Thursday, September 29, 2005


Am I Being Offensive?

How do we measure an individual's contribution to offense? I recently posted some suggestions at Clueless Finn (, and I want to expand on those remarks here.

Before we can define a measure, i.e. a numerical value which tries to capture what we *mean* by offensive contribution, we first have to agree on what we are looking for. We can know good offense when we see it, and we're reasonably sure that it involves things like throwing percentage, scores thrown, scores caught, and offensive success fractions. But how do we combine our statistics to produce some reasonable numbers. In baseball, there are many kinds of measures, the most basic being batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. No single one tells the whole story, but we humans like to rank players, so we search for an overall measure.

I think of a player's contribution as being how well s/he helps the offense keep or get back the disc and advance it toward (and into) the goal. In this view, a middle receiver may contribute greatly even if s/he never throws nor catches a goal. This "concept" of offensive contribution includes intangible factors like creating space for other cutters or effectively motivating a team to achieve that goal. Sadly, these intangibles will not be reflected very much in the index I define (except through osr -- see below).

We are limited in defining a measure by the kinds of statistics that are available. With complete videographic data of every game, we could get very technical in our definition, but that would be impractical. Instead, I will assume that the statistics correspond to someone on the sideline marking who is in on a given point, and keeping track of every pass, recording whether it was

1 : complete short, and who caught it,
2 : complete medium, and who caught it,
3 : complete long and who caught it,
T : throwaway,
D: drop, and who dropped it,
I : incomplete for other reasons (forced turnover)
G : goal, and who caught it

also, on defense

B : block or catch on defense.

For our purposes, we can ignore other defensive data.

Apologies to those who know how stats are taken and if these assumptions are unrealistic, but I am imagining charting offensive progress by a string of players a, b, c, d, e, f, g with the corresponding symbols. So, "a2c1f2Ge" would mean "a throws a medium-length pass to c who throws a short pass to f who throws a medium length goal to e," and "b3Df" would mean "b throws a long pass to f, who dropped it." In this way, I think it is not unreasonable to assume that ultimate teams are capable of recording statistics at this level of detail. There are probably much better ways.

Given these data, we can form a few useful quantities.

gt = goals thrown per point (less than or equal to one)

gc = goals caught per point

tlp = throwing length per possession = sum of the numbers (1, 2, or 3) of completed passes divided by the number of points played (for me, possession equals point on O).

rlp = receiving length per possession = sum of the numbers (1, 2, or 3) of received passes divided by the number of points played.

tep = throwing errors per point

dp = drops per point

bp = blocks per point (on defense)

tr = throwing ratio = number of complete throws / number of throws (in fact I won't use this below, and this might cause some controversy).

dbr = fraction of times defense causes a turnover (so (1-dbr) equals the fraction of times the defense gets scored on (without having caused any turnovers -- I won't worry about higher iterations).

osr = offensive scoring ratio, i.e. the number of times a team scores on offense divided by the total number of times receiving the pull

isr = individual scoring ratio, i.e. the percentage of times the team scores when player x is in on offense, divided the by the total percentage of times the team scores on offense.

[isr is some overall measure of a player's effectiveness, but it is very crude, since s/he may have had nothing to do with her/his team's success. We will use this as an overall factor, rather than using this number alone. Thus, when all other things are equal, a player with higher osr is more effective. One nice thing about osr is that it *may* be able to differentiate between otherwise equal players through their intangible contributions which help the team score. Those are partly reflected in isr.]

Okay, I will now consider 7 throwing lengths to be equal to one score caught.

We can now give a rough measure the effective number of "scores" that a player is responsible for. (It doubly rewards goals caught or thrown, as they count toward two categories, but that's why I used 7 throwing lengths and not 6 or 5.) For example, a block leads to a possession on offense, which has a chance (osr) of leading to a score. So (bp)(osr) is gives the number of scores per point that a player creates through his/her blocks. (I know: the offensive squads and defensive squads are different, but whaddayagonnado.) The Unweighted Individual Scoring Index will be

UISI = gt + gc + (tlp + rlp)/6 - (tep + dp)*(1 - dbr) + (bp)(osr)

Finally, using isr, we get the Individual Scoring Index:

ISI = (isr)(UISI).

