One of the most interesting books about disc golf is a book about Ultimate Frisbee. David Gessner, in Ultimate Glory, offers a rowdy, confessional tale about his years playing Ultimate in the 1980s. Ultimate players may be the intended audience, but disc golfers and other athletes of emerging sports—in fact, anyone who cares about a thing that many people consider ridiculous—will find this book fascinating.
At its core, Ultimate Glory is a story about humans who try really hard at something without expecting material reward. Using his obsession with Ultimate as a case study, Gessner tells us why he spent so much time, expended so much energy, endured so much pain playing a sport that returned no money and little prestige.
As a young player, Gessner was painfully aware of Ultimate’s lamentable social standing. In the minds of most people, he writes, Ultimate is “a ridiculous sport,” like “tiddlywinks,” “hopscotch” or “a thing you do with dogs,” “a sport for long-hairs and druggies,” a shameful preoccupation that players hide from their parents and coworkers.
Why would a Harvard graduate delay a lucrative career, pound nails for a living, and spend all his free time playing the equivalent of tiddlywinks? Gessner’s answer, to my delight, draws on a book by Ernest Becker called The Denial of Death.
Here’s the quick and dirty version of Becker’s thesis: Whenever the choice arises, humans, like other animals, prefer life over death. But, unlike other animals, humans realize that someday they won’t have a choice in the matter. This unique, if tragic, self-awareness spawns all kinds of weird behaviors—like CrossFit, Quidditch, flat-track roller derby and, of course, Ultimate and disc golf—that help people find meaning in life.
With death forever on the horizon, we strive for symbolic immortality. We join religious institutions and build belief systems. We construct libraries and put our names on them. We make art. And we strive to become heroes in sport. Doing so buffers us, symbolically, from that inevitable day that won’t end well.
Becker’s book, first published in 1973, inspired terror management theory. Over the decades, the founders of this perspective—Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon—have become the Paul McBeths of social psychology. No fewer than 500 empirical studies have shown that people tend to respond to thoughts about death by reinforcing their worldviews and contributing in various ways to a culture that is bigger and longer-lasting than themselves.
Gessner’s contribution is to show how participating in an unknown, alternative sport may be a more effective terror management strategy than pursuing a traditional sport. The definition of success, he suggests, depends on the social context in which you strive. Why devote yourself to a mainstream discipline, career or sport only to become lost in a sea of high achievers? To stand out, you should head for the margins of society where social distinction is easier to come by, where the pond is small enough for a moderate-sized fish to feel like a giant.
In other words, to profit in the terror management business, it’s better to achieve true recognition in a small sport than remain anonymous in a big one, even if the latter produces more financial stability and material wellbeing. For instance, nearing the end of life, a woman who becomes the 104th best tennis player in the world will likely have a good healthcare plan, but a woman who wins a world championship in disc golf will likely sleep better at night.
Participating in alternative sports also returns dividends in the form of authenticity and counter-cultural panache. Thinking differently, being a part of something new or innovative, sidestepping the commercialized mainstream—these are heroic acts that can produce a deeper sense of meaning than traditional endeavors. Achievements in conventional sports are just that: conventional.
Gessner puts it this way:
The tendency in modern life is to bury heroism under layers of conventional achievements like ‘piling up figures in a bank book.’ But what would happen if we turned away from these false and tinny definitions of the heroic and embraced the real thing? To really create your own symbolic world, to define it and then embrace it, would be a brave act and would, in Becker’s words, release a great ‘pent-up force’ (p. 238).
As an example, consider the case of children building sandcastles on the beach. Do kids spend half the day building additions on preexisting castles, or do they prefer to construct their own sandy creations? Adding to a previous group’s castle might result in a magnificent fortress, but most kids want to start from scratch.
The impulse to join with friends and build new worlds may be a powerful social psychological force behind the growth of disc golf. Although the commercial side of the sport is taking root, there is still plenty of room for new castles. This impulse among disc golfers—to build their own courses, create their own clubs, and tell their own stories—may deprive the sport of uniformity, commercial viability and size, but it provides them with something of greater value: meaning.
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Cover photo by Jesse Wright