Nosce te ipsum: Intuitive vs. Analytical Thinking in Ultimate

by | June 8, 2015, 8:55am 7

I have a friend who is good at ultimate. We talk often, compare notes, and share gripes; we seek advice from one another, or an outside view. She is action-oriented, intuitive, sanguine, boisterous, and a natural team player. I am deliberate, analytical, stoic, skeptical, and self-reliant. We completely disagree on nearly everything. And that is where this story begins.

The Intuitive is everybody’s favourite kind of athlete. Team sports culture celebrates intuition, and true geniuses of the archetype attract lofty accolades: they have “natural athleticism,” “potential,” and “strong instincts,” as if their qualities stemmed from some unknowable magic. They defy more concrete description because–frankly–they simply don’t work according to concrete, well-articulated methods. They feel their way through the game, often without explanation. Quick-thinking and coordinated, the Intuitives perceive the playing field according to shades of instinct, reflex, and experiential knowledge. In team sports in general–and ultimate in particular–we eagerly recruit for this seemingly unteachable intuition, and we then try to equip it with sport-specific tools and skills.

On the opposite end of the spectrum dwell those I’ll call the Analysts. Characteristically methodical, deliberate, and hard-working creatures, they think in firm, defined terms. They value correctness over quickness. They fight temptations and external pressures. They thrive on well-defined frameworks, rules, and mechanisms, informed by their accumulated experience. What they may lack in spontaneity or instinct, they usually make up for with sheer effort. Unlike the Intuitives, their mindset demands a degree of explanation, detail, and investment that coaches often struggle to satisfy.

Years ago, I asked my friend for help with my offense. She was a master of the cutting game–one of the very best–and undoubtedly someone to try to emulate, if I could just figure out her methods. The dialogues that followed failed thoroughly; in fact, our discussions frustrated us both to the core. Her pointers covered variations of speed, fakes, misdirections, creating and using space, and a repetitive emphasis on anticipating the play and positive thinking. I struggled with her advice, and struggled even more to implement it. In my eyes it was directionless, purposeless, and mystical. I asked again and again, “Why? What are you trying to do? How do you choose?” My inner Analyst desperately pleaded for a broader sense of the master plan, the Ikea Instructions for getting open, but what I saw was a handful of tools, screws, and parts without any clue how to assemble them.

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How they fit together mystified me, and I wondered if even she knew how or why she got open as well as she did. Finally, exasperated, she challenged, “Well, you’re good at defense. So how do people fake you out on defense? Just do that!”

I thought about this for a second. People didn’t “fake me out” on defense very often–at least, not as far as I could tell. Whether they faked or not, I’d resist my gut impulses, no matter how persuasive; on defense, I always had a firm plan, and I stuck to my guns. Generally, people beat me by physically outclassing me, or by capitalizing on a mistake I had made. Convinced of my stubbornness, she asked accusingly, “Well, why do you make mistakes?!”

That was a good question, and I spent the next few years considering it in depth, developing an answer.

The concepts of the “Intuitive” and the “Analyst” are not my own inventions. They are the opposite ends of a dimension common to many personality maps, albeit sometimes by different names. They are also ultimately informed by two thoroughly examined mechanisms of thought in the science of decision-making. Decades ago, the psychologists Stanovich and West coined the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe these two modes of thinking: one fast, governed by impressions, and one slow, governed by conscious effort. A great deal of research has since expanded the model of a mind in which these two “systems” are present, how they relate, and how people exercise them. System 1 makes quick decisions despite imperfect information through heuristics, associative memory, emotional context, and other factors. It is characteristic of this system that people relying on it may not even know why they have made a given decision, except that it sprung to mind first.

This is all well and good, but why should we care? Intuition is a powerful tool, as celebrated by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It is scientifically measurable in its speed and accuracy, as explained by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, and it is a defining trait of true expertise (in both athletics and academics). If we know it is faster, and that expert athletes use it, why should we spend time contemplating the differences between those who seem to have it and those who don’t? Common stereotypes suggest that the Intuitive is the the athlete, the field agent, the consummate man- or woman-of-action, whereas the Analyst is the coach, the coordinator, the academic in horn-rimmed glasses. This is an important question, and ironically, a very Analytical one. We should spend time thinking about Analysts because they are better investments than they may at first appear.

