Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Right Tools

by Alex Davis

At Northwest Regionals in 2011, I got my shot. Seth Wiggins was a strong and bullish competitor, and highly decorated to boot. He was a physical and free roving handler who drove Rhino’s offense with the determination of an express train. He was exactly what I had been preparing to cover. He embodied, to a tee, the hole in our game that I had been training myself to plug. In the do-or-die context of the game-to-go, I was about to try to be precisely what my team needed.

Photo courtesy of Ben Beehner.

On the topic of making it to the next level, ambitious players hear the same broad strokes of folk wisdom time and again: that to earn a role on a good team, they should just scrub out their weaknesses. Sometimes, the tide turns, and they’re told to focus on their strengths. Either way, it’s a cheap kind of one-size-fits-all advice, sturdy-looking and unlikely to do any harm. Like so many clichés and horoscopes, it might even help. But the issue here is that their most fundamental weakness can go undiagnosed because they aren’t encouraged to look at context — who the team is and what the team actually needs from them. The ability to recognize need and opportunity is an understated skill that all aspiring athletes should strive to develop, and it is the first step to becoming a bigger contributor.

In team sports, the team’s success is paramount; players are just tools in its service. A Swiss Army Knife is valuable, but the right tool for the job is even better. To be useful, players must find the job they are trying to fill. What are the problems that the team faces? What skill sets does the team possess or lack? Where can a player prove useful? And in combination with whom? These are the rubrics aspiring players should consider when choosing how to invest their time. Some teams struggle to force turnovers while others struggle to convert. A good striker desperately needs a good thrower. To make oneself “better” is a wasted effort if the end result is not you being a better fit for the team.

In 2010, I was a second-string cutter for a struggling defensive line. The nagging problem lay with a style of coverage positioned to deny in-cuts and to prey on lower-percentage hucks. The scheme required the defense to wedge handlers and the cutters farther and farther apart, thus forcing long shots from awkward spots. But despite our best-laid plans, our opponents routinely moved the disc into strong throwing positions. Teams with strong, athletic initiators and handlers drove right through our defense, gaining yardage and then promptly launching hucks over the heads of helpless lane defenders.

I knew about this problem, and I studied it in earnest. I asked why hucks came out and what circumstances led to an unprotected throw. I watched to see how teams gave the disc to a thrower where he wanted it, how they would make space, how they drove through or around us, sealed us out. The problem was not just our speed – we had this in reasonable quantity. In fact, I noticed, our markers were using speed to frantically over-compensate for what they lacked in strength and size against taller, stronger players. Unable to hold our ground, we were perennially sealed out of position and forced to chase these match-ups instead of limiting their options.

And there, I saw my opportunity to deliver a missing ingredient. I was not tall enough, strong enough, fast enough, or agile enough to stand out over my teammates in some more obvious roles (hence my position as second fiddle in each), but a decent measure in each category afforded me a subtle advantage when it comes to containing other athletes. That is, I am not especially easy to throw around, to push around, or to run around.  I knew that if I could slow down just one key handler and dictate his options, it would give the other defenders a chance to reposition.

I demonstrated my plan and my technique in practice. I didn’t score many points or get many blocks, but I contained and directed my opponents’ offense. I didn’t try to do too much; I just forced people to run and to get the disc where I allowed it. Throwers forced to retreat – even just a few metres at a time – generally lose the tools they need for their long game. Running with their backs to the offense, they sacrifice the forward momentum, the field position, spacing, angles, field vision, and the timing they generally depend on to deliver power with precision. I jumped in their way and let them try to push me. When they looked upfield, they looked into my broad mark. I never let myself get greedy; I was committed to a strategy greater than myself. It was enough to get my team a winning edge.  As long as I did my part, limiting this scope of the offense, our defense was clawing back precious percentages in the odds game.

Playing Rhino in that back-door final was a consummate test of a year’s efforts — a serendipitous chance to tip the scales between two evenly-matched teams. Wiggins was an exceptional player; I was a nobody. Yet there we were on equal terms, equally valuable to our teams, and with equal chances of success. He fought to play the role he had practiced for exactly as I had practiced for mine. I cannot claim to have shut Wiggins down; talented and pivotal players know how to get the disc, and they always  will. All I could aspire to do was to steer him in different directions, deflecting attacks into less damaging places, forcing Rhino to settle for less, to use their second or third options just a little more often. It was a grueling war for inches, inconspicuous and unremarkable to the untrained eye, but it was my part in the machine. In the end, Furious edged out those desperate inches, coming from behind to secure another bid to Florida.

If I stopped this story there, it would read like a perfectly framed fable, nicely packaged and neatly tied off. It could easily be mistaken for a story of a player who simply “got better” and then stepped onto the field in a big game to prove himself. But that just isn’t so. In 2012, circumstances changed.

I was playing on Team Canada, a squad who had an arsenal of players well-suited to covering a variety of throwers at our disposal. And although I was good at my role, at the end of the day I was still a cutter who covered handlers. This meant that I could only see the field if I shared a line with a handler who covered cutters. The odd juxtaposition had its advantages, but on that particular roster, it was an extremely limiting brand to carry to market. I had effectively specialized myself off of the starting D-line.

But by this time, I had a well-honed skill in seeing things for what they are. In 2013, I came prepared. Vancouver’s area of defensive weakness had shifted from the handlers to the cutters; we now needed a boost in lane coverage. To get my share of the field, I once again had to mould myself into what the team needed. I had to retrain myself to fill the gap where it had opened. And I did exactly that. In the spring of 2013, I returned to the starting defense for the Nighthawks and for Furious George. In the autumn of 2013, I was elected a captain.

This is not the end of the story– the next change of circumstances is always just around the corner. And I will always be looking for the place I can most help my team.

  • Jen

    How would you try to identify what a team is lacking when you are just joining or trying out for that team? Did you start working on adjusting your defensive skills as soon as you realized you were off the starting line, or during the preseason?

    • Alex Davis

      Hi, Jen.

      The only way to analyze a team is with information. If you haven’t got it, then you have to find it. If video is available, watch it. If you know people familiar with the team, talk to them. The time you spend near the leaders, listen to them. Don’t be too aggressive in your questions and analysis. Just be a diligent observer, and look for patterns – complaints, problems, or shortcomings that seem to recur. Most of all, don’t look at the team’s strengths — look for its weaknesses — that’s where the growth potential is.

      The easiest time to change your game or to reinvent yourself is in the pre-season and early season. In this example, i realized i needed to change, and i took steps toward that over the off-season and the next spring, through workouts, drills, and match-ups. Although it is always possible to change your game at any time of year, captains generally don’t want to be trying new things in the late season: they want their recipe book finalized by then, and experimenting on your quest for self – improvement is a low priority, even if you’re confident in your direction and progress.

    • RISEUPmario

      Hey Jen, totally agree with Alex’s response especially about the idea of talking to people on the team or close to the team and being a diligent observer. That relationship building process is also a part of making a new team.