Tuesday Tips: Finding Your Tournament Persona

Know yourself to play your best.

Sarah Gilpin at the 2021 Pro Worlds. Photo: PDGA

You have practiced, planned, and packed and are now headed to a disc golf tournament. But how will you make sure you play your best? How much time and warm-up do you want, and how much do you need? Do you want to get to the course early and have a long warmup, or get there closer to the start time because waiting around makes you nervous or frustrated? Do you want to be by yourself so you can focus, or do you get relaxed by chatting and joking around at the practice basket? All of this goes into forming a “tournament persona” – knowing who you need to be on Game Day to have the best experience.

Warming Up and Getting Ready to Play

It is probably unsurprising, given these articles, that I want to be the first to the course. I feel like I am getting an advantage if I am on my grind before other players are even awake. But you need to separate what you want from what you need. I want a long, leisurely warmup, playing a few holes, lots of putting, being the first to check-in. But a lot of this is out of my control, and it is counterproductive to depend on a multi-stage warmup that requires having the course to yourself for an hour. Sometimes that is just not going to happen, and thinking you need things that are out of your control sets up all kinds of bad psychological reactions when you can’t get them. Separate “needs” from “wants” and be clear about what you really need to play your best.

I don’t really need an hour and half to get ready – I need to throw about 15 full shots because I am old and I gain about 40% of my distance after getting loose, I need to throw some forehands because my first forehands of the day are terrifying bad, and I need to putt. I need that much warmup to be ready to go. I can do that in 15 minutes. I have come to understand that I get to the course more an hour and a half early because of anxiety, not because I need that time. But knowing yourself can also help you plan your tournament day. If I know that the course doesn’t have a spot to warm up, and I am unlikely to find room on the course to throw, I will pull off at a field to throw on the way to the tournament.1

You need to determine what you need to do to get your body ready for competition. Start with putting because it allows you to ease into moving around and because knowing your putt is feeling good is a key to competitive confidence. Don’t worry about whether they go in, just work on getting loose. I would suggest a good general warmup before you start throwing. Then I would work your way up to full shots with a variety of disc types. If you have time and space for a full warmup moving through your bag, that’s great; if not, just focus on your timing and getting loose. Paul McBeth made a video showing his warm-up routine: it provides insight to what one of the best players ever does to get ready to play.

McBeth’s warmup may not be a good model for most players (in part, it involves 150 putts over 90 minutes), but notice how loose and relaxed he is when he throws his shots. He is warming up, not practicing. Practicing is about being in learning mode, and there is not a lot of learning you can do 20 minutes before a round. Warming up is about getting your body in execution mode. Don’t be overly concerned about whether your warmup features your best throws, especially as you begin. I have seen players climb out of the car, miss their first two putts of the day, and declare “well, I suck today.” These initial putts and warmup throws don’t predict anything. Don’t score your warm-up. Throwing a shot badly in warmup doesn’t mean you’ll play badly any more than a great warmup guarantees you will shoot 50 points over your rating.

One big question is whether you want to play holes before the start. It is usually allowed, especially if it is a shotgun start, and many players want to throw on the actual course as part of their preparation. It is a way to get into the rhythm of playing golf. On the other hand, some people warn against it and suggest playing holes to warm up can only hurt you. If you play badly, they argue, it produces worry that your game is “off,” and if you throw great shots, it sets up expectations and potential disappointment if you don’t match the shots you threw in warmups once play begins. I tend to like to throw holes before I play, but go with whatever feels more natural.

However, as you plan your warmup, think about the physical demands of the course, the weather, and your conditioning. For me, I wake up early with anxiety and energy and want to burn it off so I can feel more settled on the first tee. But there is a danger in too much warming up if you are facing two rounds on a long course on a hot summer day. You want a warmup that gets you ready but doesn’t wear you out. I have often found myself wishing I had some of that “extra” energy I was so anxious to burn off at 8 AM when it’s 5:30 PM coming down the stretch.

Your Tournament Persona

Beyond these logistical details, I want you to ask yourself bigger questions. How do you approach competition? Who do you need to be when the tournament starts to have the most fun and achieve your goals? Are you someone who plays best when you really focus, reduce distractions, and keep to yourself? Or do you play best when you joke around and chat with your competitors?

Disc golf is a tough balance of intense concentration and social interaction. This can be a mine field. There is a reason why disc golf is one of the few sports where pros sometimes play with headphones. It can be hard for some players to get the quiet and focus they need without seeming like a jerk. The other side is just as tough – I am gregarious, and I would play best if everyone was loose and talkative (within the bounds of good etiquette). There are other players like me, and we have the right to joke and talk within the expectations of courtesy. But we also have the responsibility to not disturb our cardmates or make people feel uncomfortable who don’t want to chat. The goal is to create the environment you need without negatively affecting others on your card. Some of my favorite playing partners play best in a quiet zone of intensity. Even though I love chatting with them during practice rounds, I know I need to give them space and find my social interaction elsewhere during a tournament. I also need to be prepared to just keep to myself if everyone on the card prefers to play quietly.

Golf tournaments can be bananas. There can be all kinds of distractions – people throwing temper tantrums, long waits, bad weather, lost discs, and arguments over vague caddy books. You need to have a strong sense of how you will handle these things before you step on the first tee. What will you do if someone asks if they can play music or smoke a cigarette? Audible music is not allowed according to PDGA rule 3.01.B, but people still ask and “Sugar Magnolia” is somehow coming from somewhere during C-tiers. Saying “yes” to these questions when you want to say “no” and fuming about it for the next four hours is a bad option. But it is also sometimes hard to say “no” or invoke the PDGA rulebook to your cardmates. Which option is more frustrating for you and will affect your game more? You need to have a firm grasp on what you need to play your best and the willingness to make sure you get it.

You also need to know the warning signs that you are losing your composure. When everything starts to frustrate you, do you get sad – feeling depressed, listless, self-critical, low-energy, regretting wasting a Saturday on a game you suddenly don’t even know if you like anymore? Or do you get mad – blaming the weather, your stupid discs, your cardmates, or the bird flying nearby when you were putting? Competition is a psychological challenge — it is hard to put yourself in a position to want something you might not get and have your results evaluated in a very public forum. Few people are strong enough to put themselves into the arena; just signing up for a tournament is an act of courage. Part of being ready to compete is knowing how you go wrong, being able to recognize it when it begins, and having strategies to stop the slide and redirect your mind to a better place. The best competitors are self-aware – they know their weaknesses and can turn them into strengths.

You have spent weeks learning your discs and then hours setting up your bag for this tournament. But all of that work will be useless if you lose control of yourself on the course. Your mind is just another piece of your equipment, and you need to plan ahead for how you will cope if mental conditions change the same way you switch your disc selection if the wind starts blowing. If you know that you get antsy and stressed waiting during a backup, then plan for what you will do when that happens. If you know that bogeying the first hole will send you into a rage for the next three holes, basically ruining your day, then you need to plan ahead what you will do to break that cycle. Weaknesses in your mental game have to be honestly identified and planned for the same way you work around a weak forehand.

In some ways, whether you win or lose a golf tournament doesn’t really matter. Few of us are going to make a living at disc golf, and our putts won’t determine whether we get a McLaren in the driveway. But competition is still valuable and tournament rounds are incredible opportunities for fun and personal growth. Accept the mental challenges of competition and recognize that facing them honestly can allow us to understand ourselves and discover who we need to be to be our best.

  1. I live in Indiana — most of the state is an open field! 

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart. He is sponsored by Skybreed Discs.


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