I: Burnout (but not the cool kind)
There isn’t a lot of extrinsic motivation in our sport. If you’re looking to transform god given long limbs into money or global fame you’ve really come to the wrong place, or maybe you’ve come at the wrong time. For all but 84 of our very, very best (playing in the once a year, six week, technicolour AUL) Ultimate Frisbee in Australia is a sport you have to pay to play. And there’s a heap of it, too, from Ballarat to Townsville and every regional centre in between. Investing in back-to-back nationals seasons or, if you’re really lucky, worlds campaigns, can be very draining if you forget why you’re doing it.
And Ultimate Frisbee is not your mum. It is under no obligation to love you back. As you may have worked out by now, it can injure, embarrass or absolutely crush you no matter how hard you try and how much you care.
This is burnout: an all-purpose term for the disillusioned frustration and existential crises that we occasionally experience at the hands of niche sport. No one is safe, even the best of the best, even the relentlessly positive. Burnout comes for us all one day. Sometimes it feels like it’s always lurking around the corner, or always chasing us from behind.
And yet we don’t really talk about it. Like, at all. Which is weird.
The symptoms of burnout vary, and they strike down different people at different times for different reasons. But, generally, you will find yourself thinking that you really don’t want to be at this tournament, and that you really want to go home and do something else. It will be hard to find the energy you need to get excited for training or to commit to the grind. You will find it all together not that fun, and you will find it financially, emotionally and physically expensive. You will find yourself asking, with increasing exacerbation and less and less good answers, Shit. Why am I doing this again?
This is burnout: an all-purpose term for the truly shitty feeling of not loving the thing you thought you were meant to love.
There is no secret sauce solution to burnout. But, luckily for us, legends of the game* are all around. They play on our league teams and apply sunscreen at tournament central like everyone else. They’ve burnt out and lived to play again, and we can learn a lot from why they're still here. I’ve approached some legends on your behalf, asked them why they love the sport, why they stay involved, in the hope that next time you burn out their words might cool you down.
*I am very wary of referring to Ben Powlay as a legend of the game. Just thought I’d flag it before we go on.
II: Why other people are doing this again
“My 'why' for keeping playing, coaching and developing frisbee is that I want to leave the sport in a better place than when I found it. Sometimes the burnout - emotional, financial, and so on - makes me question how much time I put in, but I always end up coming back to how much I've gained from the sport over the years and the investment seems worthwhile.”
- Sarah Brereton, 2019 Stingrays Coach, 2018 Stingray Assistant Coach, 2016 WUGC Firetail.
“Playing ultimate is now just a thing that I do. I often think about where I would be right now if I wasn’t playing frisbee, and I can guarantee that parallel dimension Tom Boyle wouldn’t have met all of these amazing people, seen all of these places, and have all of these memories I’ve made in my career. I play for those moments, the ones where you win or lose on universe, the ones you get playing at the highest level, the ones where you’re unsure if you should smile and laugh or cry and hug a teammate. There’s something so unique about these moments, and the ongoing hunt for them drives me to keep playing and improving. Those moments are unlike anything else.”
- Tommy Boyle, 2018 Thunder Captain, 2019 Goannas, Ellipsis, Ballarat, Generally Cheeky But Occasionally Very Wholesome Boy
“I love frisbee because it offers a unique mix of athleticism, skill, creativity and banter that few sports provide. It encourages competitiveness and frothing. I think the reason why people continue to play despite the challenges is that we put the value of the experience and friendships above these costs (and because what good has money ever done you anyway?). It is a special thing to be able to do something you love with the people that you love.”
- Lucy Deller, The Better Deller, 2018 Terra Vice Captain, Ellipsis, High School Student
“I think it’s important for your ‘yes’ to playing frisbee to really mean ‘yes’. Some people say “yes” to too many things. I get it, life is just way too good at the moment and the future looks bleak. We’ve got to get done as much as possible before the inevitable downfall of society. But you should treat your ‘yes’ like a precious flower, protein powder, puppy, electrolytes, baby or whatever else you hold most dear. Don’t give it out too freely, don’t feed it milk that’s too hot and remember to alternate with water.”
- Laura Emerson, The Better Emerson, 2019 Bluebottles, Factory, F-Troop
“Ultimate gives us a sense of community, mental and physical challenges, human connection, empowerment, even the opportunity to travel the world. I love playing and I’ll keep doing that as long as it sparks joy, but it is a small part of what I can give back to the sport, and I can get my motivation from lots of different areas: playing, coaching, tournament directing, and administration. Whenever I feel burnt out, I try something else. Playing is just the beginning, there are so many ways to get involved in Ultimate. These days I’m a big fan of the saying, “We plant trees for others to enjoy the shade”.”
