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Words About Words: The Language And Jargon In Ultimate Matters

The words we use matter for understanding, emphasis, and community.

USA Ultimate Level 1 Coaching Clinic.When I opened this column, I promised that I’d spend a little time discussing language in ultimate. Before I talk about specific language usage, I want to begin by addressing why language is important, frequent issues with our use of language, and what our goals should be as we develop language for the sport.

The Power of Language

We are in a very interesting time in the sport overall and specifically as it relates to language. The sport is growing quickly and we’re gaining exposure. Meanwhile, with more players and more coaches, there are more new ideas about strategy and tactics as well as ideas on how to teach specific skills.

It should be obvious to anyone concerned with improving or coaching that language–how we describe what we are doing, what we want to be doing, what other team’s are doing, and more–is critical to both our individual success and development as a sport.

Perhaps the most powerful impact of language, particularly on a new sport such as ultimate, is how having language for specific actions can draw attention to those actions and change the way that we actually see the game. As humans, we have a predisposition to attention bias; we notice and emphasize what we pay attention to. When we create words to describe something that is happening on the field, we draw our attention to those things and away from other things. It’s easy to see the power of this behavior. Think about the first time you heard the phrase “same third hucks” and then how many of those you began noticing. Whether or not you agree with the “rule of thirds,” certainly having that language affects your perception of the game.

The more obvious impact of having good language is the ability for us to create a shared understanding of the sport. This can allow players to improve more quickly and allow a team to get on the same page. It allows us to better share ideas and create new, innovative strategies. If I can tell my team “stop the upline (or O2/Oven)” and everyone understands what “upline” means, I can communicate my instructions in far fewer words than saying “stop the reset handler who is positioned backfield from catching the disc moving downfield” (which is not only wordy but filled with even more jargon that makes it harder to understand). Clear language allows us to more quickly adapt and work as a team and community, furthering our goals.

Frequent Challenges with Language

As we develop language for the sport, we should be thoughtful about the words we use and be as intentional as possible. This is true for all of us, but particularly true of coaches, writers, and commentators of the sport whose words are heard by many people and who spread ideas around. There are two potential missteps that avoiding will help ensure the language we develop is as empowering as possible.

Language that limits or biases our way of thinking

When we use already existing words to mean things in ultimate, we should be aware that those words may carry connotations that can influence how we think about the sport. For example, we often use the term “dump” to refer to a pass to a handler who is starting even or behind the disc. “Dump” for many of us has a negative connotation and evokes images of going behind or disposing of something, sometimes carelessly or hurried.

But successful offenses need to be able to throw to handlers who have the option of moving to either the backfield or downfield, and they need to be doing it with care and intention. The best “dumps” are ones that move the disc to better places than they were before. Cutting handlers and throwers need to understand that downfield cuts are an option and the movement is not simply about getting the disc out of the thrower’s hands. Using the term “dump” can inhibit that processing and strategic development. An alternative is “reset,” which provides a positive connotation and is directionally neutral.

More recently, I’ve seen the rise of the term “center handler.” But what is a center handler? Do they stay in the center? How does that inform how I structure my offense or gameplan my defense for a team? If someone is considered a center handler, does that create a bias around where they should be positioned, and does that have a negative (or positive) impact? Does it create limits on how we structure our pull plays or run our offense? Are there other, better terms to describe that position (e.g., “point guard” or “primary handler”) that don’t limit that role or give it a restrictive connotation?

Language for analyzing vs language for doing

We should also be aware that the language that we use to talk about and analyze the sport is far different than the language that we use to coach and perform the sport.

For me, and probably many coaches out there, this can be particularly challenging to keep in mind; I like words, descriptions, and analysis but words, for the most part, aren’t quickly translatable to performance, and too many words can inhibit performance. Playing ultimate is hard enough as it is, but try to play while also engaging your brain constantly in translation of one language to another. And that’s what this is all about–creating a language for the sport that we can speak while also creating a language for our bodies to perform.

Tommy Li’s recent article about throwing and the discussion that followed regarding language and performance is useful and has some great references. Of the discussion, the quotation from W. Timothy Gallway’s Inner Game of Tennis is particularly relevant:

My next lesson that day was with a beginner named Paul who had never held a racket. I was determined to show him how to play using as few instructions as possible; I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference. So I started by telling Paul I was trying something new: I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginnings players about the proper grip, stroke, and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind, several times then just let his body imitate.

