Tuesday Tips: Six Keys Of Emotional Intelligence For Peak Performance, Presented by Spin

Being able to perform well depends on how we communicate with our teammates and understand ourselves.

Fury's Opi Payne after the final of the 2018 Club Championships.
Fury’s Opi Payne after the final of the 2018 Club Championships. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by Stanley Ly. Tuesday Tips is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

We admire the athletic titans who are able to deliver on the biggest stages, rising to the occasion when the stakes are highest. Would it surprise you to know that we can teach ourselves to consistently access peak performance, and the conditions require compassion? If you have a hard time enjoying games because you’re so pent up with stress, frustration, or anger towards yourself or your teammates, these six keys for emotional intelligence are for you.

We’ve all heard it before: “She’s who you want to have the disc in her hands,” “He makes plays whenever it matters most,” “That team so mentally tough.” My guess is that if you’ve played ultimate at any organized level, you can think right now of the person who you want standing on the line next to you on universe point. In Sports Psychology, we now consider these athletes as being highly emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (1995), described 18 total competencies in his Four Quadrant Model of Emotional Intelligence. Here, we’ll outline what global studies have suggested as the six most important competencies of emotional intelligence for effective leaders and discuss their importance to ultimate players who want to perform at their peak.

1. Emotional Self-Awareness

Emotional self-awareness is your capacity to notice, experience, and understand your emotional states and their effects on your performance and others. Emotional self-awareness is the cornerstone emotional intelligence skill because so many other facets, like empathy, interpersonal relationships, emotional regulation, and self-assessment, rely on your capacity for self-awareness.

Emotionally self-aware ultimate athletes know how their emotions affect their performance and vice versa how their performance affects their emotions. They also have the ability to watch their emotions change over time without putting unnecessary pressure on themselves (more on this later). And importantly, emotionally self-aware athletes know to regulate their emotions and change emotional states in order to better suit the demands of the situation.

When might you apply emotional self-awareness?

Try setting reminders for yourself to check-in with the state of your breath—maybe every time you step on the line, or during warm ups. Make it a ritual and you’ll naturally begin to notice yourself breathing and going inward more regularly. The wonderful side-effect is that you’ll increase your capacity for focus and window for optimal states.

How can you improve your emotional self-awareness?

Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing things as they truly exist, including your emotional state, without putting forceful strain to exist any differently. In practice, this might look like: “Tightness in my jaw… shoulders raised… breathing short and shallow.” Plain noticing. This deceptively simple practice of mindfully observing will increase your capacity for self-awareness just about immediately.

Keep A Journal

You can keep a journal and log into it before and after practices, workouts, and games. The intent is to link performance deficiencies and proficiencies to your emotional states, giving you increased self-awareness towards the nature of your emotional states, helping you manage those feelings. It is recommended to occasionally examine the emotional state of your relationship to your team as well. If you already keep a workout journal, add a category for emotional state.

2. Accurate Self-Assessment

Accurate self-assessment is the capacity to know your strengths and limits. Self-assessment must walk hand-in-hand with humility. Accurate self-assessment is nearly synonymous with being realistic. The realistic athlete knows well-enough how far they can push themselves and their bodies and minds before detriment. They also know when to rely on teammates. Mature athletes who can take the moment to pause and check-in with themselves will understand very well when and how their strengths can benefit the team, and when their limitations jeopardize the team’s efforts.

When might you apply accurate self-assessment?

Self-assessment happens constantly over the duration of a game or tournament weekend—from making the decision to call yourself as a handler, to sitting out a point for a stronger defensive player for a d-point. Accurate self-assessment does not always mean benching yourself though, sometimes it means turning to your handler and telling them, “My legs feel great; I’m going to get open for you.”

How can you improve your accurate self-assessment?

Ask For Feedback 

Ask your coaches, teammates, and captains how your behaviors, body language, tone of voice, and attitude are affecting your individual performance and the team dynamics. A coach will tell you any day of the week what type of technical changes you can make to improve, but it takes real guts to ask how your attitude is being received by the team. And even if your attitude is good, you lead the team by demonstrating a desire to develop your emotional intelligence. Remember to ask not just experienced leaders, but ask feedback from more novice teammates as well!

Note: As a coach or captain, it’s my opinion that no player under your guidance needs to feel purposeless or useless. There is a role for every player on your team. Help them improve their self-assessment by making clear, achievable, and realistic goals together.

Receive Feedback 

I have found over and over again that receiving feedback requires different skillsets than that of asking for feedback. Skillfully receiving feedback implores you to set aside notions of ego and hierarchy, and asks you to flex your beginner’s mind, in other words, your student’s mindset. Remember to breathe as you receive feedback and do your best to try to understand. Think critically, not defensively. Understand that although the person providing you feedback may not be 100% accurate, they still have something to offer you.

3. Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is defined as how strongly you believe in your self-worth and capacity to achieve your goals. Confidence is best conceived of as a slow burning flame: lasting, stable, resilient, and intensely focused. Self-confident athletes are able to stand resilient, open, humble, and certain in the face of adversity. Teammates grow their own assurance around these athletes.

There is a positive correlation between self-esteem and peak performance, as one goes up, so too does the other. The more self-confidence an athlete can access, the greater potential they can access. Low self-confidence leads to doubt, fear, second-guessing, and mistrust–all hallmarks of an athlete going through a slump.

When might you apply self-confidence?

Confident athletes are not ignorant or blind; they find joy in competing and overcoming challenges. This is why a confident handler will not let one turnover shake their mentality, affecting the next throw they make. Confident athletes find ways to overcome their deficits and mistakes because they believe that the best parts of themselves have something unique to offer to their teammates and orchestrate opportunities to demonstrate the best of themselves.

Confident ultimate also have a neighborly relationship with failure; failure becomes a gateway to success. Fear of failure, for instance, will cause cutters on offense to cut in easily defendable areas. When teammates play scared instead of confidently, it hurts your team.

How can you improve your self-confidence?

Let Go Of Expectations 

Self-confident athletes believe in their individual and team’s preparation and ability, not necessarily winning or losing. When an athlete is focused on the outcome, the score, or their reputation, they set themselves up to be distracted, scared, or arrogant. Athletes whose confidence is married to the outcome are doomed for a big fall. Outcomes are not controllable, but process is within our control. Humans gain confidence through mastery, so it would make sense that the loss of control contributes to decreased self-confidence. An athlete who understands this important distinction can focus on playing their best totally untethered to anything other than the present-moment experience of the game.

Positive Self Talk

Negative self-talk starts you towards a downward spiral; positive self-talk starts you towards an upward spiral where you start to feel energized, relaxed, and inspired about competing at your highest level. You can increase positive self-talk by focusing on having fun, bonding with teammates on the sideline, being fiercely positive, and focusing on inspiration and joy. And breathe. As Fritz Perls of Gestalt Psychology fame coined, anxiety is excitement without breath–so breathe.

4. Empathy

Empathic athletes are able to sense their teammates feelings and perspectives, and take an active interest in their concerns. One benefit of being able to understand others’ perspectives is being able to communicate in ways your teammates will understand. Another benefit of empathy is accurately reading your teammates’ mood and energy, often times being able to save them from becoming disengaged, resigned, flustered, or angry.

When might you apply empathy?

When you see a teammate who has a pattern of getting down on themselves after a missed throw or dropped pass start to spiral downwards (i.e. negative self-talk, slumped body language, overly apologetic, disengaged, etc.), do something about it. Their inner critic is ruling their thought process, so you can help them by introducing a new narrative. Be their fiercest cheerleader, exclaim when they adhere to the team’s defensive strategies, acknowledge when they make an off-the-disc play, be the first person to give them a high five when they come off the field. Your teammates will notice and you will have set the bar higher for everyone.

How can you improve your empathy?

  • Listen – Listen earnestly, give your full attention, and understanding before judgment. Do not spend your time plotting what you will say next while you’re listening, and communicate your understanding of your teammate’s question or feedback before making your point.
  • Pay attention to body language – Anywhere from 60 percent to 93 percent of communication is non-verbal. That includes facial expression, body posture, tone, eye contact, and hand gestures. No matter how you cut it, the majority of your understanding of others is through non-verbal language, not content. Since you are already developing your internal self-awareness how your body influences your emotions and vice versa, you should be skilled at this point in picking up on your teammates’ bodily expressions. Gauge their body language and respond appropriately. Emotionally intelligent athletes are doing this constantly and freely.

5. Emotional Self-Control

Emotional self-control is important for being able to keep toxic and disruptive emotions and impulses in check, as well as preventing big moments in a game from being a distraction. Athletes with high emotional intelligence can regulate their emotional state and make appropriate changes if needed in order to perform within their most optimal state.

When might you apply emotional self-control?

The obvious example is playing on a double game point line. Let’s go a bit further and imagine you’re guarding the iso in your end zone off of a stoppage. It’s clearly your opponent who wants the disc to take their team into the next round. Disc is called in, an inside-out forehand right to your opponent in the end zone for their team’s win.

You will have your emotional reaction—frustration, anger, disappointment, any of those things. And pause. Now is when you get to make decisions about how you and your team will remember this moment. Will you turn to your mark and scream at them for allowing the inside-out forehand? Will you audibly curse at yourself? Some of this is understandably reactive, but it is how you carry yourself following these moments that will earn your reputation. Take a breath, have your moment alone if needed, take responsibility for what you can and let go of what you cannot, and truly understand that everyone did the best they could with what they had and knew at the time. By taking this extra step, you go back to the situation with a clearer mind. By the way, the same advice can be given for any and all contested foul calls.

