Monday, March 21, 2011

Inner Game: Words are Worthless

from "The Typical Tennis Lesson"
"Imagine what goes on inside the head of an eager student taking a lesson from an equally eager new tennis pro. The pro is standing at the net with a large basket of balls, and being a bit uncertain whether his student is considering him worth the lesson fee, he is carefully evaluating every shot....Before long, [the student's] mind is churning with six thoughts about what he should be doing and sixteen thoughts about what he shouldn't be doing. Improvement seems both dubious and complex, but both he and the pro are impressed by the careful analysis of each stroke."

Back when I was coaching Syzygy in the late 90s, I got a hold of a bunch of statistics from previous college nationals. What I saw was stunning. Looking at just the semis and the finals, I found that teams were able to go 70 yards without a turn only 1 in 9 tries. 1 in 9! 11%! Why not huck and play d? Surely we can throw hucks that are better than 11%. Up to that point, I'd coached Carleton in a very conservative and classic dump-swing-comeback style, but throughout the 99 season I again and again exhorted the handlers to huck it. I'd quote them from the statistics. I'd encourage them that their throws were good enough. I'd call plays that set up a huck, but no matter what, we couldn't get away from our short little handler-handler-handler game. I don't know if we'd have beaten Stanford in the finals (they were magnificent), but as it was, we had no chance. All those words hadn't changed a thing about how we played. I walked away from that year feeling like I'd squandered an opportunity.

When I came back to coach again in '00, I made one small change in the way we did business. We ran a huck drill every practice. It was our main conditioning throughout the season. Structurally, the offense was the same, but looked totally different. We hucked and hucked and hucked some more. It wasn't always pretty, but it sure was effective.

I don't trust that words will produce a change in play. Now, when I see something that we need to adjust, I immediately begin trying to develop a plan to physically practice it. The goal is to get the players from idea to action. At the outset, I will talk about what we are doing, but typically only to put it into context. Often, it is less a skill than an series of actions, like the various scenarios in the triangle offense. So at the beginning, I use words to paint a picture, a visual framework. Then, a physical demonstration. After that, it is usually a scaffolded series of drills that move us from the very basic up through full speed and almost game-like scenarios. This process usually can be done within a practice (sometimes two) although you should never expect a drill to yield results after one run through. That first run-through is only to learn the drill itself. Subsequent run-throughs will produce results. Once the drill is learned, the skill is practiced and implemented in games, the drill can be brought out at later practices when fine tuning is necessary.

By way of example, look at learning the dump-swing against the trap. Begin by running a three person drill where the cuts and throws are set up. Then add a marker who just stands there. Then make the marker live. Then add a defender on the first handler and make her live. Maybe you play 2 on 2 if you think that piece needs work. Finally you are playing live 3 on 3. Later, if you come back from a tournament feeling like your dump-swing broke down, you break out these drills. Maybe you start at the beginning and go all the way through. Maybe you start in the middle or at the end. The only words involved in the process would be, "We need to tighten up our dump-swing, so we are going to run the dump-swing sequence of drills." Then trust the drills, not the words, to effect the change you want.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Inner Game of Tennis for Kindergarteners

I started reading The Inner Game of Tennis again last night. I was immediately reminded of how much I love this book and how much influence it has had over my thinking as a coach. It is such an excellent example of the adage that if you truly have something to say, say it simple and plain and short. While I was reading, my daughter Opal who is in kindergarten was working a floor puzzle. She took a break to check out my book.

"What are you reading, Daddy?"
"The Inner Game of Tennis, sweets," I replied.
"What's the story?" she returned.
Here I paused. "Well," I puzzled trying to think what the story was, "it's a book about how you have two brains. A Word Brain," and I touched her forehead with three fingers "and a Doing Brain." I cupped the back of her head up under her hair.
"When the teammates are playing frisbee, do you think they are using their Word Brain or their Doing Brain?" I asked her again indicating her fore-brain and brain-stem.
"I don't know."
"Well, when they are playing frisbee are they using words or are they running and jumping and doing things?"
"They're running and jumping and doing things."
"So which Brain are they using?"
"The Doing Brain."
"Right," I finish. "This book tells the story of how to get the Word Brain to be quiet so the Doing Brain can do."
"Oh." And back to the puzzle.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's Next

I am going to let the Refs... series die an uneventful death; hopefully this is what actually happens to the idea of refs in ultimate. In the next couple of months I am going to talk a lot more about coaching, beginning with discussion of this book. If you haven't read it, you should. I originally read it in my early days as a leader on Sockeye (99?) and coaching Syzygy. It really set me on the philosophical path I have followed ever since. I am excited to read it again after a second decade of ultimate and see what it has to say.

