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


  1. This is very insightful and I really dig the history lessons.

    You are right about Florida benefiting from the THOUGHT of drama. Over the last 4 years they have been cultivating (intentional or not) the image as a "drama" team. The recent USA Ultimate magazine article about Florida makes it sound like they were actively trying to downplay that drama aspect of themselves but there is no way the earned reputation could fade with a few months of inward refection.

    Taking to some of the Florida guys (Nate Sage in particular) they said it was never a agreed upon strategy to call all the fouls in order to rest, they just really didn't like the super physical marks (i wouldn't either if all i wanted to do is huck). To Florida's credit, their marks were all very clean in my memory.

  2. I don't buy the how to beat drama section (and I still don't know how). Too simplistic. If you beat Gerics and his clan 15-13 with all their crap you would have been favored 15-4 over them without it. In 94 we were only 5 or 6 points better than the irate dog beaters and it wasn't enough with our naive mentality (that part was spot on L).

  3. To respond to Stephan's comment: when a team chooses to play a small rotation, they are forced to adjust strategically and this can happen intentionally or unintentionally. Teams can play a lot of zone (Skirts,) stack their O line (classic Furious) or create a lot of stoppages (Florida.) Florida got those stoppages with drama and calls. I'm not drinking their "we're in the best shape" Kool-aid. Watch the film. Watch how little they run, but how efficiently. Nonetheless, if they don't get the stoppages, they lose.

    Andrei, you are absolutely right. Part of my hope is that a little knowledge will help dispel some naivete and prevent teams getting taken advantage of. My advice is really to mitigate the damage. A good drama game or a good call game is like a good deep game or a good zone. It is a strategy that teams employ that must be countered. Like any strategy, when implemented effectively, it isn't entirely overcome-able. However, the methods I outline can make all the difference and they are the best tools available.

  4. I've been kicking around the thought of how to beat Drama teams often. One thing in particular I've considered- that instead of playing your normal game and being the white knight, you should change strategies and play their game harder than they play it. I've been on both sides of...interesting calls and I feel like the rationalization is always "I go _this_ far but no further in bending the rules". If you're going to bump the mark systematically at stall 2, you're not going to be hacking arms at 8 because you consider that "too far". If you're bumping on the mark, it's because your team is comfortable with the stoppages coming from that. I think you're exactly right that high-drama teams are high-drama in practice too. But that means they're used to what they do, not necessarily something more extreme.

    So what if you take this tack-
    If a team constantly bumps on Stall 2, start throwing elbows into guts as they come in. Instead of bumping their handlers back, simply shove them as they wind up to huck. When they call the foul and put up the free throw, contest and say the foul preceded the throw. Maybe you get in a fight but you also start getting in their heads.

    If you ratchet everything up, do you play to the hand of the team used to playing the drama games? I would say instead that they are comfortable being the aggressor and by making them the victims, they'll be thrown out of their comfort zone. Don't match them call for call, as Carleton did, make their calls look reasonable by making egregious plays to shake them up.

    This would take a concerted effort to make it a stated team strategy and would really only pay off if you're looking forward to playing against this kind of bullshit at a crucial moment. It takes time away from the team's actual philosophy and it's terrible spirit. I don't suggest this as the kind of thing that improves ultimate as a pure sport or as something spectators would watch. The boos would be forthcoming within the second point for sure. But simply as an unorthodox strategy to rattle a team who uses drama to play head games before the first pull, does this work? Secondly, if you play one quarterfinal against the worst spirited team in ultimate like this, is it justified if you play the cleanest ultimate ever in the final? That is to say, if you consider it simply another strategy, formulated to counter a specific team (or a specific type of team), is it a) viable and b) acceptable on any level?

  5. #28 I think your comment is almost exactly the opposite of what Lou has said in this post and I completely disagree with your solution to playing a high-drama team.

    Even "if you ratchet everything up" in the hopes of crossing a line that your opponent is not comfortable with, I would basically guarantee that your own team is less comfortable with how far you would have to deviate from your normal game plan to beat a particular high-drama team at their own game.

    The mental energy expended on making egregious calls would take away from the mental focus needed to execute the ultimate plays and tactics that you actually practice.

  6. The problem with drama is there is more of an advantage than just the mental edge you get. Every extra call to keep the disc is one less turnover. If you're making 5 extra calls the other team wouldn't make then that's 5 fewer turnovers for your team. You can't expect to win against an equal opponent if they're making more calls.

    If you've got referees to sort out the fouls and make sure the game is played fair, then you can ignore the other team's drama. But without referees all you can do is hope you are 5 turnovers better than the opposing team.

    Good luck

  7. Thanks for the article, it was very interesting and a good read.
    My main experience in playing against "Drama" teams came during the 2009 AC Regionals when my team (Virginia Night Train) played Florida in the semis. This was the year that we ended up beating Florida in that game, sending us to nationals for the first time and sending Florida into the backdoor bracket and an eventual early exit from the series. While there were certainly many factors that led to us winning (i.e. Brodie didn't seem to be at full strength and we had a pretty effective game plan going in), I think a large part of it was our mentality regarding how to deal with Florida's calls and drama.

    We went into the game with the knowledge that they would make chippy calls and play incredibly physical, to which we would respond with... nothing. Our whole plan was to be completely insular and generally ignore everything going on with them, we were a team with a specific identity and philosophy and the only things we could control were internal to our team. Thus, we went into the game playing our usual style and then simply contesting the fouls that they called and moving on. Another thing we did was to try to be disconcertingly nice to them, in the sense that we would match their level of intensity but then contest their fouls with a smile and not outwardly display our anger or annoyance. Cole trucked me nearly every time I caught the disc, but I think the best response was to simply get up and keep playing without getting into the whole constant-foul-calls-game. We played a high-paced rapid movement style, thus for us I think it was better to simply not call these fouls. Granted, we also had observers for this game which made things easier.

    I guess what I'm saying, is that when you're playing a "drama" team you can't really change the way you play. They are going to be douchy and dramatic no matter what, that is beyond your control, so all you can do is play the same style you've always played and do your best not to get dragged into their shit-show. Which is I suppose is pretty much what Lou said in this post... hooray for being redundant.

  8. In the Easterns final that year the Seamen played the Irates (CUT was watching on the sidelines). At one point there had been so many spikes in the game, they ended up playing with a glow-in-the-dark that they got from someone on the sidelines.