Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The Curse of Tier 2

I have had the good fortune of being on teams at a great variety of levels. For the past several years, I have been in Chicago playing on a national-level team, but one firmly in the second tier. This is one of the hardest positions for a team to be in, regardless of the divison. There are a number of reasons.

1. The curse of the middle class: no time for fun. People in the middle class are able to acquire possessions and the responsibilities that go with them, but lack the time to enjoy them. The same thing is true in the second tier. A Tier 2 team could, if it wished, skip sprints, drills, and other workouts and have lots of fun while still having an okay team. They wouldn't make it to The Show, but compared to those years where they struggle and don't make it anyway, it seems like a tempting choice. In the end, they ask themselves, was all the struggle we made in getting to the middle class worth it? It's a good question with no easy answers.

2. When to peak? When there's no guarantee of making it to "nationals" (this is a common designation for the UPA Championship Series, and I will continue to use it here as an abbreviation for the longer, more appropriate, term), do you plan to peak at regionals or nationals? If you train to peak at nationals and then don't make it, well... that sucks. On the other hand, if you peak at regionals and do well, but your team is spent by late October (or May for college), you may be in for a disappointment -- for no matter how many "pump it up" speeches you throw at your team, you can only buck a body's physiology so much.

3. Sub to win or sub to learn? At a non-ladder tourney during the season, should you try to win or try to learn as much as you can, keeping October (or May) in mind? Winning keeps team confidence up, but to win you might have to bench some of the newbies. Your team might lose the depth it needs for a four-day tournament, and the morale among rookies may suffer. On the other hand, if you sub to learn, your team may get eliminated, meaning fewer games, less learning, less experience for the newbies and low confidence.

The same considerations apply to what strategies you use during play. If you use that zone you're developing, you may learn something but lose the game. If you go with your bread and butter, you may do well but be left with a meager bag of tricks for Sarasota (or wherever).

These issues do not affect the top tier, who can comfortably prepare for nationals by using tournaments (even most of regionals) for development. Likewise, the lower tiers are typically happier just having fun with their bread-and-butter style.

4. The path of least resistance is hard not to follow. This observation is similar to the above, but the new point is that even if you have resolved Question 3 and opted for development, there is a force aligned against you -- for it is simply hard to turn your back on what's working. And yet the path which has least resistance now may look different in a few weeks' time.

5. The rich get richer. The top tier teams can treat most non-nationals tournament as learning experiences; they see more semifinals and finals games; they have more games against better competitors where they see a greater variety of strategies. As a result, the top-level teams continue to improve at a good clip, and unless the Tier 2 teams work their tails off (or even so), the gap between rich and poor widens.

6. Institutional Knowledge. Top-level teams benefit immensely from the collective wisdom of current and former players. While a great deal has been written about ultimate and is available to the general player, even more has not. Anyway, publication of information is a far cry from having it understood and internalized by the public. (Examples: Darfur, Rwanda.) Top-level teams have players who mentor younger players into a proven way of practicing, preparing and playing ultimate. Moreover, there is often a culture which perpetuates what works. All this is sorely absent in the second tier (and others).

7. Rebuilding. If you're in the second tier and you want to move up, it's hard to be happy with a performance at nationals that doesn't indicate such growth and it's hard to make quarters. So, year in, year out, teams look for that South Beach or Atkins diet which is going to solve all their problems. They reconfigure, reformulate, revise, recruit, rename and rebuild. Sometimes the new haircut makes you feel good about yourself. Sometimes you win that extra game; sometimes not. Either way, your roots and doubts eventually return. For maybe the renaming buys confidence in a two-year experiment, but at some point the stockholders start looking at the bottom

In all the scrambling for success, long-term (multi-year) strategies for growth are omitted.

8. Emotional Toll. No matter what you know to be true, the rollercoaster ride of so many close games decided by the fickle hands of fate -- a block here, a drop there -- is hard on the soul. Phil Michaelson's difficult wait for his Masters jacket pales by comparison to the plight of journeyman golfers who subsist on the tour, toiling every week just to make the cut. Their struggle is our struggle: the curse of Tier 2.

I have no answers for all these problems, only first-hand experience at how gutwrenchingly real they all are.

Friday, August 26, 2005


Discs and Demagogues

"`Never play zone when there's no wind.' We called
this `Tito's rule.'" "Who's Tito?" "He's a masters player from the
Western Plains. He's awesome."

"When the disc is stopped, look for a cut from the front of
the stack. We always used to play this way in college and
we had a great team. We made nationals my senior year!"

