Inches All Around Us

by | April 16, 2014, 6:23am 11

I watched some men’s ultimate this past weekend at Cascadia Conferences. I was surprised by how many blocks they left on the field, particularly on deep throws. I started thinking about why this would happen – the games I was watching were intense, the players motivated and athletic. The first thing I reminded myself of is that defense is actually harder to learn than offense. You can be okay on defense pretty quickly if you are motivated and athletic, but to be great takes learning how to react to a million different little situations. The college men’s division as a whole is a great example of this because the offenses are developed and sophisticated beyond where the defenses are.

Once players transition into club ultimate, the defenses begin to catch up. I don’t think the defenders this past weekend even knew that the block was a possibility – they couldn’t see where or how to get it. I was also reminded of the importance of the nitro, as each of these missed blocks required closing a one- or two-step gap over the last twenty steps before catch. Like all athletic ability, nitro can be trained for and improved, but it’s not just speed. Most deep cuts begin at 90%; if you recognize a step early and go to 100% there, you’ve made up ground. Most deep cuts curve in response to the disc; out-read the offense and take the straight line and you’ve made up ground. I’d highly recommend it as a skill for defenders, particularly if you cover cutters a lot.

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I was also reminded this past week of how much one little thing can tip an entire system. We were running a defensive drill at practice recently and it wasn’t working quite right. It wasn’t effort or focus or understanding. It just wasn’t working right. When this kind of thing happens, I usually quit giving feedback for a bit and just watch, trying to see and not look. After a bit I thought it was where our eyes were, so I stopped the drill and told the where their eyes should be. That still didn’t work. Eyes weren’t in the right place, but why? Then it came to me – our hips were turned wrong. Discussed briefly, adjusted, fixed. Drill runs smoothly.

It is so often the case with the things we are trying to do in ultimate are susceptible to one small change. This is true of drills, pull plays, zones, marking, team culture…everything. The challenge is finding that one thing. It’s partly experience, but it’s also process. The trick is to see without looking – looking blinds you to everything you aren’t looking for. If you aren’t sure what’s wrong, you often have to let things run wrong while you observe. The change you are looking for is small, simple, easily enacted and flips things over a tipping point.

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Alright, time to talk bids. The conversation around the Northwest’s six bids has continued to rage. Like a lot of online arguments, it’s gone back and forth and covered a lot of ground in a random, emotion-fueled manner. There’s no question that six bids are too many for one region, but the six bids are a symptom, not a cause. Any attempt to address this should focus on the root cause: the underdevelopment of girl’s ultimate. The ratio of girl’s to boy’s participants is far worse than similar ratios in the college or club divisions. That Seattle and Vancouver have built incredible youth programs shouldn’t be penalized, but celebrated. That is the path going forward for everyone.

You can’t quantify or legislate advantage and disadvantage – it’s a brutal Pandora’s box of horrors. Hack raised the time zone issue. Does this mean that the NW teams should get a two or three point head start in all of our Nationals games? What about the weather issue? The NC and NE suffer horribly every year. Maybe they should get an extra bid for every foot of snow on the ground in March? What about the five years of eligibility? In the 25+ year history of Carleton ultimate there have been fewer than ten 5th-year players for CUT and Syzygy combined.

Something that should be discussed is how awful the new system is for teams on the bubble. Teams that are assured bids and teams that are guaranteed not to get them can work for Regionals, but the bubble teams have to scrap and claw the whole way. Right now this problem is consistently the worst in the NW, SW and AC but other regions will float up and join the issue from time to time. I think the overall problem is even harder on the men’s side of things where there are even more teams that are good but not great.

I have a solution that will ease the issue somewhat – 24 teams to Nationals. On the women’s side, that’d add bids to the AC, NE, SW and SE. The men would get 2 for the NC and one apiece for the SW and NW. Given the relatively short shelf life of a lot of teams, more spots at Nationals is a really great thing. Of course, this only moves the issue down four spots but the current state of ultimate warrants the inclusion. There’s no perfect-forever size; back in the 90s twelve was almost too many teams. USAU is flexible and adaptable in a slow way – start bugging your representatives and regional coordinators about it. Someone start tweeting about it. Be pushy.

There is something else that really bothers me about this debate and discussion – the idea that the teams in the NW or SW haven’t earned their bids or don’t deserve them. This is insulting to the hard work and sacrifice these teams have put in this year and in past years to give themselves a chance to go to the show. Victoria’s travel troubles are pretty well documented, but perhaps not very well understood – they have to cross an international border to play. That’s worth $300 a player each and every tournament. The Bruleigh’s have put years of work into building this team from one that can barely field seven to Nationals caliber. My first year coaching at Oregon (2008) we beat Western Washington in the game-to-go. Their best player at the time? Current coach Alyssa Weatherford. She and the rest of Western have been fighting with typical scrappiness ever since. Anyone who’s watched last-team-in UCLA this year has seen that their success is largely due to UCSD transfer Michelle Chang. She played NW Challenge with a broken foot. So you can say that the system is broken or unfair or that the West got too many bids. Fine. But don’t say that these teams didn’t earn the bids. Don’t disrespect their work.