What do you think?

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Tournament Prep

We all know that how you play at practice is how you play at a tournament. But on-field play is just about the only aspect of a tournament that can realistically be simulated at practice. And yet, the other aspects -- many games in a day, new O's and D's from opponents, sub calling, injuries, time pressures affecting preparation, the urge to socialize, travel fatigue and other logistics -- bear heavily on a team's performance.

Granted, the rank and file need not think about all this, but the captain should. A team should have a strategy about how it is approaching a tournament or an individual game. That strategy should be communicated to the players. Pre-tourney, what is the plan? (Hint: don't make a plan unless you plan on following it! A plan is not just a statement; it must be enforced by an army of operatives, and overseen.) Pre-game, articulate the concept so your teammates do not feel like victims of an arbitrary policy of subbing. Without such a plan, subbing does indeed become haphazard, to no one's benefit. There should be contingencies -- what if we are getting blown out? or what if we're winning easily? At a more basic level, your players must know the role/niche they play/fill on your squad. This is much more important at tournaments than at practice, since playing time is more scarce.

I think the only physical preparation is other tournaments. Make sure your players, if not your team as a whole, have gone to enough tournaments in a year to be ready for the prolonged intensity of the series.

Tournament day arrives and people may scatter to find lunch or wander to nearby fields to watch friends play. Captains: don't be surprised by your teammates' urge to socialize. Try to set a realistic schedule based on your team's model (hardcore, competitive, just for fun). Again, don't set a schedule if you don't plan on following it.

Some teams have begun full-day practices, and this is a great way of practicing the test. Of course, going to tournaments is itself great practice.

I think most teams realize too late in the season how short a season can be. It's a good idea to start in June (or whenever) by drawing up a list of things a team needs to know and planning to get through all of them by sectionals or regionals. Leave blank slots for practicing how to counter unforeseen offenses or for repeating a formation that hasn't been working or that the team hasn't learned.

All of this takes organization above and beyond the basic tasks of learning how to play better. Is it worth it? Generally, I'd say NO! In fact, most teams spend the bulk of their time bilging the hull and can't worry about ripples in the sails. So, plug the holes first, then make your craft yar!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


The Thing About Ultimate...

In writing about ultimate, I am constantly reminded of the universality of sports. So much of what is true about our sport is true about other sports: that it's crucial to understand spacing and weighting; that on-field/on-court conduct is a sore point in the community; that the governing organization has its critics; that there is a yearning for more media exposure; that successful play demands a reasoned, disciplined approach; that teamwork is about the field, the sidelines, and what's said and done away from the game; that sound play competes with flair within a team; that drive comes from within. All these things are important in ultimate, but not just ultimate. So what makes our sport different?

1. The game itself. Okay, it's a great and exciting game, but the actual rules -- though necessarily unique to ultimate -- are plain and simple: move the disc into the endzone. The specific strategies which result from these rules are unique to ultimate, but the principles which guide them are not so novel (cf. basketball zones, soccer positioning, hockey or volleyball formations, football plays and defenses, etc.).

2. The disc and how it flies. The beautiful and varied flight of a disc is unique in sports, and this lends our sport a real charm.

3. Skying and layouts. A consequence of the disc's beautiful flight is the spectacular manner in which it can be caught. A dive, a sky, the combination of athleticism and grace -- these make playing fun.

4. Self-officiating and SOTG. This aspect of ultimate offers something unique and appealing to the outside sporting world. Golf is largely self-officiated and tennis has its rules of etiquette, but neither of these concepts are as centrally embraced as in our sport.

