Death and the dilettante or ‘Why I Hate Ultimate Frisbee, Which I Love’

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I think I may have wasted my life.

Let me put that another way. I have realised that I will only ever be good at one thing, and now that one thing is pretty much over.

When I was a teenager, I did what many teenagers do. I moped about feeling sorry for myself, wondering why the world had it in for me, and when things were going to start happening. Of course, whilst I sulked about nothing ever coming my way, things started to come my way. I discovered the transformative power of wonderful music. I read hundreds of books. I found myself in relationships. I began to write.

Each of these things could have taken my life off in any number of directions. I could have been a novelist, a musician or a Casanova. [Just a note here to prevent those who know me from spraying coffee all over their laptops: I realise that I never could have been any of these things. I claim little or no natural aptitude for them. And yes, i’m really talking specifically about the Casanova one here].

I tried to combine writing and music when I was a teenager, scurrying home from gigs to spend the early hours sweating over a typewriter before posting off my reviews into the void – or the Live Editor’s desk at the NME as I knew it. When I got to University I wrote music reviews for the Leeds Student newspaper, and loved it. When I left I took a binder of those reviews around to the fledgling Big Issue In The North and spent the next 10 or more years writing music, film and TV pieces for them, which again, I loved. And then, in 2005, that stopped.

Rewind to 1993 and Ultimate Frisbee saved my life. Enthused, almost randomly, my best friend and I started Manchester’s first team and, taking ourselves by surprise, started learning how to be good at it. The sport brought me almost all of the dearest friends I have today, it forced upon me a physical fitness which I would almost certainly have avoided otherwise, it took me to places I never would have visited both at home (Leicester!) and overseas. It brought me success within the sphere. I played for Great Britain for the first time in 1997 and for the last in 2008. And finally, in 2009, the team that my friend and I started back in Manchester, became European champions.

You may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hour rule’ which contends that the key to success in any given field is, to a great extent, a matter of practising a specific task for 10,000 hours. I think I may just about have reached my 10,000 hours when it comes to Ultimate and, within the confines of an obscure sport played by only a few thousand people in the UK, i’ve been successful. In fact I was pretty good at it. Now, as I approach my 40th birthday, what use is that? I gave my years of focus and concentration to a sport which I became an expert in, and which I cannot play for much longer at all.

Recently, reading fascinating books by or about Stewart Lee and Chris Morris, I recognised the sheer devotion they have given to their crafts, Lee on stage learning to read the swells and riptides of a live audience, Morris in the editing room, taking the scalpel to anything he could get his hands, ears or eyes on. Both are deeply talented and rather frighteningly intelligent, but still in their stories you’ll feel the rough grain of the 10,000 hours of practice.

I realise that I will never again practice anything for 10,000 hours. Of all the things that I could have worked at, I chose one which could not sustain me forever. Now, as its tide begins to ebb, I’m left high and dry.

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13 thoughts on “Death and the dilettante or ‘Why I Hate Ultimate Frisbee, Which I Love’

  1. Fragile

    You have forgotten the other thing that you have spent 10000 hours practicing and which I think that you will practice for another 10000 before you finally manage to crack it…. A smile 🙂

    You might think those 10000 hours are wasted but what you answered what use it was in your 4/5th paragraph – your mates. No one in their right mind gives up all the hours for the glory – if they do they are missing out on the real point – developing the memories with your mates which you look back on. The moments of xEUCF, SS Chevron, watching Harry throw a tour winning pass without knowing it was for the win. They wouldn’t feel half as good had you done it on your own or with a bunch a ham shankers…

    There what you take home from the 10000 and I for one wouldn’t change a single one – apart from meeting DJ SiB – that wasn’t brilliant if we’re honest…

    • I don’t think I would change a thing (I don’t think I would) and my friends have been the real glittering prize. I’m happy to have done reasonably well at just one thing, even if it’s a weird and irrelevant activity (file under ‘Team Sports’), but it’s strange to reflect that I may not have time to become good at anything else. Matt, I guess this is how you would feel if you suddenly had to give up swearing loudly in inappropriate situations.

  2. V interesting post and one which cannot be adequately replied to in a comment. But here goes:
    1. What would a taoist say about this? Life is best lived when you go with the flow. If you fight the flow you cause tension and unease. Your life as described is a great example of taoism. You flowed with the river and went with ultimate. It could just have easily been writing, but for whatever reason, it was Ultimate.
    2. Regrets – no point having them. You made your decision. It was the right one at the right time. And anyway, you’d probably be having these thoughts about whichever path you chose. If it would have been music journalism, you’d be hitting 40 and blogging about how same-y gigs are, and how kids today don’t appreciate vinyl.
    3. You’re only bloody 40. You only played ultimate for 17 years. So, by the time you’re 53 you’ve got chance to become genius at the next thing you choose.
    4. There’s always disc golf. Seriously.

    • Thanks Andy. I’m happy enough with where the river took me (you old ponce) and delighted with the fun, fitness and, most of all, friends it’s brought me. However it does seem strange to reflect that Ben’s idea to start a student team back in ’93 essentially came to dominate my life, and that Ultimate would become, perhaps, the only thing i’ll ever clock up my 10,000 on. Except for navel-gazing of course.

  3. Rich Osborne

    It may feel odd on the inside Rob, but you’re pretty inspirational to those of us on the outside. You’ve already achieved much more than some of us will manage in a lifetime, and as others have already said, 40 is only halfway there. You’ll just had to find something that doesn’t need, well, knees, for example.

    Then again, maybe you just need to change the perspective a bit – how about coaching? The Olympics is going to create a wealth of interest in all sorts of sports activity, maybe there’s another 10,000 hours just waiting to be had.

    • Thanks Rich. That’s very kind of you to say. I’m concerned that everyone seems to think i’m looking for some sort of affirmation, or for a place on suicide watch. I’m not complaining really, just reflecting on the turns we take, the things we turn away from, and the difference between doing something properly and just dabbling.

  4. Wayne Davey

    Just be glad that you spent those 10,000 hours on something enjoyable which has given you so much. If you wind the clock back 20 years with 10,000 hours available you probably couldn’t have chosen a lot better.

    Plenty of time to work on that smile now that you can focus your energies on it

  5. Rob, Cheer up mate. My main 10,000 hours has been spent interviewing people on why they might prefer one tomato ketchup over another – imagine that. And look at you; years ahead to fit in any number of new skills and adventures. Stewart Lee is an example in himself, surely. Got it wrong for a while and is now getting it totally right again. Your writing holds the key I think Mr Mitchell and you don’t need to be frisbee throwing fit to do that. Celebrate your glory days and here’s to many more, albeit new and different ones. Yours sincerely, a member of the circus folk!

    • Thanks Barrie, that’s admirably positive and I genuinely appreciate it. Perhaps I shall take your suggestion on board and dedicate 10,000 hours to writing gaspingly self-centred blog posts.

      P.S. You may be unsurprised to know just how extremely happy it has made me to receive a comment from you signed ‘a member of the circus folk’. Back to the Big Top with you!

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