Wednesday, November 21, 2012

(above hands not actually Dayu's, Colin's or Hh's)
Continuing to respond...
3) How does your relationship with your captains work? Are you guys all equal partners? Or does your wealth of experience make it so that you have the final decision? How does this manifest itself with the team and in huddles? Who dominates the huddles at practice and at tournaments? Is it you or is the captains? How do you run your huddles at practices? At tournaments?
My relationship with the Hodag captains is great, thank you (but perhaps you should also ask them!). I'll explain our dynamic as I see it. The "Or" beginning your 3rd question implies that either that question or the one prior is answered in affirmative, but not both. I guess I disagree with that premise. Aside from our captains-coach relationship, I have been teammates with Dayu and Colin Camp on Madison Club, as well as their captain on same, but we've also been friends throughout the entire experience. We share a lot of our discretionary time with each other, and we go deep; there are things we have survived or experienced together that I cannot share here. So I see our relationship as an equal partnership, and there is no way I'd be able to do my part without their contribution.

Along with that, our roles and responsibilities complement but are not congruent to each other. And in my role, my "wealth of experience" does make it so I "have the final decision" in matters on the field or at practice, and w/r/t behavior and expectations. But letting the story end there might leave some thinking that I'm roaming around Hodag lives vetoing and imposing my will, which I do not. As I said in an earlier post, the officer corps and I are communicating all the time (unlimited texts & minutes), and I push us in the direction we all want to go. But having the final say in some things is helpful and necessary; there are times when decisions need to be made quickly; also everyone on the same page doing something is often more successful than everyone on their own page doing what they think is right. I'll stick my neck out and say that I have the trust of the captains, trust that I will make decisions with the team's best interest in mind, that those decisions are informed by sound strategy, and that I listen to what they tell me and take them into account.

In teaching high schoolers, captaining adults, or coaching college guys, I've found that deciding and leading unilaterally doesn't come close to getting the same mileage that collaborative work, focused on shared goals, does - Aesop's fable of the Sun and the Wind competing for a man's coat was big for me as a lil'un. I have mentioned that I do not have a vote in picking the team, only the 5 officers do. I attend the cuts and ask questions they should be asking, give my own input on players, and make sure we're balancing present and future. Because of my feedback during the process I've never looked at our final roster and wished it were different; only twice have I adamantly lobbied for a player, making clear I was convinced he should be on the team. In both cases I think time has vindicated my advocacy.

I do most of the talking in huddles, and when presenting drills- a little too much of it, I feel. At practice, I introduce drills and establish the focus of each while the vets demo, and once we're going veterans keep the chatter up and give feedback - this constant learning from each other is a crucial part of our long-term success. Post-practice huddles and most huddles at tournaments it's my voice coming from within. To some extent this is helpful to us; I know as captain of Club firsthand how distracting from your own play it can be to have to be thinking of salient points for the team to focus on. One of the nice things about having a coach is that your captains get to just play. But I also see our team as a long class in citizenry for the outside world. Hodags put in such a tremendous personal investment, working toward long-term goals that are a year, or two, or five long. They should leave the team with the confidence earned from constantly pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and using those challenges for personal growth. Cultivating this side of my players is also a responsibility of mine, and I need to give the captains more of a voice, so that they graduate as Hodags and Badgers, proud and full-throated, ready to lead.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lines Drawn

Continuing to respond to Anon's questions...

2) Technical question. How do you call lines? I'm not asking about your line calling strategy, but what method you use to do it. I've watched McCarthy coach Ironside and it seems like he just uses a small strip of paper with peoples names. From what I've seen of you coaching, it seems like you prefer this method as well. Why do you use this way instead of something like a clipboard that allows you to keep track of points played and other stats? Do you have someone else keeping track of things like that? Any other methods that you've tried?
Hodag Kyle Geppert's father designed a statistics app specific for Ultimate for iphones and ipads, and we use it to keep track of playing time and general stats. Players take turns being responsible for a point's stats, and they rotate turns per game. I have a spreadsheet I made specific to my needs, and the top portion has the names of all the players healthy at the tournament. They are organized by handlers and cutters, by O-line and D-Line, and players from each line that can fill in anytime on the opposite side of the disc. I do this using a table with cells that are shaded different gradients to designate each of these options. Aside from this, in meetings with the officers we design lines of players that have good chemistry for specific situations, such as upwind, must-break, must-hold, etc. I use this coach's sheet to guide my choice from point to point, and i have a rough calculation of points played that ends up reflecting the app's numbers within my margin of error.

In my years on Bravo we organized into small pods of similarly styled players that organized their own playing time in loose fashion, and we communicated often enough to know when to defer, in critical moments, to the team's studs and veterans. We've done this on the Hodags on few occasions, but usually at preseason tourneys. It generally doesn't work as well on a college team than it does on an experienced club team like Bravo; that's not because players overestimate themselves and can't share, but because it takes years of experience to get a feel for the timing of a full game experience, by which I mean how much you've played in relation to others, percentage of total points, complete performance during the game, etc. This makes it difficult to be able to self-assess mid-game and adjust your playing time accordingly. There are some college players that can do this, but it works much better on a team of veterans who have years feeling out the game's subtle texture.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gonna answer some questions from the last post's comment section. Anonymous person asks:

1) Wisconsin has historically been a player/captain driven program. When you started coaching, was there any resistance or did make any adjustments to your coaching style going into it? For example did you take more of a back seat your first year?