5. The community of players. Go anywhere and you will be welcomed on the playing field. You can find games of chess anywhere too, but it just ain't the same.

As for (1), well any sport has its unique rules, and (5) may be true of balloonists, for all I know. (2) and (3) are related and part of the throw-catch spectacle. (4) is the subject of a series of blog posts, perhaps, but to avoid the appearance of partiality I won't do that until I am no longer on the UPA Board or the Conduct Committee.

What's my point? Okay, this entry doesn't have razzle-dazzle, but (as readers of this site are well aware) not all thoughts do. In fact, these thoughts are more observations than points -- but I'll conclude by saying, if you love our sport then embrace what makes it distinct.

Friday, September 16, 2005


The Name Game

Fancy words are for pseudointellectuals, right? You shouldn't need to use a sesquipedalian word to describe a foot-and-a-half-long hotdog, eh? You just say it's looonng!

This argument is always in favor -- after all, learning big words can be hard. People flock to arguments supporting easy choices, like the ones which say that the body needs fat, that red wine is good for the heart, and that Jim Fixx died an early death.

But words which succinctly replace long explanations for specific things or concepts are indispensible. How can you say, "I regretted granting parole to Willie Horton," without using the high-level concepts of regret, granting and parole? That short sentence (pun intended) would grow unwieldy without these crucial words.

In sports and other areas of specialty, the special lexicon of terms of art serves as a way of "chunking" our knowledge so that we can use these chunks 1) to express ourselves more effectively, and 2) to create more sophisticated chunks incorporating deeper understanding. For example, if you were "tailgating" at the Bears game you were combining the concepts of party and pick-up truck. "Rubbernecking" involves traffic, accidents and curiosity. Examples abound.

In disc, words like "cag," "gratuitous," and "strike" convey important concepts. New slang phrases appear when a pattern of behavior is recognized as functionally distinct from other patterns. For example, many different handlers move without the disc in many different ways, but those who play cag stay behind the disc for easy resets at the expense of yardage gain and significant repositioning. Likewise, the strike call recognizes that free cutters up the sideline pose a unique kind of threat. When we say to a defender, "poach off the cag and clog the lane," we are communicating a sophisticated concept which requires the defender to know about the cag as well as poaching, positioning and throwing lanes. We need the previous terminology to issue the demand. If this behavior becomes so useful and popular (it won't), the sport may endow it with a name of its own, like "clagging." Think about how specific the squeeze play is in baseball. You need significant chunking to describe it.

We need to be able to refer to our game and its structures quickly and easily, and a growing lexicon helps us do that. Teams have their own terminology for positions and plays as well. Disc argot is different in different regions, too. When a certain group understands and accepts a terminology, there is a common knowledge base from which to grow.

None of this is revolutionary, but the (underappreciated?) point is that when terminology is not standardized (say, on your team) it is a real impediment to understanding and growth. A classic example is when you have just switched defenders with a teammate and he shouts "Stay!" Stay switched, or stay with the original? Another example is when rookies are not systematically instructed about the team's phrases. This sink-or-swim philosophy can only hurt the team.

Vive la dictionnaire!

Friday, September 09, 2005


Big Time Sports

There's always talk about ultimate "going pro" and fantasies about the major networks covering ultimate, a touring circuit, etc. We're a long way away, and I'm not talking about marketability, referees or any corporate obstacles to the Big Time. I'm talking about how bad we are.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no better than anyone else. The problem is, we're all bad. Oh, sure, we have excuses: "No one's paying us to play ultimate all day long." But this isn't about excuses or the fact that there aren't national development programs which nurture talented youth. It's just about the way it is.

My intent here is to identify what we need to start expecting of ourselves *athletically* (as opposed to administratively) before bringing our sport to the next level, and to highlight how far we have left to go.

