Equitable Team Culture (3/3): Fight or Flight Mode and De-Escalating Yourself
July 11, 2017
Note: Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this column.
Think about the last time you disagreed with a call. What did it feel like physically? What did you think about? How did you react externally? Do you think you handled it the best way possible?
The last time I disagreed with someone’s call was at a preseason scrimmage against BFG. Physically, I felt my pulse quicken, my face get flushed, a slight tingle in my hands, and the muscles of my neck and shoulders tense. I was thinking, “there’s no way they’re ever going to listen to the argument I’m going to make, there’s no point in saying anything or trying to express what you saw from your angle, of course they’re going to disagree because it’s to their advantage.” Externally, I reacted by waiting until each party involved with the call had said their piece, then I expressed, as a person who had a good angle on the play, that I agreed with the call my teammate made and explained what I saw. I don’t think I handled it the best way possible, because I was still in a feeling of heightened stress, so the way I talked about the play was very one-sided and it was clear that I didn’t think there would ever be a path to common understanding of what happened.
There have been countless times when I, personally, have rushed to a decision to find the call’s eventual resolution quickly and without proper time for discussion. The pattern I fall into is believing that there’s no way we’ll ever agree on what happened, so we should just send the disc back and move on.
Internal Monologue and Equity
Now let’s take this same concept and apply it to conversations within our own teams when a play breaks down and we want to discuss how we can do better the next time. In part two of this series, I laid out a process for having these conversations, but glossed over one of the first steps - calm down if you’re frustrated. We’re going to dig into this idea further.
As a female-identified player who cares a lot about gender equity, one of the things I notice the most in play is issues that I perceive to be about gender bias. That means that each time I see a male player shimmying in the lane for 5 seconds, or multiple players crashing in close to a player who’s perceived to have lower throwing skills, I identify where gender plays into the situation. I don’t think it’s wrong that I have a lens for gender equity and apply that lens - it’s important to have multiple perspectives looking at the same issue. In these issues, though, I often fall into the same pattern as when there’s a call I disagree with. I feel like we’ll never agree and, even worse, that the other person’s perspective isn’t as valid as mine.
What I, personally, can do to improve on my relationships with my teammates and make us all better is to show value for the other perspectives. Maybe that guy isn’t hogging the lane because he thinks he’s the only “capable” cutter. Maybe he’s feeling pressured by his defender in a way he wasn’t expecting, or he’s trying out a new move, or he’s trying to keep his defender active to allow someone else to get open elsewhere. Whatever it is that’s going through his head, I can’t know unless I engage in open, honest conversation and truly seek out his perspective. If we both approach conversations in this way, we both can benefit from reaching for common understanding rather than feeling like there’s no consensus to be built.
The steps for owning your own emotions and the stories you tell yourself were shared with me by my friend and coworker at RenFitness, Kira Morin. She spent several years working in a children’s psychiatric unit and coaching emotional intelligence and de-escalation for children and adults (parents and healthcare workers). If you want more information or coaching, reach out to Kira at email@example.com.
Find Your Triggers - The first step in figuring out how to approach conversations calmly and with an open mind is to know what gets you into your flight or fight mode. Symptoms of this can be characterized by a quickened pulse, tense muscles, flushed face, and specific emotional responses. For me, I get really frustrated when I feel disrespected as an athlete or I observe something that I perceive to be founded in gender bias. I know when I head into those situations that I’m going to need to take an extra moment to calm myself down before talking.
Know Your Signs - Sometimes we unexpectedly get sent into fight or flight mode, due to internal or external factors that make it easier for us to tip over into an adrenaline rush. Know what it feels like in your body when you’re in that mode so you can recognize it and pull back before trying to talk to someone.
Learn How to Calm Yourself - Learn what strategies work best for you to calm down, and know how long each of those strategies will take. One of my best strategies is pulling one particular teammate aside and venting to him, because he’ll listen without judgement and bring me back to center. This works great when I have 5-10 minutes of time to find an opportunity to talk to him before approaching the person I had an issue with. Journaling can be an awesome way to process thoughts and emotions over 24 hours. If I want to calm down really quickly, though, I need to have an effective short-term strategy, like taking three deep breaths.
Separate the Facts from the Story You’re Telling - In the example of the male cutter dancing in the lane, the story I’m telling about the situation is that he believes he’s the best option, so he absolutely has to get open. In reality, most of that is fabricated by me because of my own lens on the world based on my experiences. The facts here are simply that he was in the openside lane making jukes back and forth for about 5 seconds of the stall count. Notice that when I look at just the facts, the malice and frustration I’m feeling is easier to let go of, and I can approach that teammate with a more open mind.
If each person works through their own emotions before talking when they’re put in fight or flight mode, your whole team can grow to have stronger relationships and better on-field performance. As a team exercise, individuals can identify their triggers and signs, then come up with short- and long-term strategies for calming themselves down. When everyone can leverage their own self-knowledge to calm themselves, and then separate the facts from the stories they’re telling themselves, every conversation between teammates can be more productive.
This set of self de-escalation techniques is not only helpful in building and maintaining equitable team culture, it also helps players in conflict resolution with other teams, and can be extremely helpful in relationships outside of ultimate. Think about where else you’ve experienced yourself going into flight or fight mode (with your boss, your partner, or maybe just stuck in traffic), and identify how you can prepare yourself to approach those situations with an open mind. It’s amazing the kind of common ground that can be found when you come to a conversation prepared to speak yours and listen to others’ truths.