Ultimate Frisbee was one of the great passions of my life. I played for most of twenty years, competing at Nationals, Worlds, and playing with some of the best players in the game. I played in high school, though we didn’t know the rules then. If you don’t know the sport, do yourself a favor and find a way to watch one at the highest level. It’s beautiful, incredibly athletic, and fun.
Joining Uptown Local, the Columbia College team, was one of the first things I did in college. My skills were terrible but my teammates’ were amazing and my passion was great. While I knew others were better, I didn’t know enough at the beginning to know how much of a beginner I was.
Sophomore year my skills had improved and many of the best players from the year before had graduated. One time we were playing a tightly competitive game. Everyone was excited. Well after halftime I hadn’t played a point.
I pointed this out to Eli, one of our captains, asking when I would get to play. He said, diplomatically, that this was an important and tight game and he didn’t know how to say it but when I covered a guy, he still got the disc.
What?!? To someone who to that point felt entitled to play simply by being there, I wasn’t prepared to realize the meaning of competition, its cold lack of empathy, and its demands. I couldn’t believe it. I suddenly became aware with painful clarity of this basic meaning of competition and that I wasn’t competitive in an area I thought I was. Late in life for a lesson like this, but just as powerful.
Red-faced with shame, I couldn’t stand to be on the sideline. How could I argue with him? All I could do was head back to the van to wallow in self-pity. Once on my own I couldn’t help cry.
But more importantly I had to come face to face with this realization: if I wanted to play I’d have to earn it. Did I want to play for fun and get what playing time I could in games that didn’t matter or did I want to earn my spot and play in the games that counted?
The answer was clear, and though the path was long, I decided then and there that I was going to get good at this sport — that I was going to practice and train and learn and become a player a team could depend on. There was an elite caliber of players — the guys who led the best teams — whose ranks I only had the opportunity to play with as a supporting player. And there are professional athletes whose worlds I only view from the outside. But I’ve come to believe the best athletes have had a moment like mine — Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, for example — when they decide to sink or swim.
Despite the tears and shame, I consider it one of the greatest moments of my life — the beginning of my discovery of dedication, discipline, focus, and practice.
Nearly two decades later, in one of the last games I played, in the Masters division for players over thirty five years old, at Northeast Regionals in a tight important game, at halftime, the captain of the team, psyching the team up said we have to play better defense “… like Josh.” I had gotten us three turnovers on defense that game.
Many ultimate players play for fun, never getting better or pushing themselves to their potential. Everyone has to choose their battles and many just-for-fun ultimate players may choose to excel in other areas. Many people choose the same comfortable route for everything in life, getting their reward from just being on the field, never reaching their potential in anything, never living their passions. I don’t know how to meaningfully connect with them.