That the Hodags had not had a coach before me is actually a misconception. In the winter of 1998, my freshman year on the Hodags, the UPA changed the rules determining college eligibility. Previously, you had five years of eligibility starting from the moment you joined the UPA. That winter, they decreed that the eligibility clock started the moment you joined the UPA or any other governing body of Ultimate. Aside from Jonathan "Opie" O'Connell, our other captain was Simon McNair, citizen of Canada, and that college season would mark 5 years since he joined the UPA, but 6 years since he joined CUPA. During one of our first indoor practices he got the news. After some soul-searching, he decided to stay on for the season in a coaching capacity. He was, in my 18 year-old eyes, far older than most of us, and respected on the team as the brightest Ultimate mind, so the usual problems you encounter from players who immediately stay to coach were non-issues, and his soft-spoken but steady touch complemented Opie's redheaded firebrand style. Simon must have enjoyed the experience, because he stayed the following year as well and helped guide the team to their first natties appearance in the (then)modern era. So there was precendent, and the results had been positive.

I returned to Madison from my years in Boulder and commuted to play with Sub-Zero in '08. That was the modus operandi at the time, having the best of the Hodags travelling up to play with the Frosties, so that year I had the veteran Hodags as teammates. This was the club season after the Hodags' last national championship, and Shane Hohenstein, Muffin, Drew Mahowald, Reb, etc, etc had just run out of college eligibility. I expressed to Jim Foster et. al. my openess to help them with the season, and they expressed two things: 1) They wanted me to coach and 2) They did NOT want Muffin in any coaching capacity. We had a meeting where both of these things would be expressed to Muffin and me, and if you know Muffin or the history, you know what happened next. Muffin pretended to not hear everything anything he didn't want, and we both ended up in "advisory" roles, attending practices but not traveling to any distant tourneys. It was a compromise they decided they could live with. It wasn't that Muffin didn't have the capacity for usefulness, but the year prior he had been an incredibly polarizing figure on the team, and he didn't have the supoort of the younger guys, who after a year of bench-riding verbal choke-outs were hesitant to embark on another season of same.

Everyone's fears were unfounded and the Hodags did as best we could that year. We split results on two games decided on the final point and it pushed us into a pre-quarters match that proved too heavy a weight in quarters, but we had lost the players that played over 3/4 the prior year's points and our ability to finish games still needed work. We were young-heavy and many of them had played only a handful of points, and our inexperience showed. The following year Muffin moved to Boston and I became coach of the Hodags fully.

There wasn't any resistance that I could feel, only the healthy arguments with Feldman that are to be expected of two people who want the best, but we always ended in a shared agreement. In my role as a coach, I have a say but not a vote in tryouts or our tournament schedule, and I don't take charge of any travel logistics. The team was then, and remains, a player-driven team. My role on the team consists of planning all practices, creating and communicating team strategy, calling lines at tournaments and keeping the team's focus where it needs to be during competition. I help players find their roles and give feedback on performance. But none of it happens in a vaccuum; the officer corps and I are in constant communication and they have ample input in what happens. I've been grateful to have, each year I've coached the Hodags, an experienced and motivated leadership who bring diverse insight into our play. My skill is in synthesizing that feedback and insight into a unified, coherent message to transmit to the team.

That has been and will continue to be my role on the team, and it's an honor and so much fun. Our last two second place finishes have tested our character but hardened our will. And although we push ourselves and finishing second has been disappointing, each year we've gone to nationals and played our best Ultimate of the year, and this year we plan to peak there again.


Friday, November 16, 2012

The high school where I work has begun an initiative over the last two years to encourage collaboration between teachers, to share best classroom practices and learning strategies. Collaboration between teachers is time well-spent, as the insular nature of the classroom can turn a school into a land of tiny kingdoms, with each teacher doing their own thing, unaware of the work their colleagues are engaged in elsewhere. I love that time together, where I can pick the brains of people with years of experience making mistakes, adjustments, connections, and developing winning strategies.

That degree of collaboration is markedly absent from the ranks of Ultimate coaches, who are largely left to synthesize from their own playing experience and books and videos their particular coaching style and approach. The mandatory Level 1 coaching certification is a fantastic 8 hour lecture on legal liabilities and admonishments against hooking up with your players, and for casual rec players looking to help out and form a team at their local high school it's a good starting point, but as a long-time club player coaching and captaining established programs, I would have benefited more from direct collaboration with my peers. How do you talk to your players? How far in advance do you plan practices? How do you lay out an upcoming season? What do you focus on during play? How do you decide on adjustments and how do you communicate this to the players?

I take any opportunity to have these conversations with my peers and I'm always searching for new information. It was in this spirit that I was picking Alex Snyder's brain over a dinner last college season. Aside from having elevated herself during this year's natties finals into Club Women's current GPiG, she's one of only two players who have been coached on Fury by Matty Tsang for the entirety of their 7-year dynasty. And because I am so in awe of Matty, I wanted to know: what does he say in a huddle? How does he get Fury to make adjustments? I kept peppering her with questions, demanding specificity, but she couldn't answer me. Not that she wouldn't, but she couldn't. I began to see her annoyance at my incessant curiosity starting to rise because she could not tell me what Matty says, and more importantly, how he says it.

