“… Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.” Sebastian Junger, TRIBE, 22.
I had about a week and a half to spare between the High School National Invite and the World Championships of Beach Ultimate. The National Invite marked my fifth straight week on the road, during which I’d filmed two college championships, a high school national championship, and the wedding of an ultimate player. Late spring had been full of unforgettable firsts with Ultiworld whether it that meant filming a national championship game or getting pulled over at 1:30 AM by Cincinatti’s finest. I was about to cover my first world championship event and just before the Tuesday I departed I bought Sebastian Junger’s New York Times bestseller TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging.
At the time I was reading TRIBE, people were really starting to open up about mental health in ultimate . Some people talked about the support structure they have thanks to their teams. Others noted how ultimate provided them with an extremely necessary escape from the pain they experiencing in other parts of their lives or how it challenged their sense of self worth. The very day I stepped off my flight and greeted my sister face to face for the first time in over a year, Aria Ultimate got in the conversation and put together the perspectives that players were sharing. Throughout my trip abroad I kept framing ultimate through what I encountered in Junger’s book. It was such a profound experience that it completely changed how I talk about sports, and how I’ve explained my experience in this sport ever since.
I had stumbled across ultimate thanks to two good friend of mine who were captaining what was one of the great iterations of Chapel Hill High School’s ultimate team. Many of us became, and still are, captains or vocal leaders for our college programs. In 2010 we were still kids. I had gone through the motions of trying to become a runner, play an instrument, and make good grades. Ultimate would always be mine because I chose it. I chose to be at practice because I had a role to play, something bigger than the monotony of school work to dedicate my time to, and a group of twenty plus people to call my best friends.
Paris wasn’t just packed with tourists in June, it was packed with my best friends. There were players in the airport, players on the train, players from Raleigh on the Champs de Mars. As my sister and I enjoyed my last day in France three USA mixed masters players strolled in for coffee and a croissant. The probability of encountering players in a small Parisian cafe can’t be that high worlds or not. Everyone was a long way from home all on their own dime.
On the last night I was in Paris before heading to Royan I got a message from my boss Casey Degnan. He had been picked as an alternate for the USA Men’s Masters team and got word that he’d have a spot only two days before the tournament. Thanks to a savvy travel agent he would be in Royan on Saturday night.
Casey’s dedication to competing on the team had become evident throughout the time we’d spent working together in the spring. He’d had a good tryout and attended every training camp despite knowing that his chance of competing in France was out of his hands. He’d put in an insane amount of hours preparing for the possibility of not playing, of being the 27th player. Why?
The possibility of having a shot at a world championship means something to every player but this wasn’t Casey’s first Worlds, and the gold medal he brought home for the US isn’t his first gold medal. In 2016 he’d been a part of the US men’s masters team that went undefeated in London to win gold at WUGC in London, a much high accolade in the eyes of most players than winning a world championship on the beach. So why do players like Casey come back? Why of all the things you could possibly do in your life, would you continue to play a sport which as David Gessner points out, will not pay you a penny and will, “If you dare tell someone what you spend all your time doing, will likely be greeted with laughter.”
Sebastian Junger centered his work in the mid and late 2000s entirely on the experience of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Combat Team. In addition to self financing and producing the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, he’s released two more films on the experiences of Battle Company both on the front lines in Afghanistan and their return to the United States. Junger studied both his own psychology and the psychology of the people he was around while covering conflict zones throughout his career as a journalist.
TRIBE is in part, a culmination for his observations of human behavior in traumatic situations, and poses excellent insights on why US soldiers continue to experience much high rates of PTSD than other militaries which also experience high rates of combat. Junger’s research into veteran suicides provided interesting insights into why that transition is so difficult. Combat and suicide have very little relation; in fact veterans who are deployed in combat situations are no more likely to commit suicide than those who aren’t.
Junger’s study of anthropology at Wesleyan university took him out to the Navajo reservation. Tribal societies in the American Southwest fought tenaciously against the US government and waged local wars on neighboring tribes that were certainly traumatic for anyone involved. Yet the cohesiveness of tribes like the Navajo, the Comanche, the Apache, gave warriors a means of dealing with the trauma of war in collective ritual manner.
