I spent last weekend cooking and watching the West Coast Cup. It’s hard to express how delightful it is to have live ultimate to watch from home. The tournament got me thinking about all sorts of things, but I was most struck by the similarity of three games: Sockeye v. Revolver, Rhino v. Bravo and Rhino v. Sockeye. In each of these games, the underdog took a lead into half and then blew it. This situation is classic in ultimate; I’d be hard-pressed to count how many times I’ve seen a younger/more inexperienced/less talented team take a halftime lead only to cough it up in the second half. It’s the pressure.
The pressure comes from two different sources, one real and the other imagined, but both equally powerful. Great teams have the ability to raise their level of play when circumstances require it. Often, the underdog takes their lead because the favorite isn’t playing their best. Then, after half or a “stop sucking!” huddle, the favorite raises their level of play, usually through increased defensive intensity, break follows break and…the game is over. The second type of pressure is the pressure of circumstance, the realization that “we’re beating so-and-so!” and the weight of actually winning, of actually making plays, starts to wear on a team. The last thing you possibly want to do while you are playing is to think about the implications of what you are doing. (In fact, you don’t want to be thinking at all.) Often, it is a combination of the two, the real and the imagined, that dooms a team.
The two Rhino games are classic examples of this phenomenon. Of particular note is Rhino’s body language during Sockeye’s run early in the second half; they are feeling the weight of the situation. The Sockeye game is notable in that they are able to fight off the pressure and pull out the win – it is a quite remarkable piece of work. First, Revolver brings the heat – their defense to start the second half is excellent and their offense in transition focused and precise. Mentally, the Fish must feel the weight of their recent years’ frustrations against Revolver. Then, after they’d given up the lead, something amazing happened. They steadied themselves and reversed the pressure. They began converting on offense and creating opportunities on D. BJ Sefton made a huge play and tipped the scales and the Fish hung on to win.
Looking at the three games gives some insight into how this type of game happens and how you can win it if you are the underdog. First, you have to both accept and ignore the situation. If you are on a team that is struggling to win close games, you are going to think about all those games you’ve lost. If you always lose to some team, you will think about those losses when you play that team. You can’t help it. But what you can help is how you respond. The trick is to accept the circumstance, including that you are in your own head about it, and just start fighting. Defense is the best way because it is brain-on-fire. Fight and struggle and fight some more and let that be your attitude and your message in the huddle. Focusing on defense allows you to actually go on the offensive and claim back the initiative in the game. (It is a peculiarity of ultimate that defense is aggressive and offense passive.) One of the ways underdogs lose these games is that they lose initiative and control – defense will help get that back. The final advantage focusing on defense has is that it keeps you from focusing on turnovers. Focusing on turnovers is brutal when you are giving up a lead, because it puts your team’s energy on the very thing that is burying you instead of on the thing that will lead you out.
The last two pieces might be the most important. If you are in a catch-up/underdog situation, the only long term solution is to work your ass off. It is hard work and the willingness to keep chopping that will eventually turn things around. Ask DoG. Ask the Condors. Ask Furious. Ask Sockeye. Ask Revolver. Finally, you’ve got to enjoy those games while you’re in them. Embrace the challenge and go forward.
I’ve been getting lots of good questions, but keep them coming. There’ll be another traditional post next week and then the Q&A column will begin September 4th. Any question, any topic: firstname.lastname@example.org.