Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Pound of Advice

I was looking at some of the Huddle stuff and remembered that one of the best pieces of advice I ever published came when I queried my teammates in 1998 or so on the little things that made them better. Some of the answers are dated or pithy, but I think most can still apply. Enjoy.

Question 1: What single event or realization was most important to your development as a player?

Lenny Engel, aka The Guy With the Horns, #58

My development as a player on a team bound for a National Championship was a realization of the importance of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the players around me. The team earlier had broken into fairly distinct groups of offensive and defensive players and I found myself on the defensive squad. My strengths were clear to me and I assumed my teammates but it was not until I began to understand the strengths of my teammates on the defense that I began to make greater strides in my own game. I believe the rest of the defensive unit similarly began to improve because collectively our understanding of each other increased. This greater understanding of our individual games identified the team's gaps created by our weaknesses. Once we began to fill these gaps we began to have greater success. It was at that point that new defenses became easier to assimilate into our repertoire and our ability to change defenses in mid-point improved. This was more than mere experience. I believe there was a conscious effort on the team's part to learn about each other's game. It was more than identifying someone fast to cover a handler or be a point in the zone, or someone tall to play deep. Understanding the nuances of each other's physical and mental skills played a large part in our ability to create and then implement new defenses. Knowing each other as well as we did enabled easier communication and movement. We could identify a team's weakness earlier and focus on it by creating opportunities for the person having the best ability to expose the vulnerability. Our team of seven individuals was capable of playing a very complete "team" game. Our own weaknesses remained hidden because each of us complimented another's strengths and covered a weakness. At our best, in the 1995 and 1997 Nationals, we forced teams to play to our strengths while rarely exposing our weaknesses. We were able to play the dozen or so different defensive schemes at almost any point in a game. Our understanding of each other made much of the defense's success possible and improved my game and utility on the field.

Steve Mooney, aka Moons, #00

Quitting soccer and taking up Ultimate. Hell, in soccer is filled with short fast guys who don't use their hands.

Michael Cooper, aka Coop, #28

I've often reflected upon what it is that has made me a good ultimate player. Ironically, I was initially drawn to ultimate for its non- competitive aspects. I had never considered myself particularly athletic, despite an enthusiasm for sports or rather activity in general, but have come to admit that I do in fact have abilities that are well suited to playing disc. One of these is understanding the gestalt of the game, which allows me to anticipate the flow both on offense and defense and react accordingly. Of course, being six feet tall, and loving to run and jump, helps too! As for things that have made me a better player over the years, I'd say they are a single- minded commitment to training (some say this has resulted in the rash of injuries I’ve endured over the past several seasons, but I don't fully agree), a willingness to learn from others and fit into a team concept, and a desire to push the limits of my body and mind (the rush from which for me is one of the prime reasons I continue to play). In terms of rising to the elite level, I'd say, "Don't do it too soon". The experience I've gained on teams other than DoG, in situations where the onus is to make things happen, has been invaluable. One of the important realizations I made after making the transition to the top level was that it is not possible to be totally dominant--everyone is skilled. When covering someone, I attempt to take away their first choice, and maybe their second choice, and let them beat me with their third option if they can. The other important thing I've found is that it _is_ possible to maintain one's integrity at the top, and still play to win.

Bob Lobel, #8

It took me some time to make the realization that there is really very little difference between players who are at the top level of the game and those at the next level. As a younger player looking up, the difference seems huge and insurmountable. I remember looking up at Jay Seeger, Kenny Dobyns, Steve Mooney, Dennis Warsen, (as well as many others playing at the elite level) and thinking, "what does it take to get there?" and "how could I possibly compete at that level?" As I came along and improved, the athletic differences became more subtle, and my confidence in my abilities allowed me to make the transition to the next level. So when I look back at where I was and how I evolved as an ultimate player, I now realize that the athletic differences between the elite players and those at the next level are very few. The important factor in making the transition, therefore, is developing confidence in your abilities, and realizing that your athletic abilities are comparable to those of players you look up to. Oh yeah, you need to train hard, too.

Jordan Haskell, #70

When Earth Atomizer (the most overachieving team in ultimate history) started taking stats. Shortly after we started taking stats, people started looking at, or even just remembering, their own turnovers and actually analyzed them. Most people, after looking at their turnovers, were of the mindset of "what the heck was I thinking when I threw that!!". The team attempted to eliminate or minimize those type of turnovers and we were much better for it. Personally that went a long way in helping my game as well. The game is not hard, just complete passes and leave the turnovers for other people.