Jeff Bell -

Jeff Bell –

Research has shown that “System 2” is a consciously activated mode of thinking. It takes effort. It has been experimentally shown to consume more glucose and, interestingly, that its repeated use demands self-control. In fact, use of System 2–the analytical, self-doubting, questioning engine of thought–becomes a lifelong habit that spills over into other aspects of our personalities. Children who demonstrate uncommon self-control to simple temptations at four years of age fare better on logic problems designed to trick their intuitions as teenagers. Analysts are not as vulnerable to swings of mood or emotional context; they are more accustomed to ignoring the impulses or sensory errors that commentators sometimes wave off as being “losses of focus,” and they are habitually dedicated to investing the effort they believe is necessary to properly solve a problem, to self-improve, or to reach a goal. All they need is the method–if you can communicate to them what they need in order to understand the problem in their terms, they will optimize. They become well-oiled machines, awaiting instructions. They are the logical flip side of the same coin

Intuitives possess a savant’s expertise, but they often need to train their self-control; Analysts possess self-control, but they need to develop their understanding and speed of thought. Eventually, they will develop their own heuristics, and they will perform with the same speed as the Intuitives, if you can help them get there.

Ironically, I came to realize that my strength at defense came from the same source as my weakness on offense. My friend, a genius at getting the disc, excelled at manipulating her opponents’ intuitions. She capitalized on their impulses with her fakes and supplied them with misinformation that they swallowed whole. Specialized shutdown defenders like myself, though, commit to ignore these tactics. As an Analyst, it was easy for me to ignore my impulses and to stick to a well-defined plan of how to play my opponents. Articulating the world of offense in terms of fakes and misdirection didn’t work for me because I didn’t understand why they worked. It was frustrating to the both of us that I didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain. But her poignant question, “Why do you make mistakes?” lingered with me for a long time. After all, I believed in my methods. If the method was perfect, I wouldn’t make mistakes. So there was something in the method that was a weakness, if I could give form to it. And if I could do that, then I could reverse-engineer a method of beating other defenders in my own terms.

I later came to realize that the missing variable was Information. It was in a practice under the tutelage of multiple-time UPA champion Jeff Cruickshank that I realized its significance to me. He was teaching a method of cutting that emphasized moving to a “sweet spot” and then “making a move.” It was painfully simple, and surprisingly effective. The “sweet spot,” in the one or two drills we covered, was fairly predictable in its location–about 10-15m past the point of the thrower/prior catch, and about 10m in. In these drills, I made numerous mistakes on defense, and I came to realize the magic of the “sweet spot” that his Intuition had found.  That precise spot on the field maximized the number of threats I had to worry about at precisely the space and time I possessed the least information about them. A good cutter would occupy my attention for a few seconds while the disc moved, and then would attack when my memory of the layout of the field became critically outdated. No analysis in the world could protect me. My weakness was Imperfect Information.

System 1 exists because of its evolutionary advantages: in a world of imperfect information and innumerable ways to die, it is better for a living organism to try to fill in the gaps with the most likely scenario, their experiential knowledge, or their strongest feelings, rather than make no decision at all. Generally, I was quite good at glancing at the field, updating my mental model, and balancing gaps and risks. But there was always going to be a “sweet spot” where I reached a breakdown if someone put me there at the most vulnerable moment. Forced to make a quick decision between alternatives at a moment deprived of Information, I had no choice but to make an intuitive guess, and sometimes my guesses were mistakes.

From there, I constructed a mental model of offense for myself that was little more than an optimization problem. I finally had the mission statement–the elusive Why–that I needed to frame all of my friend’s proven intuitions. My goal was to deprive my defense of information and to maximize the number of threats I could present at the same time. I began to see the field as a map of the number of cuts I could make from any given position. And I saw the field in terms of sight lines, where my defender would struggle to see certain movements or shifts if he had to pay attention to me at the same time. Cutting, therefore, was just an exercise in superimposing these maps in my head, and choosing the place where I would attack based on a rough estimate of where the disc would move next, and using a small arsenal of “moves” to occupy my defender’s attentions.

