By Dave Klink
It’s the last point of the game. You are huffing and puffing on the sideline, having just played a hard point yourself. A questionable 30 yard throw goes up, heading towards your sideline. There isn’t an observer to keep anyone off the line, so players have been jockeying for a better view, and you are pretty much right on the line. The disc strays out of bounds, but you are relieved to see that your best cutter is on the job, and she has made these sorts of grabs before. She passes your position, going for the disc. The other players on the sideline who are closer to the point of impact all scramble to clear the line. Your receiver leans out hard, with her arm, hand, and fingers at full extension. She makes the catch! Even before her body slams into the ground, though, there are players on the other team calling her out, saying that her foot was touching the line. A few of your teammates respond, calling her in. Soon the sideline has morphed into a piece of performance art, full of pointing arms. Voices raise quickly as arguments begin. Your star receiver gets to her feet and looks to her defender, who is calling her out (though she was trailing, still behind your position during the catch). But the thrower, a trusted captain of your team, comes up and says he thought she was in. You glance down at the line. It is faded yellow on dry grass – not the easiest to see from a distance. You realize that you probably had the best view of the play, since you were right on the line and just a few yards away. You were focusing on her hands and not her feet, but her feet were in your line of vision as well. You close your eyes and try to access your memory, reliving the catch in your mind. Your team really needs this catch, and you find your arm itching to rise towards the field. You also hear your star receiver wavering. Her defender is pressuring her and she is about to put the disc down. But is that the right result? You replay the catch again, and you can see the line and her cleats in your mind’s eye. You can see her toes planted just inside that line. You realize that she was in! You seize the moment and make a show of signaling with your arm. Still involved in the argument, your captain notices too, and he directs everyone’s attention to your arm. “He was standing right there,” he says. Seeing the confidence in your eyes, your star receiver isn’t back down anymore, but neither are your opponents, so the disc goes back to the thrower.
Query – was that the right result?
There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t think that question has a simple answer. It’s probably not found in the rule book, though you could certainly try to apply various rules to it. But this blog post isn’t about the rules.
Before I dig into what interests me about this scenario, I should also note that I’m not a scientist. Hopefully I won’t get too much of the science wrong here. But this post doesn’t necessarily hinge on all of the specific details of the science either.
This post is about understanding disagreements over calls. I like to think that Ultimate has taught me a little something about this topic. I hope that I’ve never been “that guy” who is so insufferably hot headed that he ruins the reputation of his entire 27-player team, but I’ve never shied away from an argument either. Early in my career my default response to disagreement was usually anger. If I felt strongly about the call, then I would assume that anyone with the opposite view was intentionally cheating to gain an advantage. Sometimes the righteous fury would build within me, and I would explode. I still feel that fury sometimes in arguments, but less so. Perhaps its because I’m not in my 20’s anymore; no doubt that’s part of it. But I think I’ve also learned a bit about the nature of these arguments in my 14 years of Ultimate. The scenario I described above hopefully hints at some of what I’m talking about. I’ve learned that there are many possible explanations for a disagreement on the Ultimate field. And I’ve come to believe that willful and deliberate cheating is typically one of the least likely explanations.
So what explanations are there for disagreements over what happened in a play?
We rely heavily on our eyes, and we trust them more than we should. Science tells us that we don’t see as well as we think we do. Our visual system detects and interprets visible light to build a representation of the surrounding environment in our heads. But we are in fact “seeing” the effects of impulses reaching our eye and induced in our brain after they are transformed into electrical signals. When explained like that, vision feels a bit less dependable to me. Interestingly, we also have plenty of gaps in our vision, but the brain doesn’t like those so it fills them in for us.
Color is a big part of vision too. Check out the jungle scene photo in this BBC article to appreciate how important color is to vision. And we humans don’t all see color the same. Our visual systems generally have three types of color-sensing cells, or “cones,” which allow us to see color. Recent research shows that some women might actually have four types of cones instead of three, giving them superior color sense. There are also significant variations between humans in terms of the size of the visual cortex and the optic nerve. Some people (mostly men) are even color blind.
