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.

beautiful. I agree 100%. That's one of the reasons it's so exciting to be a part of ultimate right now - so many of its methods are still undiscoverd, I think.
I think it's pretty inappropriate to cite basketball as a sport where every player has the fundamentals. I've read about fifty "state-of-the-sport" articles about hoops in the last ten years lamenting the lack of fundamentals in even professional players. Have you ever seen Ben Wallace try a jumper? Or Chris Dudley a free throw? There are a ton of NBA players who are tremendous raw athletes but never really learned to shoot -- just like our sport has a place for speedy d-line guys who can't do much with the disc in their hands. And guess what -- there are some great pro athletes near and over 40 in basketball, baseball, even some hanging on in football. Not in soccer, but maybe ultimate is closer to hoops is the balance required between athletic ability and skill.

I agree with you that the sport has a long way to go, especially in increasing the prevalence of coaches. But it doesn't do much good to set up straw men in other sports.
The argument of a lack of insitutional knowledge is not the same as the NBA's palyers all "being skilled." The point is that nearly everyone who plays pickup basketball has a notion of what a layup and a jump-shot and man and zone defense are.

This is not the same as going to a play pickup ultimate when you're traveling and consistently being amazed at what the players don't know, not what they can't do.

The reason there aren't more 40-ish players is that once subbed out, you can't sub back in, and teams are only allowed 3 subs a game. Were soccer to have free subbing like ultimate, there would be a lot of guys in their late 30s at least at the world cup.
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