Unconsciously or inexpressibly, this was the playground of my friend’s intuitive understanding, but I had needed to see it expressed in quantities. Now that I had given them mental form, I could explain them to others as well. I can even draw these maps for most situations.

Phrased in this way, this may all seem very obvious and juvenile to many of my readers. I cannot apologize for that–you and I are probably very different people. But giving quantifiable shape to the problem made a stark difference for me between getting open by luck and getting open by design. Over the next couple of years, I became twice the player I had been before, and better able to coach others, largely because of one friend whom I could barely understand.

It is challenging to think about how and why we make decisions. It is far easier to recruit those who seem to have an ineffable knack for making the right ones. But if we do that, we limit ourselves to one dimension of thought, and one segment of the population (which ultimate can hardly afford at this juncture)–and, sadly, we learn that much less about our own selves. At some point, you will come across someone skeptical, analytical, and slow-thinking. Embrace the opportunity for a frustrating discussion.

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  • K West

    The amount of thought that goes into your game is directly proportional to your weaknesses.

  • Bryan Jones


    I’ve recently thought about the effectiveness of different methods of teaching cutting/defensive positioning. My current mode is to teach without rules of what not to do, but start with clearing/basic force out. From there it’s adding tools to the box to do positive things, I.E. how to make a double move. Get them to have success in an isolated situation, and keep building. One by one, the building blocks can be put together.

    From there though, it seems like the analyst would have issues putting everything together in a series. Is there a way to get people to act in the intuitive sense? I would think small mini games with short stalls force you too react too quickly to be able to analyze.

  • Davis

    Hey Bryan,

    First, I’d like to underscore that *everybody* has the wiring to think with both systems — intuition is automatic for everybody, and analysis is consciously activated for everybody. It’s just that stereotypical Analysts characteristically mistrust or dampen their intuitions, and stereotypical Intuitives dislike the effort of slow analysis. Everyone is capable of both, but personality and mood dictate preference. With a hardcore Analyst personality, the athlete needs to develop an associative memory they have reason to trust. When they trust that it’s working properly, they’ll let it make decisions for them, and they’ll think as quickly as an Intuitive.

    If you think about when you first learned addition, multiplication, or fractions, you were probably taught a number of slow methods you could perform by hand to arrive at a correct answer. If you had a good teacher, they explained the methods, and the underlying reasoning behind these slow engines that guaranteed correctness. But with practice, your associative memory recognized patterns, and it became much faster for you to just ream off sums or products on sight, without even really thinking about them. To this day, you have every reason to trust your intuitive response without sitting down and working through the math. Eventually, when you moved on to learning orders of operations, and equations, you just trusted that you were managing the individual components correctly.

    As a coach, you just need to remember that gut reactions are *sources of error* to a strongly Analyst personality, and that specter looms large, so you need to convince them that you aren’t, to put it bluntly, feeding them bullshit.

    When coaching Analysts, building up is a good idea — but making sure that you’re building up on concepts and variables as opposed to just complexity of scenarios. Otherwise, there will come a level of complexity in which you will be forced to give nuanced feedback about good or bad spacing, good or bad timing, good or bad faking in which it is difficult for the inexpert eye to identify them in situations full of false positives and false negatives. When that happens, the skeptical Analyst will wonder whether you’re just pontificating, and they won’t advance until they have reason to trust the lessons again.

    So my advice is to underscore variables of importance in cutting, in drill scenarios where their individual influences are identifiable and measurable to the analytic mind. Examples:

    You say making space/giving space/conserving space is important. So make a drill in which cutters have to try to get open against a defender in rectangles of varying shapes and sizes. It will be easy to determine after a number of repetitions how space is useful, in what orientations it can be useful, and how much is considered necessary. Give pointers on how to optimize the use of the available space. Repeat with two cutters instead of one and give pointers on how to share what’s available.

