How Ultimate Frisbee changed my views on Sport, Spirit, Life, and Leadership

“Are you guys aware that this will be one of the greatest weeks of your life.”

I’d been involved in a lot of tournaments as both a player and a physio before. I could sense the coaching staff we’re nervous on our first car trip to the ground. I wanted to remind them that these days are really, really rare and they need to cherish them. Be in the moment and enjoy the tournament.

Too often in sport we remember that grand final win, first placing or PB well after the event. We remember the feeling but not the moments. We would give anything to go back.

Most of all I just wanted to make them laugh and get some good energy going. I knew my job was to get the team to the other end of the tourney with healthy bodies. If I could contribute my experience in any other way, I would. I decided that with 3 introverted coaches, I would play the class clown and try and get some giggles where I could.

What I didn’t realise, at the time I was saying this, was that it would end up being one of the greatest weeks of mine...

What is it?

Bloody serious athletes who are fast, can throw it a mile, go full length on a dive... and jump high.

Frisbee is a simple 7 on 7 game played in a rectangle. The goal is to get the Frisbee (disc) into the oppositions N-Zone. It’s like netball in that once you catch the disc you stop, get marked on, and have to throw it up field. It’s like NFL in the sense that each team has certain plays, certain strategies, and in it’s throwing and catching ability.

But it’s so much more...

What sets Frisbee apart from other sports is the spirit and culture in which it’s built on.

No Refs - Even at the world cup. If a decision is disputed players will discuss it on field and even call on closer players to offer a different perspective. If a decision can’t be made it goes back to the previous play after players shake hands.

Mutual Respect - After each team scores it’s common practice for the opposition to applaud and high five them for a great point.

The Spirit Circle - At the end of each game both teams stand in a circle in one, one format ensuring they are next to an opposition player. They complement each other on what they did well in the game and discuss any potential issues in the spirit of the game.

Spirit Points - At the end of each game, each team votes on how well the opposition stuck to the spirit of the game. At the end of the tournament there are 2 major winners. The Gold Medal (USA) and The Spirit Winners (New Zealand)

That's what a Bronze medal looks like - don't tell me you can't have positivity, gratitude and be ultra competitive at the same time.

Showing More Love & Leadership Lessons;

When a sport chooses a positive culture it’s amazing how it permeates every person and action around the sport. The positivity and gratitude shown by the leadership group in adversity will forever remain with me, in my sporting and business pursuits.

In a must win game, against NZ mid, tournament, ‘The Stingrays’ were at 5-5. They were playing poorly against an opposition that they ‘should’ beat.

Mitch and I were joking that at half time they would be getting a very, very big spray by the normally positive coaching staff….

...HERE IT CAME....

The speech went like this… “we need to show each other more love… only if we do this can we play to our true potential.” The Stingrays went on to win the game 15-8. They won the next 2 games, qualified for the finals, and beat Colombia (who had previously beat them) in the Bronze medal match.

This was an amazing result for ‘The Stingrays’ but also the leadership and coaching team. It’s very easy to talk about positivity and gratitude but it's hard to apply it, especially in adversity.

How often do you see any sport start out in good spirits but as soon as it gets close or hard or controversial it turns into a rabble.

Mitch treating the Kiwi's - Because Frisbee Spirit

Healthy Conflict;

Having had to lead a team of 11 young health professionals I am learning the value of communication and healthy conflict. “If a team is quiet, you’re in trouble.” This was a quote from leadership expert Patrick Lencioni from the book ‘5 Dysfunctions of a team’. There needs to be respectful, healthy and challenging debate in great teams.

A great team will pull each other up and say, “hey, we can do this better.” Even more so the receiver will not get offended because they know this is for the betterment of the team.

After every game the team would debrief game scenarios and suggest situations where the team could have improved.

Too often in Life and Business when criticism or ‘feedback’ is given we don’t know how to respond. We get defensive, uncomfortable. In this sport it is expected, welcomed and well received.

Spirit of the Game from a Cricketers Perspective;

This trip changed me, or so I thought… I wanted it to change me. I came back from the trip into my normal club cricket match. The team we were playing were extremely upset that they had to play the Saturday after Australia Day. They asked our captain the two nights before if we would have the week off and turn it into a one dayer the following week, presumably so they could have a big night.

We declined… because we signed up to play cricket… and we like playing cricket.

I walked out to open the batting and the opposition were absolutely disgusted to be out there. I was being sledged for not being in a pub… I was being sledged for playing cricket by a cricket team… sledging is a normal part of the game… it is usually not personal… it can sometimes involve a well inserted swear word… it should be witty… it should play on the batsman's mind… this is a normal part of the game… but complaining to actually be playing a sport that you love…. I’d never seen this approach… and maybe it worked on me.

My team don’t know this but in that very moment I wanted to give the game up… there was no positivity, gratitude, spirit or life in this game. It was the exact opposite. For a split second I actually considered walking off or even just letting the ball hit the stumps. I was done.

How could I go from a sport with so much spirit and gratitude to a sport where the players were actually complaining about playing.

I eventually cracked and told them to “fuck off to the pub and forfeit the match, we’ll take the 8 points.” I then proceeded to charge the bowler hit a 4 down the ground and told him to “fuck off” again.

In that moment I was extremely disappointed in my actions… had everything I just learnt gone to waste.

I think the lesson here is negativity breeds negativity and culture is the bedrock in which it all festers… this was completely acceptable behaviour…. If I did this in frisbee I don’t think I would have been asked back… in my sport it would be considered a heroic act.

I enjoyed the company of my team that afternoon more than I had before. I remembered why we play the game… it’s for the mateship and comradery after the game… but why could we not make this a permanent fixture in the game, all the time AND between teams?

Photo credit to: Eric SC Lim

A word on The Australian Cricket Team;

The recent ball tampering by the Australian cricket team might seem comical to those outside the game. Other sports have drug cheats, alcohol abuse, diving… and the best ‘we’ have got is slightly changing the surface of the ball… comparably it seems comical.

It’s been happening for years and the normal punishment is missing a game or two and some match fees. Anymore than that would not be in line with previous rulings… however in this ruling is the lesson. That is the standard and culture the sport accepts… this permeates every other action the sport and it’s players accept… including how we behave for our weekend club games.

Why Frisbee is the only Sport your kids should be playing;

If we think about the real reasons we play sport at a young age or why our parents encourage us to do so.

It’s to be social. To get outside. To develop some sort of fitness or movement competency. It’s to learn the skills we need to arm us in life.

If I think about the two sports I played growing up Soccer and Cricket. In both games a week wouldn't pass without getting angry at the ref or umpire. A week wouldn't pass where you would have a scuffle or verbally abuse the opposition. A week wouldn't pass where someone from your own team would get angry with someone from your own team. It would be rare to talk to the opposition after any weekend game of Soccer or Cricket.

Think about what this learned behaviour does to our brain. Think about Bernard Tomic and even a young Rodger Federer or even the complete apathy that Steve Smith has owned up to “cheating”.

What does seeing these mentors behave this way teach us about life, conflict and business. How does this affect our actions in weekend club sport. How does this affect the way we handle conflict in our relationships or with our bosses.

I haven’t met many millennials who can take criticism well, who know how to have healthy conflict, who know how to look someone in the eye and have difficult discussions. This is how we develop as people, develop relationships and develop businesses

So next time your choosing a sport for yourself or your kids consider this fast paced, extremely athletic, catching, throwing, spirited, positive and gracious sport.

Aren't these the skills we want our kids, actually all humans to attain to make the real world easier….