Getting on the Line

by | April 21, 2014, 8:00am 0

In Development Hell

You’re in limbo.

Maybe you’re trying to crack into the roster for the first time. Or, perhaps the team has already invested a little time in you. You could be on a practice roster. Perhaps you’re even a bonafide, full-patch player, but nevertheless sitting on the lower-end of the bench, thinking about earning more than a few shifts per game. Maybe you have been trying at it for a while. You’re “good enough” but not quite. You’re in limbo.  Whether on one side of the roster threshold or the other, you’re languishing in Development Hell. And as the spring tryout dates fly up onto the calendars to the seasonal fanfare, you’re wondering, is this your year?

Too often, I’ve seen players lose their way at this point, on the cusp of personal success, working hard but failing to meet their goals. To borrow a pithy and poignant term from the offices of Hollywood, I call this “Development Hell.” Those of us who are not meteoric superstars – the golden boys/girls that quickly rise to the top — often spend at least some time here, and maybe even with a few relapses. The unlucky truth is that there are a lot of prospects and works-in-progress on the go, and most likely, not all of them get the resources or attention they deserve.  We flicker and hover on a team’s radar, in-and-out (or in-or-out) of active investment, struggling to find the next level or to please the powers that be. Seeking advice from the superstars doesn’t always pay off either; by virtue of their own success, they haven’t spent a lot of time in your nebulous place.

Although it’s a common affliction, it goes commonly undiagnosed. The unfortunate news is that no two cases are perfectly alike, and there is no pill, drill or other panacea for it. However, there is a treatment.  It is not necessarily easy, or nobody would ever face this frustration. On the other hand, anyone can do it, because it is fundamentally a mental exercise.  It just requires a subtle shift in perception — how you view and play the game.

Goodness and Goodness of Fit

Around tryout time, I often hear people discuss who is “good enough” or who “deserves” to make the cut.   The unfortunate implications in these choices of words are deceptive. They reduce the vast spectra of a player’s worth down to just one paltry dimension.  And they treat the joining of a team like a recognition of that level, like one might speak of a swimming badge or a karate belt. The laziness of this language completely misses the point: players are chosen and fielded for what they can do for a team.

If you’re in limbo, then up until this point in your career, there is a decent chance that playing time and roster spots have gone to the players who are merely “good.” Earning dividends has simply been a matter of becoming better, or more consistent.  At high enough of a level, though, the value of this measuring stick vanishes. The question instead becomes “good at what?” And “in combination with whom?” To reach the proverbial next level, a player on the bubble has to examine the team in question, and to determine what he can do to fit in the machine.

There comes a point at which the decisions around roster make-up and playing time are ultimately dictated by strategy: the ultimate goal of which is to score goals reliably. “Being good” is no longer good enough to justify those decisions: a player has to contribute in the context of his or her line. The system has to improve; parts that seem to improve the system get the most use.

A talented striker who can barely throw can still become a lynchpin in the presence of a powerful hucker, but is useless on a line that lacks a deep throw. A gun-slinging handler who is a liability on defense can still be a key feature of an offensive line, provided that the net effect is a line that rarely turns over the disc.  Of course, if circumstances change, so does the personnel. The synergy of these game pieces is key.

Diagnosis and Inquiry

Photo by Alex Rentzis -

Photo by Alex Rentzis –

Consider these common examples:

(A)   A very strong thrower with average defensive ability and speed hopes to earn a spot as a handler, but repeatedly gets looked over in favor of fast athletes who can barely throw upfield.

(B)   A decent utility player with basic mastery of all the drills can’t find more than a few shifts per game as a depth player, even though players with obvious skills gaps get plenty of playing time.

(C)   A defensive player who throws his/her body around like a warrior and gets few blocks, but loses playing time to players who don’t seem nearly as hard-working on the field.

These players are very different people with the same fundamental problem. And importantly, it is not (necessarily) injustice or blindness on the part of the leaders. Their problem, in fact, is that they are not positioned to solve the team’s problems or to serve the team’s strategy. Players who obviously fill a tactical gap get playing time; those who don’t, must languish in limbo.

Player (A) sounds every bit like a conventional handler. But what if the team in question already has a surplus of typical handlers (not uncommon on the highest-tier teams? What if what the team really just needs some genius, speedy cutters to threaten the long game and to open up the field? Or, what if the team has a strong conversion rate, but suffers match-up problems on defense, and needs to force more turnovers?

Player (B) is a great gamepiece on paper and excels in drills, but how is he gelling with the existing roster? His teammates may use improvisational, chemistry-driven tactics, and he has to continue off of their unconventional patterns. The team, of course, is not realistically about to completely overhaul its modus operandi to accommodate him. For practical reasons, the only thing that matters is whether they score as a team or not, and whether he damages that chemistry or not. Can he continue off of the initiator? Can he cooperate with the handlers? Can he manage himself in the switchy/poachy defenses?

