Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Starting Principle

Hector, thanks for bringing up a topic that’s captivated me for several years; breaking down ultimate knowledge into general principles, or heuristics. I think I have some insights into why your approach isn’t widely adapted by other coaches and captains because I’ve encountered many objections over the years.

The first objection I encountered was during the summer of 2005 when I was an instructor\coach at the inaugural J.E.M Camp (Junior Elite Methods) in Boulder. Over lunch with two other coaches at the CU cafeteria one day, I brought up my plan to reduce ultimate knowledge into a manageable set of general principles. But after explaining my first rule, I quickly encountered my first objection; one of my fellow coaches had long preached a rule of the form ‘Downfield cutters are not to come within X yards of the disc’, X somewhere between like five and seven yards. The intent of this rule was obvious; by reserving the space around the disc for the handlers to work, it was possible to avoid some congestion and confusion. And in her experience it was better to let the handlers have freedom and restrict the behavior of the cutters, because the handlers were the more experienced players and could be trusted more. Her handler-centric worldview insisted that any set of principles needed to include this rule (or a similar variant) because without it, chaos was inevitable. ‘You just can't have cutters getting in the way of the handlers’, I can picture her saying.

I dislike her rule for several reasons, most importantly because it’s a No-Rule, in that it describes what not to do rather than what you should do. All principles should be affirmative. No-rules are great for assessing blame; scan down the list of no-rules and when you find the one violated, you have your target. But I don’t think they belong in a team sport where blame and contempt become corrosive.

We went back and forth for the entirety of lunch trying to convince each other with no success. And in the end we returned to the afternoon session of camp with our previous beliefs intact and possibly hardened by the conflict. Most every other discussion I have about the idea of general principles follows a similar path, so I’ve had to go it alone. It’s been a solitary obsession until I found a team willing to embrace my principles.

Since you’re probably wondering, my first rule (which I call the Rule of Permission) is: Any player may attack any open space at any time, as long as he thinks it’s in the best interest of the team. My first practice of each season starts with this principle as the theme and when I teach it to new players, I make sure to stress each instance of the word ‘any’. At first this principle makes most players nervous, and they ask what to do if two players attack the same space? My response is usually some form of ‘if one player gets there first, then the space is no long open and so the second cutter has to find new open space to attack.’ But what if they get there at the exact same time? In that unlikely situation we’ll trust the thrower to recognize that the space is not open and to look elsewhere. And over time we’ll learn how to share the field with each other. And then the new players are able to get the start training the general principle, which is that ‘cutters should attack open space’.

My question to you Hector is, does this fit your idea of a general principle or are we starting from different places?


gapoole said...

I've been frustrated with the "what to do in Situation X/Y/Z" approach as well. While in Germany, introducing concepts to the national open team, I often fell back on "guidelines" when things got too particularized. I think we could pinpoint guidelines that work for most situations, but others may be specific to a given offense/defense. The rule "don't come closer than X yards to the thrower" might be one of the latter, where it depends on the skill of each player and the strategy involved (not to mention the defense).

Two guidelines that I like to play by:
1. Set up your cut so you have two distinct open spaces available--this goes especially for handlers/dumps.
2. Put the throw where the defense can't get it--esp for deep shots, and similar to the concept "throw the receiver open" in football, you generally want to avoid giving the defender a shot at a D.