On a related used book store note, I also found this in the ultimate frisbee section (!?) for $3. It's so outdated that it lives and is thought-provoking in an just-different enough kind of way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rankings and Wild Cards

There is no question the USAU rankings are messed up. Just look at UCSB as one example. They played in the finals at the Santa Barbara Invite, losing to Stanford. Then they won Stanford Invite, avenging their only loss. And they're #9?! Please.

That doesn't mean that the rankings aren't doing their job. They aren't designed to pick a champion, but rather to assign wild cards. The if-it-ended-today list is California with 4 bids, the PNW and the Cold-and-Snow with 3 each, the AC, Great Lakes and Cowboy divisions with 2 apiece and everyone else with one. You can quibble with whether or not one bid is a good idea or not (it probably isn't) but that's the system we've got. Looking at the list and knowing the teams on the bubble in each region (Western, Sonoma, Wake, Penn, Iowa State...) I don't think the allocations are unfair. It'll be interesting to see how things shake out after Easterns and Centex.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stanford Invite Recap

We lost. I have to hand it to Santa Barbara for playing a strong and efficient game that set them up for victory. The difference was simply legs - sort of. There is no question we ran out of energy and oomph and that killed us. SB was equally tired, but their offense can run with minimal effort - ours (if we even have one) cannot. They didn't always score, but when they did it was easy. When we scored (which we did some) it was ugly. With our starters either hurt (Bai and Butters) or exhausted (everyone else), we played an open rotation throughout most of the final. No excuses though - they beat us.

I came away from the tournament feeling like there are 7 teams out here on the west coast that are all pretty much even. Who wins is a question of who is playing well that particular game. It'll be interesting to see all these teams running out at Centex and where they will fall relative to the east coast powers. My suspicion (after seeing UNC at Prez Day) is that there are likely 10-12 teams all bunched at the top right now. Very few of these teams are fully formed yet and given how many teams are relying on new players to fulfill important roles, I see nothing but upside for most of them. Who comes out on top depends on who grows the most week to week. This week it was SB and so they won.

Here are my thoughts on all the teams there:
SB: They are quickly developing their rookies and second year players and getting them to play within their system. Finney has stepped into Kayla's QB role from last year, but with her own spin on it. Finney is much less of a big thrower than a take what is there thrower. She doesn't run much, but when she does, it's effective. Alina has stepped up to serve as a very good second handler: solid and efficient. This team is not deep, but they are very good at getting the most out of what they have.

UBC: Really the flat-out opposite of what UCSB is. They and Stanford might be the two deepest teams; both of whom are playing 16 or 17 deep. I'm not sure that the TBirds know quite who they are yet and it is scary to watch them figuring it out. They run a pick-your-poison offense that runs up the lines on the edges and comebacks down the middle. Their depth and constant churn challenge their opponents to keep up. If you can - you have a shot at winning. If you can't...

This team is more than just Kodiak and Hawkins. Kodiak went out with a foot injury and BLU still beat UBC Sunday morning in a must-win. They went on to get pounded by UCSB, but winning the pool (losing only to Cal) is impressive. They (as always) run a classic dump-swing and are doing an excellent job challenging the mark in the 2-4 second range of the stall count. They are fundamental sound , although a little less clean in their spacing than usual. Their zone is quite good.

The Stanford O is the same that it has been for the last few years: catch, look at the cutters for 5 seconds, recycle to the handlers, look at the cutters for 5 seconds, recycle to the handlers...This weekend, I didn't see them scoring easy goals. Lots and lots of 8,10,12 pass possessions some ending in goals and some in execution errors. Very few decision errors. Ruggs will stretch the field for them with her forehand, but she is the only one. They are playing so so deep right now. As all those rookies and second years get better, their possession O will begin to solidify.