Exasperated and ready to drop the issue, I finally asked, "well, what are you doing in huddles while he's talking that you can't remember his words?" Her answer, its logic and effectiveness so obvious, blew me away in its simplicity. During huddles, with Matty addressing the team, she's playing Ultimate. Not for real, mind you, but in her head. She sees herself playing as she has been all game. And her brain, as it takes in Matty's message, adjusts the video it plays. If they're taking shots from the break side next half, then she sees herself creating space and cuts on that side. She notices where the cutters are attacking downfield, notes where she's looking. She throws those shots. If the adjustment is on the mark to force the arounds, then suddenly her woman has the disc, and Alex pays attention to her feet as the thrower pivots. She contests the I/O aggressively. She shuffles to push arounds for loss of yards. She does all this as Matty's words travel around the huddle and so his phrasing, his words, evaporate away, and a clear vision of how to play going forward remains as the sole precipitate.

What happens then is that when play resumes, she's already been playing under Matty's new rules and priorities. She's game-time before it's actually game time. And the results, for anyone who watched Fury last month, speak for themselves. The power of visualization cannot be overstated, but it only unlocks its full benefits for those willing to commit wholly and play make believe. Even the phrase leaves clues as to what is required: suspend your doubt, release your expectations about your current reality, and make yourself believe in a new reality. And when circumstances change and it's time to make adjustments, you will already know what it feels like to live by your new rules.


p.s. I'm going to expound a bit on the coaching certification/collaboration and my dream scenario in a later post. But for any captains, coaches or players reading, if you've got questions, I'd like to read them, and I'll answer them to the best of my ability here on this blog.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012


This morning I snuck a pinch of haterade in with the ground cardamon, cinnamon, and nutmeg I usually put into my hexsspresso. And as the caffeine kicked in, so did my annoyance with a nationwide habit that players across all levels of play indulge in: the yelling of violations and infractions from the sideline.

How many times from the sideline have I heard, "Billy, that's a double-team," or, "Johnny, that's a fast count," or, without question the most abused, "DOWN!!!"

"Double team", "fast count", and "down", within the context of a game of Ultimate, are not just words, or appropriate sideline communication; they are violations with prescribed consequences; in the case of "down", it's a stoppage of play where the defense is asserting that a turnover occurred. And as such, those specific words should be left to the 14 players currently on the field, and them alone, to use.

Here are some alternatives that I endorse to my team. Rather than say the words "fast count", say, "that's very quick!" Then, at the next stoppage of play, from the sideline you can talk to your teammate and tell him, "dude is fast counting you every time." Play has stopped so feel free to say it then. Instead of "double team", say, "they're too close," "they're crowding you," or "their cup is on top of you." Then, at the next stoppage of play, talk to your teammate and tell her she's being double-teamed, tell her when it's happening, and tell her when and how to punish it. In a stoppage of play, say whatever you'd like.

But keep the word "down" out of your mouth when you're on the sideline. Don't go there at all. It stops play, and anyone on the field who hears it and stops can send the disc back to its location at the time of the infraction, which you can bet they will if, in the moments afterwards, their team was roasted. "Down" requires a disc check to put the disc back into play, and that all players be set in position.

To complain further, aside from "down!" being abused by reactionary knee-jerkers walking the sideline, it's also routinely abused by defenders on the field to stop play, second only to the travel call. Violations in Ultimate are meant to be called when you believe, in your heart of hearts, that a violation has occurred. But the burden of proof for calling a disc down has fallen so low that defenders now call it with little perspective on the disc, without actually seeing it touch the ground, with no angle on the catch, merely because they think that, hey, maybe, right? Of course, if you call them out on their lack of position to see what actually transpired, they're adamant about their call, instantly looking for the nearest holy text to lay their hand on and swear they saw it touch this blade of grass, or that one.

All this is further exacerbated by the confusion as to what happens when a disc is called down. Few seem to know play stops and must be restarted with a check, and often after a side conversation or two the offense will just put it back into play and off we go, official procedures be damned. Ugh, so annoying.

Aside from monitoring what we say from the sidelines to strike a balance between communicating to our teammates and constricting on-field play, let's raise the bar on the certainty we require of ourselves to call a disc down. You should have an unobstructed view of the disc; you should be able to see the moment it touched the ground; you should know, and not just think, hope or, extrapolating a trajectory in your head, assume that it should have been down.




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MLC Redux

Just wanted to jot a few quick thoughts on playing in Missouri this past weekend while they're relatively fresh.

A Midwest autumn weekend is a very mercurial creature, resisting predictions and expectations. A short month ago during our own No Wisconsequences tourney, we played Saturday in conditions that began promising but became progressively wetter, and Sunday morning found the fields swamped as rain poured unabated from the skies, cancelling play for the day. Columbia, MO this weekend greeted us similarly, with a manageably windy Saturday full of sun giving way to heavy winds and heavier rain Sunday, as the mercury dropped, and the cancellation of games after the second round. I assume (or hope) that teams from this region are used to the variable conditions, which make guaranteeing the completion of the tournament a shaky proposition. The Hodags were happy for the opportunity to play as a team for the first time since our final roster was announced, and while we would have loved to Sunday's weather to echo Saturday's, we understand tourney directors can't call on Taoist magic to control the elements.