"You want to move the disc through the middle of the field
in the horizontal stack. That's what my summer league
captain taught us, and he was really good."

"In corporate league we never played zone D with two deeps."

[Readers: more examples?]

When we're young and learning, we have impressionable minds,
and these impressions linger long past their "use by" date.
Children *should* trust their teachers, but a teen who
enters college still believing her sixth grade teacher's
description of the UN as a place "where all the countries of
the world get together and do what's right for everyone"
is in for a rude awakening. Business school tykes often
quote their favorite corporate magnate even in non-business
matters, as though wealth and wisdom were one and the same.

The same thing happens in disc all the time. We repeat
mantras and rules without understanding for ourselves why
they're true. We accept explanations for HOW something
should happen, rather than a WHY that makes sense, as long
as it comes from a source we've chosen to trust -- even
though that trust is often given for arbitrary reasons.
Blind faith is the word for it, and unless some Supreme Deity
plays ultimate, there are no excuses. Sometimes the
advice-giver is knowingly deceptive and a whole team
(or nation) falls prey to demagoguery.

Occasionally you're in a situation where no one really understands.
Say your young team is getting torn up by a by a bunch of old fogeys.
You and your captains can't figure it out. One leader may step
up confidently and say, "this is what we're going to do,"
without any meaningful justification. The strategy
is flawed but the team is all on one page and sharing a goal. Not
terribly bad. But the best thing is usually to spend some time looking
at what the other team is actually doing. Sit on the sideline for a point
or two and observe. Oh, are they playing a force middle and poaching
in the throwing lanes? Well, that piece of information is already
more valuable than just about any slogan or rote response.
At the least, you can know how to avoid turnovers, even if finding
the right offensive solution (e.g., break-mark plays, active play by
poached handler, creating long options on the mark switch) eludes you.

As a sloganeer might say, "you can't get to where you should be
without knowing where you are."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Why Track?

Let's face it, the track workout is part training, part hazing.
Of course, ultimate demands sprinting, recovery, and more
sprinting over the course of many hours. We need to shorten
recovery times and quicken our pace, and the track workout helps.
However, the hazing aspect, which is often painfully similar
to the old college rituals of punish the newbie to
the point of disgorgement, serves its purposes.

1. The victim, er... athlete, demonstrates a commitment
to the social unit.
2. The victim earns the respect of other members
who have done (and are doing) similarly.
3. The victim builds toughness by learning to power
through those painful times -- necessary in later
life, er... sport.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no fan of mindnumbing frathouse
social conformity. However, the track is a way of accomplishing
1, 2, 3 in a HEALTHY way which will only benefit the participant.
When you get to the big tournament having survived the
shipwreck of the Repeat 400's with teammate Bozo, you
and Bozo share a trust and a bond which strengthens your
team. You know his heart is big, just like his size 23 shoes.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Freshman Gestation, Old Dogs and New Flicks

College freshmen stuggle mightily with everything on campus. Sympathetic professors understand this, often giving B+ grades to students with only a mediocre grasp of the material. For example, if you *do* understand integration, even though you might not get the exact answer on a question, you certainly wouldn't set up the problem wrong. Setting up the limits of integration completely wrong is really a failing effort, but we (the professors) often take off only a few points. Normally, I wouldn't want to participate in such a skewed valuation, but for a phenomenon I call the Freshman Gestation.

See, they leave campus for the summer and spend that time hanging out with friends as much as either work or the need to pad their resumes allows. But no matter what they actually do, they come back to college greatly matured as academicians. Basically, the Freshman Gestation is the time when the material just "sinks in."

What does this have to do with disc? Well, a similar thing happens when rookies return for their second year. Suddenly, they're significantly less clueless (and not just by comparison with the new class). But another example of the Freshman Gestation happened to me unexpectedly when I threw some forehands after the track workout on Wednesday. (Unlike other bloggers, my times showed no dramatic increase; nor did I vomit.)

We have on my team a fellow with a cannon of a forehand: we'll call him "Schulzie." A moment of praise: "cannon" is not really apt, since cannons do not sail the disc upwind, far past the defense, then apply the brakes so the receiver easily can run under it. Well, people have asked Schulzie how he throws it, and he usually says something like, "you gotta put the squeeze on so you can torque it!" Schulzie knows what these words mean, but few others do. (Is he keeping his lifeblood a secret? I don't think so.) Translation (my own): align the pads of both fingertips along the inside rim so that the fingers flex in the direction of flight when bent at the knuckle. This gives more power.

