Thursday, November 11, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): The Travel Call

I was fortunate enough this summer to have an opportunity to work at Roger and Mike's summer camp in Seattle, SYUC. Cree and I were teaching a section on playing quick and we were working on the throw-and-go and the catch-and-release when a kid asks, "When can I call a travel?" I wanted to cry.

Calling travels will help your d team in a couple of ways. First, it is a free chance for a turnover. When you call a travel on a throw, play is stopped for the offense. Their best case scenario is to merely maintain possession. Play is not stopped for the defense and their best case scenario is a turnover. Even if you don't get the turnover, you get the stoppage. Good offense is about rhythm and timing. Stoppages break that rhythm. Stoppages give the defense a chance to look around and assess the situation. They give the defenders a chance to take that extra step closer that separates open from not-open. A stoppage gives a beaten mark a chance to get that necessary opportunity to set up in the right place. If you defense is gassed, the stoppage gives an opportunity to rest. Oh, did I mention you can take a goal off of the board? Free turnover? Chance to mark up again? Break the O's rhythm? Rest? Hell, yeah, that sounds great! "Travel!"

Implementation of the "travel" game plan is easy. The first thing to know is that everyone travels, regardless of how conscientious about their footwork they are. The basketball travel is the accepted standard travel. Problem is, ultimate isn't basketball. You can dribble in basketball and picking up your dribble is a quick trip to Turnoverville. In ultimate, you have to pick up your dribble every time you catch the disc. We've set an unachievable standard for ourselves, but since we've set it, you might as well use it. Know that any thrower you guard travels enough to call, pretty much every throw. Secondly, call enough travels to establish your call game, but save some room for when you really need a travel call - like when the other team scores on a big huck.

Now to the important stuff. We've all been in games with a team that wants to call a million travels and it is really frustrating, so how do you stop it? How do you limit its effectiveness?
1. Don't travel. It's your responsibility as a player to follow the rules and not traveling is a rule so...don't.
2. Actually, you don't even want to look like you're traveling. When new players landed on the Sockeye D team (a D team which lived on the fast break) we often had to teach them how to look like they weren't traveling. As an example, consider the throw-and-go. If you are running a throw-and-go, you are always right on the edge of traveling. (That's the point of the move, after all) It isn't enough to learn that move so you can do it without traveling, you also have to learn it so it also looks like you aren't traveling. An exaggerated knee-lift with your step leg or a stop-hitch on your release communicates to all watching: "I am aware traveling is a problem on this move and I'm not doing it!"
3. Don't call travels yourself. A few years ago at Stanford Invite, we (Oregon) had an opponent call 5 goals back on travels. It made for an incredibly antagonistic, ugly game. But who called the first travel of the game? We did. There is a temptation when playing a call-happy team to try to get yours as soon and often as possible, but all you're really doing is getting the ball rolling on something you don't want - a call fest.
4. Get observers. During that same Stanford Invite mentioned above, I ran over to the observer tent and told them, "We need observers or we're gonna have a fight." To their credit, the observers (on their much needed bye) stood up and came over. Stanford Invite that year was an active-travel tournament, meaning that in an observed game, only the observers were making travel calls. Once they got to our game, they called only more travel the rest of the game (and on the other team.)
5. The harangue. It's a bit risky and makes you look like an asshole, but letting the player who called the travel have a piece of your mind can be effective in the medium run. In the short run, they'll never take their call back once you start telling them off. In the long run, you are creating an antagonistic relationship which hurts you if you are trying to minimize a call fest. In the context of a single game, though, you can prevent calls by telling off your opponent when they make a marginal one. In that same Stanford Invite game, I went off on the coaches of the other team, both of whom were friends of mine. Did it make a difference? I don't know. We never had another game like that with that team, but the whole game made our already frosty relationship with that team even frostier. And my friendships definitely took a little hit because of it. Of all my suggestions here, this is the riskiest and carries the biggest cost. Like a lot of call game maneuvers (which this most certainly is) it can be quite penny wise, pound foolish and really should be considered in the larger context of your overall strategy as a team. I certainly wouldn't have yelled at those two coaches this past year after Oregon consciously switched our approach to SotG.