Watching Ricky Pretzfedler play handler. He was always calm, cool, and collected with the disc. Never concerned about the D. I wanted to be more like that.

Getting Cut by Earth Atomizer: I was a fat load but thought I could play. I quickly realized, after getting cut, that I was fat and slow. I lost 30 pounds that winter and came out "Gangbusters" in the spring. I was a new man with new inspiration. The rest is history. From being cut by Earth to......

Billy Rodriguez, #19.

No single event was a watershed for me. Rather, the opportunity and willingness to play lots of ultimate, anytime, anywhere, made me a better player. Although the chance to watch and learn from some of the greatest players in the game -- Kenny Dobyns, Pat King, Dave Blau, Steve Mooney, Jeremy Seeger -- has been a huge positive factor, it was the four years of playing on mediocre teams at small tournaments in places like Denton, TX, Hunstville, AB, New London, CT, that had the biggest impact on me. I think most of the best players in the game at some early point in their careers just played and played and played.

Alex deFrondeville, aka The Count, #1

The single most important event in my frisbee career was probably getting cut from Z (the Boston team in 1988). I have engaged in some fruitful speculation to wonder what might have become of my Ultimate career had I made that team, and, let me tell you, it's not pretty. Instead, I made Earth Atomizer that spring, went to Nationals twice with them, and then was part of the Earth-Big Brother merger, then DoG, and the rest, of course, is history.

Jeff Brown, aka Dick, #34

My first layout block (from behind/reach around, I still remember it vividly). It was during a Philly summer league game. I had never played organized ultimate and never laid-out. I guess it was a pretty good block because the team went crazy. I figured I should keep doing stuff like that...

Jim Parinella, #88

Figuring out that I could throw it away just as well as anyone else. When I was younger, I used to play in fear of making a mistake, so I wouldn’t get involved in the offensive flow as much as I could have. I looked at players on good teams and the good players on my team and was in awe of them, often without good justification. Eventually, I learned to have a healthy disrespect for them and a healthy respect for my own game, and it was suddenly a lot easier to play. One particular moment that stands out was being with MGUS for the first Cuervo series. MGUS had some good players, but no one that I was in awe of, and I thought we were going to get crushed when it counted. But we beat Windy City and New York pretty handily to qualify for the finale, and should have made the finals against the best teams in the country. Then I realized that it wasn’t so tough after all, if only I got more involved.

Eric Zaslow, aka Zaz, #6

My rise to DoG's ranks and the continuation of my career have been slow and steady (much like my play). When I think back on more than twenty years in the game -- longer than anyone else on DoG -- I see a continual growth. There have been no epiphanies, just a commitment to improving. Perhaps the most formative moments came in 1984 when Marc Cote and I used to go out to the high school football field and throw for distance for 45 minutes each day, between math and physics. Important there, too, was that Marc could always throw farther than I. That made me want to get better.

Zaslow’s Alter Ego, aka ZAE, also #6 I entered college with a nickname far cooler than my actual self. Without this moniker, I never would have gained acceptance at one of the most socially competitive schools (Dartmouth), and would have completed my school days as an academic and athletic outcast.

Question 2: What is it that you do best that others could improve if they knew how?


My strength is my backhand, particularly the pull. When I pull poorly, I know why -- usually a lack of focus, which keeps me from maintaining good form. Knowing when you haven't gotten it right is the essence of learning, or so Socrates would say. Keep the inside-out slant!


One must learn how to mask one's mediocrity.


I think there are three things I do well on the field. First, defensive positioning is SO important to good defense. If you use your feet and your head to get to the right place relative to the offensive player, you've done 90% of your job as a defender. Blocks are great, but when a thrower looks off a pretty good cut because the defender is in the right place to make the throw look a little iffy, that wins games. Second, I time my cuts pretty well. Many players don't understand that you need to be open both at the right place AND at the right time. It's what NFL people mean when they talk about receivers who run crisp routes. A lot of people have the speed, agility and quickness to get away from someone; but you’re not truly "open" unless you do it at the right time. Finally, I think I stay focused well. I think what separate good players and great players is not skill, but focus. The talent on most of the top teams is fairly equal. But the team with the most players who are willing to dig in and push themselves for an entire cut, an entire point, an entire game... that's the team that will bring home a championship.


