Some thoughts on Team Sports

If you’ve been a reader of this blog with any kind of consistency, you’ve probably noticed that I’m fairly obsessed with Ultimate Frisbee right at the moment. I play it pretty often. In the past, I’ve played other sports competitively: Trampolining and Table Tennis. Both of which are individual sports.

Trampolining, like most gymnastic disciplines, demands an obsession with perfection. The scores at competitions are marked in two categories: Difficulty and Form. The effective weighting is probably in the order of 1:4. When I won my bronze for at the ’94 nationals, the difficulty of the routine was about half of what I dished up in the previous few competitions. Trampolining rewards a fanatical devotion to practising the basics.

Table Tennis is a game of one on one. Some people preach about technique, about reaction times, and about the quality of your equipment. That’s all pretty irrelevant in my experience. I had the great fortune in my youth of playing a competitive player who soundly thrashed me using a 2B5 hardback notebook. I had a proper paddle. It taught me that all else being equal, the smarter player wins. Table Tennis is all about deception and patience. Sure, you need to have the reactions to return that awesome smash. But your reactions don’t have to be nearly so good if you know it’s coming.

I play Frisbee for Creature, one of the three great houses within the Wellington Ultimate community. The other two being The Crew and Vic Uni. Between the three of our clubs we field more than half of the social-grade teams. Creature fields 3, the Crew fields 3 and Vic Uni fields only one, but has more usually fielded 2.

Looking at the three clubs, several conclusions fairly leap out at you. The first is that we are substantially older than most of the other clubs. The second conclusion you’d make is that we have only one A-grade player: . The third conclusion is that, on the whole, we have a reasonable number of strong players, but we don’t win a lot of games. Creature teams usually hover near the middle of the field.

It’s probably fair to say that the third conclusion is at least partly a spin-off from the first two. But I think probably a bigger factor is that like me, most of our strong players come from Individual sports. Steve comes from Melee, Mike from Running, Sean from mountain biking (and the like) and so on. Of the best players, the only one who comes from a specifically team-oriented sporting background is Sam K (and John 🙂 ).

These other sports, like my two chosen sports, require an interest in your own personal perfection. And they have strong elements of reading your opponents. But what they lack in large part is the need to work with someone else to achieve victory.

Over on her own blog, Susan is talking essentially about her skill from Ultimate originating in a deep mental connection with the activity she’s doing. She loses herself in the flow. But it should be obvious from what came before in this post that what I notice most about Susan isn’t her vacant mental state while she’s chasing the disc. Indeed, what I notice is that she plays inclusively. It’s less easy, and far less obvious, than you might think.

What I’m talking about is using the whole team. If you use the whole team, you’re building the skills of everyone, but we all know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you pass the disc to someone who’s only 50% likely to catch it, then it’s not a very good option. The natural thing to do is wait, and pass to someone whose skills are undisputed in your mind. Or as close as you can manage. I see teams play like this all the time: two or three very strong players will pass a lot amongst themselves. It becomes a game of 3 v. 3, not 7 v. 7. The most common form of this problem is “girl blindness”. I’ve seen it a thousand times: a free girl is waved off by a strong male player.

My team at Taupo Hat won the tournament by doing that. The better A-graders worked it around amongst themselves. Sure, if one of the weaker players got free… we might get the disc. But probably they’d just eventually score themselves. I remember one point where I was standing completely free in the zone. My marker was on the other sideline, and there were no defenders within 5m of me. I looked at our handler. I then shouted at him. He swung the disc sideways to the middle handler who punched it down the middle to another free A-grader. It was a risky play given that I was standing completely free and unmarked in the zone for a very easy outside curve (and not even a break force throw!)

But it works. As I say: my team won the tournament. A team becomes only as weak as its strongest link. In C-grade, where I am very strong… I have used this tactic. In the semi-finals of the Indoor Season that Happy won, we were 1 point down with only a few minutes to play. Phil tried to sub on, and I refused to go off. I played my best, and our strong lineup got the two points for the win. I know as a certain fact, that had I allowed Phil to sub on, we would have lost the point and the season. Bad sportsmanship? Perhaps. But the other team didn’t look like they would sub off their strong players to match our apparent strength.