How can you improve your emotional self-control?

  • Ditch the distractions – Emotionally self-regulated athletes do not necessarily need to lean on distractions every time they feel stress or anger (sometimes is okay, particularly when the emotion is very nearly explosive). Often times, the best thing to do is to lean in towards your emotion: notice your emotion rising, label it (e.g. “There’s stress rising”), see where it lives in your body, and watch it pass. This is so deceptively simple on paper–you will resist it initially! My recommendation is practice this skill outside of highly stressful moments (i.e. league games, practices, day-to-day) so that when your name is called on the line for the game-to-go, you’ll be well practiced. It’ll take you at least 40 times before you even start to remember to do this on a gut level.
  • Keep breathing – More likely than not, if your frustration is showing, whether verbally or non-verbally, you are not conscious of how shallow your breath likely is. If you want a surefire way to become emotionally dysregulated, hold your breath. Alternatively, I would recommend belly-expanding in-breaths through your nostrils, and long, belly-shrinking out-breaths out of your mouth. Practice this now and regularly! When emotions are high and the body and mind are stressed, we more quickly rely on our habits. Make conscious breathing a habit through your daily living and it will come naturally during stress.

6. Influencing Others

The ability to inspire and guide teammates is a quality of athletes who are able to communicate persuasively, clearly, and effectively. The motto I have adapted over the years in my various roles as coach, captain, and teammate has explicitly been  “Teams who play for each other play well with each other.” And I hold my team, teammates, and myself accountable to that by keeping in check my internal thoughts. Am I thinking cynically or blaming teammates? That type of mistrust is poison to a team and needs to be dropped–the onus is squarely on ourselves to make this happen. Before trust can be established, communication and feedback will be corrupted.

In order for athletes to effectively communicate, they need to develop the discipline of going inwards before outwards. Ask yourself: “How am I doing? Is this the right setting for feedback? Am I willing to try to understand before I give feedback to my teammate? Do they look like they’re able to receive feedback right now? When have I made a mistake like that before and what was it like for me?” Model the behavior you want to see in your teammates and they will find trust and inspiration in you.

When might you apply influencing others?

I see this behavior all the time in ultimate and I think it’s problematic: you’re in a team huddle and a teammate, coach, or captain asks if they can, or says they will, “call you out” on something you did incorrectly. There’s a reason why you’ve likely never once heard someone say, “No, thank you,” and the reason is due to power differences (i.e. the one with the voice and the ears of the audience, and the one without)—a larger conversation for a different day!1

This can happen on a small scale as well: a teammate comes off after a point and the well-intentioned teammate goes up to them and starts by telling them all the things they did wrong and how it can be done right next time. These conversations usually start with statements like, “You need to,” or “You’ve got to,” which accentuates power and hierarchical differences.2 I encourage that you do your best to not take shortcuts in communication. Ask to understand what they were seeing when they made their cut that resulted in a pick, or threw a pass into double-coverage. Use your empathy skills to determine if now is the right time for feedback. It may not be time. Or if it is, your teammate will at least know that you took time to listen to them first.

How can you improve your ability to influence others?

  • Build relationships and bonding – When teammates trust that you have their best interest in mind, they’ll more freely consider what you have to say because they are unburdened with suspicion or doubt about where your motivations lie. A damaged relationship between players or coaches requires tending. Relationship maintenance does not happen accidentally–there needs to be purposeful effort for people to express honesty, vulnerability, needs, and requests. Take time to build and/or repair trust with your teammates and coaches early on in the season; it will pay dividends throughout your season.
  • Help your teammates feel valued – As I have become fond of saying, be fiercely positive. If you have something encouraging to say, be generous. If you are excited about a teammate’s performance, be liberal. When you see a struggling teammate, walk with them, let them know you’ve got their back and that you still believe in them. Be the teammate you look up to.

Always Compassionate

The idiom goes honesty without tact is cruelty. I would propose then that the other side of that same coin is honesty with compassion is liberating. Cruelty to others, or ourselves (perhaps the trickier of the two), is not conditional or optimal for athletic success, as I hope I have outlined above. The practice of emotional intelligence instead asks us to practice compassion, vulnerability, emotional expression and management, and discipline. Paradoxically, the gained effects of these disciplines are focus, trust, resilience, and freedom. Lead your team in emotional intelligence and you will be a valuable leader for not just your team, but our sport.

Ready to share your own Tuesday Tips? Send your column ideas to editor@ultiworld.com.


  1. Happy to discuss this further in the comments. 

  2. How many underrepresented populations in sports and ultimate have heard feedback start that way more often than others, I wonder. 

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