Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): Drama

The 2010 CUT-Florida final featured a lot of huge throws, huge ds, a million calls and a boatload of drama. I don't mean the drama of a thrilling finish (98 Syzygy-Stanford) or a star playing through incredible injury to try to lead his team to victory (92 Cornell-Oregon.) I mean the squalid, petty little drama of 8th graders. Foolishly, CUT tried to use drama against Florida by ratcheting up the physical play on the mark, calling a zillion travels and arguing, arguing, arguing. Foolishly, because if there is one thing Florida has truly dominated the last few years of college ultimate, it's been the drama department. Why was drama effective for Florida? Why did it help them more than CUT? How do teams use and implement drama?

A Little History
The first team I ever witnessed win with drama was the three-headed troglodyte of the Seamen, the Irates and Seaweed. In 92, I traveled to Wilmington to play Easterns with CUT and the scene was ridiculous. A bunch of old guys pulled their rusty old trucks up to the fields and stood around smoking cigarettes and laying on the horn for every UNCW score. A pack of ugly, mangy dogs swirled around the trucks and the sidelines snarling, fighting, stealing food and barking, barking, barking. By the time other teams got on the field, they didn't know what to think. Then the Seamen began their brutal fouling on the mark regimen: pushing, bumping and arm-wrapping. If you had the presence of mind to call a foul, it was contested with a sneer - every time. Clueless little college kids were turning over passes left and right only to get their asses skied on the fast break huck. Every goal was followed up by rushing the field, spiking, showing and shit-talking. And this was when any spike was considered unspirited and no one had seen rushing the field except maybe on a game winner.

UNCW lost that year, but they won in 93 and then Gerics exported the game plan to win again with the Irates in 94 (which featured the classic chant "foul-travel-pick...suck my dick" from the disgruntled LPC and UCSB men and ECU's Nat shaking his junk at the crowd after the game) and 95 (which featured Gerics head butting Karlinsky) and in 96 as coach of Seaweed (which featured a lot of verbal abuse and Andre getting chucked in a drainage ditch by the UNCW men.)

But lest you think Toad and Mike made this show up, you have to back up to the granddaddy of all drama creators, NYNY. This mess (and particularly the Hall of Fame aftermath) has been pretty well documented on Kenny's blog and Jim's blog, so I won't go into it too much.

Even before NYNY, there were the originators of bad-boy ultimate, Windy City. There is an (apocryphal) story about their dominating 1986 championship. After they won, destroying all comers, they were reveling and partying with the beautiful, all-glass UPA Championship trophy. Some woman came up and began hectoring them about being unspirited cheaters who didn't deserve to win. What did Windy do? Spiked the trophy, shattering it into a thousand pieces.

Part of what has amused and exasperated me about Florida's antics over the last few years is the histrionic Chicken-Little approach people have taken to this team when their tactics are as old as ultimate. What is different about ultimate and what makes drama especially effective in an ultimate setting is the naivete and innocence that comes with SotG. SotG explicitly states that players will hold respect for opponents above all else and so people are unprepared, offended, angered and intimidated by drama.

It isn't just ultimate where athletes use drama. A few years ago, I went to the opening day of the US Open in New York. Cooter, Carrie and I wandered through the crowds and watched bits and pieces of lots of '[matches, but the one that stands out was between then #10 Tommy Haas, a power-serving giant and an unseeded little Swedish water bug. The Swedish kid was giving Tommy everything he could handle. He was running and scrapping and clawing and exhorting himself and just on sheer energy overwhelming the slow and sluggish looking Haas. He took the first set and was up in the second when Haas threw a fit. It started on the pretext of a botched line call and then carried over into a general rant about the tournament, the organizers and best of all, the music. The match was on one of the smaller courts and classical music was spilling over from a food-court plaza next door. At the height of his fit, Tommy roared, "What is this? The Titanic? I'm not here to listen to music!" About thirty minutes later, it was game-set-match, Haas easily.

The Effect of Drama
The biggest advantage drama confers is mental. Drama has no effect on how fast you are or how well you can throw. It doesn't help you jump higher or mark better. However, it can have a huge effect on the mental preparation and focus of each team.

