Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Principled Approach

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. 


Anonymous said...

As a current open captain, I'm interested in following this exchange.

I agree, on deeper ulti commentary, its Lou or bust.

No Look Scoober said...

Does this also tie into the way people learn in general? There are those who are great at memorization, studying the material until it is nailed into their head. There are others who learn conceptually.

I think one of things that becomes the most difficult to teach is the concept of space. Attacking space, clearing out space, creating space dynamically.

I see a lot of young teams gravitate to Horizontal Stack's now a days because it's statically spaced. You don't need to move to create space, you line up in formation, and the cutters have space available. Vertical is a dynamically spaced offense that often requires a rigid structure for young players to understand. Yes they have side to side space to go to, but it's still dynamic.

On top of that, lets look at how other sports teach things. Basketball is simplified in that there are only 5 people, and you can design a half court offense in a more confined area. Football requires memorization of plays, not improvisation the majority of the time. Soccer, Lacrosse and Hockey are similar, but they don't involve static possession. Maybe if we look at how those sports are taught, we can teach principles in that fashion.

mkt said...

One of the things that I've noticed a number of coaches doing, when they have a large proportion of new players, is spending a lot of time on "skills drills" and less time on scrimmaging. I can see justification for both sides on this; but if the conceptual approach is correct, I think it calls for more scrimmaging or at least drills which more realistically simulate those game situations that you describe, where players must make split-second decisions (and even better, anticipate the situation even before it occurs). Even a 2-on-2 drill with live defense doesn't come close to approximating the complexities of space and time which occur in a game, and which often confuse newer players who might have throwing skills or the ability to get open, but who don't have the instincts to instantly know who to throw to or where to cut.

How does one teach something which needs to be so well-ingrained as to be instinctual? Clearly the answer is practice practice practice, but what sort of practice? I'm not sure the emphasis on skills drills serves the new players well; they need to develop a feel for the game too, i.e. the concepts that you descibe.

wolf said...

Ultimate—as many sports—is great to learn based on principles rather than rules. I prefer playing on teams that are fluid rather than rigid and always try to get newer players to understand the simple principles as they make players sooner an integral part of the team rather than robots.

One main challenge with principle-based Ultimate is that it requires more processing power in the beginning. It encourages understanding the game rather than doing for no understood reason, but for beginners that learning curve can be steep as the principles need to be abstract.

Anyways, here are some of the principles I usually try to convey:
- As it's easier to intercept a pass to a standing player, hence you want to be cutting in order to receive a pass.
- On order to run to receive a pass, you need space to run into. So you want to create space first that you can run into.
- As a cutter always try to get away from your defender. If your defender is trailing your cut, continue. If your defender is on you, switch direction.
- As a defender you chose which places an attacker can receive the disc. Position yourself so that these locations are the least beneficial for the opposing team…


Hope that helps

Vinay said...

I think No Look Scoober and Wolf together make an important point.

"Does this also tie into the way people learn in general?"
"It encourages understanding the game rather than doing"

People who are good at learning conceptually will pick up basic principles and base their own game around them, whether you teach them as principles or not. There are also people who prefer to learn by playing. They just seem to figure things out as they go along.

While the concept of a principled approach sounds great, I think that as a coach/captain/leader, one should possess the ability to understand the best way to teach every player and use an approach that suits him/her best. More time consuming, yes. But a more principled approach to leadership :)

The Pulse said...

As a coach, I keep coming back to the same article when trying to get handlers (and really anyone who throws upfield) to see the field and understand space better. It's a Smart Football article aimed at explaining different progressions and reads a QB makes, and in ultimate we're all quarterbacks.


My main point is that throwers should recognize open space on the field first, then see if there are players cutting into that space or aware of it. Stop staring at a cluster of cutters and defenders - find the space instead and stop wasting your time.

neeley said...

The pendulum swing between giving direct instruction and turning things over to guiding principles is a fascinating part of life. Every time you articulate a new, concrete fundamental, you gain ability to improvise and create something completely new. It's beautiful.

I think a lot of people, myself included, cry out that teaching a set way to do things is limiting and, as you said, leaves too many possibilities unaccounted for. But giving a firm and tangible starting point that players can grasp and then play with in their minds is often a necessary part of getting to those guiding principles.