After I had hit ten forehands, Paul imagined himself doing the same. Then, as I put the racket into his hand, sliding it into the correct grip, he said to me, “I noticed that the first thing you did was move your feet.” I replied with a noncommital grunt and asked him to let his body imitate the forehand as well as it could. He dropped the ball, took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height, perfect for his first attempt! But wait, his feet; they hadn’t moved an inch from the perfect ready position he had assumed before taking his racket back. They were nailed to the court! I pointed to them and Paul said, ” Oh yeah, I forgot about them!” The one element of the stroke Paul had tried to remember was the one thing he didn’t do! Everything else had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!”

The long story short, as a coach I may hold a lot more words in my head about ultimate actions than I share with my players. I write a lot more words than I use to coach. When coaching individuals and teams, be conscious of how many words you create and use.

Recommendations for clear language

As we continue on the long process of creating and modifying language for the sport, here are a few, straightforward guidelines that can help us decide on the right terms and implement them so that your team and others can understand you and each other.

Language should be accessible and descriptive where possible

Sometimes it’s fun to pick out an obscure or funny term to use to represent an idea. Maybe the term is rooted in some really useful event that the people who need to know the term remember. For example, we graduated a handler last year, Lucy Williams, who had a very specific cut that she executed very effectively. We wanted to incorporate the cut into our offense so we refer to it as the “Lucy cut.” But, as time moves on and fewer people have seen Lucy play, the term loses its built-in meaning, and instead of being helpful, it becomes a barrier to understanding.

When we’re working to communicate across teams or regions or introducing new people to the sport or new players to our strategies, the more accessible and intuitive language is, and the easier it is for people to learn. While calling the 1-3-3 the “Bunny D” might be fun and capture some of the effort put forth by the “one,” there is nothing about the name “Bunny D” that helps a player who doesn’t know it understand it.

Within this recommendation, there is still a good deal of latitude. In my recent article about defensive fundamentals, I discussed a concept I call “swooping.” In a comment, Anna Nazarov said that Fury calls the same concept “casting the net.” In this case, “swooping” describes the movement while “casting the net” describes the purpose of the action. Both are helpful terms that contribute to a player being able to identify, understand, and execute the concept.

Language should be neutral

As much as possible, the terms we use shouldn’t carry potential connotations that could adversely impact player behavior. “Dump” and “center handler” are both terms that carry meaning that your team may not want to apply to the concept. Recently Riot has been using the term “deep throw” as opposed to “huck” as “huck” includes a connotation of being indiscriminate, and they want to communicate that all their throws are intentional.

The flipside of this avoidance are cases when you want to add additional meaning to your terms to communicate more. For many teams in the Midwest, the upline reset cut is referred to as “O2” which stands for “Option 2.” Originally, “Option 1” (or “O1”) was the backfield reset. By numbering and prioritizing the options, a team can add emphasis to what they are looking for from their reset. Of course, for many teams that use these terms, some of the history may have been lost and so all that remains is “O2”; when the “option” disappears and the “O1” disappears, “O2” then becomes a meaningless descriptor. The moral of the story is that it’s worth taking a hard look at the language you use to determine if it’s as effective as it can be.

Looks like/feels like

Once you’ve got terms for your team, you’ve got to make sure that everyone is on the same page with what they mean. It’s easy as a coach to think that since you’ve introduced a concept and drilled it your team must have a shared understanding. I wrote recently about the concept of Y-Charting. Y-Charting can be useful for more than just overarching team concepts like “intensity”; it can also be applied to specific skills, tactics, and strategic concepts.

I can not emphasize enough the value of video and physical examples in all of this type of work. While you can describe what a “forehand” or a “reset” should look like in words, visual examples of the well-executed action is considerably easier to translate to repeated execution. This can be supplemented by questions about what the term “sounds like” and “feels like.” Moving the understanding from the part of your brain responsible for thinking to the part of your brain responsible for doing is the difference between being able to execute reliably and not.

This is one of the big reasons that good teams are able to stay good. Having players who can reliably demonstrate key concepts over and over allows new players to fully grasp what the concept “looks like.” This is also why the increase in video content is meaningful, particularly for teams where everyone on the team is developing or trying to level-up.

Language in our sport is young and ever changing. Good use of language significantly affect how quickly we develop on all levels: individual, team, and as a sport. But language has its limitations. Understanding the important and necessary connections between words and visuals can exponentially increase clear communication and development.

  1. Kyle Weisbrod
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    Kyle Weisbrod is the coach of the U of Washington women’s team, Element. He has coached several teams including Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA and his articles are edited by the tremendous Diana B. Lerman. You can reach him by e-mail (kyle.weisbrod@gmail.com) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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