Take control of the defensive situation. Force the offense to do what you want them to do instead of reacting to them. And above all, never lay back or lose focus on the field, always stay energetic and always be on your toes.

de Frondeville

Lead the cutter away from the defender. When someone is cutting somewhere, throw
the disc so that the cutter will get there first. For instance, if someone is
cutting straight at you, typically their defender will be behind them, but on one
side. Lead your man slightly to the other side when you throw it, so the defender
has to go around your player to make the block. I'll often flare my cutters even
when they're running straight at me. This also applies to a side-to-side cut. Lead
your cutter with a little bit of float, so that he has to run to the disc. Don't
alway try and throw the disc to hit him on the money, because you lose a little

Ted Munter, #17

Watch the game with a purpose. Most players yell for their teammates or just casually observe until they get in again. But every time you're out is an opportunity to watch the players you are likely to cover or who is likely to cover you. I try to look at one or two specific things. Where do they like to throw from and what kind of jukes do they make? This might not get blocks for you, but you can try to take the player out of his or her comfort zone. More importantly, I think, it helps you focus both on the sideline and when you are in the game.


Listening. Sure, we all fill a room with drivel. But if you listen to input, then you have something to say in the next huddle.

Question 3

What do you know now that you wished you knew five years sooner?


What I know now, that I wish I knew ten years ago, is that club ultimate is fun. Back in college in the late eighties, I had a real distaste for the club scene. I witnessed a lot of foul play, and this kept me from joining a club for several years. I think I would have gotten better sooner -- at a younger age -- had I been exposed to a more enjoyable club scene. I thank Dave Meyers for encouraging me to get out there and mix it up with the boys of the Northeast. Another thing I have learned through playing with such talented teammates is that each of them has analyzed every tiny detail of the game. Good play comes from the best application of basic principles (throw complete passes; get the disk; try to prevent your man/woman from getting the disk) to a myriad of situations. If you know that everyone on your team is thinking this way, then you will know that when you come off your man on a gambit, they'll get your back! Or, if you pass up the glory play, they will notice, and appreciate, your poise.


Bill's trysts; that Deborah Norville would wind up on "Inside Edition"; two words: Mach III; the miracle that is Parker Posey; how big a role confidence plays in sports, arts, politics, society; the fate of talk show also-rans Tempestt Bledsoe, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Magic Johnson, Carney Wilson, Chevy Chase, Mark Walberg, Gordon Elliot...; and what one night in Brentwood would do for mass media, race relations, and public jurisprudence in America.


The thing I wish I knew years ago was how great the weight room is for you. Lift, lift, lift. Lift some more.


The game is mostly mental and most players don't sprint. Sprinting is the key to O and D.


I wish I had known to move to Boston five years earlier. And I didn't know until recently how important it is that a teams top players lead by example. Sounds obvious, I know, but when I was one of the top players on my former team, I wasn't always in shape, or didn't always believe in my teammates. Playing on DoG as a bench/role player, I see how central it is that our best players are not only the most skilled, best athletes, they also want it the most and prepare--mentally and physically--as hard as they can. I often hear captains of teams talk about needing to find a role for their players. But the best player on your team has a role too. You can be the kind of star who makes the team better--think Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Jerry Rice--or who, despite all your skill and athleticism brings the team down.


That it's not about winning... it's about having Billy Rodriguez on your team.


Just how hard it is to stay at the top. How everyone will come after you when your on top. Just how much fun it is to beat those teams and how good it feels to win. That "championships" are a fleeting thing. When I'm seventy I gonna wish I had more.

Question 4

What is the most important thing you would tell a player hoping to make the jump to the elite team level?

Chris Corcoran, aka Cork, #25

The best advice that I would give an up-and-coming Ultimate player would be to focus more on the mental aspects of the game. When you're on offense, think about where the other 13 players on the field are. Realize where the good cuts are and when it is your turn to cut. When you are on defense, also think about where the other 13 players are. If you can't shut down a player's every cut, decide where the most dangerous cuts are, and shut those down.

de Frondeville

It's better to be noticed than to blend into the background.