First of all, when a team uses drama, it gets their opponent thinking about something other than the game at hand. Any time your opponent is focusing on something other than play, they are at a disadvantage. In the 97 Worlds Final, Sockeye was preparing to play Double Happiness. They wanted observers because they were afraid of our call game. (With some justification.) Because it was WFDF, observers were not mandated and had to be agreed upon. Jonny G refused to have observers, not because he thought it'd make a big difference, but because he knew that Double would get all torqued up about us refusing them. The thirty minutes prior to the game featured Jonny in a screaming match with the Double guys while we prepared. We were ready. They were thinking about observers.

Secondly, it puts teams and players in or out of their comfort zone. If you have a high-drama team, I can guarantee they are high-drama all the time: games and practice. They become comfortable playing in a high-drama environment. When they pull their drama hi-jinks in a game, they are unfazed by it, but their opponent is thrown. When Carleton tried to use drama on Florida, they were just chucking the rabbit into the brier-patch.

Drama confers a strategic advantage to teams that want to play slow. Carleton was playing 19 guys and Florida was playing 9. Every stoppage gave Brodie and his boys a chance to rest and catch their breath. The longer the stoppage and the more drama - the more rest. This, too, is an old trick. Schwa 2.0 (winners of 3 silvers: 2 Natties and a Worlds) was masterful at this technique, interspersing exasperatingly long breaks between points with Satterfield-led arguments and tantrums. The effect was to help a Schwa team that ran 10-12 players hang with the much deeper Riot/Verge, Fury and Godiva.

Lastly, if a team has a rep as high-drama, they don't have to do much to be effective at it. Florida, the old North Carolina teams, Sockeye 1.0, Lawn Party didn't have to do much on the field because their prior on- and off-field antics had already done their work for them. People came into those games intimidated and rattled in anticipation of drama that might happen.

How to Make Drama
The best and easiest way is to be an asshole. It's not whether you call foul, but how you call it. Let every infraction of the other team be the worst thing you've ever seen and stoically ignore any complaints about your own behavior. If you can manage to lace your words and actions with disrespect and superiority, all the better.

Cheat. Nothing creates drama like some bad calls. Make them, particularly at crucial points in the game. Not only will this help in the short term, but in the long term it will establish your reputation and people will be thinking about your calls instead of your play.

Make lots and lots of one-sided calls. They don't have to be bad calls (I'll talk about this more next post,) but use them to consistently help your side.

How To Beat Drama
The best strategy is not to participate. When a team wants to play that drama game, let them. By themselves. It's hard to stir up really big drama without a reaction from the other team. Part of the reason it is so much harder to stir up drama at the Club level is that teams and players just shrug it off. At 96 Nationals, Gerics (then with Port City) spit on two Sockeye guys in separate incidents. The second almost initiated a brawl and a timeout followed quickly. Amazingly, wisdom came out of the huddle and we said, "Let's beat 'em and leave 'em." We did, 15-13, and that was the end of their season (and team.)

Don't start it. If you are playing a high-drama team, don't get them rolling. It is tempting as hell, when a high-drama, high-call team starts pulling their same-old-shit to lay into them and let them know what you think. Don't give in. If you do, you are putting them right into their Happy Place.

Know and understand your team's philosophy and stick to it, no matter what the other team does. Although drama isn't really an issue in college women's ultimate right now, this is the strategy we used at U of O this year and I talked about it extensively in this post.

Get observers if you can, but don't make a big deal about it. Don't depend on the observers to do your job for you and don't let them change your team philosophy. (By the way, if you find that teams are always requesting observers against you, you might want to look closely at your actions.)

Channel your anger. You will react to drama. It's human nature to get amped up in those situations, so take that visceral, brain-stem reaction and bring it out in your play.

Laugh at it. Drama lives on being taken seriously and can't handle being laughed at and made fun of. It's hard to do this in a game, but easy to do outside of a game. Peer pressure and respect are huge motivators in our little game, so use them when you can to help push positive change. Be careful, though. It's a fine line between humor and hate. Should you fall on the wrong side of that line, you are making drama yourself.