When I was competing at Trampoline, my coaches sat down and looked at my strengths and planned routines and training measures that worked to them and also tried to eliminate my weaknesses. Similarly, when playing Table Tennis. They had in their minds a whole set of skills that they considered generally indispensable for any player, and that was helpful.

John has tirelessly tried to teach these skills to the Creatures as a whole. It is obvious watching any Creature play that the basic skills are far better understood by us than the mass of the social grades. We can all throw forehands, and backhands. We all understand how to force, and know the basic cutting motions. In terms of the technical skills of the game, we are very good. But we don’t win games, at least, not as a rule. It has always perturbed me.

I think that for teams which haven’t had part of the answer is that our best players are not better than their best players. When Happy Creature lines up against other teams, I am faced with marking someone who is a true A-grader. Or if not me, Sam. We’re very good, for C-graders; but we can’t shut down their best players. The rest of our team has to be stronger, one on one, than their team, in order to isolate the strong player who’s got me beat.

The second problem is that we usually try to have an egalitarian play style, the occasional bit of girl blindness notwithstanding. We react strongly against the idea that some players should get more disc time for the good of the team. We see this as a reflection of lesser worth. We always try to play the full team matching their full team. Where our weaker players are weaker than theirs, this just can’t work. But what I’m more noticing is that other teams will mismatch in order to capitalize on the even greater disparity between one of their good players and our weaker players. For example, when last playing the Motley Crew, they marked Andy and Cedric on Ruth a couple of times. They knew that whichever guy I got was getting nothing, but the exchange was that Andy (say) was pretty unrestricted, whereas Ruth could probably have shut down the guy I was marking, leaving Andy at 50% effectiveness instead of 80%.

Because I play on both Tuesdays, where I am very strong, and Thursdays, where I am very weak, I have some recent experience with both sides of the coin. When Tuesdays go well, they make me happier. It is an awesome feeling to look back at a game and know that you were the deciding factor for victory. On Thursdays, I feel much less responsibility for the performance of the team. Usually I let through things that I should really have stopped, but I am also well aware that the rest of the team have not passed to me when I was open and turned it over without my help. If you never touch the disc, it becomes hard to think of yourself as being too responsible for the poor offensive play which doesn’t win you the game.

The question is: how do I apply this mass of thought to aid the Creatures generally? The first thing is that playing the whole team is the best long-term policy in the C-grade. Sure, I’ll occasionally pull “rank” to keep us in the game and get us out of trouble, but I make every effort to pass to the whole team. And watching players like Matt M step up to the responsibility of having the disc a lot is very rewarding. His play has improved a very large amount this season alone, and I am certain it’s because Sam K targeted him for more disc time.

The second lesson is that you need to have a very close knit duo or trio for countering the other team’s star scorers. You need to have the backup of some people who can create stability and space for the rest of the team to catch their breath and get back in the game. The team as a whole will sometimes just lose balance, and a strong on-field person running the plays and game can just create that time.

Happy Creature this season is being very successful IMHO. We’re not winning games, but there is a level of team cohesion that is very gratifying. The pieces are all coming together, we just need our newer players to acquire just a little bit more skill, and we’ll be unbeatable. Sam K and I have the talent and relationship to act as the team anchors when things get tough. We have a bunch of players who are happy to play a part in the team structure without wanting to be the stars, and we’ve got no players who are afraid to pass to anyone else in the team. It is a tremendously good feeling to sub off and watch Matt play a solid dump, and watch Ruth and Cat working the mid-field, with Chris and Hayley providing receiving capabilities in the zone.

For the Creatures as a whole, I think we need to be able to do this generally. All of the teams have a handful of strong players. The stronger these players are, the better they’ll be able to match up against other teams’ stars. And there needs to be a conscious effort to pass to everyone on the team, and maintain team-level practices such as a consistently held force, and vertical/horizontal/3:2:2 stacking. Most importantly, I think these players need to realize they’re strong, but need to be inclusive. And I hope weaker players will accept that they should be playing receiver for a while, and that without good receivers, the game can’t be won.

