Monday, November 09, 2009

Thoughts from the Championships (mostly Open finals)

I'm a little late to the game here with post-Nationals thoughts, but if you haven't yet you should check out the articles at U Catch, '87 til Infinity, and Match's blog. All of them have some interesting comments.

- I may need to rewatch Mike Payne's interview that was shown at halftime, but my impression of what Mike said was different than what I've been reading in other places. Match said that Mike indicated that they were going to sub deeply in the finals. I came away from the interview thinking that Mike had said that Revolver had been subbing deeply all tournament long so that their studs had the legs to run a bunch of points in the finals. I don't think this is crazy - with one game on one day I don't think going only 14 deep is necessarily bad strategy.

- What I do think is questionable was the length of Revolver's warm-up. Revolver was cleating up about two hours prior to game time. By the time Andrew and I interviewed Mike, they were already well into their warm-up. We then walked over to Chain and found only about half the guys lounging in the shade putting on their cleats. We were looking for AJ and he wasn't there so spent another few minutes looking for them and found another group of Chain guys lounging around behind the tournament HQ looking like they were in no hurry to get going. I'm guessing Chain's warm-up was about 45 minutes.

- Back to the interview with Mike Payne. I walked away from that interview dumbfounded that Revolver actually believed they could go toe-to-toe with Chain's athleticism but also excited to see what would happen with two teams that thought that they could win on athleticism.

- My question to AJ about Chain's offense was a bit tongue and cheek: "a common criticism of the Chain offense is that you just put it up to your athletic receivers. Is there anything more to your offense than that?" This has been a bit of an ongoing discussion between us. But I have to say, I loved his initial answer "that's a criticism?"

- On that note, I have to say I was wrong about Chain's style. I've been a vocal critic of Chain's offense since I left the team in '07. I loved saying that Chain only has one way to win and if that one way is shut down they don't know how to create other options (i.e. reverse the field and threaten the break side). But here's the thing, Chain's style works for the players that they have. (I'm going to mix in a little of AJs thoughts from another discussion this past Saturday night, so if you like anything about what I say here, credit goes to AJ). The goal of the game is to get the disc in the endzone. I love to talk about using the "width" of the field. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it's where I feel I'm valuable as a player. But "using the width" is a method to achieve a goal. Ultimately what a team wants to do is eat-up as many vertical yards on uncontested throws as possible - throwing to someone who has steps, ideally on the open side. The more margin for error the thrower has the higher the chance that you retain possession. Teams break the mark to set up the easy yardage gaining throws on the break side and to reduce the amount that downfield defenders can sit on the open side of their cutters. But break mark throws themselves are lower percentage and are typically not yardage gaining.
What Chain does well is open up huge, yardage gaining under cuts by threatening deep so well. In doing that they force teams to mark flatter opening up the width of the field if they choose to attack that way as well. Chain spaces well downfield - a lot of their deep cuts come from the middle of the field allowing the thrower to decide which side of the field to throw to.

Let me be clear, for a team that is significantly inferior athletically, there is no hope that the Chain style of offense will help them. But for teams with superior or similar levels of athleticism to their opponent the Chain offense works.

- This is the essence of what broke Revolver. Revolver thought they could play a Chain style game but beyond Beau (who Chain had good match-ups for) Revolver's O gave up athleticism on every single match-up. I see a lot of opining that it was the subbing that got Revolver. To me it was that their offense in the first half focused too much on the open side and not enough on breaking the mark. Had Revolver broken the mark more in the first half Chain's downfield would have had to respect that and given up more on the open side. As it was, Chain's athletic defenders were able to sit on the open side and generate turns.

- Ok, I'm not putting too much weight on the subbing, but do we have any points played stats here? I think Joel Wooten played all but one D point (13 points) while Beau played all but 5 or 6 total points (let's call it 20 points). Beau's D points were against Dylan who played every O point and maybe 3 or 4 D points (14 points). I'd guess the points played for Cahill and Mac are similar with Wiseman being a little less for Revolver. I don't think Revolver played too many points.

- Now, I do think that subbing might have led to a chemistry issue for Revolver. Unfortunately I didn't see enough of Revolver early in the tournament but since we know Revolver subbed deeper the rest of the tournament, it's a safe assumption that Revolver's D had very different personnel the rest of the weekend. Considering that Revolver's defensive offense was only 2 of 6 - that could have easily been a result of chemistry problems from their D line as much as Chain's o-line's d pressure.

- I hope that Chain's D-line gets the recognition they deserve. It's easy to talk about Zip, Dylan, Swanson (who had a great tourney), AJ (who seemed to get the disc at will), Asa, Jay, Cricket, and Paul V. As a commentator you often notice the O line guys since they touch the disc, throw and score goals. But Chain's d-line was off the hook. So on that note:

- Joel Wooten played Beau as well as anyone I've seen. He fronted him but was ready to go deep with him whenever the disc moved. Getting that early block seemed to immediately affect Revolver's confidence. Wooten and Colin Mahoney are the only two players in the game that can contain Beau.