Up next: The travel call

Friday, October 15, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): An Introduction

There is sportsmanship, which in our little sport is embodied in Spirit of the Game and then there is gamesmanship. Sportsmanship is the ideal of playing within the rules (and the customary understanding of them) because it is the right thing to do. It is concern and respect for your opponent. Gamesmanship is looking at the rules in a lawyerly way, analyzing them and finding opportunities to exploit them. It is looking at the customary ways rules are enforced and tweaking them to advantage. It is always looking to see rules enforced to one's own advantage, rather than impartially, evenly and fairly.

Ultimate's system of self-officiating opens huge doors to gamesmanship that are not open in other sports. It also creates a moral dilemma for teams and individuals. In the NFL, when a coach calls a last minute timeout to ice a kicker it is considered good strategy. In ultimate, if you call a double time-out to throw off another team's rhythm, you're an asshole.

After the debacle of the CUT-Florida final last spring, I had a long conversation with Scoops (Greg Connelly) about SofG. One of his observations (which I agreed with) was that SotG was stronger in Club ultimate that college. (Note: this is only true of Men's. Women's ultimate has a strong and thriving sense of SotG at all levels.) This is odd, because the level of gamesmanship is so much higher in Club than College. Those crafty vets know all the moves - shouldn't that make their SotG worse? SotG is an agreement between the players and the teams; an agreement of what is and isn't accepted. (This is why behavior that is perfectly acceptable at the college Nationals is taboo at city league.) At the Club level, there is widespread agreement that gamesmanship is part of ultimate and therefore, ok. If I was dumb enough to be marking tight on stalling 7, I knew I had to accept the bullshit pivot-foul-call from the thrower. I knew if I tried to go up line on a Monkey, they'd try to knock me down. But as they say, "If it's in the game..." Contrastingly, in College ultimate, there's no consensus on what should and shouldn't be ok and everyone takes it way too seriously.

This series of articles is my attempt to help with that problem a little bit. My hope is that by understanding the particular techniques of gamesmanship, they will be less effective and that people will have a bit more perspective about them.

Up next: Drama

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

College Redraw: What Went Wrong

I have one complaint about the redraw, but it's a big one: it doesn't do anything to bolster competitive ultimate for the top teams. In a lot of cases, it makes the situation worse by diluting already thin regions into multiple regions. (It's a bit like a Florida congressional district: only the incumbent can win.) More than that, this redraw was an opportunity to push the sport forward and to change the way the season is structured to make it more exciting and meaningful. It fails utterly in this, instead reworking everything just to maintain the status quo of Sectionals-Regionals-Nationals.

What to do to fix it?
1. Go to 24 teams. There needs to be some flexibility and twenty four teams creates that room to maneuver. One size fits all doesn't work for an ultimate community that contains the dense northeast open divisions and the sparse but talented women's west.
2. Qualify for Nationals from Conference play. Keep all Regionals as one bid. Allocate all strength bids by conference and let conference play and finish decide who is going to Nationals. Instead of a single, elimination style conference tournament teams could play a round-robin or double round robin series to determine conference finish much like college basketball. Geographically large conferences would need to do tournaments, but small ones could do classic home-and-away match-ups and play one game at a time.
3. Let teams form their own conferences. Once strength bids go to conferences, you free teams from their regional boundaries and they can make conferences that work for them disregarding regional boundaries. CUT-Madison could happen. PAC-10 women could happen.
4. Run two conferences as a trial balloon. On the open side, run a conference that is CUT-Madison-Iowa-Minnesota and two to four more teams. On the women's side, run a west coast conference that runs from San Diego to Vancouver.

Here are the problems
1. It makes things messier and decentralized for USAU. Get over it.
2. The math gets weirder, particularly if you run trial conferences first. Patching two systems together makes the strength allocations a bit odd, but in the end it's just a math problem and solvable.
3. Teams get left out. Using the NW as an example, if the three dominant programs (Oregon, Washington and UBC) join another conference what will happen to OSU and Western and Victoria? I'm not sure, but is being in their own conference necessarily worse than being in a conference with the big three? It certainly is if, like Western the past three years, you are trying to step up to the big time. If, like OSU, you are just trying to establish a program with some continuity, it might be a good thing.

My fear is that USAU is too busy cleaning up and consolidating (necessary work) to risk a big bold change, but why not give it a try?