Our Saturday brought games against Iowa, Carnegie-Mellon, Michigan, and Arizona in a showcase game. While Iowa has some solid players, their handling core seemed very inexperienced, and the stiff wind proved too difficult to overcome. They gave us several short-field possessions on miscommunications in their backfield which gave momentum to the Hodag feeding frenzy. In the field next to us, C-M was bewildering a Natty Mich caught off-guard, so they came into our game with a win and tremendous positive energy. Two Downtown Brown candidates, their primary handler (#47?) and a cutter (#1) were surprisingly effective and the handler has my respect. His throws and movement helped the less experienced teammates receive the disc in more favorable positions and his play elevated the team as a whole. I look forward to hearing more about him and hope his play continues to progress (and impress). Our game against Natty Mich had a chippy midsection, but our younger players from last year are stepping into larger roles on the team with success, and our depth carried us over our opponents in the second half.

Our showcase game was against an Arizona squad which had surprised both CUT and Mamabird in their pool, and it was clear early on why. They have several outstanding receivers, including one with absurd wheels who caught the final goal of the game in the hard cap. The sure-handed receivers, in challenging wind, complemented their savvy primary handler, who despite his unassuming frame and shorter stature has high-release throws that allowed Arizona to effectively spread the field. Our game against them was very spirited and friendly, and seeing their execution this early in the season be as crisp as it was bodes well for their spring. I hope to be able to measure their progress in Madison come late May.

Rumors of Luther's demise have been greatly exaggerated. While they did lose EJ and Graffy, lil' Johnson still commands respect and has throws that rival (but don't match) his brother's, and they have a few big men that played an imposing cup in their zone defense. While they clearly won't be as deep or experienced as last year, if the North Central secures a healthy number of natty's bids again this year, they have the time to grow enough to challenge for one of them. Whether they do or not remains to be seen.

The Hodag-CUT rivalry is as robust as it's been. They lost some dudes, we lost some dudes, neither is giving the other any room to get comfortable. We expect to see them at most of our spring tournaments, and as always our meetings will be a test of each of our preparations.

Our strength at this tournament, and the new roster, brings to mind comments made prior to the tournament on rsd and elsewhere predicting results. Several wondered how Wisconsin will fare with the departure of Simmons and other players we relied on heavily last year. Well, a year prior we fielded questions about how we would ever replace Bergen and Feldman, and the year before that Klane and Crumb, and Foster and Gayor before that, etc. I love my teammates, and I will certainly miss the ones who aren't coming back this season, but I'm not asking myself how we will replace one player or another; I'm focused on how to develop the talent we have for this year, and confident that, like in so many years past, we will.


p.s. One gripe about MLC: please please please get some port-o-johns on site. The fact that the players had to wait almost half an hour to drop a deuce throughout the entire day should make it glaringly apparent that the current facilities are deficient.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Who is our pyromaniac? Who is our firestarter?

Getting yourself fired up with no provocation is one of the hardest things to do. In lulls of energy, everyone knows that if a small-ish number of teammates get louder and more animated and start playing balls out and physical, eventually the whole team will follow suit, and murder will ensue.

The problem is that getting loud and animated takes energy. Getting physical and playing balls out take energy. And the vast majority of humans, in situations like these, silently hope somebody else will do it. So they cross their fingers and wait, they wait to join the surge, straddling their emotional surfboards ready to paddle onto and ride the wave of energy their teammates will create. You will discover quickly that when this happens, you end up with 26 players, each with their fingers crossed, waiting for a wake that never comes.

I'll tell you one thing; we missed Coolidge this weekend. He can be counted on to buckle in and produce in our moments of need, and you can actually see when he declares by sheer will that he won't cede another inch of ground, and any pass foolishly sent in his direction gives us possession, and chills at how Kill Mode he got.

But one player is not enough to spread the fire. And yes, we have Brian Hart, and many other quality defenders; I'm not talking about defensive skill, I'm talking about fire. And not just being able to hold fire, I'm talking about the ability to create it.

Consider this: Once upon a time, there lived a human being. This human being was the first human in the history of our species to create a fire at their will, just because; they wanted a fire and - poof - they made it. Every single human before them had feared fire and desired it and saw how powerful it was but this human was the first to create it consciously, deliberately. Hundreds of thousands of years later we have bics and electric stove tops and furnaces in basements and we take it for granted that we can have heat on demand. (true story!)

The moral of the story is that it's easy as hell to bring the heat when you're handed the flame, but don't nobody wanna be the guy who has to light the torch. It's a tough job, much harder than putting your hand out waiting for the torch to be passed to you.

And so I acknowledge that I'm being demanding when I ask in huddles to spark the team up. It's asking a lot. And I ask it of you all not only in every huddle, but at practices and at workouts as well. Push yourself and us to another level; be the first Hodag to put in more. Am I asking too much? The question does not stay rhetorical; you answer it each time it is asked, through your actions.

And lastly consider this: compare the total number of open college teams that compete in the series with the total number of teams that are division 1 champions at the season's end. How grueling is the path that weeds us down? Are you each doing your part to propel us onward?

I hope the answer to my last question, from all of you, is, "yes." But of course, the real question here is, "are you doing more?"


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Starting Principle

Hector, thanks for bringing up a topic that’s captivated me for several years; breaking down ultimate knowledge into general principles, or heuristics. I think I have some insights into why your approach isn’t widely adapted by other coaches and captains because I’ve encountered many objections over the years.