Anyway, for a while I tried to practice this throw after some instruction from Schulzie, but to no avail. Then, after a year in another country, a marriage and a birth, I returned to Chicago to find others praciticing this same grip/throw. I tried again, too, and to my surprise what felt awkward and unnatural only a year ago suddenly felt entirely doable, possible.

I'm still practicing it; it probably won't even be game ready this year. But if this old dog can learn a new flick he just might be able to make himself worthwhile to his teammates through some of his inevitable gerontological decline.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Ten Things You Should Know about Spirit of the Game

[I wrote the following document and submitted it
to the UPA along with the Conduct Committee.
It has received the endorsement of several founders
of ultimate and progenitors of spirit of the game.
It is now "accepted literature" by the organization.
I hope that the ultimate community starts to teach
these hows, as well as the whats and whys, of SOTG.
Please note: it does not presuppose any spirit
superiority by the author!]

Ten Things You Should Know About Spirit of the Game

1. The golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated.

Spirited games result from mutual respect among opponents. Assume the best of your opponent. Give him or her the benefit of a doubt. You would want the same for yourself. But if you are thick-skinned, do not assume that your opponent is. Maybe you should think of this rule as, "treat others as you would have them treat your mother."

2. Control: SOTG takes real effort.

SOTG is not just some abstract principle that everyone adopts and then games run smoothly without effort. Close calls are made in tight games. Hard fouls are committed. SOTG is about how you handle yourself under pressure: how you contain your emotionality, tame your temper, and modulate your voice. If you initiate or contribute to the unraveling of spirit, the concept falls apart quickly. If you act to mend things (or at least not exacerbate the situation) by following (1) above, the game heals itself.

3. Heckling and taunting are different.

Ultimate has a long tradition of good-natured heckling. Heckles are friendly barbs, typically from non-playing spectators. Heckling can be fun, but taunting is unspirited and wrong. Harassing remarks after an opponent's foul call or close play are NOT heckling: they are abusive taunts which create unpleasant playing conditions and often escalate to acrimonious disputes.

4. SOTG is compatible with championship play.

It is a fallacy to argue that the stakes are so important that some aspect of SOTG can be cast aside. Time and again, great teams and star players have shown that you can bring all your competitive and athletic zeal to a game without sacrificing fair play or respect for your opponent.

5. Don't "give as you got."

There is no "eye for an eye." If you are wronged, you have no right to wrong someone in return. In the extreme case where you were severely mistreated, you may bring the issue up with a captain, tournament director, or even lodge a complaint with the governing body. If you retaliate in kind, however, a complaint may be filed against you. We recall point (1): treat others as you would have them treat you, not as they have treated you. In the end, you are responsible for you.

6. Breathe.

After a hard foul, close call, or disputed play, take a step back, pause, and take a deep breath. In the heat of competition, emotions run high. By giving yourself just a bit of time and space, you will gain enough perspective to compose yourself and concentrate on the facts involved in the dispute (was she in or out; did you hit his hand or the disc; did that pick affect the play). Your restraint will induce a more restrained response from your opponent. Conflagration averted, you may resume business as usual.

7. When you do the right thing, people notice.

When you turn the other cheek, you know you've done the right thing. You may not hear praise, there may be no standing ovation, but people do notice. Eventually, their respect for you and their appreciation of the game will grow.

8. Be generous with praise.

Compliment an opponent on her good catch. Remark to a teammate that you admire his honesty in calling himself out of bounds. Look players in the eye and congratulate them when you shake their hands after a game. These small acts boost spirit greatly, a large payoff for little time and effort.

9. Impressions linger.

Not only does the realization that your actions will be remembered for a long time serve to curb poor behavior, it can also inspire better conduct. Many old-timers enjoy the experience of meeting an elite player who remembers their first rendezvous on the field and recalls the event in detail. A good first encounter with an impressionable young player can have considerable long term positive impact.

10. Have fun.

All other things being equal, games are far more fun without the antipathy. Go hard. Play fair. Have fun.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


The Turnover Compact

The NBA All-Star game is all flashy plays and no D. Both teams
agree upon this arrangement and compete within these parameters.
The winning team is the one which does this best. It's fun to watch,
but the regular season is different: if you take wanton shots, your
opponent will punish you with precision offense. It might not *seem*
flashy... well, until you realize that title rings bling. Ask Tim Duncan
or Larry Bird.

