Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dogma and Diversity - the Philly scene

I have recently had a few different conversations about how the teams in these parts (Philly) are so strategically similar.  While it’s probably quite common for a particular geographic area to have ideologies that dominate the local teams, my sense is that Philadelphia is more of a closed ecosystem than most metropolitan areas of its size.  Certainly the Boston teams don’t all run a 6-person stack, right?  So where do these ideas that are so prevalent in Philly come from, and why is there not more diversity in the strategic gene pool?  (Disclaimer:  I’m just gonna ramble and I’m sure I’ll say something I disagree with tomorrow).

Where do these ideas come from?

A current teammate of mine was recently crediting the philosophies and plays that are run around here to the Pike teams of the early to mid-2000s.  While that was a NJ team, we drew a lot of the recognizable faces from the Philly scene, who in turn disseminated these strategies to other area teams.  So I wouldn’t argue against that lineage as I see PADA summer league teams calling plays by the same randomly chosen names used in the 2002 Pike playbook.

But to give proper credit, that playbook was pilfered straight from the UCSB* teams that 3-peated in the late 90s brought east via Jim Regetz (though he made considerable improvements).  And the style of play (conservative, possession-oriented offense) comes from the dominant mid-90s DoG teams.  Before them came Earth Atomizer and Big Brother? (Before my time.)

Not saying any of those strategies aren’t still sound, but I think there’s something to be looked at if there’s been minimal innovation on 16+ year old thinking in a sport as young as ours.

Why isn’t there more diversity?

I can only speculate, but I’ll throw out some ideas.
  • Philadelphia is not a particularly transcient community.  People don’t move here for a few years and leave.  Not that many people move here from other metropolitan areas.  Not that many people leave.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few male** players who’ve recently played in Philly who had history with other top clubs (Joel Wooten – not much of a Philadelphian, Trey Katzenbach – more on him later, and Carl Deffenbaugh).  My impression is that in other geos, it’s more common to find players who’ve played on multiple top clubs.
  • Trey really is a force unto himself.  Through the sheer force of his personality and his history of successes, his ideas on how the game should be played have really pervaded the minds of a lot of the community.
  • What about all the different college teams people have played on?  Honestly, I don’t know.  All of you who played outside the Philly-metro area, why haven’t you brought back new zones or new plays or new offenses?
  • It’s not a particularly cerebral scene here.  Maybe I’m just not talking to the right people, but there don’t seem to be a lot of players nerding it up over strategy.  Maybe Philly’s not an intellectual town.  Or maybe it’s because there aren’t as many college teams with coaches around here.  Regardless of the reasons, I think you’d find the percentage of players who can articulate why their teams run a particular strategy is lower around here than say… Boston, San Fran, or Seattle… or even NY.
Now, I’m not saying being nerdy about strategy is critical to success.  But I do think diversity is important for a community, be it an ultimate community or any other.  Otherwise, you fall into “it works for insert top local club team name, so we should run the same thing” mentality because you aren’t aware of other options.

A real world example: Pike ‘02-’05 ran a vert stack with 2 dumps.  There were no give-gos built into our offense, so handlers never got the disc moving into a power position.  In order to run this offense, you need handlers who can bomb and break with a set mark on them.  Our o-team happened to have Walt, Regetz, Heckman, and Bailey, so we could pull it off.  Unfortunately, our d-team didn’t have the same depth of throwers (though we did have Ian).  If you were one of the unfortunate college teams that adopted our offense, you probably suffered until you gave up, or you got good at those types of throws.

But even if you are good at running your strategies, I will point back to a previous post about pulling off upsets: If you’re not the more talented team on the field, playing the same strategy as your opponent is a losing game plan.  It’s the same as a boxer who goes toe to toe with a slugger who is faster and stronger.  Ali wasn’t The Greatest because he was the hardest puncher.

Next post: Deconstructing the Dogma.

