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.
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.