    You say that timing is important. Why? Make a variety of drills in which you, the coach, dictate the timing (instead of leaving it up to chance). It should become clear after a number of repetitions what optimal timing looks like, and what benefits it affords. Afterward, hand the reins back to the athletes and let them try to nail the timing themselves.

    The key is to avoid the path of controlling only complexity and the tools available. Analysts want to know what the variables are that they should be monitoring and manipulating. Show them the slow engines of correctness for each component in isolation so that they can see, characterize, and learn the pitfalls in each. Then, when faced with time or complexity constraints, they will trust the habits they learned in those contexts just as quickly as Intuitives.

    Does that answer your question?

    • Bryan Jones

      Thanks for the response Alex, this is another whole article :)

      To provide a simple reply to a complex answer, the thing I agreed most was “Make a variety of drills in which you, the coach, dictate the timing (instead of leaving it up to chance).”

      This makes the most sense to me in that you want to first start out people in very contained situations, and getting the designed outcomes that you want. Sometimes people struggle with this, or “beat” the drill, so it just speaks more to how important drill design is.

      I think you hit the nail on the head for the analytical types. They need to believe what you are saying, and young know it all analysts tend to poke holes in arguments. They want to hear things that are definitively “true”, as opposed to dealing in the space “of, well sometimes that will work”. They need to have people they trust explain that there aren’t always right or wrong decisions, sometimes only fast ones.

      It’s hard to explain everything in a very simplified reply, but I agree with what you’re saying and it makes sense.

  • dusty.rhodes

    I enjoy your work, Alex Davis.
    Thanks for it.

  • Arun Pandiyan

    Really enjoy reading your articles. They’ve been very useful to my own growth.
    Looking forward to more such gems.

  • I’m an Intuitive-turned-coach, and found the process of teaching to be very enlightening for all areas of my game. Analysing my recurrent positive on-field actions in depth led me to a greater understanding of those actions, which has made teaching them to Analysts possible & successful. Gaining the deeper understanding also helped to guide my intuition farther, including giving me the knowledge of when to control it, and strengthens me as a player year upon year.

    There are still a few Analysts who I struggle to connect fully with as a coach – I put that down to the relatively unexplored nature of some of what I have been trying to teach. When trying to convince players to change the way they approach the vast arenas of offence or defence, the lack of a clear positive example (such as an elite team winning a championship) immediately makes everybody sceptical. When teaching throwing technique, the positive example/results are immediate and clear, and the breakdown of component parts are relatively simple, so any initial scepticism is quickly upheld or discarded. When teaching offence or defence as a whole, the plethora of nuances involved and the ambiguity in evaluating the results (a turnover or a score happens, but what were the real causes?), means that Analysts can struggle to build up a complete working mental model of the systems, and it doesn’t make sense to them to take the ‘leap of faith’ needed to cross the unexplored areas & onto the unproven ground.

    Intuitive-types on the other hand will ‘feel’ positive (or negative) results of offensive or defensive changes almost immediately – they can sense the improvement of their team’s game, and be keen to explore the ideas further in order to perpetuate these positive feelings (or vice-versa). They do not need full understanding or ‘proof’, as their evaluation is not related to a fully working mental model, or others experiences.

    It can take a long time for less tangible strategic changes to be adopted – understanding only comes after repeated playing, so intuition is relied upon over analysis for the development-stage of the strategies, to guide them in the right direction. It’s only after understanding (and being able to convey this understanding) that the Analysts can be brought on board.

    It’s quite possible that the majority of those who decide whether or not to implement strategies – team leaders, training organisers, coaches – are Analysts, whilst Intuitive-types focus on playing the game rather than trying to understand or guide it at a higher level. It’s also possible this trend drives away some talented Intuitive-types to other sports which ‘feel’ better to them – where they’re not asked to stack up / focus solely on their mark, or any number of enforced traditional Ultimate tactics which are counter-intuitive in other team sports.

    Thanks for the great article – really got me thinking about the different ways Analysts and Intuitive players work!