- Anna Haynes, AFDA National Events Manager, 2018 WU24 TD, Once Saved Me $400 By Couriering My Orthotics To A Perth Beach
“Why do I play frisbee? I’m trying my best not to! I’ve retired 4 times in 10 odd years. I’ve physically and mentally burnt myself out by balancing multiple serious sports and disappointing campaigns, but after the dust settles, how could you not want to do it all over again? To me, it’s the weekends away with mates, the camaraderie, the uniquely flexible and diverse physical and technical beast that this sport is. It’s the grind of a long hard Worlds journey with nothing more than your mates and a goal. Or just the fact that I’m good at it? We lost to Japan in a 3rd place game on home soil, we underachieved in Toronto, we travelled across Europe on a bus and stayed in a gunshot Slovakian accommodation at u17’s. But who else can say that? Very few. And we did it together.”
- Ben Powlay (earnest, business-like alter ego of BPow), Colony, Heilbronn Hero, Serial Asker of Rhetorical Questions, Misspeller of My Name, Geotechnical Engineer
“The simplest way to answer is that it's a lot of fun and I love the Ultimate community. From my very first day at Sydney Uni I knew this sport was something special, something different from the win at all costs mentality of cricket, basketball and rugby. Whilst accumulation of injuries has meant I no longer play competitively, my biggest love right now is to do whatever I can to give back to the sport, through coaching or other administrative roles. I want everyone I cross paths with in Ultimate to have as much enjoyment as I have had since the first day I played, and grow to compete at the highest possible level.”
- Anson Chun, Part of More Campaigns Than Your Tiny Mind Can Comprehend, Bluebottles, Fuse and Barramundis Coach, Former Basketball Prodigy, Ladder Auteur
“I play because I love it. Even when I’m complaining about it, I still love it. If I don’t love it, I do other things (like going to yoga, advocating clean energy or having children). I love the competition, or the chance for it. It is rare to have something so pure to strive for, particularly in a team. A career, parenthood or relationships are the slow burn, offering highs and lows that, even when they are dramatic, fit into the long game of life. A frisbee campaign gives such a deliciously tangible goal to work towards that only can be shared amongst a select few. It is heart filling.”
- Dani Alexander, 2013 Croc, 2016 Barramundi, 2018 Bluebottles Coach, Accomplished Yogist, Genuine Legend
III: Less about legends of the game and more about me
I burnt out in February, and was definitely in the process of slowly burning for a while before that as well. *Sunscreen joke*, ha ha very good, very funny - I’m a human being, you know.
I tried pushing through the burnout, which was a huge mistake. It got to a point where I genuinely couldn't bear another night of training, another tournament, another weekend away from home, and so I called Mark Evans from Melbourne Airport and told him what was happening. We agreed to a complete, clean-break month off frisbee.
It felt exactly like being sick and staying home from school, and I’m glad I did it.
These weird things started happening in my month away. One time I dropped a tin of salmon and dove, like literally dove, with a lack of self preservation heretofore unseen from Angus Macdonald on an ultimate field, onto the cold kitchen tiles to snag it. I would often catch myself doing flick fakes with a plate while waiting for my toast to pop. Pivots and all. I would run for busses with mediocre sprint mechanics and see beside me the ghost of coach Lado, telling me in that reasonable, omniscient voice of his to drive harder through the hips. That one was spooky. And then there was the dreams.
I would dream of playing full games to fifteen. I would dream of doing mundane throwing sets with miscellaneous historical figures. I would dream of anthropomorphised frisbees telling me what to do. And I’d wake up with a jolt, lie there in the dark, and try rudimentary pop-psychoanalysis on myself to work out if I was yearning or just haunted.
A little of both, maybe. In any case, in my month away, I found my answer to the question in the title.
For me, the reason I do this weighs only 175 grams. It’s all about the frisbee. The flight of it, the feeling you get sometimes when it snaps so clean out of your hand that you know, before anyone else, that it’s an absolute peach. I think the running is terrible. And really if it was up to me I would never ever play defence ever, even offensive defence - I would much rather give up, cop the upwind break and just get the disc back for free.
But I do run, I guess. Begrudgingly. I don’t go very fast but I do, like, run.
And I’m also here because of all of you, all my favourite former and current teammates, who at some point stopped being “frisbee friends” and are now just friends. And I’m also here, in no small part (actually tbh it’s like 70% of the reason why I’m here), to cash in my reward for all this hard work and annihilate chumps at league.
So, basically, I’m doing this because of a child’s toy, a bunch of nerds, and the inflation of my ego. After a month of reflexively diving after tins of salmon, I think I’ve finally come to terms with that.
Why are you doing this again?