Another issue with optics is focus. In my scenario, you weren’t focusing on the receivers foot – it was just in your periphery. There are some fascinating studies out there about peripheral vision as it relates to reading. Though having strong peripheral vision may be useful for reading, the studies are also clear that we generally are able to see things more quickly and accurately when we are looking right at them.
And then there are other factors which create challenges for our senses. As compared to reading a book, where the words on the page sit in front of you for a long time in a comfortable environment, plays in Ultimate happen very quickly and often from some distance away, sometimes in imperfect light or weather conditions. Oh yeah, and we get tired and sweaty. (On the flip side, adrenaline heightens senses, but it also impairs judgment.)
Though my example involved vision, Ultimate disagreements can involve other senses too. The feeling of a hand hitting an arm, for example, could be the basis for a foul call. But at the risk of this post getting too out of hand, I’ll just note that sight isn’t our only fallible sense.
Remember how you saw your teammate’s cleat land just inside the line in your mind’s eye? We may not always realize what we are doing when we access our memory to figure out what just happened in a play. That wasn’t actually you seeing the play. That was you reconstructing it. The reconstruction may have been accurate, or maybe not, but memory is never a literal recount of past experiences, or we would all spend our time extremely confused. (You can tell the difference between perceiving something and remembering it, right?) There is a boatload of research out there about how memory works. It seems that false memories are fairly common. You may not have been recalling the real position of her cleat at all, especially since you didn’t get a direct look at it initially.
We see what we expect to see. You expected to win. You expected your star receiver’s feet to be in bounds. You even expected your opponent to call her out since it was close, and that’s what most opponents do. We interpret what we see to fit in with our expectations, even stuff that would seem contradictory to an unbiased observer.
For readers of fantasy novels, this is in line with Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule: “People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool . . .”
For those more interested in scientific pursuits, there is literature out there to support this concept (but I’m often too interested in fantasy novels to understand it well). So biases can influence perception, whether in how we see, reconstruct, or interpret. People also tend to overestimate the influence of other people’s biases (“yeah but you are on the other team so of course you see it that way”), but conversely underestimate the influence of their own biases (“I may have some bias here too, but I’m sure of what I saw.”).
Einstein said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Indeed, no scientist has proven that our perception of the world matches any “reality” as it exists out there beyond our perception, whatever that may mean. We may not be seeing the same thing because there may not be a thing to see, or we may be seeing different things because we are seeing different things, or we may not be seeing at all. Perhaps we are in the Matrix. Actually we’d probably see things more consistently in the Matrix.
If you combine a lack of rules knowledge with a failure to communicate effectively, you can easily have a situation where both players clearly saw the exact same thing happen but think different calls are appropriate in response. These misunderstanding can usually be identified in calm conversation, but you don’t always get calm conversation on the field.
“ARE YOU SERIOUS? NO WAY!”
(Repeat this exchange twice, both players getting angrier each time.)
The elephant in the room is that it is always possible that one or more individuals are willfully lying. There are plenty of excuses people might use to justify lying to themselves. It might be easier to lie if you didn’t see it very well, and you are trusting your teammates or following your instincts to go with your expectations about what should have happened. It might be easier to lie if you are doing it for your teammates, or alternately to get revenge on an opponent who has angered you. But at the end of the day, lies are lies. Reasonable Ultimate players should come to the conclusion that if you cheat to win, you didn’t actually win. And until there are millions of dollars at stake, the main things we walk away from after playing this sport are our friends, our memories, and our reputations, all of which are better if we played honestly.
Other than willful lies, the issues discussed above usually fly below the radar of our conscious minds. We are flawed, but we are often unaware of our flaws in action. And I likely only scratched the surface of possible explanations for reasonable disagreements over a play. Despite our disagreements, maybe people are basically good after all.
Thanks to this revelation, when I disagree with somebody nowadays I try to make it my default mode is to assume that the other person is acting legitimately and in good faith. As a bonus, it turns out the game is more fun this way.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of Dave Klink in his capacity as Dave Klink. He’s not wearing any other hats. He’s not intending to represent the views of Drag’n Thrust, Minnesota Youth Ultimate, USA Ultimate, his law firm, or any other person or entity.