- Mark Poole, Robert White, Robert Runner, and Peter Dempsey should be players that aspiring defenders look up to. Dempsey played tremendous dump defense in the second half. Pool and White were played great coverage D all game. And Runner was great on defense as well as anchoring the d-line's offense.

- Also, Josh Markette and Jason Simpson have been playing with Chain every season since the fall of 1998. At the time they weren't even getting out of the region. So, there's every reason to hold out hope if you are on the third or fourth best team out of a not so great region.

- Finally, I wasn't terribly excited initially about covering the Masters division in Sarasota. But I really enjoyed the play of all of the semifinalists and have to say that it was a treat watching DoG beat OLD SAG in the quarters on Friday afternoon. DoGs offense had two turnovers in that game and it was great to see the Count, Jim, Coop, Bim, and Simon among others working that classic DoG style offense. I realized while doing the voice over for the semis that it may be the last time that this core of guys would play in Sarasota together. So, thank you to them for so many great years of Ultimate.

- Oh, one last thing, Matt Kromer (coach of Brute Squad) texted me after the women's finals and said "Can we retape my interview? I meant to say that we are going to spot them 11 points, get their confidence up, and then see how things shake out." I'm not sure if there is anything you can do after a game like that but shake your head and chuckle. But congratulations to the Brute Squad women for making it that far and keeping Canada out of the finals. And congrats to Fury for winning - I love programs that can bottle championship magic.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Coaching Questions

Recently Allen posted as a comment the following questions regarding coaches at UPA Club Nationals. They are all questions that have come up before, but given the breadth of commenters on this blog it might produce some insightful results if we re-hash those questions directly to this audience. I imagine that we could all take a stab at answering these questions in our own posts, with differing results. I'll try my best, keeping in mind that I have never coached a club team to UPA Nationals. Hopefully those with more insight can fill in the gaps of my answers.

(1) What are the coaches doing and how are they helping? (In both divisions the coaches are disproportionately working with top teams): I imagine that a bulk of elite coaching is system installment and getting people to avoid bad tendencies. I'm confident it changes from Open to Women's a bit, but I can't imagine Greg or Ted having to teach someone how to throw a pass. Maybe they tweak it a bit, but even that seems like something everyone knows how to do if they are playing at this level. When I was coaching with AJ we had enough coaches for me to only be a "throwing coach." It was nice because I didn't really care if we won or not, I would just take our players aside when they came off and got them to focus on a specific pass the made and how to make it better. Many coaches have to wear this and many other hats as they develop their players. I imagine the elite level coach can focus on overall strategies, match-ups, more global things as their players can micro-manage more than lower level players can.

(2): Why are women's teams more open to having coaches? Stu Downs wrote in a post here that coaches should be aware of a team's (and their own) ego before coaching. I've coached both genders at the college and high school level, and I've always had an easier time getting women to pay attention and buy into a system. When coaching men it was difficult to manage egos (often you need them to get the most out of your players), and early on it was also difficult to convince them that I know what it takes to win. Of course this would change depending on the school and level, but I feel pretty confident that it is easier for women to put their egos aside for a greater cause.

Second, I'll say that coaching makes more of a difference in women's sports. In the women's game the relative size of the field, the average ability of the throwers, the margin of error all make it so strategy can make a larger difference in a game than in the men's game. I've had more "great coaching" moments coaching women than coaching men. Situations where I look at a win and think about the adjustments we made and the effect it had.

(3) Why are the bulk of coaches men? Most coaches are asked to coach and are (in many ways) on a shorter leash than professional coaches. With no financial investment from an owner, a coach can be dismissed whenever players become dis-satisfied. This less the case at some High Schools, where coaches are paid by the administration, but a majority of coaches out there are at the mercy of their teams. With that being said, teams ask for coaches and maybe they just happen to ask men more than women. There are a number of successful female coaches (Jennifer Donnelly and Tiina Booth are the first that come to mind), but there are a disproportionate number of male coaches. Perhaps this is a similar ego problem, but it doesn't explain why so many women's teams have male coaches. I would ask the question: since the largest base of coaches is retired players, where are the retired female greats and what are they doing that isn't coaching?

I know there are better answers out there, so let's hear them.

Monday, November 02, 2009

This is off the record...

First things first, if you have any feedback from the live webcast of any of the UPA games specifically regarding my commentating you can put it in the comments of this blog. I really do appreciate the criticism (even from you, Toad) as it helps me improve. And the praise is nice because it makes me feel good :).

So, for those of you that don't know me, I've been "involved" with Ultimate for a pretty long while. I first started playing the game in the fall of '93 at Paideia (HS) and went on to play for the US Juniors team in '94 and '96 and Brown from 1998 through 2002. During that time I played a lot - starting at Brown all five years. All that I was was an Ultimate player. My parents used to joke that I was getting a degree in Ultimate. In many respects it wasn't far from the truth.

