Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): The Lightning Rod

You know the guy, probably before you ever even play his team. "He's sick," your teammates tell you, "but what a dick!" Then you get in the game and he's not that bad...until it's 12-12. Then all of a sudden, he calls three travels, screams at your best defender to "quit fucking hacking me!" spikes it on your star rookie...and smirks his way to a 12-15 victory as your team melts away.

All of the things I've discussed in the Cheat to Win series: drama, traveling, fouls, marking and all the little gamesmanship moves are actually quite difficult to pull off. Like any other aspect of sport they require a certain level of talent, a certain way of seeing the game and certainly a flexible sense of morality. Not everyone on your team can or should huck. Not everyone on your team is a great receiver. That's as it should be. Just as strategic aspects of a game plan are divided up, so to are the Cheat to Win aspects. On most teams, this burden is carried by the Lightning Rod.

1. The Lightning Rod is always one of the best players on their team. Creating drama, making tons of calls, stomping around and yelling - these are all ways of saying, "I am more important than you. I matter. You don't." When those things happen, it isn't just to the opposing team that the Lightning Rod is imposing their importance, it is on their own team as well. A rookie or bencher just doesn't have the cache to pull this kind of stuff off. Their team wouldn't put up with it in practice, so it never develops as a behavior. This can be a little different for a men's club team, particularly one that is heavily split O and D. You have lightning rod players on the D team who aren't huge stars on the entire team, but that's because you are actually looking at two separate teams.
2. The team has to look away. This is where the morality of ultimate gets really slippery, really quickly. It's easy to condemn bad calls and cheaters and all those Lightning Rods out there, but they have teammates who tacitly condone that behavior. They may not even condone it. They may criticize it behind that player's back and fight about it in practice, but it doesn't matter because they take the wins. I'd encourage you to read this piece, by Tully Beatty of Wilmington. Amid all the crap Wilmington ultimate spit out, Tully was always a class act, but he still took the wins. (Sorry to call you out Tully; you got nailed for having the courage to say what others just think.)
3. There can be more than one. It's not the Highlander and often you will find a team where different players are doing different aspects of gamesmanship. This is much more true at the club level than the college level. This isn't surprising. Club teams, because of their greater depth of talent and experience, have a wider division of labor that a college team. Gamesmanship is no exception. There are two recent games that illustrate this perfectly: CUT-Florida and Ironside-Revolver. Notice (or remember) how many of the calls involved Brodie Smith (whether he made them or they were made against him.) In the Club Final, the calls were spread all over and the little bit of drama Crockford tried to start died pretty quickly when he turned it over.
4. It'll go both ways. I alluded to this a second ago, while discussing the College Finals. When you have a Lightning Rod involved, often their mere presence will generate bad behavior from the other team. Of course, since a Lightning Rod is totally comfortable with calls and drama, this only helps him. When Jonny G went up and played with the Monkey after all his bridges were burned in Seattle, we [Sockeye] were relentless about his play, his calls and his behavior - even though they weren't that bad anymore.

So what does this all mean?
1. Get him out of your head. Seriously. Why are you letting someone whose game you don't respect in your head? When you are all torqued up about so-and-so and his calls or spikes or whatever, you're not where you should be, which is focused on your play. The best way is to respect his play, be nice and when he pulls bullshit, stay nice. When you are playing an inferior team and someone on the other team starts pulling drama and making a lot of calls, what do you do? You mostly ignore it. You shake your head dismissively and you beat them. Later you think, "what an idiot." This should be your attitude in all such games, win or lose.
2. Check your own behavior. Before you whine or criticize too much, make sure you aren't part of the problem. Does your team have crappy, drama-filled games once or twice a tournament? Hm. Do you always have a problem with a particular team? Might be them. Might be the two of you together. Remember, it only takes one or two players to make a team be "a bunch of assholes." You personally might be just fine, but if your captain or fifth-year senior is pulling a bunch of bs...that's on you.
3. If you really have a problem with a teammate, vote with your feet. I have seen many players walk off teams because they didn't like the attitude created by one or more players. Usually, it happens in the off-season, but I've seen it happen once or twice midstream. It's bad for the team, but if it's the right decision for you, do it. You can also vote at the ballot box. It's pretty common for the team's biggest criminal to be a captain and captains need to be elected. My on-field behavior was always an issue when we voted for Sockeye captains and ultimately was one of the reasons I quit that job.

I am about ready to wrap this series up, but I am going to run one more post next Wednesday. It'll be a grab bag of responses to comments, some odds-and-ends that couldn't find a home, and answers to questions. If you have some, add them to the comment section or email them to me: louburruss at gmail.


  1. As a mostly non-handling college open player, I've found the most infuriating strategy of gamesmanship to be the double/triple team cup. It can be debilitating against the right (wrong) set of handlers, especially when they are either too proud or too flustered to actually call the double/triple team. And on a college team with no coach, there's no true authority figure to tell the handlers to stick their egos up their asses and force the cup to back up. "No, no, dude, we're gonna break this cup. We can do it." Drove me crazy.

    Now for some actual questions:
    -Any good ways to make the handlers see the light? It slows the game down to make the calls, but if it's tight enough, calls have got to be better than a turn.
    -Are there places or levels of play at which a tighter cup becomes an accepted norm outside the rules, like physical marks?
    -I've noticed in college women's, this seems to be more prevalent. Any reasons why?

  2. Jumping on board the Without Limits bandwagon and I start to read your blog...Highlander reference? Check. I'm so ready for this blogging gig. "I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings...yeah!"