First, there's the skill. I'm sorry, but there are far too many unforced errors for a sport with any kind of design on professionalism. We're talking about reasonably basic errors like throws to open cutters or drops. The situation reminds one of the difficulties the WNBA faced(s?), especially early on.

Then, there's the athleticism. Soccer is a close companion to ultimate and you don't see the World Cup riddled with 40-year-olds the way we have in our sport. There's the occasional old-timer at midfield for play development, but that's about it. The reason so many can hang in our sport at old age is because experience still counts for a lot. It should, but not *that* much. If our sport were tighter, there would be less latitude for the elderly.

Third, there's the discipline. Most teams employ some kind of general offensive arrangement because we don't have the discipline either to memorize sophisticated schemes or plays or to work them effectively. It's not uncommon to see dodos running around like chickens with their heads cut off because they don't know the play. This kind of behavior is almost unfathomable in professional sports -- certainly at the frequency it happens in ours. Reasons? First, there are so few coaches. Coaches enforce team structures and discipline. Second, sporadic practice attendance means that even if you've practiced plays as a team, it is likely that for any particular play, *someone* on your team doesn't know it. Although offense is not as much of a "weakest link" arrangement as defense, captains/coaches are unwilling to use plays that players might not know.

Finally, there is so little "institutional knowledge" in our sport. What I mean by this is best illustrated by a comparison with basketball. Every hack who hoops it up can shoot a reasonable lay-up, jump shot, knows the basics of man-to-man and zone defense, also knows a thing or two about dribbling, passing, rebounding, body position, cutting, knows a few drills, and knows some of the sport's history, key phrases and culture. In ultimate, such a person is way above the rank and file, and all too often we call him/her "Captain."

We've come a long way, baby, but, like 1970's feminism, we've got oh so far to go.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Peak Age for Ultimate?

[Apologies for lack of posts while (still) on vacation. This will be brief.]

I have always felt instinctively that 28 was the optimal age for ultimate. Somehow, this age represents for me a time when muscles are well developed, age deterioration is minimal, stamina is good, the mind has lost the knowitallness of adolescence, curmudgeonliness has not set in, yet a considerable wealth of experience has been amassed -- but not so much that ossification of the mind has begun. In my personal experience and observation, 28 represents all these things. Also, I have always just liked this number, since it is "perfect" (equal to the sum of its divisors: 28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14).

Clearly I am swayed by my own prejudices. In a running event, e.g., you can pretty much statistically prove that some certain age is optimal, but this is harder in a team sport. I wonder if people generally concur with my own assessment or if feelings differ greatly?

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Siren Song

Your team's down by two, you're in the red zone and the D is fierce. You need this score, but the force-side cone is covered like a Chicago hot dog. What do you do? Zip the i/o flick!

The snappy inside-out forehand break is the most dangerous throw in ultimate. It can cripple a D -- or an O, depending on how it flies. I'm talking about the big-time breaker, not the one right up the middle.

It easy to release, almost anyone can let it fly. Just get your arm down low and flick quickly and you'll get it past the mark. Not catchable? Sailed too fast? Too much angle? Too little? Wormburner straight into the ground? Oh, but he was OPEN! And it's just so easy to release! It's no wonder people go overboard with this throw.

On the other hand, when the beast is tamed and an effective quick break is deployed, it's a thing of beauty -- and you can go under the marker's hand or step out and avoid him entirely. Get it right and the D is faced with a weak side player catching a break throw in-stride (or in goal).

Sure, hucks hold high promise but they stand out so much that intemperate teammates are usually admonished (if not chastened) and the problem is apparent to all. Not so the quick invert, since it is a short, undramatic turnover when it fails. It just seems so quick and easy that people underestimate how hard it is and how often it results in a turnover.

In fact, its siren song is so alluring that it takes year's to see this i/o for the temptress that it is. We should require ten year's of disc experience before letting our young tars flirt with this seductress.

Maybe it's no surprise, then, that our team's best forehand i/o comes from it's oldest player (J.H.).

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