6400: Defending Nothing, Champions No More

March 4, 2020
By Grant Lindsley

Defending Nothing, Champions No More

In 2019, the New York Empire were champions. That’s why, in 2020, the Empire are vulnerable. 

As the regular season approaches, we are beyond the moment of last year’s victory. Now – and until the entire 2020 season is over – we are in a danger zone.

There will be moments this season where we find ourselves compelled to reminisce. In the locker room, on the bus, during warmups: someone will begin a story with, “Remember last year when…?”

Others will chime in, adding flourishes, laughing about the times we almost blew leads or couldn’t dig our way out of holes. We’ll swaddle ourselves in these stories, knowing the ending, which is that everything worked out. We won every game we played.

Other teams tell stories, too, of course. All do. But I’ve noticed a particular gooeyness to the stories told about championship years. I’ve been fortunate to win at almost every level in ultimate, which means I’ve also experienced the following season, when the team is still drunk on victory. It’s very hard to win in those years.

Why? Winning conceals cracks and blemishes. Winning spares you from healthy off-season rumination, from wondering what you might’ve done better. Winning tempts you not to learn. It dares you to believe that all you have to do is “repeat” what you did last time, as if continued success requires repetition rather than growth.

Losing, on the other hand, inspires instinctive combing back through the past with fine teeth, searching for every bump to smooth over, every snag to untangle. It’s painful but productive. That’s why I’ve started to reflect on 2019 differently, and I recommend all my teammates do the same: imagine that we lost.

In Empire’s case, it’s easy to do: the final four minutes of the championship game could’ve played out differently – momentum could’ve shifted with one drop, one injury, one gust of wind – and all of the sudden, we finish in second place. Runners up. A team still building. That narrative is easy to imagine: 2018 Empire loses to Dallas in semis, then 2019 Empire loses to Dallas again, this time in the finals.

It could’ve happened, and for our purposes in 2020, it’s useful to imagine that it did. This year, we’d all be thinking, 2020, is when we break through. We’d be hungry. Instead, we’re at risk of spending this year being satisfied with last. There’s no motivation like losing, and every team will have it this year except us.

Not that this handicap is particular to the Empire. Or to ultimate. NBA hall of fame coach Pat Riley coined a term for why championship teams often fail to perform the following year. He called it “the disease of more.” In an article with the same title, Mark Manson writes, “teams who win championships are often ultimately dethroned, not by other, better teams, but by forces from within the organization itself.” People decide that they want more playing time, more money, more recognition. Suddenly, a team with one goal fractures into individuals with many goals, which is a great recipe for losing.

The risk is not new either. The Romans understood it: during victory celebrations, they’d hire someone to stand behind military commanders and whisper in their ears, “glory is ever fleeting.”

Defending champions must beware of two pitfalls. One has to do with language. The other has to do with perception. Both are baked into the phrase “defending champion.”

What exactly is a defending champ defending? Not the title, that’s for sure. That’s not in anyone’s possession anymore. It’s nobody’s. It’s up for grabs. Thinking otherwise indicates a fixed mindset. Each season, every team starts at zero. So, there’s nothing to “defend.” Avoid the word, and don’t let the idea take root.

Same goes for “champion.” We were the champion, but we’re not anymore. 

A championship presents a psychological paradox. If any opponent thinks winning last year gives us an advantage this year, then they’ll be right. But if any of us think that way, we’ll be wrong.

Recently, I stood chatting with a group of New York ultimate players outside of a restaurant by McCarren Park in Brooklyn. The conversation turned towards championships, and I jumped in with my theory about the curse of winning.

Someone interrupted me. “Um, dude,” she said, “I’d rather have the curse of winning than the curse of losing.”

Laughter. Fair point. She was absolutely right. 

Winning is not a curse. But if we don’t watch out, it can be a trap. For all of this season, the Empire will face an additional opponent: ourselves.