“That’s Commitment. It’s Risky.” (Or, An Ultimate Season in Three Parts)

I captained a women’s Ultimate team this past season, and it was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the very least.  Ultimate is challenging in so many ways, but one thing that sets it apart from other sports is the fact that it’s player-driven and player-led.  Captains often act as coaches, organizers, trainers, and even “life coaches” (as one of my own players called me recently).  And in the midst of all of that, captains are players themselves, participating on a team with a group of their peers and, in most cases, friends.  Needless to say, captains have to balance a breadth of needs, opinions, tasks, and expectations.  Not to mention their own performance on the field.

At one point this summer, I was struggling with this role.  I was feeling anxious that all of our hard work wasn’t paying off.  That people might not enjoy the season; that we wouldn’t have the numbers we needed; that this little experiment would flop.  And yes, that I wouldn’t be comfortable or happy with the results. 

In one of our many conversations in which I expressed this concern, my co-captain told me, “That’s commitment.  It’s risky.”  And I realized that she couldn’t have been more right. 

While her response wasn’t much of a comfort, it did put things into stark perspective.  You don’t see any success without taking some risks.  I’m notorious for letting my happiness hinge on my expectations, and for allowing those expectations to rest on things that I can’t always control—like wins and losses, or placement in a tournament, or who attends what.  I took some serious risks this season, and in some ways I let expectations creep in where they didn’t belong. 

But now I’m putting on my rose-colored glasses to reflect on a season that meant something, and that I believe to have been important.  A season that changed me for the better.

Part One:  Spring

A year ago I was in a bad place.  I was coming off of a difficult season, feeling alienated from my team and many of my friends.  I wasn’t sure what the future held for me with regard to the sport…And the city that I called home, for that matter.  I wanted to keep playing, but I didn’t know where I fit into the Austin ultimate community anymore.  After several months of agonizing, I received an email from someone that I knew mostly in passing.

Jenny* played for the same college team that I started out with, though we’d never played together.  She’s younger, and began playing after I’d graduated.  Her email asked me if I’d be interested in starting a women’s team with her.  My husband asked me if she was a strong player, and I remembered when, in a scrimmage, she’d gotten a layout-D against me in the end zone.  “Yeah,” I told him.  “She is.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to head up a team, but Jenny’s email did one very important thing for me:  It opened up my eyes to the greater community, and it made me feel wanted when my confidence was at its lowest.  After years of playing elite-level, high-commitment, expensive frisbee, I was hoping for a change.  I liked the idea of focusing on giving back to the sport with a more developmental team.  And it felt good to know that someone else thought I would be a valuable part of that type of program.  So we began to talk about what we’d each be looking for in a team, and rounded up players from college up to “retired” vets. 

It quickly became clear that the interest was out there.  Our first practice was almost comical, though, and I forced myself to focus on the positive:  We had numbers.  There was a decent turnout on that first night, but halfway through our first drill massive thunderclouds rolled in.  The wind picked up to an embarrassing degree; the sky was black; thunder and lightning started up.  Within minutes, the fields closed due to thunderstorms. 

“If this is a sign,” I thought, “it’s not a good one.”

And after that first practice, if you can call it that, I headed out of town for several weeks.  I left the team in its infancy with Jenny and her very capable leadership, hoping that we’d put enough in place to swim rather than sink like a stone.  Even if we were only dog-paddling.

Part Two:  Summer

When I got back from my time away, it was clear that people were hungry for more.  Our initial plans were for low-key weekly throwing sessions, with the possibility of scrimmaging if numbers allowed.  By mid-summer, our players wanted structure.  They were showing up, cleats in hand, ready for drills, plays, and formal warm-ups.  I was pleasantly surprised, and Jenny and I happily planned out practices.

We began to pick up new Austinites who were eager to have a team—five of them in all.  We combined experienced players who didn’t want too intense of a commitment with younger women still finishing out their college eligibility.  Former league and pick-up players approached us, anxious to build on their ultimate repertoire.  It was a motley crew.  Slowly but surely, we got to know each other and how everyone played.  At one Saturday afternoon practice, players asked for shorter breaks and more challenging drills.  I was, again, pleasantly surprised.  We were new, we were raw, but we were hungry to grow.  We played a scrimmage against another women’s team in the state, winning comfortably, and rode that confidence into our first tournaments. 

