Proof’s In The Pudding

by | August 29, 2016, 6:30am 8

It’s a tight one. Back and forth. On serve at half; now, it’s late in the game and you’re on the field with your D-line crew, clawing and scrapping in search of the turn that could result in the prized break your team needs to knot up the score.

They put up a shot … it hangs, as you peel off the back of the stack to help your teammate who’s beat deep … jump ball … you get the block!  Tip your cap to the stats-keeper and call Mama to tell her you’ve made it.

 Foul called.

 No way.  You got to that disc first.  Sure, there was contact, but it was minor and as incidental as it gets; two people vying for the same space, simultaneously. 

You wheel around to face the opponent as the call registers in your ears, and… 

What happens next depends on a few things. Sure, the specifics of the play, the stakes at hand and your temperament are all going to play important roles, but – perhaps less obviously – hold those things constant and the nature of the ensuing discussion is still likely to vary dramatically depending on … (wait for it) … who the opponent is.

 If the player making the call wears the jersey of a rival team with whom you’ve previously had some heated battles, you’re more likely to rise up in anger (whatever that looks like for you) than if the opponent is a long-time pal.  We don’t like to admit that outbursts of anger or frustration are common in our sport, but they are, and the difference between one of those and a patient, respectful discussion of the events in question often comes down to your previously existing impression of the opponent.  Case in point: that cross-town jerk is just the latest cheater to have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks…  Steve, though?  He and Janelle served the most wonderful tiramisu at their wedding.  If he says I fouled him, he probably knows something I don’t.

 Cognitive psychologists have a name for this very normal human tendency to interpret information or events in a way that confirms preexisting beliefs.  It’s called ‘confirmation bias’ and a quick google search will reveal to you that more ink has been spilled about it than about SOTG in Ultimate.  Just kidding – that’s impossible – but, nonetheless, there’s a lot of literature out there on the topic.  Confirmation bias is scientific fact, and can be observed in all manner of human experience.

 So what?  Well, in the context of the never-ending conversation about spirit (and sportsmanship, and everything in between) in our beloved, self-officiated sport, I think there’s a lot of value in acknowledging the concept, and the very real consequences, of confirmation bias.

 Regardless of your personal predilection for observers, referees or none at all (I have no desire to wade into that philosophical abyss), the fact remains: when playing a self-officiated game, proceedings break down pretty quickly when opponents don’t treat each other with basic respect.  And where confirmation bias tends toward an unfavorable view of your opponent (owing to a previous run-in, reputational precedent or otherwise), you may be predisposed to such a lack of respect, generally in the form of a presumption that an opponent is a cheater, goon, criminal or worse.

 This is not a plea to save the dolphins, nor Harambe (RIP), nor the frisbee-playing mammal of your choosing.  Where it probably sounds like I’m saying “can’t we all just get along?”, my aim is quite a bit more pragmatic than that: if we’re going to invest so much time and energy playing a sport that is often (if not always, depending on where you play) self-officiated, we might as well look for ways to prevent it from devolving into the kind of bitter, bickering call-fest that neither victor nor vanquished looks back on fondly. And if a bit of education about our human limitations helps in that regard, mission accomplished.

 This is also not written with any expectation of a utopia in which bad calls or plays are never made (guess what? – someday you’ll make one too), or where people never get angry as a result of those things.  (By the way, lest this be a classic case of stones cast in a postmodern condo high-rise, let me be clear that, over the years, I’ve had my share of on-field moments that I wish I could take back.)  This is just a suggestion, for me and for you; an addition to the tool belt, right next to the anti-inflammatories and predictably ironic – and therefore un-ironic – attire.

 Take a second.

 As you wheel around, seeing red over the atrocity that you’re certain has just been perpetrated against you and your people, breathe.  In addition to reminding yourself that two individuals (this includes you) vying for the same space or object at full speed can be challenged in their ability to correctly perceive exactly what happened in a critical split-second, try to set aside the impression you have of the opponent’s propensity to make a bad call or play.  Try to picture the person as someone with whom you’ve previously had good rapport – for whom your confirmation bias might allow for the possibility of a valid perspective that differs from yours.  You don’t have to like the call.  You can even say so.  But approaching the situation as a single instance of poor judgment, rather than the latest example confirming your presumption of the opponent’s pervasive bad judgment (particularly if it is nothing more than a presumption), will probably lead you to express that disagreement in a respectful manner.  And if you can do that, it will register as a deposit in the jar of goodwill/credibility that will be cracked open again, next time there’s a difference of opinion on the field.

We’ll never be perfect – in this case, cognitive science has pretty much promised us that – but if we aim to be conscious of our biases and try to account for those in our on-field behavior, that can’t hurt in the context of our self-officiated sport, right?

At least, that’s what I’m inclined to believe.