After graduating I moved out to Colorado to work for the UPA running the youth program. I tried out and made Johnny Bravo in 2002. After my first season, I had a pretty serious skiing accident that left me in the hospital for a month. I lost thirty pounds and didn't regain it all for several months. I continued to play for Bravo through 2006 but was always working to regain the speed I had prior to the skiing accident and didn't play much or at all in big games for the team. I loved being a part of the team though, especially in 2006 when we made semis, and prided myself on my contributions to the team in less tangible ways - being a good sideline player, helping with scouting other teams, helping newer players understand and develop with their potential strengths, and working hard at the track or at practice.

During this time I also started to coach Ultimate. I coached for three years at Monarch HS.

After the 2006 season I moved back to Atlanta and tried out for Chain and made the team. At the time, I was probably playing the best Ultimate of my career. I wasn't quite as fast as I had been when I graduated college but in my eyes the game had slowed as I had gotten older and spent more time coaching and could really see what was happening on the field. But I found myself frustrated with my Chain experience for reasons I won't get into now and quit the team before the '07 series (as an aside, before my interview with Dylan Tunnel after the finals I told him that my first question was going to be "so, if I hadn't quit Chain, would I have been cut before this season?" His response - after a good laugh - "it's probably good that you left when you did." And he's probably right. I think with the talent they brought on over the last two years, there is little chance I would have made the team this season). I ended up observing at Nationals that year. In '07 I also began coaching at Paideia (first the JV Boys and then for the last two years the Varsity girls) and have spent the last three years on the UPA Board of Directors.

The following year I picked up with Bucket, a non-practicing team that finished 16th at Nationals in 2008. This year, I didn't know what I wanted to do so I told the Bucket leadership not to add me to the roster unless they didn't have anyone else who they wanted to play with them since the roster limit would be an issue. They ended up adding me just at the roster deadline when former Chain player, Sam Gainer fell through. I played Regionals but then chose not to play at Nationals for various reasons, one of which was because I was really interested in doing the Ultivillage commentating.

Ok, I'll now apologize for that very self-indulgent rant and get to the point of my post.

Somehow over the past seven years since graduating college I've moved almost completely from being an Ultimate player to something else all together - a hanger-on of sorts. I love the sport. I love the people. All of my closest friends are Ultimate players, but something hit me this weekend when I was doing the commentary for UltiVillage - I spend considerably more time talking about Ultimate than I do actually playing it. This transition hasn't been a fast one. It started when I started playing for Bravo and stopped playing a lot of points at tournaments. But it certainly was clear this year when I skipped Lei-Out, Poultry Days, Nationals and in two weeks the Brown tournament, Huck a hunk o' Burnin' Pumpkin (HHBP), to talk about Ultimate.

And even more strange has been the idea of moving in to the "Ultimate media." In 2002 I started writing articles for the UPA magazine and in 2005 started commentating for CSTV (later CBS College Sports) and for the past two Club Championships Ultivillage. I've started posting more frequently on this blog.

I really enjoy this aspect of the game - I feel like elite Ultimate at all levels is a very closed off thing and there are a lot of people who are hungry to understand the top level of the game more. To get beneath the surface. As a HS and College player I was always hungry for information and have had a long documented addiction to RSD. But as a player, I always found it hard to talk about the game. I couldn't make predictions or talk critically about teams or strategy when I played for Bravo or Chain without feeling like I was putting up locker room material or giving away information.

But what I find scary about this transition is how it will affect my relationships with players both friends and those I don't really know. If I'm talking to a friend of mine on a top team, is he or she not going to be open with me because of what I may later post on this blog or say in some commentary? Can I critique teams and players without putting friendships in jeopardy? Can I praise them without seeming like some ridiculous fanboy instead of a mutual friend?

In the Master's final webcast, I went off on how good a player I think Brian Snyder is. Now, I don't know Brian Snyder but I like the idea of a giving the spotlight to player who is really talented but isn't terribly well known because of the teams he has played on. But I'm pretty sure now it would be awkward to talk to Brian after the praise I lavished on a guy I don't really know. Perhaps I could just go over the top with the fanboy side of it and ask him to sign my face as an icebreaker.

It's weird, talking about the game almost necessitates being apart from it and the players. I guess I'm going to try and strike the balance between the two, but if it puts my relationships at risk, I'd pick those relationships over being a respected commentator on the game any day. Because, no matter how much I actually cleat up and play, in my heart I am an Ultimate player.

And so, if you're an Ultimate player - friend or acquaintance, and you want to talk with me about the game or your team but don't want me sharing your thoughts with the whole world, just use these five words "this is off the record..."

And I'm going to try to keep bringing more of Ultimate to everybody out there who, like me, is hungry to always know more about the game.