Right now, kids graduating college are much more in-the-know about disc, about strategies, and about conditioning than I ever was (am?). There are many sophisticated and talented prospects. But beyond the basics (and the basics get expanded each year), a player must have an internal fire and personal desire. Only you know the true strength of your conviction. For me, I was never in doubt about wanting to play. I don't feel like I'm forsaking the rest of my life when I put in the hours at the track and stadium (of course, without a rest-of-my-life, this statement has little weight!). As far as strategy for play is concerned: COMMUNICATE! Use the resources around you! Your teammates can help you learn, and you can help them. This holds for strategy sessions and for on-field play as well. We all know to call the disk up when it's thrown. Also call out switches; poaches; what the opposing defense is, if you've figured it out; what your defense is if people are confused; who is breaking long; who should be. If you don't know what to do, ask! When everyone knows what's up, everyone can respond to it. Also, negative information needs to be communicated, preferably in a positive way.


``Pringles, pizza, and plenty of rest.'' That way, the player will be fat and slow and no obstacle to my fulfilling my own selfish goals.


Learn the difference between running hard and sprinting and the difference between a good throw and a bad choice and a bad thrown and a good choice. It is a game of choices and players must understand the difference between good and bad choices.


Don't get fooled by rhetoric. Talk is cheaper than a White House liaison, so don't say "this is the year" if you don't mean it. It doesn't matter if your goal is winning it all, making it to Nationals, or just making it to Regionals, you need to believe in yourself and your teammates. You can't kind of want it, because the team just above you has more skill or more experience. Winning Nationals is great, but primarily because it confirms that the goal you have set for yourself has been achieved. The worst feeling in Ultimate is watching some other team play the game you wanted to be in thinking about how your own team underachieved because they didn't prepare or didn't live up to their promises as teammates. To improve, to make it to Sunday at Regionals when last year went home on Saturday, to make it to the semi's at National's after going 2-3 at the big dance the year before, is HARD. You might hear first time parents say they wish raising that first kid was only as difficult as they had dreamed it was going to be. But getting up in the middle of each night with junior turns out to be something for which talk and imagination cannot really prepare you. Just as it's easier, even more fun, to be single, it is more fun to just hang out with your friends and repeat last year's performance. No hassles, no worries, no potential disappointment. If that is what you want to do, admit it and enjoy yourself. But if you get to your goal together, then the sore legs, the tough practices, the rushing from work, and the long hours will all be well worth it.


The game is much easier than we make it out to be. Use your head. The mind is a powerful thing. Just complete your passes and leave all the turnovers for someone else.


No, really... we're good guys, we're supportive and caring, and you'll have a great time on our team. Please... play with us... PRETTY PLEASE WITH CHEESE ON TOP. P.S. I'll carry your bags and buy you beer.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

post surgery

I put a few photos up on Facebook, but things appear to be a success. The surgeon really had nothing to say to me after the procedure, just something he does a few times a week.

Procedure: C3-C6 French Door (or Double Door) Laminoplasty. He didn't do anything else while he was in there, hoping that all the syndromes related to the central nervous system were related to the compression on the spinal cord.

Work and disability: Wow, they just don't want to get on record ahead of time for anything. I tried to ask how they would handle if I could only do part-time temporarily when I come back, and they all said, "We'll see." I said that there are two real dangers with being out for a long time: one, that they'll really suffer without me, and two, that they won't.

Tuesday: Surgery was pushed back to 11, so I had to show up at 8. Had to do a special antiseptic cleaning of everything but hands and genitals. At a little before 11, they gave me the first of my antibiotics and anesthetics, and I don't remember a thing for the next six hours. Apparently, they include an amnesiac in that first batch, derived for use on children in ERs.

Around 5, I woke up in a bed, with a view of a hallway vaguely similar to the view of the hallway from my desk at work. In my mind, I was working on a spreadsheet on my laptop, and somehow realized that I had to hurry up and finish it and save it because I didn't actually have a laptop. Then they took me to my room where my family could see me. My parents had had to go home by then to pick up the boy, but they returned with him later that evening. I was doing great at this point, feeling no pain but also not feeling like I was on drugs. Alex also came by to heckle.

I surprisingly slept well through the night, being switched once to sleep on my side. And they woke me every two hours for my vital signs. My pulse rate broke one of the Western Electric Rules, with eight points in a row above my historical average (based on the Novemember hospital stay) but other signs exhibitied normal variation. Root cause is probably a general decrease in health the last four months due to lack of exercise.

