Ultimate is an emotional experience. Consider a universe point lasting two minutes: Within those brief 120 seconds, a player might be feeling incredibly confident at the opening pull (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), complete a series of passes advancing the disc up field with increasing excitement (“This is going to be a terrific performance that sends us to the next round!”), have a forehand intercepted by an opposing player triggering frustration (“That was a missed opportunity!”) and guilt (“I’ve let down my teammates!”), transition to defense and begin marking an opponent as anxiety grows, (“I hope this person doesn’t get a good pass off!”), feel pride when the stall-count reaches nine (“We’re doing a good job defending!”), experience brief distress when the mark gets a throw off (“Uh-oh, have they found a seam?”), be struck by an immediate surge of happiness when a teammate intercepts the pass (“This is the break we needed!”), tries to feel calm enough to focus on the moment (“I need to make a cut and draw my defender in.”), and finally feel relief as a teammate makes a grab in the endzone securing the final goal. Ten different emotions within two minutes and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.
With so many emotions being experienced, the ability to manage emotions in the heat of performance becomes an important skillset to have for every ultimate player. Emotion regulation means using strategies to trigger or stop, maintain, change, or express emotions. This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, or how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing your behavior because of the emotion, and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).
The Ultimate Emotion Regulation Toolbox
There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. Some involve changing something in your environment; others involve changing your thoughts. Emotions researcher James Gross1Reference: Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological Inquiry, 26(1), 1-26.. has identified five families of emotion regulation:
Situation Selection: A player can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a player who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a practice in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the player remains in desired and intended situations.
Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the player can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a captain might protect a rookie player from mismatching against a veteran opponent in order to keep the rookie from feeling intimidated and anxious about making mistakes. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help players and captains reflect on the reasons why a point went well or not so well. This can lead to brainstorming potential options that are available for next time.
Attentional Deployment: A player can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a player who is feeling flustered with an opponent who is showing poor spirit on the sideline can choose to focus intently on their own mark to keep themselves engaged. Focus strategies that have primed the player about what is in, and outside of, the player’s control can be an effective tool here.
Cognitive Change: A player can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a player who is feeling sad because the team lost a game might remind herself that there are still many more games to play in the tournament before playoffs start to cheer her up and focus herself in the present moment. Given the strong link between how we perceive the situation around us and emotions, self-talk is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
Response Modulation (Suppression): After players have experienced an emotion, they can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). A common example of this in ultimate is seen when players debate over contested fouls. Players who are unhappy with the result of a contest might try to hide how angry they’re feeling in order to maintain spirit points. Having visualized potential responses to employ based on anticipated emotions can be an effective tool in this circumstance.
Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, ultimate players can begin to identify and practice effective emotion regulation strategies.