28 October 2009

Exploring parameter space

(Warning, this is post is nerdy, even for a blog about ultimate. Read with caution.)

There is a well-known throwing set in Australia. Part of it includes throwing forehands and backhands. For the backhands, you vary the angle: throw 10 outside-in throws, then 10 flat throws, then 10 inside-out throws. Then likewise for forehands.

There are two parameters at work here: backhand/forehand, and the throwing angle.

Someone chose two options for the first parameter and three options for the second. So in total we have 2 x 3 = 6 options, right?

Basic maths, but we often shun certain possibilities created by multiplying the parameters.

A few years back, some folks must have looked at the release points of throws: low-release backhand, I can do that, medium-height release backhand, check, high-release backhand, yep can do. Three options on that side. For the forehands, low and medium, yes - but who could throw the high-release? Wasn't that a bit hard or silly? But it was tested and practised and mastered and now there are 15 year old kids in Ibagué and Seattle and Osaka who can nail it, after we had spent years shunning that seemingly awkward corner of parameter space.

What else is out there?

Look out for reverse forehands. What's a reverse forehand?

Well, in the beginning there were right-handed people. And right-handed folk liked throwing right-handed. To reach wider, they pivoted by moving their right foot. And all was good. Then along came the lefty backhand, and these folk started using it - because the 3 metre forehand is so pesky when throwing a little dump pass. And this involved not moving the feet, because habits are habits, and it was hard enough to change hands without thinking about feet too.

Recently along came those right-handed folk who worked out how to throw lefty backhands and pivot with that left foot. And they had more options. And all was good.

However they were only using half the parameter space of left/right hand and left/right foot.

What about another point in this parameter space: moving the left foot to throw right-handed? We've all "corrected" a beginner who was pivoting that way, and we've pointed out that it was the "wrong" way to pivot, because it gives you less reach. Plus we humans find it comforting to tell others that they are wrong, especially when they say "oh, I see" shortly afterwards.

But what about when this "wrong" pivot gives you more reach? Stand facing your target, feet just over one metre apart, disc in right hand. You have a certain reach out to your right side for that righty forehand. But if, instead, you move your left foot to the right, voila, one metre more reach. And a marker caught off guard by a unsuspected pivot foot.

You get all the reach of a surprise lefty backhand, with the power and accuracy of your well-known righty forehand. The idea is to not commit to a pivot foot until you are ready to throw. Idris pointed out that you usually don´t need to pivot anyway.

Those who follow cricket might see an analogy with the sweep shot and the newer reverse sweep (which used to be "wrong", but now is important in one-day cricket).

And what about zone defences and parameter space? Zones are often described by a few numbers that add to 7: for instance, the 3-3-1 zone and the 1-3-2-1 zone. Why not try your own combination of numbers, then try to construct a zone out of it?

For me, this mindset of parameters moves me away from thinking "right" and "wrong", towards three approximate groupings: "tested and currently working", "tested and not working currently" and "untested".

Lastly, avoid facehorns from your teammates, and use the word "options" instead of "parameters" if you are throwing ideas around at a team training.

26 October 2009

A week of clinics

Lucho, Laurel, Nicky and I have finished our fifth and last clinic for this mini-tour. We now have lots of friends in the cities of Cali and Ibagué.

We aimed to leave the players with a friendly and positive experience of ultimate shared with players they usually only play against. We shared our perspectives on spirit from our three countries. And offered some tools for the future: proactive methods for learning spirit, tips for discussing calls on the field and activities to use after an ultimate match.

All the players were so welcoming of new ideas, and so many offered thanks for the clinics. The challenge now is to evaluate them and see what impact they make on the communities we visited. They can't just vanish into the past - the aim of the clinics is to help build the communication and spirit in ongoing local ultimate.

By the way, if one day you ever see that topless dude in this photo, holding up a trophy for winning a major tournament in the future, I met him when he was just learning to play ultimate in Cali, and moving like Bruce Lee.

During the week, we also got to participate in a demo-game during half-time of a Cali futbol match. A few dramatic macs and hucks entertained the soccer fans. It was a very exciting experience for the local ultimate players out on the beautiful turf under the big lights. It was eight minutes of fun before the paid professionals returned to play their sport and not layout.

There was also a day of ultimate in Ibagué on Saturday - hot, humid and fun.

20 October 2009

Project Play Colombia

Project Play Colombia is a project worth checking out. There is a blog and a facebook page.

The aim is to develop conflict resolution skills in ultimate players while teaching the skills of ultimate.

The project is run by Lucho, a mover and shaker on the Colombian ultimate scene who has recently returned from the fertile fields of Vancouver ultimate.

Laurel, Nicky and I will be his fellow coaches for a series of clinics this week in the cities of Cali and Ibagué. We will run clinics with established men's, women's and university clubs.

17 October 2009

A proposal for building stronger spirit

My last post talked about my observations with spirit in Colombia and, to an extent, Venezuela. Between my arrival here in Colombia, the recent Huddle blogposts on spirit and the discussion on line assistants in Australia, the topic seems, well, topical.