The first objection I encountered was during the summer of 2005 when I was an instructor\coach at the inaugural J.E.M Camp (Junior Elite Methods) in Boulder. Over lunch with two other coaches at the CU cafeteria one day, I brought up my plan to reduce ultimate knowledge into a manageable set of general principles. But after explaining my first rule, I quickly encountered my first objection; one of my fellow coaches had long preached a rule of the form ‘Downfield cutters are not to come within X yards of the disc’, X somewhere between like five and seven yards. The intent of this rule was obvious; by reserving the space around the disc for the handlers to work, it was possible to avoid some congestion and confusion. And in her experience it was better to let the handlers have freedom and restrict the behavior of the cutters, because the handlers were the more experienced players and could be trusted more. Her handler-centric worldview insisted that any set of principles needed to include this rule (or a similar variant) because without it, chaos was inevitable. ‘You just can't have cutters getting in the way of the handlers’, I can picture her saying.

I dislike her rule for several reasons, most importantly because it’s a No-Rule, in that it describes what not to do rather than what you should do. All principles should be affirmative. No-rules are great for assessing blame; scan down the list of no-rules and when you find the one violated, you have your target. But I don’t think they belong in a team sport where blame and contempt become corrosive.

We went back and forth for the entirety of lunch trying to convince each other with no success. And in the end we returned to the afternoon session of camp with our previous beliefs intact and possibly hardened by the conflict. Most every other discussion I have about the idea of general principles follows a similar path, so I’ve had to go it alone. It’s been a solitary obsession until I found a team willing to embrace my principles.

Since you’re probably wondering, my first rule (which I call the Rule of Permission) is: Any player may attack any open space at any time, as long as he thinks it’s in the best interest of the team. My first practice of each season starts with this principle as the theme and when I teach it to new players, I make sure to stress each instance of the word ‘any’. At first this principle makes most players nervous, and they ask what to do if two players attack the same space? My response is usually some form of ‘if one player gets there first, then the space is no long open and so the second cutter has to find new open space to attack.’ But what if they get there at the exact same time? In that unlikely situation we’ll trust the thrower to recognize that the space is not open and to look elsewhere. And over time we’ll learn how to share the field with each other. And then the new players are able to get the start training the general principle, which is that ‘cutters should attack open space’.

My question to you Hector is, does this fit your idea of a general principle or are we starting from different places?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

One of the most important responsibilities team leaders have is setting and reinforcing team norms. Defining the right attitude for the team is the easy part; maintaining it throughout a season is the true challenge. And while it is the coaches, captains, and officers that set the team attitude, they can't maintain it alone. Deep in the season's doldrums, players from among the rank and file have opportunities to make an big impact on the team that go beyond the playing field proper. Their contribution in these times is powerful specifically because it comes from an unlikely place, and not the same tired voices.

This season with the Hodags presented the usual mid-season problems. Cabin fever sets in as the indoor season gets long, and tempers and frustation levels rise at practice when results fall below expectations. As we prepared for Centex, the bickering at practice was intensifying, and to my dismay it was coming from the elder statesmen of the team, those who should know better, who should be setting the proper example. Grumbles ran the gamut. If a mistake was made, it was someone else's fault. Someone wasn't working as hard as others. Some people were playing more (or less) than they should be. And so on, you get the point.

As I returned from Austin, I was frustrated and looking for a way to snap us out of it and recommit to working for each other instead of ourselves. And what a breath of fresh air, then, to finally arrive home and check my email and read this:

Dear Hector,

I wanted to let you know how much I truly appreciated the playing time I received this weekend, especially during the Tufts game. I know they forfeited, but I still felt extremely privileged and honored to start that game. Being lined up in the Hodag tunnel, hearing my name called, and having the opportunity to race through it was euphoric. During the eight points I played, I learned a lot from the mistakes I made and the positions I found myself in. The fact that there was a little less pressure made it easier to focus on the fundamental elements of the game, but it didn't change the intensity at which I played at. I just wanted to reiterate how grateful I am for the playing time I receive and that whatever is best for the team is best for myself as a player.

Hodag Love,

Shane Saddison-Bradford

Shane is one of our promising young players. A freshman this past year, his growth through the season was immense and powered by a fuel of the highest octane, a pure love of playing and a constant awareness that it is a privilege to do so. And to play as a Hodag, a team steeped in a rich tradition of success, culled every year from over a hundred tryout hopefuls, that concept of privilege is all the more true.

Shane's email was one of the highlights of my season. I forwarded it immediately to those on the team who needed to be reminded of its message; oftentimes as a leader your role is to get the hell out of the way and let the team learn the lesson themselves. The next three weeks of practice were the best we'd had that year, and we never looked back. And, as I'm sure the rest of his years on the Hodags will prove, neither will Shane.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Oh oh...

From the USAU's US Open website:

Co-hosted by USA Ultimate and the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation, the US Open is scheduled for July 4-8, 2012 at the Air Force Academy - a world class venue in the "amateur sports capital of the world", Colorado Springs, CO.

And then there's this photograph, taken yesterday. The large building in the foreground? The Air Force Academy's stadium. That photo is awesome in the way that Old Testament God was awesome. In other words, paralyzingly scary and full of fury.

Not gonna say something foolish like, "man-made climate change is real and it's happening," but if you look at a map of Colorado right now with all the wildfires labeled, it looks like the foot in a Tinactin commercial before it's sprayed with Tough-Actin' Tinactin. Compounding matters, there is a new wildfire barely over the foothills outside of Boulder, and the south part of the city has been placed on pre-evacutation warning. And our USAU offices are located in - you guessed it - south Boulder.