The Pie Queens are a good defensive team that will go as far as An-Chi and Claire will carry them. I watched them in the showcase against Stanford, the finals of Prez Day and bits and pieces here and there. As a team, they are solid. They have a good core of handlers led by Palak. An-Chi is a ceaseless cutter and her forehand huck is about ten yards stronger than defenders seem to think it is. She and Claire (neon hat) have figured out how to work together and that has been the difference for them.

This team is so young and so talented. They have every piece you'd want: throwers, speed, size, depth. They are still figuring out what they want to be and who goes where and who is going to do what. All they know so far is that it should be different from last year.

They looked much better this weekend than at Prez Day. They are integrating their young talent and got a nice victory against Cal (that knocked Cal out of semis.)

So thin. Maggie was out all weekend and it showed.

Western Washington
I talked for a long time to WW coach and Syzygy alum Jinny Eun. We both agreed that they should have gone to Midwest Throwdown and contended for a spot in semis rather than getting pounded at the Invite. They did have disc to win against UCLA, but they also got blown out in a number of games.

The Hellions are still solid, but they don't have the weapons they did last year. It was nice to see Frankie is still at it.

Santa Cruz
This team has returned it's core from last year and is definitely a step above where it was. They played great, particularly considering they only had a weeks notice (or less that they'd be playing.)

Same old disaster.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 12th Man, Stanford Invite and Useless Bid Allocation Speculation

In my case for SotG over refs, I tried to argue that our current system is more accurate, as fair and now...probably no more biased either. Someone (with more time and money) actually did some real research and made a very interesting case for the cause of home field advantage. Rather than rehash what someone else said better, here's the link that tells how its all the official's fault.

I'm off to Stanford Invite in a couple of days. My quick preview is that we will get to see UW for real. When we played them back in Bellingham a month and a half ago, both teams were so raw and riddled with imperfection it's impossible to read anything into it. I expect them to be a top 5 team and I am excited for the game.
Before that, we will see UCSB in the second round. Any time you play a team in a championship, you are linked to them forever, whether you won or lost. While a lot of key players have left both teams, those who remain remember. I don't imagine there will be much time spent getting up to speed; both squads'll be ready. On a side note, UCSB's schedule sucks. Generally, I like the two-pools-into-semis schedule (it takes me back to the old nationals schedule from the 80s and 90s) but UCSB as the 3 in the pool plays UW (the 2) in the first round and us (the 1) in the second. Those games should be spread out in the schedule. And not first.
I am interested to see Stanford. Their win at SB Invite and their roster (intact from 2010 minus Damon plus grad students) make them a top 5 team.
Except for Carleton, its a Pacific NW and California tournament. A bit disappointing, but the rise of tournaments like Easterns and Midwest Throwdown mean less incentive to travel this far.

If you are a fan of college ultimate, it's time to quit paying attention to the front runners and start watching the teams that matter - the bubble teams. Sure it'll be cool to see us v. Stanford or Pitt v. CUT on the men's side, but right now those games don't matter. The biggest game on the women's side is Western Washington v. Carleton. Why? It's all about bids right now. My rough guess is that the top 16 teams will earn bids for their regions. The remaining 4 spots will fall to regions with a single bid. Carleton sits as the second team in the Cold and Snow Region at #12. Western sits as the fourth team in the PNW at #27. Their record (3-6) needs to get fatter at the front end if the PNW will earn four bids. Don't forget that UW, UBC, Iowa and Iowa State haven't played enough official games to be ranked yet. Carleton would love to make some hay knocking off the West Coast teams above them, but they need to beat Western.

I picked this game because its two teams I know well and at the tourney I'm attending, but there are a ton more in both the Men's and Women's this weekend. (The games like Sonona (#11) v USC (#21) don't really matter because they're in the same region.) Wash U v Colorado College. Northwestern v. Iowa. Colorado v. Iowa State. On the men's side, Oregon, Washington Cal and UBC all want to go to the show. They all need to win (against the likes of SDSU, Wisco, Texas, UCSB.) You want to stay one step ahead of all the other regions. You want your two to beat their one. You want your three to beat their two. You really, really want your four to beat their three (or two or one.)