This is a lesson for the perfectionists, for the people who hold themselves to impossibly high standards, for the people who are scared of disappointing others.

What is a mistake?

Let’s start off by defining exactly what a mistake is. In my experience, a mistake happens any time you experience a negative outcome that you feel you had some control over: a turfed disc, a miffed catch or a blown defensive assignment. If you are like me, you may even find ways to feel responsible for things that are likely out of your control – the wind gusting up and ruining your throw (could have put more touch on it, expecting the wind gust), or your team getting scored on when you were off the field (could have been more active on the sideline, could have used more helpful language, could have been less tired and actually played that point, etc.). Mistakes come in many shapes and forms, but one thing they all have in common is that there is a sense of ownership about them.

We like to see mistakes as one-sided. In team sports, and especially in the ultimate community, we are told not to blame our teammates, and for good reason. Assigning blame to others can break down relationships and decrease team chemistry and cohesion, not to mention reduce a player’s confidence significantly. But not assigning any appropriate responsibility can lead to its own negative side effects. How many times have you gone to catch a tough throw, missed it and then told your teammate that it wasn’t their fault, even when they were trying to apologize for the execution error? We want to blame ourselves because we are so often told that we cannot pin the blame on others, but that isn’t always fair to ourselves.  So often in team sports, mistakes involve multiple sides – a missed throw could be both an execution error by the thrower and a misread by the receiver; a girl left wide open after a turnover could be the result of a lack of communication from at least two players. To be clear, I am not advocating that teammates blame each other, but rather for acceptance that mistakes typically do not happen in a single dimension, and it is not fair to ourselves or our teammates to believe that they do. Doing so robs our teammates of opportunities for growth and puts far too much of the onus on ourselves.

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Re-framing Mistakes from Failure into Learning Opportunities

We often fall into the trap of viewing mistakes as failures. If we go to the origin of the word mistake, we see that it literally means a take in error. Errors are not failures. As Bob Ross famously once said, “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.” The man may have been talking about painting a forest stream, but his statement reaches well beyond the easel. Truly, any time we make a judgment or execution error, it can be an excellent learning opportunity, if we choose to see it as such.

We like to think that we can learn without mistakes, or if mistakes must be made, we can simply watch others make them and learn from their experiences. But that is not how learning and growth occur. In developing a skill, you must accept that you might not (or probably will never) have all the knowledge and understanding from the get-go, but you will gain more over time. The distinction between knowledge and understanding is also important when determining how to approach situations. For example, you may know from experience that when you throw upwind, you should release low and put lots of spin on the disc, but understanding is actually being able to apply your knowledge to various situations – evaluating where you are on the field, determining what throw is necessary and applying what you know to execute that upwind throw in the given conditions. Teammates and coaches can teach you knowledge, but it is up to you to develop your understanding through trying things out and making mistakes. When we make a mistake, we have the opportunity to develop our knowledge and increase our understanding.


Before I came to ultimate, I was a competitive fencer for 13 years. One of the many lessons my fencing coach taught me was how to break down any situation to build understanding. We used the acronym TTTSD, which stands for Technique, Timing, Tactic, Speed and Distance. If something went well, it was because I had done everything correctly in all five areas. If something went wrong, it was likely due to an error in at least one of the five dimensions. Whether or not anything went well, I was expected to be able to break it down using those five concepts. For ultimate, I have updated to acronym to be TTDC(SO) – Technique, Timing, Decision, and Communication (Self and Other).

  • Technique: Was your execution correct? This applies to throws, throwing fakes, cutting, cutting fakes, defensive positioning and pretty much any other physical skill.
  • Timing: This is all about determining whether you did what you wanted to do at the right moment. Did you time your deep cut correctly? Did you look to your dump soon enough? Did you throw to a flaring cut too early or too late?
  • Decision: Did you properly evaluate whether your receiver was open? Did you successfully size up your match-up? Was poaching off of your person the best idea?
  • Communication: Ultimate is not an individual sport, and unless things have changed, I don’t think any of us have telepathy or strong predictive powers. As a thrower, did you communicate to your receiver exactly where you wanted them to be? As a defender, did you communicate to your teammates who your match-up was and what the force was? Was there communication between the seven on the line and the sideline as to what the offensive and defensive strategies were for the point?
  • Self: How were your actions involved in the mistake or proper execution of the play? As mentioned earlier, it’s not all about you, but take a moment to process what you did right and what you could have done better.
  • Other: How were your teammates’ and your opponents’ actions involved in the mistake or proper execution of the play? What can you accept that was not your fault, and what can you do in relation to that to help things be better next time?

Using this acronym can help remove negative emotions associated with mistakes and re-frame the situation as an opportunity to analyze, learn and grow.

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Guilt v. Shame

Speaking of negative emotions, let’s talk about the difference between guilt and shame. The emotions are quite similar in that they are both negative and have a sense of ownership about them. However, one is a pro-social emotion, while the other is an anti-social one, and it is important to recognize which one you feel more often. Shame is an anti-social emotion. When we feel shame, we feel we have done something wrong, but choose to turn inward and blame ourselves rather than address the situation and remove ourselves from it. Conversely, when we feel guilt, we turn outward, apologize and work to right a wrong. Shame is dropping the pull, immediately getting scored on, then telling yourself and anyone who will listen that you just can’t seem to catch pulls and don’t ever want to try again. Shame could even make you not want to be on the field for the next several points. Guilt is dropping the pull, immediately getting scored on, apologizing to your teammates, then going back out and trying again with a more intensity. Ultimately, we want to move away from both of these negative emotions, as they can still bog us down, but it is important to start by recognizing whether you tend to feel shame or guilt and determine how to deal with those emotions.


The Importance of Teammates

The wonderful thing about team sports is that you inherently have a group of people who are there to pick you up when you fall down. If you are on a successful team, mistakes should not cause strife among players. Everyone knows what it feels like to mess up, and a good set of teammates will be understanding and try to help you learn and overcome. Your teammates can also see things that you might not be able to. Maybe you attributed an incomplete pass to your own error in judgment, but your teammates on the sideline saw the real issue – your receiver didn’t hear the up call or read the disc properly. Teammates help us rationalize the situation and view it from a more realistic perspective.

On the flip side, it is also important to understand that we must support our teammates in the same way. I had an important learning experience about this recently. I was the assistant coach of my college team during the Conference Championships, and it was quite windy – pretty much perfectly upwind-downwind, the kind of wind where you tend to huck and play D when going downwind. The head coach and I made it crystal clear that if our downwind offense had the disc in our half of the field, putting up a deep shot was the best choice, and attempting to swing the disc or hit a short under cut was incredibly risky. And yet, some of our downwind handlers chose to try and swing the disc; they ended up turfing it. While we were never scored on upwind at that tournament, some teams got very close, especially at times when we turned over the disc at half-field or further back. But in those moments, I realized the importance of letting those downwind handlers make the mistake for themselves. Those mistakes helped build their understanding of downwind strategy.

All this to say, we must let our teammates make mistakes, and we need to be there to help them break down the situation and learn from it.

Closing Thoughts

Accept that mistakes can, will and should happen. The difference in outcomes comes from how you choose to react to the mistakes. Be firm but gentle with yourself and your teammates, and cultivate the habit of learning from every opportunity. Begin to enjoy the entire process of becoming better.