Today is June 27th. We're eight days away from the start of what USAU has promoted as one of its future flagship events. If you've got a rain dance, now's the time. Yo - Mel, Deav, Schotty - you're in my thoughts and prayers. Best of luck.

UPDATE: Shiiiiit. USAU sends out some info on the status of the fire and tourney.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I recently read a fascinating article in the New Yorker entitled The Caging of America. The author cited Harvard Law Professor William J. Stuntz's "The Collapse of the American Justice System" for his fairly radical idea that the Bill of Rights is in large part responsible for the justice system's current state, and that its flaw is that it was written not with the principles of justice in mind, but procedure:

In a society where Constitution worship is still a requisite on right and left alike, Stuntz startlingly suggests that the Bill of Rights is a terrible document with which to start a justice system—much inferior to the exactly contemporary French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson, he points out, may have helped shape while his protégé Madison was writing ours.

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on.

This passage resonated immensely with me as I have been trying to piece together my philosophy and pedagogy toward Ultimate. My own education in the sport (which I suspect echoes the vast majority of experiences) consisted of rules and procedures passed down from teammates or coaches. When you're trapped on the line, do this; when we run play X, cut this way; if you're the primary reset, go this way; if we're in the endzone, set up just so (et cetera).

And here was my frequent response, and one that gets repeated on team after team everywhere: But what happens if...? What if the primary reset is there and I'm here? And what if it happens on the breakside instead (et cetera)?

Precious practice time flies as player after player has a slightly different scenario they want discussed. The problem you confront with rules and procedures for various scenarios while playing is that there are myriad variables one can consider at any given moment when playing a game, they are all in flux, and sometimes rules contradict each other. Frequently many of those variables are unnecessary distractions for one player but crucial observations for another player in a different part of the field. How do you distinguish between them?

Another problem, harder to notice but with a larger negative impact, is the cognitive processing time it takes to identify a situation and then recall the pertinent rule. Unless you are a seasoned veteran, this can take valuable time, and since everyone is moving, by the time you're ready to act, you're too late. Not by much, mind you, but in moments where success and failure are separated by fractions of a second the delay can be enough to tip the scales against you.

And so the search for a better way to teach the sport, a search for the ethics of inspired play, and the principles that govern it. The dictionary has a definition of principle that matches what I'm searching for: "a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived". The word derived here is especially fitting, because a live disc in a game of Ultimate is a calculus of fluid dynamics.

And within this dynamic, correct decisions must be made in the instant; they must be felt and not recalled. Hence, the principled approach to teaching the sport. Our individual sets of principles helps us make decisions in our lives based on what we believe is right and wrong, and these are things we intuit and feel in the moment without having to think about them. Adults call it gut instinct, and we tell little kids when something doesn't feel right to "listen to the feeling in your tummy." And across disciplines, the best performers do not think of rules, but react to feelings.

Another benefit to teaching principles instead of rules is that principles are not scenario-specific and can be applied regardless of circumstances. It's this that will have the biggest positive impact to young players with regards to their learning curve because it will fundamentally change the way they experience the field during play, away from a player/endzone vision to one framed around space and angles.

To accomplish this, there are two necessary steps I am attempting to take, in my roles as coach of the Hodags and captain of Madison Club. The first is the identification and unambiguous expression of the principles of good play. The second is the creation of the activities that will, through practice and repetition, inculcate the team with a shared set of morals, defined by the dictionary as "founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom".

It's a daunting task to tackle alone, so I have recruited help. I spoke recently with Bob Krier; a former Johnny Bravo teammate, intellectual acrobat, coach, and ingeniously original Ultimate mind, it was a series of exchanges we had before my move back to Wisconsin that laid the foundation for what I've done since. Back then we had batted around the idea of exchanging correspondence, questions and answers posed to each other in the quest to solidify our own approaches. What I proposed to him now, and he accepted, is that we hold this conversation in a public forum: my blog. Aside from Lou Burrus at his Win the Fields, there are scant people effectively articulating the deeper challenges that coaches, captains, and team leaders face throughout a season. After reading each of Lou's posts, I crave a conversation with him and other coaches where we can discuss the hows and whys of what we do, paying attention to the nuanced differences in our approaches. If this goes well I hope to invite a few others to join the conversation.

Just as Stuntz identified that the flaws in the US justice system stem from the procedural perspective the Bill of Rights is predicated upon, I believe that the current pedagogy of Ultimate is limiting the potential of players and teams to play Ultimate as sound, as symphonic, and as beautiful as it can be played. And so my search continues. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Every once in a while I get sucked into some hideous comment board at, over a hundred comments deep before pulling up, no longer able to bear such ugly civility. Has this always been the tenor of our discourse? Have we always been so rude?

I've been in many conversations about whether having the Spirit of the Game (note the caps) elevates the sport of Ultimate beyond others by enshrining in its rules that concept of Spirit, making it explicit and fundamental to the correct way of playing the game... or does it merely state what should be obvious, that in sports competition sportsmanship is necessary to ensure the validity of the results?

I find myself in the latter camp. I definitely appreciate that the concept of sportsmanship (which stripped even further reveals itself to be about effort, honesty, and integrity) is embedded in the rulebook, right there in the beginning of it, but Spirit is necessary in all sports and if you play without it, whether  you win or lose, you're doing it wrong. But like I said, I think it's nice Ultimate took the time to write it in. I reiterate this point because when I speak about my stance with people in the former camp, they collapse the meaning of my argument that there's nothing unique about Ultimate because of Spirit into this wacky notion that I don't like Spirit, or Ultimate, nearly as much as they do. Which I'd be willing to argue.

