes in your preparation, seek them out during this time and try to meet that need, whether it’s resolving a fight with a friend that will hang over you or getting into the massage therapist to release your right hip. Make sure you eat well and that you’re hydrated – drinking tons of water the morning of a tourney isn’t good enough! You want to show up on the day with confidence in your body and mind that you provided for yourself. According to Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, “Central to the attainment of flow is a situation in which there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and an athlete’s perceived ability or skills.” Craft your perception in these last couple days – and hey, if you’re too busy with work/school/life beforehand, there’s always the flight or the drive there. Do a de-brief the night before, right before bed – try to systematically relax your body. Acknowledge and deal with any stress or negativity you might be feeling. You’ll wake up more refreshed and with less mental baggage the next day.
During the tournament:
Off the field: When you wake up, spend a few minutes after you wake up visualizing the day: your opponents, how it will feel to be there with your team, coming down with the disc after a hell point, not giving up on D. Make the visualization as detailed as possible. Eat a decent breakfast and make sure you have everything you need.
Pre warm up: Show up with your act together. Don’t make your teammates pick up slack for you physically (where are my cleats?!) or mentally (man, still really bummed about that turnover yesterday). This is a great time to connect with your team, but as I’m fond of saying (especially to myself, because I’m HORRIBLE about this), put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others. If you’ve done your pre-tournament work well, you should be in a good spot! Try to get loose and breathe. You’re soooo much faster when you’re relaxed because your body moves more naturally and works as a unit. Plus, you’ll have more fun and be able to bring good energy to your team.
During warm up: This is one of your best (and last) chances to get yourself ready to play. Warm ups aren’t the place for joking and messing around – they’re the place to focus your energy on what’s going to make you ball in the next game. Mentally, turn your intuition on – notice and respond to how your body’s feeling. Cultivate a big awareness – take in your teammates, the field, the weather conditions, but make yourself the center of it all for these few minutes. Think about what each exercise is designed to do and focus on that – if you don’t know, then you’re probably not getting much out of it. (I’m working on my version of a better warm up for ultimate – stay tuned!) Focus on technique as you start moving faster/quicker – during the game there will be a million things vying for your attention, so take this opportunity to key in while things are simpler. During running/cutting/throwing drills, turn your spatial awareness on and bring in the visualization techniques you’ve learned (MC’s article provides great specifics and breaks down the benefits).
When I talked to MC about the story I was going to tell in this article, he said it was something his teammate Chase said in the huddle right before the game that made the difference for him. Chase talked about playing for each other, for the love of playing with each person on the team. At the end of the day, I think that’s what ultimate is all about. But it doesn’t matter what he thinks or what I think. YOU need to know for yourself why you play, why you sacrifice, and why you work hard throughout the whole year to get ready for these moments. You should want to bring the best “you” you can to that incredible table. You’ll play your best game when you’re prepared, mentally and physically, to help your team succeed. You build that trust in each other on and off the field, throughout the whole season. And your trust and faith in yourself will help you to have many more good days than bad ones.