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  • Good words, Lou…seeing and not looking takes a lot of experience, and confidence as well! I also like your point about one small change being the tipping point – I find that to be true so often in my own work! :)

  • Brent

    Great article Lou! I completely agree with your last paragraph. As I go around the internet reading about Ultimate i to often see people complaining that someone doesn't deserve something but honestly you can't judge a team if they deserve something or not because most likely that person doesn't know any or all the facts and are wrong.

  • Colin Clauset

    As a UVic alum, it's been great to see how much the program has grown since I was there. I can remember just barely holding the program together back in '05-'06, and to see both the Women's and Open teams doing as well as they are is fantastic. Kev and Phyllis have done an awesome job building the program.

    To expand a bit on the travel issues in Victoria, the time commitment is something to consider as well. Yes, flying to the US is a possibility, but most of the time it's a 1.5 hour ferry ride on top of whatever driving you need to do to get to a tournament. Also, most of the USAU series happens during/after finals, so keeping students motivated for practices during this time can be tough. Great work from the leadership and the coaches.

  • mjlawler

    I was sitting in the airport in London when I saw the first comment about the 6 bids. My reaction was pretty similar to yours, and especially about the youth programs. You see it in the composition of the U19 teams, too.

    Also, thanks for the shout out to Alyssa. So glad to have had the opportunity to get to know her over the last two years.

  • Steve

    24 teams is not a solution – as you say, it just shifts the problem down 4. Use a probabilistic approach to the ratings to allocate bids instead, so that a shift of a few points in ratings for one team is much less likely to change things, and the burden of being a team that matters is spread around.

    • Alex

      What does a probabilistic approach mean? (genuine question)

      • Instead of drawing a sharp cutoff at team #20 and assuming that the team #20 is definitively better than team #21 because they're ranked 1.3 points higher, recognize that each ranking has uncertainty (standard deviation) and each team's true ranking falls somewhere in a range with the mean at its listed ranking. Teams with more consistent results and more games played will have smaller standard deviations.

        For allocating bids, instead of drawing that sharp cutoff, calculate an expected # of teams in the top 20 for each region. Consider this:

        Region A has teams ranked #1 (2000), #20 (1700), #40 (1300). Region B has teams ranked #2 (1990), #21 (1690), #22 (1680), #23 (1670). Probabilistically, Region B has a greater "expected" number of teams in top 20 than Region A if you assume a standard deviation of 100 points or so for each team. The expected number of teams in the top 20 is probably along the lines of 1.7 for Region A and 2.3 for Region B. You can still do 10 autobids and 10 strength bids, but it's not a sharp cutoff but a better estimation of region strength by using the uncertainty inherent in the rankings.

        • Burruss

          It'd be interesting to see this done for this season.

          24 bids is a solution because it is closer to the number of 'good' teams than 20, particularly in the men's division. So while it doesn't solve the-line-is-grey problem (nothing will solve that) it does help the good-teams-are-staying-home-in-May problem.

  • Great stuff, Burruss. Especially like the part about small details making big changes on defense. Something players of all caliber should keep in mind at all times if they want their D to continue to improve, IMO.

    However, as someone presumably on the other side of the bids debate/discussion, I don't think the overall feeling is NW teams DON'T deserve extra bids. The region is strong, no one is questioning that, I don't think. It's that teams from all other regions that have also put in the blood, sweat, and tears of dedication for their team on the bubble only to not see rewards (aka bids) as readily as the NW seemingly does. Like you said, the system kinda screws the "good not great" teams on the Nationals bubble. If said teams have a solid year and get the results, they should be rewarded with an extra chance at Nationals. It seems like the only region reaping rewards for solid performances from its bubble teams in the recent past has been the NW. Does the NW region deserve extra bids: Absolutely yes. Should other, equally deserving regions be seemingly overlooked for the NW: Absolutely no.

    Maybe expanding Nationals to 24 teams IS the key to changing this national feeling, but who knows?

    P.S. Don't think I've forgotten our friendly wager ;).

    • Burruss

      I absolutely agree that there are teams outside the NW that have put in the same blood, sweat and tears. That's why I am an advocate for 24 teams. I disagree, though, that the NW has reaped excessive rewards compared to other regions – in 2013 the NC got 5 and in 2012 the SW got 5. Prior to last year's four, we never had more than 3 so if you wanted to go to nationals you had to knock off Oregon, Washington or UBC.

      As I said above, there isn't a perfect size to nationals – it is dependent on the number of 'good' teams. There should be a way to quantify how many there are. My intuition says that you should be able to measure the size of the 'gap' between two sets. So you compare 1-10 to 11-50 and then 1-11 to 12-50 and so on. Each comparison gives you a metric for the size of the 'gap' between the two groups.

      PS – didn't forget

  • Great point about the development of the youth scene. I think this is exactly the "long view" that USAU is taking with development of the sport, by focusing intensely on the junior high school level programs, camps and players. Being recognized by the national governing bodies for our approach (SotG) helps a lot, too, and is absolutely something I think we need to leverage. The problem, as you say, is a symptom and not a cause.

    Seeing and not looking – reminds me of, "You can listen to Jimmie, but you can't hear Jimmie."

    As for bids, what about eliminating the concept of 10 regions and consolidating to 2: East v West, or North v South? Would the highly competitive teams really not participate in "Sectionals" or "Regionals" when they are paying for travel anyway? Particularly in the central and western parts of the country, even Sectionals is not currently always a one hour drive from home. Maybe drop Sectionals and just have a Regional/Divisional competition that has a much larger set of teams.