Browsing small parts of each team’s games, I think these pieces are slowly coming together. As always, I’m optimistic that next season, they’ll click really solidly and a Creature team will win each league.

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8 Responses to Some thoughts on Team Sports

  1. adrexia says:

    The first is that we are substantially older than most of the other clubs.

    We are both older and younger than the Crew. On average, we are the same age – but we tend to have the extremes. Most of the Crew players are older than me, for instance. Almost half the Creatures are younger than me.

    My team at Taupo Hat won the tournament by doing that.

    I didn’t find that to be true at all for me. I got the disc plenty of times. Of course, I usually just dumped it back after the handlers caught up (unless there was a free option straight away like there was in the last point)… but that’s what I do when I play with people who are better handlers than me, and it means we work the disc up the field with minimal risk. And girl blindness certainly wasn’t an issue. Two of the strongest players on our team were girls (Kate and Summer), as was our captain.

    If you never touch the disc, it becomes hard to think of yourself as being too responsible for the poor offensive play which doesn’t win you the game.

    Yep. This is why I considered myself almost wholly defensive when I first played with Artemis. The offense was someone else’s job – I just did my best to look like a risk and keep out of everyone’s way. Concentrating on defense paid off. But then, I get almost as much satisfaction from stopping someone else getting the disc as I do from getting the disc myself. Defense wins games just as much as offense does.

    • mashugenah says:

      I didn’t find that to be true at all for me.

      There were some players who were bad like that and some that weren’t. Andy threw exactly one pass to me: a long pass which he put too short and was easily defended by the guy chasing me. Likewise, Eliot disdained to throw to me unless he really had absolutely no other options. Kate, Hamish and Tristan were all better at sharing the disc. Summer was just awesome.

      Defense wins games just as much as offense does.

      The better I get the more important a good defence seems to me.

      • mashugenah says:

        Actually, I should confess here that it started to become a complex. I cut in and didn’t bother to catch a disc from Kate one point because it had been two games since anyone threw to me, so I thought an A-grader was cutting for the disc behind me. So stupid.

        And BTW, my impression of how our team played has been endorsed by a couple of Wellington A-graders that I’ve chatted to about Taupo. :/

  2. Anonymous says:

    >For example, when last playing the Motley Crew, they marked Andy and Cedric on Ruth a couple of times. They knew that whichever guy I got was getting nothing, but the exchange was that Andy (say) was pretty unrestricted, whereas Ruth could probably have shut down the guy I was marking, leaving Andy at 50% effectiveness instead of 80%.

    Out of curiousity, is there a reason you two didn’t switch marks when you went on to defense?

    At the Nelson tournament last weekend, I was definitely the weakest player on the team. On Saturday, in particular, I had a very hard time running on the sand, hardly ever got the disc on offense and was often vainly trying to catch up to it on defense (our captain liked running cups 😦 ) Sunday was a lot better, my running speed was relatively higher, whether from the better conditions or everyone else getting tired, I felt my skills were better, and I got thrown to much more often. Despite that, my main role in our team was running around like stink trying to hold up the defense. It helped a lot that my team was yelling encouragement and letting me know that what I was doing was helping.

    • mashugenah says:

      Out of curiousity, is there a reason you two didn’t switch marks when you went on to defense?

      Switching back is feasible if you’re near each other but often enough it just didn’t work out. Switching also requires a bit of practice; I’ve much more frequently seen it go wrong than have the intended benefit.

      Despite that, my main role in our team was running around like stink trying to hold up the defense.

      Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes until you win the trust of your team. 😦

      • Sorry, it was me posting above, I haven’t been logging into LJ while at work, and sometimes forget when I’m posting comments.

  3. rruthlessly says:

    they marked Andy and Cedric on Ruth a couple of times. They knew that whichever guy I got was getting nothing, but the exchange was that Andy (say) was pretty unrestricted, whereas Ruth could probably have shut down the guy I was marking, leaving Andy at 50% effectiveness instead of 80%.

    Of course the really satisfying thing about it was that I scored when Cedric was marking me.

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