  1. Regarding #2...

    This isn't an Ultimate-only mind-set.

    In high school soccer, I had a very long throw-in...and my coaches taught me to adjust my motion from 'legal' to 'legal-and-doesn't-look-illegal'. This took a few feet off of the throw, but avoided human referees giving possession to the other team on something they didn't see very often.

    Closer to the travel-call, in HS basketball I had a very quick first step move. I developed it through a lot of work, and studying video of my own move to maximize how fast I could get past my defender.

    The first game I used it, I was called for travel. My coach yelled at the referee in my defense. About a minute later, I used the same move and was against called for travel. This time my coach yelled at me for being stupid. Game tape showed neither move was a travel...but at the next practice my assistant coach and I spent some time dialing back the move...not as quick, but now much less likely to get called for traveling.

    We specifically worked on the second step, knowing that to get around people I'd need to make that step more powerful since I wasn't going to get as much advantage from my original move. I was a bit frustrated at the time, having seemingly lost a perfectly legal advantage that I'd worked really hard for. Those few inches really matter...and my coaches made the point that someday we'd have perfect robot officials and real-time video replay review of every call, and then I could have my advantage back. Of course, they said, then games would take 5 hours each would be too expensive for me to play...that shut me up pretty good.

    As long as people are refereeing (players or otherwise) sometimes it isn't enough to do it legal.

    Great post Lou.

  2. The thing that really gets me about travel calling is that only allowing the 7 on the field to call it doesn't seem like a good or objective way to find the RIGHT travels to call.

    Compare a down-field defender who is focusing 100% on his guy and a defender who is giving 10% of his focus to watching the throwers foot. The later might have better out comes if he "snipes" 3 travel calls from 25 yards away over the course of the game.

    When teams go into desperation mode at the end of the game, part of the increased number of calls is change in what constitutes a travel, but I would argue that a bigger part of it comes from players looking at feet more.

    So try this experiment.
    Let all 27 players call travels. In the first 15 minutes of the tournament you will have a much slower game as the sideline calls everything and then people will start to realize how dumb it is to make all these ticky tacky travel calls.

    Letting everyone make calls fixes the current problem that objectively good travel calls are a matter of luck: was someone on the field watching? (sideline foul calls wouldn't work because the kinesthetic awareness of actually getting hit is important information needed for that call - not so for travels).

    Whata you think?

  3. Stephen,

    I mention it only obliquely (because this post was really about managing travel calls more than travel calls themselves) but I think the main problem with travels isn't the traveling, but our attitude toward travels. There has been an over-fixation on the travel violation, even though it less of a problem than fast-counting or fouling on the mark. Your solution still approaches the issue from a traveling-is-the-problem angle. Is traveling such an important issue that we need to devote so much trouble and effort to it? A much simpler fix presents itself: As throwers, devote ourselves to good technique and as defenders, don't call travels.

  4. Lou,
    quick comment about 3 and 4:
    most travels (on throws) are too close to tell, and especially the marker has no way to watch the foot and the release of the disc at the same time (and mark on top of it). So pretty much every travel call of a marker is unjustified---no matter if it was a travel or not, the marker can not be sure enough of it to make the call within the rules. When you have observers, they should hand out TMFs for these kinds of calls---again, no matter if it was a travel or not, as long as it was too close to tell from the marker's perspective. This may teach players a lesson, and it may trickle down from the top college programs used to observers to play without observers.

    This is also a place where observers beat out refs in a way. If travel calls are active, players learn little about their calls in unobserved games. Of course, observers should also pass out penalties to players who travel abundantly, especially once the other team has learned that it is really hard to correctly observe and call a travel.