*Funny enough the Condors and Pike had essentially the same playbook when we faced off in quarters of 2004 down to the play calling system.
** I specify male because women and women’s team tend not to drive innovation in our male-dominated world of ultimate.  There have been some transplants of female talent in Philly, but for various reasons outside the scope of this post, they have not led any shifts/growth/evolution in ultimate strategy around here.  If i'm wrong, and it's only because i'm a guy that i don't get to hear about what happens in the women's game, then i'd love to be educated.


  1. Not sure whether this can be blanket-applied to Philly ultimate, but low levels of nerding out or innovation in ultimate seem to suggest low curiosity: individuals or groups feeling confident enough that a "right way to play" exists that they don't see any need to talk about or question its existence.

    Certainly in the women's game there can be confusion / conflation of "this is how our team plays" and "this is how the game is played, period." Also prevalent: framing a specific way to play as the basics of ultimate (or even "good ultimate") and lumping everything else together under the umbrella term "strategy." The result is the strange (to me) perception of "strategy" as a layer of knowledge or experience applied to or on top of the basics, like frosting on the same old yellow cake or the water you add to a foam pellet to make a fun bath toy, or a team. Received ideas play a huge role in perpetuating this one framework into which we try to plug one new idea or player after another. The possibility of building a team strategy from scratch around the hodge-podge strengths and weaknesses of the team you have seems mostly absent from the conversation.

    So I guess one thing I see in the women's game in Philly isn't a lack of new blood, talent, or ideas so much as a lack of receptivity to fundamentally new ways of approaching the game. Lots of either/or and not enough yes/and!

  2. No mention of PADA? The largest summer league in the nation?

    The most basic offense in ultimate (basic is a squishily-defined word, sure) is the vertstack. The most "basic" players who play regularly play in PADA. Club players captain. High school players get schol that this is the way to play... &c

    Point is, PADA is a huge distributor of information/dogma/&c in the philly area, and the play there is reductive. There is no "clique" or "corporate" league so that you can play with likeminded players or build a team over years together. The result is a version of (wait for it...) de Tocqueville's tyrrany of the majority.

    Another (cynical) Trey-centric (and Mike G referencing) way to look at it is a way of competitive subterfuge: if you have the best d against a particular type of d (or the best o against a particular type of d) is it not in your own self-interests to convince everyone that that is *the* way to play? (Trey&trojan d and mike g and his allegation that directional forces were a trojan horse from boston.

    Then again, I think PADA is wildy successful and wildly dysfunctional.

  3. You know, i had dismissed PADA as i was thinking that leagues everywhere act in the same way to structure ideology. But i see your point that the absence of a clique league subtracts the opportunity to work on things beyond the "basics."

    That said, the clique teams i've played on in MCUDL (NJ summer league) also employ painfully simple strategies.

    I don't agree with your cynicism, though it would be hilariously awesome if it were true.

  4. Yeah... not sure I agree with the cynical side either, but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment- a riff on "it is in the interest of the better team for both teams to have identical strategies". And this is how we get mixed/dominant strategies in game theory...

    MCUDL is reductive in a different way: it is small and the team are definitively stratified.

    I can't believe I'm gonna type this, but the most strategically diverse summer league I've played was WUDi outside of NYC. Low % of inexperience, high familiarity of of players across the board, ability of women (tucker, for example) to dominate games b/c the talent disparity in men wasn't so vast that "best 3 men v best 3 men" near-always yielded at least 1 egregious mismatch... and on.

    Mike G, on the other hand, did *seem* to truly be this cynical back in... 02? 03? Earlier? continuously?

  5. I have considerable respect for Mike G, but for me, that doesn't outweigh how grating his personality can be. Add to that, the sheer volume of his RSD posts, and i probably read less than 1% of what he writes. So i'm not familiar with any Mike G. conspiracy theories, though i know he loves force middle.

  6. Well, I have a large tolerance for noise, ad heused to talk a higher % of sense. His whole theory was "why remove the mark from the equation w/r/t the endzone?" That is, in an fm the mark is at leas trying to force the thrower to throw not into the endzone whereas the directional concedes one side of the endzone as an unpressured throw. He ascribed the blind belief in this to boston's relative strategic hegemony back in the day.

