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.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).
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.
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.