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.

12 comments:

Paul said...

I think the recent addition of fan-only blogs (see: Match, Monup, etc) to the Ultimate blogosphere––where before there were only elite-level players blogging vaguely about their own teams––has really changed the way Ultimate is viewed among the community. Player-fans can have knowledge of teams they've never seen play in person AND they can have a critique/admiration for them. It's exciting.

Match said...

In knowing exactly what you are talking about, I think the best strategy is to maintain a strong semblance of professionalism. When I approached Kurt about my cancer article I knew I was going to be prying into a very personal issue for a very public audience.

However, my saving grace was that I acted as if I were Peter Gammons or Buster Olney. Players are touched by the interest but are turned off by amateurism. It makes their efforts and plight seem as amateur. That being said, I think friends of your can serve as sources (probably anonymous because that is how many like it) and as long you are clear and professional regarding your interest, you should not have any trouble. We are all adults.

Tyler said...

I've always thought the best journalists for the sport would be those who played elite and then retired, as they'd have a good rapport with the players/teams, they'd have an innate knowledge already of what elite ult is like, yet they wouldn't need to mince words for fear of giving other teams bulletin board material. I highly encourage you to be that guy. The sport needs more educated writers and reporters.

parinella said...

I think regular sports journalists have that problem, too. They want access, and it's normal to prefer to grant access to someone who will compliment you rather than criticize you, regardless of whether he's your friend or not.

I think as long as you're fair and don't descend into the aggrieved level of a Plaschke or Shaugnessey you'll be alright.

As for telling secrets, I felt safe enough doing so to you as part of your preparation for the tournament because they were unlikely to make their way to opponents in time. But others might not feel that way, and if there is more time for word to get out prior to play, I might not want to. Teams are still unscouted enough that there could be something obvious to themselves (how good some unheralded player is, for instance) that other teams don't and it would hurt competitively to announce that.

There's also a weird incestuous nature to the relationship between players and observers, but that's for another day.

Martin said...

I think this is a natural progression for someone who loves the game (and knows) as much as Kyle does. I can understand the conflict, but I don't think it needs to affect things either way. On one had I think Kyle should be willing and able to give the type of analysis that he can provide with his knowledge. Those of us who know the game but you like to hear his insight would love it.

At the same time I think it is fair to ask Kyle not to mention something about your team if you tell him directly. I think it is a great idea for Kyle to include such tid-bits in a post-tournament write-up. Some small bit like how a team felt a particular zone was going to pay-off in a weekend, then it does because it caught people by surprise.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

Jim,

Agreed about the observers. Having that type of direct effect on the success of people I know well is what has pushed me away from observing. I would never (again) want to be in an important game and have to make a call for or against a person that I care about off the field. Once you've seen the results of something like that it is hard to make a call without thinking about how it will affect your relationship.

-Kyle

Martin said...

Kyle, the implication of your statement (if we assume everyone has that demeanor) is that former players shouldn't be observers because of personal connections.

While I empathize with your point, that would pretty much eliminate the base of observers. So we would have to utilize non-players, who currently have little incentive. I guess players could observe divisions where they no longer have emotional ties . . . but I feel like that would be hard to do.

Now, I'm expanding Kyle's opinion on observing to everyone, which is not necessarily fair. Surely there are enough people who aren't concerned about personal ties to still observe? Maybe we (or Jim?) need to write that article to start that discussion.

poaches said...

hi, i just started a blog where i'll be collecting ultimate related links, articles, videos, and pictures. i just put up a link to your site. if you ever post links, i'd appreciate it if you might be able to help me get some more viewers. the site is poaches.blogspot.com. let me know if you don't want me to link to you for some reason.

Flo said...

I really don't see this as a big problem for observers. As an observer, you make a judgment call on the action you see, and I can't really imagine someone else disliking you afterwards for making a call against them to a higher extent than if you were their opponent in an unobserved game making calls against them.

Only problem I see is that if you know someone better, you may know their tendencies and look closer for that little toe drag or push off. But then, that's not really a problem imo.

parinella said...

Flo, I was thinking more of the conflict of interest. Players and officials are supposed to have a professional relationship only, in general. Could you imagine the uproar if a World Cup referee were seen having drinks with the Italian team after the final game? There was a minor stink here in MLB after a catcher and the home plate umpire fist-bumped immediately after a poorly-called game.

In other sports, officals come up through the officials career path, while in ultimate they come up mostly through the player ranks. In college games, the official might be a current club teammate of some of the players or coaches.

As an observer, I was offended when one of the teams would question whether I could call a fair game because I knew one of the teams personally. But as a player, given the choice between Observer A who was a former teammate of many of my opponents and Observer B who none of us know, I'd probably pick B.

Martin said...

Jim,

Part of the problem is that the pool of observers has current players in it. Perhaps they are in a different division, but they are typically still active players. I think your point of the "official career path" is a good one, but I imagine that most officials played the sport they officiate at some point and had to deal with a "split" from the upper level of the sport. Our observers typically are still playing the sport, and at the same level as those they would be officiating (they start with the same record and same possibility at sectionals).

I guess a valid analogy would be a player for the Bucks serving as a ref during the NBA finals. Sure the Bucks may not have a chance, but they did at the beginning of the season when they were playing against LA before the Lakers made it to the finals.

I don't know what solutions there are to these problems aside from just waiting for (and perhaps incentivizing) former college/club players to be observers. Even so I think we just have to expect our observers to be willing to be impartial despite that relationship and hope that it wont impact things significantly.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

Martin,

I think it depends on the relationship. I think we're getting big enough as a sport that most of our observers at the top level have the appropriate amount of personal separation from the players. This will only continue to improve as we get bigger and have a larger pool of observers.

I was only speaking for myself however. I'm fine with observing college games (as long as it's not Brown, one of the players I coached in HS isn't playing, and I don't have a personal relationship with the coach). But observing club games presented me with constant conflicts of interest.

Here's an example: Open teams at 2009 Club Nationals that I have former HS, College or Club teammates on:

- Sockeye
- Bravo
- Chain
- Jam
- Truckstop
- Ironside
- Madison
- Revolver

And, to be fair, most of the time the conflict won't be a problem for you. But if you have to give a TMF to your buddy, you better know that's going to be an issue. And even if it's not an issue, it may be an issue of perception for the opponent.

We talk a lot in coaching clinics about the appropriate player-coach relationship but the observer-player relationship is critical as well. As a sport, it's interesting to see us evolving from being entirely player-centric to one in which you've got lots of different non-playing roles like media, tournament directing, observing, and coaching. I'm sure there will be struggles with the boundaries at points.