Nosce te ipsum: Intuitive vs. Analytical Thinking in Ultimate

by | June 8, 2015, 8:55am 0

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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