On Wednesday the pain started in earnest, though still it was never terrible. They asked for the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, and I suggested that they whack incoming patients in the ankle with a hammer and say, "ok, that's a 7, keep it in mind for later." THey typically didn't get my jokes. Nor do most, I guess, but that doesn't matter, because I'm usually the main audience for them anyway. They removed the cathether (I took a picture of it just to see it, but deleted it immediately because even I don't want to see a picture of that), and later on took out the IV. They still had a drip bag attached to the incision, and that bag continually filled up slowly. Managed to pee (it hurt due to the cathether, but that went away after about a day). Ate real food starting with lunch, though they told me to eat softer food. Wife came in and left, parents came in, co-worker came in and said by a vote of 5 to 3 that they had a card for me, Bim stopped by too because he was bored. Otherwise I chatted with my nice roommate who was in for a knee replacement. Did a lot of Facebook checking and appreciated all the well-wishes. They took out the pain button and gave me pain pills. Jordan Haskell also made an appearance.

Thursday was check out. They just needed to verify that I could walk up a couple stairs and that the X-ray looked ok. I also talked to the occupational therapist, but she was so good-looking that I couldn't concentrate on anything she said. She pulled a Constanza moment on me, when I mentioned that real men didn't use loofahs, and she said her fiancee used one. My neck was and is a little stiff, though it felt in part that it was due to lying on it with a brace in the same position as much as it was due to them making a four-inch cut and retracting the muscles in my neck. (I mentioned, and maybe it's the truth, that most of the recovery of surgery is not due to what they are fixing, but to what they need to do in order to go to what they need to fix.)

Made it out at about 1, took a nap in the afternoon. I've generally been feeling a little better each day, a little less pain, a little less frequent with the pain pills, but I am also now at the point that I'm bored with the whole recovery process and wish it to be done.

Finally got a shower yesterday and another one today. Took off the bandage after each one and got a couple photos today which I will share. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

spinal surgery

So I finally will be getting my surgery in a few days, on Tuesday. They will be doing a laminoplasty on C3-C6. Here is an animated video. The short story is that they cut through four of the vertebrae in my neck, cut a notch, swing it open, and create a larger spinal column so the cord has more room to move around.

As I've been told, I have a complicated neck. I have bone spurs, a herniated disc, a very narrow spinal column to begin with, and another term or two I can't translate into English. I mentioned before that I first had symptoms last summer, culminating in the Trauma on the Beach, and that I had been asymptomatic since then. However, in the last month or two, I've had twitching in my calves most of the time, and after exercise I feel unnaturally warm. The calf twitching has been with me for many years, but previously only showed up after a full day or two of ultimate in hot weather. I had always thought it was due to depleted electrolytes, and maybe it was, but perhaps it's due to this. I've also had calf cramps at night dating back to at least last fall, and a few other things that I won't bore you with.

I ended up getting three official opinions. The first two were from neurosurgeons and recommended the laminoplasty, which goes in from the back of the neck. The third was from an orthopedic surgeon and recommended a complicated anterior-and-posterior approach, but after consultation with his neuro team, he too switched to this procedure. I recently read a medical article online where the study was to send the same five cases to 30 spine surgeons and see how much variation there was and whether that variation was predictable. For the case that seemed most similar to mine (Case 4), all recommended surgery, 22/30 recommended fusion (20 of which wanted to use plates and screws; mine wants to use thread), and about half wanted to go in from the back. What that means for me, I don't know, other than there isn't a single right answer. (In the simplest case, a one-level herniation, there was almost complete agreement. The others, less.)

I'll be in the hospital (New England Baptist) for about 2 days, out of work for 2-3 weeks, then will have various shades of green lights at 6-8, 12, and 18 weeks (on average; my mileage may vary). I have had precious little contact with the doctor himself, and interactions with the office were less than perfect. I mentioned this to the hospital during my pre-op screening, and they said they had frequently heard that about this doctor's office (which is run independently from the hospital). My final opinion on this office will depend on the success of the surgery, but these people are clearly used to being in a seller's market and don't have to worry about their next meal. {Insert right- or left-biased comment about American health care system here.} {I find it informative that in none of the three consultations or in my decision-making did the cost ever enter the picture. The cost to me is the same, and I have no idea what the full cost will be (well, I have some idea, maybe $20K). And since I'll have maxxed out for the year, I might as well get that Botox I've always wanted.}

And here are some additional pictures. One is the MRI, side view and a slice through the 5/6 disc. The other is a CT scan through the sixth vertebra, I think.

PS. HoF comments still welcome.