It’s a funny time of year for a college ultimate coach. The rest of the frisbee world is moving on and gearing up for Worlds and Nationals, but for me the season is over and everyone has gone home for the summer. There’s no practice to plan, no opponents to scout, no tournaments to prepare for. The great industry and mechanic I’ve built up over the course of the season is still spinning and working, but without any real attachment to a specific process. I find myself going back over film, thinking about process and deep structure. I consider motivation and development. I go back a reread some of my favorite books on coaching. I find new books to read. The Art of Learning came in and touched right on this point:
Most intelligent NFL players, for example, use the off-season to look at their schemes more abstractly, study tapes, break down aerial views of the field, notice offensive and defensive patterns. Then, during the season, they sometimes fall into tunnel vision, because the routine of constant pain requires every last bit of reserves. I have heard quite a few NFL quarterbacks who had minor injuries and were forced to sit out a game or two, speak of the injury as a valuable opportunity to concentrate on the mental side of their games.
There is no tunnel vision quite like Nationals. The season slowly and inexorably tightens and narrows until the next day becomes the next game becomes the next moment. This is really one of the glorious elements of Nationals: it is wonderful to have all the other concerns and priorities in life stripped away, if only for a weekend.
I’ve always marveled at how a player can walk away at the end of a season, not play during the off season and then come back and be better. They haven’t played, they haven’t watched video or done much of anything and yet they are better. This is the power of recovery. It is also the power of your unconscious mind to work and work and work even when you think it isn’t. You cannot pass through an experience like Nationals without improving, even if you never played a point. It looks like those two or three months you spend at home working at the golf course and playing softball with your friends is wasted time, but your unconscious mind isn’t wasting any time – it’s always working.
You can only completely step away if you have it in you to completely step away. I never really did, but getting out of the day-to-day grind of the season is a chance to work on big picture stuff. It is really nice to have the luxury of not needing an answer – a question can sit partially answered for days, weeks. I can pick it up and roll it around for a bit and then leave it be until later.
This isn’t about ultimate, but I am undergoing the simultaneous experience as a teacher. Relieved of the daily burden of papers and lesson plans and meetings and class, I can step back and think about the big picture stuff. Am I emphasizing the things I want to emphasize? The hidden things I am teaching – how to relate to authority, the structure of mathematics, what it means to ‘do’ math – are these the things I want to teach? How can I get the kids to do what they need to do? How can I get the kids to invest into the work instead of me dragging them to the work? So many of these questions are actually the same questions I am asking about ultimate: Are we the team we want to be? Is the team taking away what I want them to be taking away? Can I even define these things?
Club players are in a far different spot. The broad part of their season is over and they are entering the narrow funnel leading to Worlds and then Nationals. They no longer have weeks and months to burn; for them time has become days and moments. In the chapter Searching for the Zone, Waitzkin discusses how to recover in an exceptionally short amount of time. In fact, he identifies rapid recovery as a key element to performance. Successful performers have the ability to rest, rejuvenate and refocus in a very short amount of time. Ultimate, with its built in 90 seconds and O-D splits, is perfect for this type of recovery. Here are some practical suggestions:
1. Throwing 10s. This is my rest and refocus tool of choice. As you feel focus slipping or find yourself struggling with a rough patch of playing, grab a partner and throw ten forehands and ten backhands. It is quick, simple and brings you back into your focus rapidly.
2. Music. I’ve always been annoyed by people listening to music while the rest of the team is warming up or between points. I think it is crucial for the team to be connected during this time. Ultimate isn’t track or tennis, you are on a team. You have to succeed together and you have to work together – get off your iPod. Strangely, I do think there might be a place for listening to music if you are in struggling place. Did you get benched for a couple points for turnovers? Checking out for a titch might be the right choice.
3. Sit down between points. This is another odd one to consider, but what about mandating tent and sitting time after playing a point? Again, I think it is crucial that people are up and supporting their team – sidelines obviously play an essential role particularly on defense. But look at team sizes – most are well over twenty. You could easily put seven on the line, seven in the tent and still have plenty to help the defense. I know that one of the rare games I spent in the tent, the 2004 Finals, is also the game I was the most focused and clearheaded throughout. There have also been times with Fugue that we’ve mandated players stay in the tent because of hot weather and these games turned out fine.
Other ideas? Your personal technique to mentally recover between points?