Player (C) is a dedicated athlete who works tirelessly, maybe even harder than everyone else.  But are there hidden costs of his work ethic? Is he working hard at the right things for the strategy? He gets blocks, but are they because everyone else is playing shutdown defense? But also, what if defense isn’t the team’s problem at all, and they’re looking to improve their offense and their conversion rate?

Now, I could be wrong  (dead wrong) so far in every one of these lines of inquiry. But the point of this exercise is the line of inquiry itself. Players in limbo need to ask themselves these questions to evolve. The emphasis is no longer merely on the player, but on the player’s contributions – the effect on and interaction with the whole.

In and Out of Limbo

The escape out of Development Hell has several roads. But for the common human in this position, who does not miraculously become a phenom in a timely fashion, and who does not find the perfect opportunity and role fall into his lap, there is one sure method: retailoring yourself to suit. Identifying skills gaps and filling them is an important lesson to learn in team sports, and it pays dividends in the long run. Having learned this lesson a few times the hard way, I have this story of adaptation to offer.

In 2010, my team struggled on defense. The root of the problem was a style of lane coverage that was intended to deny in-cuts and to force lower-percentage hucks. But alas, our handler coverage was not up to the task. Our opponents routinely got the disc into strong throwing positions and used that to drive their offense, gaining yardage and firing past us. I knew about this problem, and I studied it, and eventually asked my captains to let me cover handlers and initiators for a while. At this task, I did quite well – I didn’t score many points or get many blocks, but I contained and dictated the opponents’ offense enough to get my team a winning edge. For this service, my playing time doubled and tripled, and we won a bid to Sarasota against a very competitive field at Regionals in 2011.

In 2012, circumstances changed. Although I was good at my role, I was still – at the end of the day – a cutter who covered handlers. This meant that I could only see the field if I shared a line with a handler who covered cutters. The odd juxtaposition had its advantages, but it wasn’t going to get me on the line anymore. On Team Canada, we had some people who could switch-hit that way, but on that particular roster, it was still an extremely limiting brand to carry to market. I had effectively specialized myself off of the starting D-line.

In 2013, looking at the rookies and prospects we were assimilating, their characteristics and their skill sets, I could now see the writing on the wall well ahead of time – to share a field with these guys and to serve the team, I had to learn to cover cutters and deep threats. And that meant changing my workouts, focusing on power and plyometrics, different positioning, learning to win more jump-offs and more footraces. Gradually, I succeeded in redefining my skill set, I filled a new gap where it had opened, and I earned my playing time there.

To be clear, I did not magically transcend skill levels from one season to the next. I did not go from “not good enough” to “good enough” and then back and forth. I just had to change my brand to better meet the team’s needs.  But at the same time, very few people could offer me a truly straightforward explanation of “what it will take” to make the team or to earn more points. Understandably, the team is a complicated system, and it’s very hard to look at any one piece and to know immediately its simplest route to a bigger share. After all, the coaches are rightfully focused on optimizing the system’s metrics, and that is hard enough a problem to juggle without also considering how to optimize the use of every single piece. They have to strike a balance between time spent arranging parts and time spent remodeling them. It smacks of unfairness, but resources are finite, so if you’re in limbo, you’re the one who needs to focus on optimizing yourself to suit the team.

Becoming the Right Tool for the Job

If you find yourself in Development Hell, don’t concern yourself with what a “good” player is, earning recognition, or even what the superstars do; just start by finding the hole in the dam and plugging it. Once you learn to see these holes, you will recognize them for the opportunities they are, and that is one of the most essential mental skills in the game.

First, observe the circumstances. Listen to leaders’ speeches, and complaints. Pay attention to their choices of drills.  Study the whole team for strengths, skill sets, and weaknesses. Try to find out what the team strategies are on offense and defense.

Next, examine yourself, and be honest. Ask what you bring to the table, and compare it to what the team really needs.  Where can you complement the team’s machinery? What can you do well now, and what could you do well in the future? Are you vying for a position that has several qualified people already lined up for it? Are you able to bridge a crucial gap?

Then, adapt. If you cannot get on the line as you are, then you must market yourself as something different. Don’t blame the circumstances for what they are; work with them. This takes work, time, and plenty patience; you must earn your stripes in a role and show consistent benefit.   You may have to cultivate new skills or new athleticism before you can earn the trust that earns the role. But if your reasoning is sound, the net effect will be a better team, with you on the line.  Everyone wins.

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