Individuals living in wealthy modern societies are eight times more likely to be at risk for depression and suicide than individuals living in poor agrarian societies. A Junger argues convincingly the most meaningful human connections can truly only be discovered through shared experiences, often rooted in collective sacrifice for the survival of a group. In a world of smart phones, suburban housing and stable sources of food and income for certain privileged individuals, we can live in a disjointed world entirely devoid of cohesion and interdependence, the very things that soldiers rely on to survive on the battlefield, and that human groups relied on for thousands of years before coming out of the cave. Junger expanded on the challenges presented to people transitioning from a tribal mindset back into modern society during TED Talks: War & Peace in 2016,
“[Soldiers] were eating together, sleeping together, doing tasks and missions together. They were trusting each other with their lives. And then they come home, and they have to give all of that up and they come back to a society – to a modern society – that’s hard even on people who weren’t in the military… Certainly soldiers experience trauma and they need to be treated for that. But for a lot of them, maybe what’s bothering them is alienation.”
Look up alienation in and have a look at the example used in Merriam Webster. Alienation, from the values of one’s society and family.
“Maybe what determines the rate of long term PTSD isn’t what happened to you out there, but the society you come back to,” Junger summarized. Maybe the problem isn’t the trauma you are bound to experience throughout life.
“Maybe the problem is us.”
In his book The Talent Code, one of the primal cues Daniel Coyle examines is the loss of parents. The effect of losing a chief provider at a young age triggers kids because over thousands of years it was a death sentence.
“This signal can alter the child’s relationship to the world, redefine their identity and energize and orient their mind to address the dangers and possibilities of life.”
Five players on my college team myself included lost parents before they graduated. When my mother died of breast Cancer in May 2011 I became deeply entrenched in ultimate because it had come to embody a very tight familial aspect that I think every player is familiar with. The loss of a loved one for any human is traumatic. As a kid it was hard to go back into environments where despite being surrounded by people, I felt isolated based on the experience of losing a parent. Ultimate served as a constant reminder that I was not alone, and that there really were people who’d experienced something similar. It strengthened the connection I felt with the players I competed and lived with in college and became a support structure that I’ve always been able to depend on.
Community is a word you hear echoed by ultimate players globally. There is a sense of belonging that is fulfilled when you put on your cleats and enter into what David Gessner coined in Ultimate Glory “That Primal Feeling.” The simplicity and complexity of it all – of throwing your body around on the field to keep your season alive, learning how to pick apart a defense with a particular throw, or engaging every human sense in the huddle – unites players in a world polarized by difference. Accompanying that sense of connectivity with a team is an ethos that every players in some way has to adhere to.
At Asheville my senior year we had a different word to describe our small community: family. Family became the word we used to rally ourselves before the spring season. It was the word our coach drilled into us because he knew it we would lay everything on the line for our family no matter how cold and windy it got in Asheville or how long the season lasted. When our jerseys arrived in January, every player came in front of the team and dedicated their jersey to someone in their life.
It was an open forum for players to share their very personal motivations with each other and it brought a team that was already very close on the field even closer in each other’s hearts. It was a paradigm shift for the program that sustained us all the way to our first nationals berth. When I say “I love the community of ultimate,” this story is what I’m referring to. We were our best selves and I’ve seen this sport bring that out of people ever since that hot day in August 2010 when I came to my first practice.
Throughout the entire trip in France my sister and I were final able to open up to each other about how our mother’s death had shaped our lives and perceptions of people ranging from immediate family to anyone who meant something to us in our lives. It was alienating to lose a parent and then walk through young adult life wondering who could possibly understand what the loss felt like.
The choice of coming to Royan, of traveling in France together to experience something with a group of people who, no matter what happens will always have your back, was intentional. The evening before my sister returned to Paris to go back to work we spread the remains of our mother into the sea and spent the remainder of the evening tossing with each other and enjoying the benefit of a night that doesn’t set in until almost midnight. It seemed fitting to be laying some of the pain aside while in my mother’s home country covering the very sport that had helped me move on. To share that with family – real family – was triumph six years and many miles in the making.
Junger expressed doubt in the ability of sports to replicate the kind of tribal culture he studied in school and experienced in his extensive coverage of conflict zones. It’s true that to say sports are providing that sort of community certainly flies in the face of the fact that mental health has been the number one health and safety concern for the NCAA since 2013. In a report for Vice in August 2017, Laura Barcella highlighted the fact that a third of women student athletes have mental health problems.