  7. b-lo,

    i believe that ultimate is a lot of the blind leading the blind, but i also think that you give way too much credit to other areas being innovators, and maybe too little to philly. i learned a lot from alex eiteljorg, ringo, brad x and others when playing for philly.

    philly rage did run a german the last year they went to nationals i think. they said that it worked well until the wind at nationals (in texas or somewhere) and then they struggled with it. i wonder sometimes if nationals moved from year to year, would it change the ways that teams approach the season with O and D.

    i have played in philly (philly rage), boston (metal and ironside), and now in raleigh (ring), and i can tell you first hand that a number of the drills all the teams do are similar, a number of the plays we run are identical (the names are slightly changed, and sometimes there are slight wrinkles to them), but a lot of the time, the strategy you go with has to do with your personnel you have on your team.

    for example, metal's 1-3-3 was super effective. we had some guys with lanky, mobile marks, a small squirrelly wall, really mobile wings who could jump well, and brian stout in the back field. our goal was to get teams to either throw something floaty to the wings, or throw up a 70/30 to stout. we liked those chances. i have tried to duplicate that zone with college teams and other club teams i have been on, but unless you have a man that rules the sky in the backfield, your wings can't cover as much ground and it isn't as effective.

    some people criticized metal as being "huck and hope", but, when you have less skilled handlers and several outstanding deep receivers in the game, you would throw deep too, a lot, with somewhat reckless abandon. know your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

    if i could go back in time and burn the pike T-stack to the ground i would. so many countless hours of my life were spent having it mis-applied to teams with the wrong skillsets. you basically need 3 handlers who are equal in abilities and at least one of them being a legit deep threat so defenders have to play him honest and he can routinely get yards on the swing. bailey's springs and speed really opened it up a lot.

    i think what you hinted at in your post is true. a D line shouldn't have to run an offense created to take advantage of a particular O line's unique skillset.

    if you think about southpaw and their overall talent level, they run an offense that caters to their strengths; the better players/throwers take the risks, the not as skilled players fill in and keep the disc moving. if you had to think of an offense that you would design for a team of that make-up, i think that is what you would wind up coming back to.

    philly is young, and i would assume their typical player would have less good throws than the average club player. think about 22 year old you vs 30 year old you, 30 year old you probably sees the field better, throws better, and completes more passes, but gets smoked in a flat out foot race by a 22 year old you.

    their average age without trey last year would be about 24 if i had to guess. i would assume trey would offset their age by .5-.6 years. ring was slightly over 25 and revolver i think was 26 (i'm a nerd). most of the teams i have played on that are more throwing skilled are in the 25-27 range with a large core in the 26-30 range.

    that was really jarbled, but because you seem to understand what dusty says, i figured you have a jumbo sized decoder ring.


  8. Josh, some interesting points. It would really be great if Nationals could move sites. Don't know if new field dimensions will open options or if mastered and mixed need to change seasons. Always wanted Nationals to go back to San Diego.

    I am not sure if i agree that teams tailor strategies that play to their strengths. Hopefully things start out that way, but i think strategies get ingrained, and then over time as your team's skills set change, few teams make the strategic adjustments since they've invested so much time into learning the old strategies. Sure, DW changed their game plan to accommodate Brodie. But many would argue when Boston lost in 09, they were running a handler centric offense when their strength was their cutters.

    Wish i had gotten a change to play with Alex and Brad X. My limited time with Ringo was great. One of the rare breed of smart defenders. He was a big believer in the d-team can't play the same offense as the o-team. Too much emphasis on playing good ultimate rather than doing what works.

    Average age is an interesting thing to look at and it would be interesting to see the average age of past championship teams. Do masters teams run fundamentally different strategies compared to open teams?

    Even 22 year old me wasn't smoking that many people.

    Regard Dusty, i generally get anxious when i read something of his and i understand what he's talking about. I trace back over what i recently did and try judge whether i've started to lose my marbles.

  9. We calculated this last year, and Southpaw's average age was 23.6 (without Trey).

    And I definitely agree that D line offense almost has to be different than O line offense. Different personnel, different mentality, and different strengths.