There are several factors at work when spirit goes bad.

I believe one of the key ones is a “them and us” attitude. A minority of players adopt a mindset that individuals, or other teams in general, have behaved poorly and are likely to do so again in the future. These other people are framed as “them” in comparison to “us”.

“They” are cheats; “they” often play dirty; “they” think “we” shouldn't have won that last match, but “they” are wrong.

This attitude is built by what ultimate is available.

In Australia, players train and compete with elite clubs during the elite season. It is “them” and “us”.

But, importantly, there is also Other Ultimate, which elite men take part in. There are weekly mixed city leagues. There are numerous mixed tournaments. There are hat tournaments. There are numerous training camps and selection events prior to World Championships. And Australia tends to do well in spirit scores at international tournaments. A bit of a leap to assume causation, but the extent of Other Ultimate in other countries and their reputation for spirit seems to roughly correlate, at first glance.

And this Other Ultimate forces elite players to play with, socialise with and befriend other players outside their club. Ultimate becomes a community, moreso than a collection of clubs where some players happen to know other players, and socialise when they happen to meet.

In a true community, “them” and “us” dissolve into just “us”.

So this is a theory. And there are some facts I have pointed out that seem to support it.

I don't think refining spirit score systems or adding observers address this underlying issue.

I have a different proposal.

The proposal is for the countries and regions that have the desire, to build community through “other ultimate”.

The national organisations and local leaders can build “other ultimate” through many means: ask elite clubs to host hat tournaments, build an annual calendar where mixed ultimate and open/womens ultimate doesn't clash, subsidise travel or minimise travel costs in general, expand selection and development events for National teams, hold gala dinners where a broad range of folk can attend, create incentives for the open club season to be restricted to certain months. When US players head to Kaimana and Paganello on teams with a real mix of players, as they regularly do, this is a positive thing.

And a big "goodonya" for everyone who has built and is building this ultimate.

In the end, with Other Ultimate in place, it's much less likely that Joe Handler will yell abuse at Fred Receiver and complain about Fred when he is in the pub that night, if Fred is on his mixed league team and played a hat tournament with him last year.

16 October 2009

Spirit in Colombia

In my two weeks in Colombia, I have seen some worrying incidents relating to spirit in the open division. I have also had a number of Colombians and non-Colombians recount incidents of very poor spirit to me, from intense arguing and border-line cheating to pushing, shoving and punching on the field.

My previous experiences with South American men's ultimate were playing a very fiery Venezuela team and a more subdued Colombian team at Worlds 2008. I also saw that South American teams had very low rankings in Spirit scores for Worlds 2008 in a number of divisions, particularly Open.

The poor spirit has arisen particularly in certain team match-ups and from certain players.

Many other games across Regionals and Nationals had excellent spirit, and this was acknowledged after the game within the teams.

But in a way, spirit is a chain as strong as its weakest link.

Immediately after those disappointing quarterfinals at Nationals, I started talking to players about spirit. It seems to be evolving into a social research project worthy of several PhDs. The more people I talk to, the more I learn.

Many players are aware of the issues with spirit, and have pointed out a range of factors: the strong focus on club ultimate, the culture and history of Colombia (as this Columbian columnist discusses, this country has had "una cultura de justificación de la violencia y de la venganza"), the isolation from other international ultimate, and the lack of restraints or sanctions on those given power within teams.

In my next post, I'll offer an inkling of a proposal aimed at one of these factors. I have started to share this idea with the movers and shakers of Colombia during my time here, and see what they think of it. So far the responses have been supportive.

15 October 2009

Colombian Nationals

The inaugaral Colombian National Championships wrapped up in Medellín yesterday.

This is the first time Colombia has had an official National Championships, and the tournament followed on from the series of Regional Championships held during the previous weekends.

The playing venues were across three locations: a university, a public recreation centre and the big sports stadiums of the city. Half were grass, half were astroturf (sintética).

Word of mouth culture is strong here. I briefly glimpsed a draw once, but otherwise it was a case of ask someone what the games were (much like driving around the city - you don't use a map, you just stop and ask for directions from strangers every few blocks).

Day 1 saw my team, Comunidad de Oso, win its two easier pool games. One comfortably and in the other we fell across the line to win. Playing time was shared reasonably equally across the team, so I got a lot of chances to get my frisbee legs in gear.

Every team seems to have 2-4 excellent throwers who can get open, and put up decent hucks or big hammers, plus lefty backhands. Its the quality of the upfield cutters and the consistency of execution that often determines the game.

Day 2 started well. We defeated another Bogotá team, Matanga. Their poaching was quite effective, especially that of one of their key defenders who got two blocks and was inches from two more. Personally I connected on a number of good breaks and hucks, so it was rewarding to make a big contribution to a team I was so new to.

Then came the quarterfinal. Oso were matched up against key Bogotá rivals, Euphoria, who we had beaten by a point in the Regionals final. In front of a vocal crowd in the stadium, Euphoria grab a lead early. Then trouble starts. One captain calls back-to-back travel calls on hucks from the other captain. The game is held up while one captain demands observers.