Those tournaments brought some challenges, but they also showed our true colors:  We were scrappy.  I’ve been a part of amazingly talented teams who had no fight.  Teams who, when down, folded like a house of cards.  We were not one of those teams.  Sure, we were light on handlers (a.k.a. experienced throwers), and yes, we weren’t all on the same page strategically.  But we knew how to come back from a deficit, and we didn’t give up easily.  We didn’t go undefeated in those tournaments, by any means, but we showed determination.  Even when short on numbers, we rarely had to coax people on to the field (if ever).  We piled ourselves into the houses where we stayed, snuggling into close quarters together and bonding in ways that we hadn’t been able to up until that point.  Things were coming together.

I was already pleased with the success that we’d had.  We were showing character that I hadn’t anticipated, and I was enjoying every bit of it.  Most of all, I felt relationships growing.  Aside from minor frustrations here and there, people were getting along and supporting each other.  There was no ego, no dissention, no jealousy in the way.  When months ago I’d felt alone, I was feeling like a part of a team again.  Like I was finding a new sweet spot in this sport and in this city. 

Part Three:  Fall

After a successful pre-season, I was excited to see how we’d perform in the competitive series.  But if my expectations frequently dictate my happiness, I was in for a major blow.  

Sectionals got rained out, and we lost a large part of our team who couldn’t make the rain date…including several key throwers.  Our numbers dropped substantially, and I realized that we were going to be even more challenged than anticipated. 

Still, we came out of the gates strong in our first game, establishing an early lead against the team seeded just below us.  That is, until our two strongest handlers got season-ending injuries.  First, my best friend Nina injured her already-ACL-less knee.  An eerie quiet settled on the field as we all realized what this meant:  Nina would probably need surgery, and we were short yet another handler.  Jenny came on the field as her substitute, and within minutes tore a muscle in her core and crawled from the field in agony.  Morale plummeted in the already short-staffed team, and I watched my hopes for success crumble before my eyes.  If I had it to do over again, I would have called a time-out to re-group.  But I was on the field, and my head was spinning with anxiety.  The other team seized the opportunity and the momentum, beating us by one in the end.  We were almost too downtrodden to even process the loss. 

We managed to re-group after that game with a brief pep talk, though, recognizing the obstacles now facing us head-on.  Over the course of the rest of the day, I watched newer players step up and take control on the field in ways that I hadn’t seen them do before.  I struggled, no question, to keep my composure and remain encouraging toward my team.  As I told some friends from another team at one point, “I’m keeping it together for my team, but I need to actually feel what I’m feeling.” 

Regionals reflected sectionals to a certain degree; we had moments of greatness, and won most of the games that we “should have” won, though we probably could have won more had we been full-force.  We continued to be fighters, and continued to support each other through some frustrating moments, but I struggled to hide the sadness I felt for the disappointing end of our season. 

In talking to my mother about it, she helped me put things in perspective.  “Things changed,” she said.  “Your expectations needed to change with them.” 

And I remembered what Jenny said to me all of those months ago:  “That’s commitment.  It’s risky.”  I’d started out with low expectations, been pleasantly surprised, and then disappointed by the things that I couldn’t control.  I’d put a tremendous amount of time, energy, and love into a team, in the hopes that it would be a success. 

So was it a success? 

I could control how I treated my teammates; how I planned practices; how I played.  And for the most part I felt good about those things.  If I measure the team’s success by wins and losses, I could argue that it was not successful in comparison to other seasons that I’ve had.  But I knew going into this season that this would be a different team, and in all honestly I wanted a different one.  I was hungry for a different kind of experience.  I finished the season with new friends and renewed confidence in myself.  I felt that I’d risen to the challenge and come out better for it.

So my rose-colored glasses are working pretty well for me right now.  The season may have been a rollercoaster, but as it happens I really really like thrill rides.  Especially when I know that I’ll get off in one piece with my friends at the end.

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