Junger’s diagnosis for why our society is so hard on the people who live in it holds true in the world of revenue sports.. I think those problems stem more from the external world that surrounds sports than the internals of team cultures themselves, though it is very possible for a team to breed a toxic internal culture in team sports. When I had a conversation with a former football player and current coach about this project, he was quick to point out the contrast between our shared experiences of being injured in college;
“I knew how transactional my relationship was with the coaches when they stopped talking to me after I tore my ACL senior year. I never saw them again.”
Far from being ostracized from the team, my experience being sidelined in the spring and fall of my junior and senior years solidified the relationships I had with my teammates.
“You’ll find out who your friends are,” remarked a professor after I explained why I was on crutches. He was right.
I think if Junger saw what I’ve seen ultimate do for the people I’ve played with and the teams I’ve covered in this long, vast year of ultimate, he might reconsider his position that sports don’t quite create a truly tribal culture. According to Junger, tribal groups live, eat and sleep together. They hold members of the group accountable sometimes under pain of death. Loyalty is equated with survival. There are declared value systems that require every member of a community to contribute to the survival of the group.
Obviously we’re not killing (or as Junger colorfully describes “assassinating”) teammates who fail to put the values of our teams first. It’s notable how many great coaches and captains are quick to admonish and rectify habits and attitudes that are damaging to the values and internal cohesion of a program. Conversely, coaches will often do everything in their power to encourage and reward behaviors that are in line with a team’s collective ethos. The trust that comes from countless hours spent working hard on and off the field and living together while making great personal sacrifices for a sport that will not pay a dime imbues players with an unbreakable sense of loyalty and love to each other.
The sacrifices players are willing to make for their teams at times borders on the absurd. Casey’s story from worlds is pretty unbelievable. That’s wasn’t the only case I encountered in 2017 of a player executing a last minute trip to compete in a high stakes, win or die tournament. There are no limits to what I’ve seen and heard ultimate players do to feed their passion and obsession. You see it everywhere throughout the sport; players who are willing to go around the world simply to play the game; college players who voluntarily take a fifth year of school simply to play during their fifth and final year of eligibility despite the financial realities of going to college in the United States; players well into their 30s who continually come back to play another season. There is absolutely no financial incentive to play this sport and yet ultimate players come back over and over again. They’re obsessed, but maybe more importantly, they’ve found something that gives them purpose, that makes them feel competent and authentic in their lives, and makes them feel connected to others in an increasingly disconnected world.
Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves: What is it that we’re finding through ultimate that we’re not finding elsewhere? Do the values we have on our teams and within our player organizations carry over to our daily lives? Does our society even embrace values like accountability, self sacrifice, and community as we head into 2018? Are we even in touch with the people who experience the consequences of the actions our society takes? There has been a crisis of character going on in the halls of power across the United States and it’s no surprise that people find our current society so alienating. The loss of connectivity with the people affected by the consequences of our choices allows humans, “… to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways.”
“This is the country they fought for, no wonder they’re depressed,” said Junger on returning veterans in 2016, “No wonder they’re scared.”
While I was covering beach worlds Ultiworld’s Sin the Fields Podcast brought on David Gessner to talk about his the newly published book book Ultimate Glory, before expressing schadenfreude about the loss of my dinosaur of a flip phone on the beach. I listened when I got back to the states and caught myself nodding along as Gessner described the thrills, ironies, and the community he found in ultimate. Gessner recounted a tale about his 30th birthday following a near run in with testicular cancer;
“There were maybe 60 people at the party and about 55 were ultimate players. So for me I don’t want to get corny and say I found the true meaning of ultimate but the tribal aspect, the thing that I was a part of that group, was so important. That’s what stuck with me. That’s what I was getting out of the game.”
Gessner’s word. Junger’s words. Two mirrors hovering over on what team sports can be at their best. Of what ultimate is at its best.
Ring of Fire gets rowdy in Rockford before taking on San Francisco Revolver.
Taylor Nguyen Ultiphotos.
Jesse Shofner prepares to take the field with Oregon Fugue against Stanford in the 2016 College Championships.
Paul Rutherford, Ultiphotos.
Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur huddles up before Florida Warmup. Courtesy Hafeez Shams.
Wilmington delivers their classic cheer at a college tournament. Courtesy Brian Casey.
Anna Hrovat-Staedter pumps up her team in the first round of pool play in the 2016 college championships.
Kevin Leclaire, Ultiphotos.