Spirit, or Sportsmanship, capitalized or otherwise and whatever you call it, is actually incredibly important to me, within and without the sport of Ultimate; it's the most important thing. Your ability to maintain poise and civility during conflict and disagreement is an entirely personal challenge, and must be a requirement of each of us living in a country that grants free speech as a right. It's what DFW called the "Democratic Spirit", and as our world continues to interlace, it'll be necessary to navigate the disagreements that will naturally arise.

Being able to make your own calls, or foul at your discretion, in competitive games is an exercise in free speech. Sure, you can do so whenever we like, but do you really want to? What happens when people decide to take their liberties to the extreme, to yell bullshit calls on the field and type bullshit comments on news sites, simply because they can? The legitimacy of the game and the civility of the argument are both drowned out.

When I took the helm of the Hodags in '10, the team carried a reputation for cheap play and lack of sportsmanship, and there had been players in the years past that earned themselves and the team that reputation. The attitude and style of play that garnered embarrassingly low spirit scores could not be a part of the team's success in its future, and the young team bought into the goal of turning the reputation around.

We finished this past season without a single chippy game. Sportsmanship was never an issue and without being flawless our bad calls were few and our positivity high. Conversations I had with coaches after games ended with agreements that the game had been hard fought and with integrity. I was incredibly proud of the turnaround the program has had in these last three seasons. So it was no surprise, but certainly an honor, to view College Natties' Spirit score rankings, and to see our nearly flawless score, placing us in 3rd after a 2-way tie for 1st with perfect scores. In fact, you have to go down to 8th and 12th to find the next two quarterfinalists. To play a tournament and have that level of success against opponents who honor you with that spirit score at the end of your game is rare, and it speaks loudly to the character and heart of this team.

I repudiate the philosophy that you have to play with hate to get fired up or win. It's the antithesis of my own philosophy and also patently untrue. More valuable than a medal at season's end is intact self-respect. At natties, we came tantalizingly close to the medal we wanted, but the results of our tests against our sportsmanship and integrity were never in question. The Hodags will continue to keep perfection in our horizon, and I'm confident our march forward will reward our efforts.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It's dusty here.

I hacked at the cobwebs above the keyboard for several minutes before I saw a single key. My computer space is overrun by piles of paper and clothing and my neural blogging infrastructure is emaciated from disuse. Still, my brain is thinking about Ultimate more often than not, and it's gotten to a point where it's spilling over into typed copy. Also Muffin's testosterone prose spreads unchecked like kudzu, and I feel obliged to restore balance. Hence, I am going to write on this blog again.

Throughout the last college season there have been myriad moments where I return home from a practice or tournament with an idea or observation chaffing at my mind like store-brand compression shorts. These would be the things that I have written about in the past but as a captain and coach I wonder if sharing them openly would conflict with our team. I certainly wouldn't give away any of our playbooks, but I wonder if some of these insights and new perspectives don't qualify as proprietary knowledge. I have previously chosen to err on the side of silence and caution.

Certainly in cutthroat patent and copyright law worlds any and all knowledge is a commodity to be owned and traded or sold, but that philosophy has never sat well with me. Ultimate knowledge disseminates itself eventually as players graduate or move to new cities and teams, and I don't think it does the sport much good at this stage in its adolescence to withhold insight and thought from each other. As the talent at the highest levels of Ultimate continues to increase, the strategies and styles teams employ will continue to evolve and differentiate. I am confident that we have not seen just how elegant and exact the game can be played, and am hoping that by sharing my pieces of the conversation I can have some part in spurring that evolution.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Rampage Facenail

Major changes in rules:
1) Stall 7 (silent count from referee)
2) Double teaming on the mark!
3) 80x53x20
4) Fouls are penalty yards of 5, 10 & 20
5) Travels are turnovers! (throwing violations only)
6) 2 Flagrant Fouls
7) Four 12 minute quarters
8) 40 seconds to pull
9) Three hour game to 30
10) Sub the entire line on time-outs!
11) You never have to stop moving during the point (the best rule!)
12) Injuries don't stop play either
13) Picks rarely exist
14) Physicality Scale: Women's Lacrosse < Soccer < Ultimate Frisbee < Basketball < Rugby < AUDL < Boxing < MMA
15) Cheerleaders
16) #rhinofacts

Monday, February 06, 2012

When I was a sophomore in college, I lived in the "frisbee house" with five other teammates. We had a stacked line. 5th Year Senior Grant Zukowski was dominating the basement. 4th Year Senior Rodrigo Valdivia roamed the kitchen and first floor. Fellow 4th year seniors Ted Tripoli, Nate Hurst and Jon Schutkin lived upstairs. Sophomore Muffin was last to arrive at the house and was crammed into the smallest room. I was in over my head. These guys were awesome. A 19 year old acting like a rock star. I held a high estimation of my ultimate prowess and had the mouth to back it up. But occasionally, I could not always back up my mouth. It was a hilarious place and the battle was for the Hodags. We lived, breathed, slept, ate, worked, studied ultimate. There was no down-time, it was one team function to the next. I was focused on school, becoming the best, and learning as much as I could from my roommates - some of the best players in the nation. Grant was the most interesting. Having transferred from UW-Whitewater his sophomore year, a road paved by Andrew Brown a season earlier. And best of all, Grant was a teacher. He could break down any concept to the simplest of terms, so that the smallest child could understand as well. He made me think outside the box and filled me with confidence. I learned so about ultimate that season and Zukowski was showing me the way to play on the field. Complete Confidence. A Stud 24/7. Handling, Cutting, Hucking, Defending, Skying, or just plain Shutdown - Grant could excel at all functions. "What do you need done?" "I got it!" We sprinted hills together, battled at practice and both wanted to get that National Championship. We thought we were the best, NUMP poll and everything. Well 2005 happened and we lost in pool play to Stanford and then to Colorado in Quarters. It was disappointing and Grant moved to Portland the next year.