In most of ultimate, a similar agreement prevails. It's called
The Turnover Compact. Both teams agree to make a certain
number of turnovers with exciting strategies and big throws.
Long throws are taken when there is a cut and open space,
rather than when there is a cut, open space, a clear shot past
the mark, a strong enough thrower and an 80%+ chance of success.
As a result, the fans get a kickass huckfest and the team which
does better wins. Good for all, right? In a way, yes! In another
way, we are vulnerable to an attack by a team of Duncans and Birds.

Let me drop some science: the team with fewer turnovers wins.
Do the math. It's true. (Exception: with hard caps decided by one point,
both teams may have an equal number of turns.) So you MUST
minimize your turns if you want to win. (This doesn't mean you must
always take the higher percentage throw. If you need fifty 99%
throws to score, your chances would be better with one 75% huck
to the endzone.)

What about the minions among us who know this and despise
turnovers? We're free to make our own team and prove them wrong,
right? The atheletic field is the perfect free market, and if Big Business
is colluding to sell subpar goods at inflated prices, we can
assemble our own product and beat them on their playing field
(to mix, then unmix a few metaphors), right? Well, not exactly.
It's hard to attract players to an unflashy idea, and since most
teams play without a coach, unpopular ideas may not have
an authority to promote them. All players need to buy in, but
there's no money in advertising to promote your idea, and the
governing party ain't listening -- so the status quo remains, and
The Turnover Compact cartel inhibits prudent playing (to mix a few

Here's the thing: this secret alliance is a secret even to its members!
People don't realize how inefficiently they play. Or what they
"know" on the sideline, they simply don't do on the field (see
previous post).

Tim, Larry, we need you!

Friday, August 12, 2005


Huddles Suck! Or, The Chasm between Sideline and Field

Huddles are a waste of time! Nothing we say matters! How many
times has THIS happened to YOU?

Your team on O has an open player, but a defender poaches
out of the stack to cover, leaving a new teammate open. Unfortunately,
he doesn't see that he's open. As a result, your handler throws a late dump
which floats and is blocked. The D scores. Halftime.
The handler is one of your team's leaders and spends most of the
halftime huddle talking about how you have to see your poaches.
He goes on to explain exactly how you should be keeping aware of
all what your defender is doing at all times. Other team leaders chime
in with their thoughts about how to do this. In the course of this, another
team leader remembers a play where a defender overcommitted on the
mark, getting broken. "We have to hold our marks!" he exclaims.
A few more general points by other team leaders are made, based
on specific plays during the first half. In the remaining minute, the
captain talks about the next half and says a few words of encouragement.
Your team takes the field and the game continues on its own course.

The many voices of the huddle deliver a muddled message which
is never repeated and completely forgotten by the time you take the
field. After all, it's a lot just to remember the O and D calls on the line!

Why do we do this? There are NO GOOD REASONS. Just try to think
or observe what you actually think about during a point. It is very unlikely
related to what someone just told you, and that's not a bad thing -- especially
if what you're thinking about is, "where's my guy? what's he doing? where's
my guy? where's he going? where's the disc? where's my guy? where's he
facing? where's the disc? what's that other guy doing? where's my guy now?
how is he weighted? where's my guy? what's he preparing?...." Again, there
are no good reasons, but the bad reasons for the way we huddle are:

1. Ego. Your leaders -- and everyone seems to think he's a leader -- want
to feel good about themselves, that they have helped the team.
(This is what I call unenlightened ego, where the self is gratified at the
expense of the team. But a poor team reflects poorly on its members.
Enlightened ego is when the team's best interest is served, and this reflects
positively on its members.)

2. Ignorance. People don't realize that saying something -- even if it is
a relevant thing -- has little practical effect.

3. Talk is cheap. It's easier to blather on reflexively than to work to ensure
that team communications are well organized (see below) -- especially if
this means holding your tongue.

4. Political clout. The captain can't risk damaging team unity by silencing
all the team leaders.

What SHOULD we do?

1. One Voice. Too many leaders spoil the broth.

2. Focus the Message. One voice must deliver a focussed strategic message
during huddles, emphasizing just one offensive/defensive theme. Another voice
(or the same) can deliver a defensive message, say if it's halftime and not a
time-out. This may sound like bullet-point oversimplification.
Yes, it may -- but let's not overestimate ourselves, huh?

2. Keep conversations private. If Jimmy made one tactical error which
is not part of a team pattern, only Jimmy needs to hear about it (and not
even that if it's something he clearly knows). Talk to him privately.
Don't use the huddle for private conversations.

3. Echo. The message from the huddle has to be echoed after the
huddle breaks and continued to be stressed from the sideline when
play resumes. It should also be stressed on the line. If not, it's a
guarantee that the on-field players will forget.

