Monday, June 06, 2011

Optimistic innocence

On Saturday I played in a charity mixed netball tournament no a team that began at ‘Kings Church Durham’ and ended as ‘Jose’s Magic Army’.  It was generally a good day.  I’ve always loved competing in sports tournaments, and this was the first competitive sport I’ve played since last October – partly because of graduating and being ineligible for the wonderful GCUFC and partly because of injury.
However, part way through the competition, I found myself almost speechless with anger, for reasons that I will explain in a moment.  Over the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about why I got angry, what my team mates said to me to calm me down and encourage me, and my thoughts on their responses.  I have particularly been comparing my experience of netball with my experience of Ultimate Frisbee, the sport I am most familiar with playing.

One of the rules of netball is that “No player may come into contact with an opponent in such a way that it impedes the play of that opponent.”  This includes the clarification that a player may not “push, trip, hold or lean on an opponent or use other forms of physical contact”.  This is pretty clear – netball is a non-contact sport.

Ultimate Frisbee is similar: “When the disc is in the air, all players must attempt to avoid contact with other players, and there is no situation where a player may justify initiating contact.  “Making a play for the disc” is not a valid excuse for initiating contact with other players…Some incidental contact, not affecting the outcome of the play or safety of players, may occur as two or more players move towards a single point simultaneously.  Incidental contact should be minimized but is not considered a foul.”

It could be argued that Frisbee is slightly more lenient, allowing for some contact that doesn’t affect the outcome of the play or the safety of players, but essentially these rules are the same – both sports are non-contact.

I have played Frisbee for about 8 years, and have learnt several things about the nature of the sport as non-contact:
  • Minor contact is allowable until it interferes with play.  This is due to the second part of the rule quoted above (a caveat that, as far as I can tell, netball rules do not have).
  •  Because of the self-refereed nature of the sport, if there is contact that interferes with play, players call the foul and, if necessary, play is reset and replayed.
  • Inexperienced players are, to an extent, forgiven for not always following the rules due to ignorance or inexperience.  Experienced players endeavour to teach them the rules and set a good example of following the rules.

This is the perspective from which I came to Saturday’s tournament.

In most of Saturday’s games, the extent of contact allowed seemed quite like Frisbee.  This was a surprise to me, because I had expected the umpires to be stricter in enforcing the rules – from past experience of watching, playing and talking about netball, it had seemed that the non-contact nature of the sport was taken very seriously, compared to other technically non-contact sports such as Frisbee and basketball.
In a couple of games, however, I got very angry at the fact that my marker was blatantly breaking the rules by leaning into me, initiating strong contact and preventing my movement.  I attempted to hold my ground, though without pushing back, and was pushed hard enough that I had to take steps backwards to avoid falling over.  In a semi-contact sport such as football I could completely understand this way of marking, and would use my strength and weight to lean in as well.  But in netball, a sport that has a ‘no contact’ rule with no caveat such as the one in Frisbee, this was clearly cheating.
Two things frustrated me the most.  One, that the umpires rarely, if ever, blew for these fouls, even though they were basically continual for the entirety of the games.  Two, that the worst players for this were the most experienced – players who play regularly for teams rather than players like me who were beginners.

As I said, I got worked up into a speechless rage, which doesn’t often happen – I can usually rant relatively eloquently when angry!  My team-mates helped calm me down and I did enjoy most of the rest of the day.  There were a few things that they said that really got me thinking.

One response to my anger was along the lines of ‘That’s just how it is.  Players bend the rules all the time, and not just in netball’.  This, of course, is true in many sports.  Football is the most obvious example – players diving to win free-kicks or penalties, players tussling and holding shirts at set pieces, etc.  Two points in response.  Firstly – yes, this does happen all the time and in many sports, but I think I was surprised at it in netball, given my expectations of strict adherence to the no-contact rule.  Secondly, that is no reason not to get angry at it.  The argument of ‘that’s just the way it is’, is not a strong one for me.  The rules are there to make the sport safe and fair.  They should not be broken.  I have nothing against being competitive or playing hard or playing to win…so long as it remains in the rules.
Maybe I’m being naïve.  Maybe I’m too idealistic.  Maybe it’s my sporting background.  I grew up playing footy with mates, but in terms of competitive sport, my experience was limited to athletics, cross-country, and tennis – all quite individualistic sports where players don’t really come into contact with each other.  They tend to compete ‘at a distance’.  Post-school, my main sport has been Frisbee.  If you don’t know, the genius of this sport, beyond the speed, skill, or excitement, is ‘The Spirit of the Game’.  This is so completely fundamental to the sport, it deserves full quotation.  If you can't be bothered to read it, the essence is: respect players, be truthful not cynical, call your own fouls.