I'd ask about Rhino and he described it as weird. I was confused. How could it be weird? It was ultimate right? And Portland has tons of good ultimate! It must be spectacular, way better than Madison surely. He said something about cutting lanes being different... describing the horizontal as spread across the field with vertical cutter lanes. I thought he was fucking nuts. He went on, unbelievably talking about how ultimate wasn't as much fun when you weren't playing with your best friends. I wasn't sure at first. I again confirmed that we were playing ultimate. Then speculated that ultimate was ALWAYS fun. Grant was recovering from an injury at the time and ended up not playing club his first year out there. I was shocked. This was Zukowski. Cold Blooded Killer. Dominator. Game Changer. But apparently it just wasn't as fun because the "teammates" were not as connected.

I take for granted how awesome the relationships I had with my teammates. We were committed to the same goal and played for each other. It built a trust on the field that was overwhelming. I got your back as a teammate, as a friend, as a roommate, as a mentor. It was the best support system you could ask for. Hodag Love.

The Diva Dilemma

Coming from Madison Club to Boston in 2010 -- adjustments were made to my playing style. Vertical stack rather than horizontal offense. Possession instead of field position. Position man defense instead of space/lane poaching. However, the biggest difference is the effect I can have on a game. In college, if I played well, we won. In club, if I played well, we usually won, but not always. In elite club, it seems not to matter. Remove one or two players and the result is largely the same.

In elite level club, making a difference is hard to do. Sometimes impossible. Ironside lost only twice in 2010 -- once in quarterfinals of worlds to Sockeye 15-17 and once in Club National Finals to Revolver 10-15. Of any game that season, those two were the hardest to be on the field and make a significant impact. The game-changing, momentum-swinging knockout-uppercut to propel the team to victory.

This last season specifically -- I felt like my fantasy value dwindled, as I found it more difficult to land power-punch impacts constantly. The large turnover of the roster, developing roles and overall immense talent of the team, made superstar players difficult to generate consistently. Perhaps there are just less touches at the highest level. I can't get over the feeling of not winning my battle and playing a major role in our success. On every ultimate team I've ever played on -- I was one of the main contributors. In college and club in the Midwest, I was driving the offense, getting resets and completely controlling the game. Last year, I felt like I wasn't able to finish at to the level I've come to expect from myself down the stretch.

I've always prided myself in being a deadly weapon. Threatening the ability to throw a goal from anywhere on the field, at any moment. That was high school, then college, then club, but not so much elite club. The windows are smaller, the defenders faster, the deep cuts not as often. That's what frustrates me the most. When I have the disc, why are the cutter's setting up for 5-10 yard under-cuts? It doesn't make sense. I have a rocket launcher with a scope. A loaded arm cannon with a loose trigger. Get the disc in my hands.. and let the magic happen. But Boston runs a different "ultimate brand." It is consistent, conservative, dependable and most importantly, boring. The odds make sense actually. 22 passes for 4 yards at 99.8% completion percentage will amount to more goals than 1 pass for 75 yards at 80% completion percentage. I get that.

I'm not sure I'm cut out to just be one of the sailors. I've always had the rage of a massive wild Hodag. Having a smaller role, watching plays happen rather than doing, it all feels like a step backwards? I can contribute more; I can win those battles to 15. I have every throw. Complete confidence, total control. Breakside, deep, open side, resets.. I know them all. I can drive an offense, take over a game and mentally win each crucial moment. Developing in a midwest was the best situation for me. It's always windy. Most players struggle in high winds. Soon I realized the swing off the sideline is 50/50 at best. Sometimes I don't completely trust my teammates, because I've learned their tendencies and can predict their bad habits. I realized as a sophomore in college that the most difficult throw is usually the first one. Especially for the D line bringing the disc up to the cone. I call it the cone of death with Worcester Flatball. The one place on the field where no one has throws. However, that is my favorite place to be. In the pressure cooker, forced to make plays in brutal conditions. These are the situations that make you stronger. Because if you can execute here - everywhere else is a breeze. I know I can do it because I've done it so many times before and in all sorts of high stress situations. The stronger the wind, the bigger my advantage is. I like the responsibility of having to do the heavy lifting, especially when the pressure is on. Rising to the challenge and embracing the moment is where glory happens.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Professional ultimate.
I went to the first Rhode Island Rampage tryout last Wednesday evening from 9-11pm.
40 players registered for the event and were tested in running vertical, 35m dash, 300m shuttle (25m turns) and a throwing/cutting gauntlet.
There was a brain-storming session/question opportunity.
Fantasy ultimate roster decisions were discussed.
Split into 4 teams and scrimmage twice.
5v5, make-it-take-it, stall 7, sub on the fly.
It was super fun.
The biggest rival for the Rampage will be the Connecticut Constitution.
The 2nd tryout is Wed 1/25.