4. Take stock. Captains/statisticians, make an honest assessment
of the cause of your team's troubles and successes and take note of
whether the emphasis has had any affect whatsoever. If not, it's okay
to admit it. Better to call it like it is than to point to a score and try to
attribute it to some improvement in team strategy, when the fact was
that Jimmy simply made a great throw.

But few teams do this. Instead, we waste our huddles with
mindnumbing blather and countless irrelevancies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Generation H

The game is being rocked by a new generation of players.
These kids graduated college in the new millenium and
after the revival of force middle and straight-up defenses.
They grew up in a disc world of advanced strategies and
at a time where basic skills were in abundance. They all
can throw. But the most significant thing is that they came
into their own at a time when Horizontal was new and
they have an ingrained belief in the power of H.

I have two concerns about Generation H. The first is what
seems to be a belief that everyone is equal, and so success or
failure is a result of global strategy. Indeed, the offensive
structure of the H-stack is more democratic, and maybe this contributes
to that way of thinking. For example, how often
have you been on the line after a two-drop, three-throwaway
point only to hear people complain about offensive positioning?
Positioning isn't the problem; decision-making is. Generation H has an
inflated view of the importance of strategy over individual accountability.
Okay, maybe the playing field IS leveled in that most people
have the *disc* skills, but the skills in MAKING CHOICES are all
over the map! Having throws during warm-up is not the
same as being able to use those throws wisely in a game. Not
all players are equal. It's like the driver who drifts over the yellow lines
at seven mph because he's on the cell phone asking his mom
to clean his underpants. Being ABLE to drive well doesn't mean
you're a good driver.

The second concern is about the blind faith in the H-stack. They
love it, Generation H. And yet... can these new disciples
articulate the reason for H? Can they explain why it is better than
a conventional (vertical) stack? Can they explain what the offense
should do? Can they explain how to respond to the most obvious
of defensive responses? Maybe semi-finalists at Sarasota can, but
among the rank and file there are too many teams which have
hitched their trailer to a star without knowing its orbit.
(In a nutshell, V-stack frees up alleys for flow, H-stack frees up
deep space for long throws, which is why straight-up can be an
effective D. If every players knows this offensive philosophy in the
H-stack, then your team should have a healthy supply of deep cuts.)

This post is not a knock against the H-stack. A team should have the
H-stack in its repertoire. But should it sell all other O's lock, stock and
barrel? I think the jury is still out on this question, although the disc
world seems to have made up its mind already, somehow.
Maybe the H-stack *is* the Fosberry Flop of the disc world... but maybe
not. Even a decade after Fosberry, records were still set with the
scissor-kick jump. It may take some time to decide.

So how can the H-stack win, if it's not the proven perfect O? Well,
Generation H is in power. If that's what the people in
power want, that's what will happen. If two H teams play each other,
it's hard to tell if a V-stack would have beaten them.
(Separate post: the Turnover Convention. If two teams "agree" to
turn over the disc regularly, neither loses from its poor completion ratio.)

My (boring) view: a team should own the H-stack and the V-stack and
then make an empirical decision about what works better for it -- not
an emotional vote for Danny Way over Tony Hawk. And while
teams are playing an imperfect H-stack, even if it eventually becomes the
Fosberry Flop of disc ("Frisberry"?), I believe there are championships
still to be won with the V.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Fate of RSD?

As newsgroups fade and blogs rule, what will be the fate of rec.sport.disc?

Many players lament the atrocious level of discourse on r.s.d.
Navigating among blogs is an easier way to avoid rants and
insults. Add to this phenomenon the fact that much of the information
on r.s.d. is available from the UPA or other disc portals, and you see
an emergent irrelevance.

Is a moderated newsgroup needed? If we separated the wheat from the
chaff, would we be left with interesting posts? I think so. Users could
post questions and receive replies without having to get heckled or
have their subject usurped by the hoggers. A centralized newsgroup
offers something closer to a conversation than does a blog.
This could be an opt-in venue, say "rec.sport.disc.moderated," which
would otherwise mirror r.s.d., except for the excised rants, insults,
and off-topic posts. So r.s.d. could exist in parallel.

The same Roman playwright (Terence) who gave us the quotation,
"moderation in all things" also gave us the dubious sentiment,
"too much liberty corrupts us all." (Or perhaps "liberty" wasn't
the most accurate translation.) Having r.s.d. AND r.s.d.m.
would mean no censorship against those who are happy as is.

The problem: who moderates?

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