1.1. Ultimate is a non-contact, self-refereed sport.  All players are responsible for administering and adhering to the rules.  Ultimate relies upon a Spirit of the Game that places the responsibility for fair play on every player.
1.2. It is trusted that no player will intentionally break the rules; thus there are no harsh penalties for breaches, but rather a method for resuming play in a manner which simulates what would most likely have occurred had there been no breach.
1.3. Players should be mindful of the fact that they are acting as referees in any arbitration between teams.  In such situations, players must:
1.3.1. know the rules;
1.3.2. be fair-minded and objective;
1.3.3. be truthful;
1.3.4. explain their viewpoint clearly and briefly;
1.3.5. allow opponents a reasonable chance to speak;
1.3.6. resolve disputes as quickly as possible; and
1.3.7. use respectful language.
1.4. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but should never sacrifice the mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play.
1.5. The following actions are examples of good spirit:
1.5.1. informing a team-mate if they have made a wrong or unnecessary call or caused a foul or violation;
1.5.2. retracting a call when you no longer believe the call was necessary;
1.5.3. complimenting an opponent for good play or spirit;
1.5.4. introducing yourself to your opponent; and
1.5.5. reacting calmly towards disagreement or provocation.
1.6. The following actions are clear violations of the spirit of the game and must be avoided
by all participants:
1.6.1. dangerous play and aggressive behaviour;
1.6.2. intentional fouling or other intentional rule violations;
1.6.3. taunting or intimidating opposing players;
1.6.4. disrespectful celebration after scoring;
1.6.5. making calls in retaliation to an opponent’s call; and
1.6.6. calling for a pass from an opposition player.
1.7. Teams are guardians of the Spirit of the Game, and must:
1.7.1. take responsibility for teaching their players the rules and good spirit;
1.7.2. discipline players who display poor spirit; and
1.7.3. provide constructive feedback to other teams about how to improve their adherence to the Spirit of the Game.
1.8. In the case where a novice player commits an infraction out of ignorance of the rules, experienced players are obliged to explain the infraction.
1.9. An experienced player, who offers advice on rules and guides on-field arbitration, may supervise games involving beginners or younger players.
1.10. Rules should be interpreted by the players directly involved in the play, or by players who had the best perspective on the play.  Non-players, apart from the captain, should refrain from getting involved.  However for calls relating to “out-of-bounds” and 3“down”, players may seek the perspective of non-players to assist them to make the appropriate call.
1.11. If players cannot agree what occurred in a play, the disc shall be returned to the last
non-disputed thrower.

I have played Frisbee for long enough that this attitude is now ingrained in me.  I’ve noticed how I often make calls against my team when playing other sports.  For example, in rounders, if I know my team mate is out, I will argue for that decision.  On Saturday, after a baseline pass was given to my team, I corrected the umpire by informing them that it had clipped my finger on the way out and the decision should be reversed.  I am not trying to sound ‘holier-than-thou’, I am not trying to make Frisbee sound better than any other sport, but this is the viewpoint from which I approach sport.  I try to apply the Spirit of the Game to any sport I play.  I believe it is the only way to remove cynicism and cheating from sport.

I do not have the sporting experience that others do, that perhaps make them more immune to the kind of cynical breaking of the rules I experienced on Saturday.  In fact, I have to opposite experience.  Maybe this is why I get so angry, more than others, when I observe cheating in sport.

Another response from my team-mates was the advice to do the same thing back, or ‘give as good as I got’.  I think I reacted quite badly to this.  I do not believe that the fact that other players are cheating (because, when you get down to it, that’s what bending the rules is – trying to gain an advantage though unfair and illegal (no matter how minorly illegal) play) gives me the right to do the same.  Again, maybe I’m being naïve.  Maybe I sound holier-than-thou – that is not my intention.

On reflection, I think part of this reaction comes from my personality – I am quite idealistic – and part of it comes from how I approach all sport like Frisbee.  This is why I was particularly angry at the fact that the worst players were the experienced ones.  In my Frisbee background, inexperienced players might break rules my mistake, but experienced players would do so only rarely, and would not break rules deliberately.

Unlike many of my posts on here, this is not me trying to prove a point or argue an opinion.  It is more a reflection on why I reacted badly in a situation.  Unsurprisingly I guess, it was due to both my personality and my experiences.  Maybe I’ll get used to sporting cynicism someday.  Part of me hopes I will, so I can just chill out a bit.  Part of me hopes I don’t lose this optimistic innocence.

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