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  • dusty.rhodes

    Simple notion to keep in mind:

    It is a bad call, not a bad person.
    It is a good call, not a good person.

    One of the issues in ultimate, however, is that the rules import morality to the field via the preface: “player[s are] morally bound to abide by the rules.”

    What this primes us to do is to make value judgments about ourselves, our teammates, and our opponents. It is quite difficult, in this light, to refrain from making judgments and having preconceptions about players. The rules encourage us to view players in terms of morality. For most humans, this is not a passing notion but a set of deeply held beliefs about the world and the way it does/should/can work and how we are to comport ourselves in it.

    If we understand that these are not mere fits of pique but literal instances of moral outrage, we may better grasp the difficulty many players have in discussing individual actions rather than a longer pattern of behaviour.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article!

    • Yacine Bara

      Sure, that’s a valid point. As I said in my reply to a comment above this one, my intent wasn’t to suggest that we grant a free pass to those who do exhibit a longer pattern of behavior that violates the very part of the rules you’ve quoted. I should have been more clear that my point pertains to those many situations where we shouldn’t have any reason to believe that an opponent is prone to cheating (or milder forms of the same kind of thing).

      After many instances of demonstrably poor calls? Sure – that’s a larger issue that I won’t propose to know how to fix. But coming into a first meeting with an opponent and assuming that they only make bad calls while your team only makes good ones (which is a belief that I think is implied in a lot of behavior I see on the field) is more a reflection of our own psychological biases than it is of any measurable fact.

      Thanks for the discussion!

  • parinella

    I think we have to balance this with our own experience of the opponent as an individual player, particularly with respect to their foul-calling history and not their social tastes. It is good advice to take a breath, pause, and consider the other person’s viewpoint, but I think it’s perfectly valid to discount it more if there is a history of bad calls from that person. This has the added benefit of resulting in the correct call more often.

    • Yacine Bara

      Agreed. The question of what to do when there is a legitimate history of poor play or poor calls is a trickier one. My intent wasn’t to suggest that this doesn’t happen (of course it does). My point was more: absent any particular history with an opponent, we should make an effort to be honest with ourselves about whether it’s possible that this person isn’t trying to cheat, rather than assuming that they are. I think the latter assumption is pretty rampant; more than it ought to be.

      But yeah, totally agreed – and, frankly, I don’t think the framework of the game provides us with a lot of great options for dealing with players/teams who are consistently and demonstrably unfair in their application of the rules. I wish I knew the answer to that one.

    • Sandy Lane

      I get the point but have difficulty with two things.
      1. This presumes that ‘getting the call correct’ is the only important outcome. This entirely neglects the value of a unique opportunity presented in the moment. The opportunity to develop the skill of looking beyond the emotion of the moment and attempting to discern what one was actually present to. It might be difficult at first but it is not impossible.
      2. In my opinion, someone’s percieved reputation is a weak justification for affecting a call. If we start relying on the fictions we’ve created (or gave consent to) to shift or calls, we’re just going to grow prone to creating fictions that better hide our fears and weaknesses while making us look good.

      The basis of the call has to be ‘what one was present to’. Adding anything else is a slippery slope.

  • Zach

    This isn’t really what confirmation bias is. An example of confirmation bias would be two people on the sideline telling you about it after the play, one saying it was a foul one saying it wasn’t and you believing the one saying no foul and discounting the one saying foul.

    In fact I’m going to defend using the person making the call as a reference. I’ve played against people who I know err on the side of not making bs calls. Everyone makes mistakes but even on your own team everyone knows the person who calls a foul at the slightest bit of contact and the person who won’t call a foul unless they were tackled and even then will second guess whether they had a play on the disc. If the second person calls a foul against me I’ll know I probably fouled them and give them the benefit of the doubt and unless I’m extremely sure I didn’t foul will not contest. If the first person calls it I’m much more likely to think they’re wrong, be visibly upset when I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit the foul, and contest nearly every time unless I’m sure I fouled them.

    • Yacine Bara

      I think you’re describing confirmation bias as the tendency to make a *conscious* assessment that confirms what you want to believe. In fact, the term refers more to *subconscious* assessments, as in the subconscious tendency to favor information that is consistent with your previously existing beliefs. Here’s an example of an article that covers this in more depth:

      As for your example, sure, I think we would all put more weight in a call made by somebody who rarely makes calls. My point was more about how we approach situations where we know little to nothing, but assume a lot, about the opponent.

      Thanks for the discussion!

  • RachelB

    We talk about how one should react, about what one should say or do in that kind of situation, but what about how to help people get better at it?
    Maybe the answer is in the practice. How many teams practice the SOTG? What do we do, as teams, to help our players making good calls or how to react well to bad calls? It is not something we all learned to do and it is not something that you just have it or not. I think it’s something you can learn, but for that you need to practice it, just like anything.
    How to practice it? That’s what I’m trying to find out.