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.