Clipboardaphobia – or ‘Why I Suck at Trials’

So, stepping late into the fray (as usual), here’s my contribution to the Mohawks blog-o-web. I’m one of those weird people who likes applying their degree to ultimate, in spite of never having done any actual ‘sports psychology’ courses. I’m also a little obsessed with tactics, especially the differences across divisions, so expect to see a mix of tactics discussion, psychological literature highlights and general dumb observations here. First up: my biggest mental block…


With trials for the club I’m hoping to play with this season coming up (er, today), I’ve been thinking a lot about my general failure to look like a competent human being (let alone ultimate player) at most trial sessions I’ve ever attended (grass women’s and mixed, beach women’s, U23s…). A couple of times, I’ve managed to scrape through anyway, but mostly I am the ultimate-playing definition of choking.

And while focusing on this right before trials is probably not the most psychologically healthy thing to do, I figured if I’m gonna think about it anyway, I’m gonna think about it logically and find something interesting to share about it.

There are some good posts out there about how to play at trials (Lou Burruss’ is pretty good and the Hodags one from a few seasons ago is neat, but I’m sure there are loads of others around). And generally, they have quite similar messages: play D, work hard, don’t be a jerk. Don’t turn over, unless you’re trying to make the team as a handler/playmaker, in which case turn over, but in all the right places on all the right throws…

I know all this stuff. It is not any of these things (I think) that cripples me, but rather the knowledge that this is not ‘training’, but (ominous drum roll) ‘TRIALS’. Sounds pretty stupid, but there is some quite interesting psych lit to back up my stupidity.


Audience Inhibition

Funny how when no-one’s watching, you can do something fine, but as soon as you’ve got an audience your brain goes to jelly, isn’t it? But how come it doesn’t always happen? Sometimes performing in front of audience makes you better at something. A lecturer in my first year demonstrated this brilliantly, although the two students he picked would probably disagree. He got one to stand at the front of the lecture theatre of 300 students and recite the alphabet. Surprise surprise, this student had no difficulty. He then got the other to recite the alphabet backwards. The guy was all over the place. Before this, he’d got them to do it outside, in front of each other – both had managed both tasks just fine. Lucky student no. 1 demonstrated ‘audience facilitation’ – the audience makes you better – and studies have suggested that when you’re incredibly familiar with something you perform better in front of people. You play up to the audience, because you know what you’re doing. Unlucky student no. 2 demonstrated ‘audience inhibition’ – you cock up because you’re less sure of what you’re doing, and the extra people add to your nervousness enough to disrupt the cognitive systems you need to do the task. Put this into practice with ultimate, with a nice judgmental audience of ‘the selectors’, and boom – car crash ultimate. Interestingly, this would suggest that people who are in general more confident about the skills being evaluated won’t feel the sting of trials quite so harshly – it is wrong that I am now thinking of how to test this empirically at trials on Monday?


Mastery vs. Achievement Goals

On to one of my favourite chunks of psychological literature. Some smart people in the states came up with the idea that when people engage in activities they can have two general types of goal: mastery or achievement. Mastery goals are very much geared towards, guess what, mastering a skill or task, learning how it works, understanding it and improving with relation to yourself. Achievement goals are all about looking good while doing a task – showing off what you got, so to speak. Now guess which goal-set trials encourage. (Correct answer: achievement goals).

By adding an external evaluator of your skills and play, trials automatically start kicking your brain towards thinking about how you’re being viewed by someone else and start motivating you to impress them. Which, regardless of your general mindset, has a lot of negative effects. Achievement goals tend to lead to worse performance, less perseverance with difficult tasks and more negative self-evaluations, regardless of how people approach most situations: it’s not about whether you ‘match’ the goals you’re currently focusing on.

So, coming into trials, suddenly you’re focusing not on breaking a mark or throwing a sidearm huck, but whether the person with the clipboard thinks you can break a mark, or throw a sidearm huck. This extra external perspective gives you a whole new level of chatter in your brain (Are they gonna blame me for that turnover? Do they think I made the right cut? Do they think I should’ve got a block on that break throw?) which makes it increasingly difficult to achieve what gets referred to in sports lit as a ‘flow’ state, where you stop actively and intrusively thinking and, as the advert says, just do it.


Now what?

Ok, so now I know why I underperform at trials. Should probably try to work out how to fix it, right? Here are some suggestions I’ve scraped together…

Step 1. Be confident. You’re not trying out for this team because you’re rubbish. No-one trying out for any team will be rubbish. You’re trying out for this team because you’re good and they’re good and you wanna get together and make some awesome Frisbeegame. Because you’re good. Get some audience facilitation going.

Step 2. Trust the selectors. With external evaluations suddenly in the picture, you’re worrying about whether this other random person thinks you’ve done something right. Now, I’m guessing that you trust these people to know what ‘good ultimate’ is (if you don’t, what the heck are you doing trying out for their team? Go play for someone else!), and that you trust yourself to know what good ultimate is. So go back to focusing on your play, rather than judging yourself through their eyes. Don’t worry about looking like you’re playing good ultimate; focus on playing good ultimate. I am pretty sure this is my major downfall at trials and it is something I’m determined to fix come Monday.


Alternatively, in the wise words of Nicole: ‘Don’t think of it as trials then, think of it as training.’


I’ll let you know how that goes…


  • mancake

    Good luck Meg!!! Go be a show off.. ;o)

  • jasmine

    Great blog Meg. Really interesting. I look forward to reading many more 🙂
    Oh and good luck!

  • dude

    Oh man, great to see some psychology in ultimate posts. Great post Meg!

    Show them how good you are! Best of luck for today.

  • joebutler62

    Great article Meg! I enjoyed the other blogs a lot, but this has to be my favourite so far.

    Having a psychological interest myself this has sent me on a 2 hour detour reading up on masses of sports psych studies giving tips and showing how to use your brain to maximise your performance. There is so much great research out there! 😀

    Something I personally find helpful and no doubt Meg and others have come across before, is the idea of using mental imagery or visualising the exact action I am attempting. There’s heaps of scientific stuff suggesting this is beneficial. So many incredibly talented and diverse champions say they do this as well. If your interested google scholar imagery and visualisation on sport performance.

    1. Fetu

      No doubt Meg will have a look 🙂

    2. spoon

      We were definitely encouraged to do this a lot back in my swimming days. I found it much more difficult to take seriously then as I struggled to gauge the timing of how fast I wanted to swim, but the top athletes definitely do this…

  • Fetu

    Another great article Meg. I’m looking forward to hearing how you put your suggestions into practice

  • Fetu

    Been thinking. I wonder if all this somehow relates to how poorly I performed at Brighton mixed this weekend just gone. Some background: Brighton Club sent 2 teams to an informal but high standard mixed tournament in London. [Obviously here no one knows how I played since no one was on my team but] I dropped a lot of discs. Two drops a game pretty much, which is terrible! Annoying since at tour, where I feel more confortable playing for Brighton 2 and get much more of the disc, I might make 1 drop in a whole tournament. At the high standard that Brighton first team play at, I certainly feel the pressure to perform well and it doesn’t help ><

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