Almost ten minutes later the game restarts with the TD pulled in as an observer (he has never been one in his life - no Colombian has). But the calls and argue rain down with the actual rain that arrived. Fouls, yelling, travel, and no respect for the opinions or decisions of opponents. The issues derived from a few key players on each team, but no-one made any effort to cool down any of the hotheads.

Oso claw back to 12 all. However my interest in winning this game has dwindled. What incentive is there to win an arguing competition? I wanted to compete at ultimate. My thoughts circled around the question of what small contribution I, an Australian in Colombia, could make to address this abysmally spirited match. I resolved to talk with the teams post-game and see if they needed to talk to each other.

Euphoria win the last point, and celebrate with gusto, as Oso despondently leave the field. I asked a few Euphoria players post-game if they were happy to talk with Oso and they said yes. But Oso were scattered to the winds of dismay and the key players I found were in no mood to converse, as I judged it.

So I put my feet up, watched some ultimate, and pondered what I had just experienced. The game I watched was another quarterfinal: Matanga vs Aire. Unfortunately this was another poorly spirited game. The last two points took 20 minutes in total, and Aire won the game by a point, mostly because Matanga lost the competition of "who can call the disc back the most times with a dodgy call".

To top things off, there was no party at this tournament, unlike the vast majority of tournaments in Australia.

Day 3 was at least a new day.

Oso played off for 6th vs Mamuts, but we lost in a lacklustre effort.

The finals were in Estadio Atanasio Girardot (pictured), where Colombia had played Chile in the FIFA World Cup qualifying match the night before. It was a great venue but a crowd of 200 ultimate players in a stadium of 53 000 seats rattles around like a handful of marbles in a bathtub.

Revolution defeated Waijra in the women's final, while Euphoria toppled Kie, the top team in Medellin to take the men's title. Both games had decent spirit.

So the theme uppermost in my mind here in Colombia is Spirit of the Game. My next post or two will offer some more optimistic thoughts on spirit, and reveal some amazing work being done here in Colombian ultimate.

6 October 2009

From the sidelines: The Unselected

The first 13 years of my ultimate career were a bit of a dream run. A number of factors gave me the chance to appear on representative teams for my state and country. I was on University Green and Gold teams, the Dingoes, and was selected to the demo games that have been held at Halibuts, Nationals and Melbourne Hats.

The last 12 months have been a turn-around – I have regularly joined the ranks of the unselected and benched.

Despite being a perspective that hasn't changed my opinions on selection events, methods and selectors, it has given me experience with emotions and thoughts of being on the outside, looking in. Indeed, I regularly considered that perspective when writing the AFDA Rep teams policy and Selectors Manual for the AFDA recently (useful for any team!).

The current example is that I am here in Colombia playing with a club team, Comunidad de Oso. I am a big unknown for Colombian players – overseas pickups are rare here, in comparison, to say Australia, where almost every university and club team has a recently arrived North American player.

Adding to the mix is that in games, every line is called. This a change from the self-managed playing time systems that I have usually experienced. In the past, those times when there have been lines called, it has been me calling them most of the time, as a captain or a coach, so when I do go to the bench, I have at least consulted myself!

So a few poor points in one training and one game have seen me down at the far end of the bench. I have aimed to take constructive steps: get a clear picture from the leadership of their thoughts, dump my frustration on friendly ears who will listen, be present if needed on-field, get some sideline Ds with talking, and get ready and in the right mindset for the next opportunity to show my game.

Let's see how the situation pans out from here...

5 October 2009

A first look at ultimate in Colombia

Last weekend I attended the Regional Championships for Bogotá. The top bracket of teams played their games at the venue I was at.

There was parity among the men's teams unlike anything I have seen – the four games were each decided by one or two points, and no team dominated at any stage. The sponge effect (one team sucks up the strong players in its area) usually makes having multiple, even teams from one place very difficult – look at the US (especially the flux in the Philly to NY region) and Australia. But Bogotá has avoided this, which creates a great competitive environment to develop elite ultimate.

Colombian ultimate has a number of the features that are common hallmarks of well-organised, competitive ultimate: tape for sidelines, lush green fields, many coaches and stat-takers, and O and D lines. There were quirks though, such as sideline players regularly wandering up to 5 metres(!) onto the field during play, teams with only one water bottle between 20 players, and many teams with a hodge-podge of shirts and shorts instead of full matching uniforms.

In terms of style, the stand-out feature was a strong habit of poaching off dumps to defend the forward throwing lanes. Dumps could jog behind the disc to get a reset pass without breaking a sweat, and regularly did so.

And in line with wandering onto the field not being an issue, things that would elsewhere be called as travel and offside were ignored here.

Hucks were limited, most likely because of the consistent breezes. I want to see Colombian ultimate in still conditions.

The stereotype of short, layout machines applied to a good number of players, but they weren't necessarily speedier than Australian ultimate players, which was another stereotype I wanted to check out.

Nationals starts this Saturday, the first time Colombia has had an official National Championships, and is sure to be fun.