The Spinning Yo-Yo of the College Ultimate Tournament Circuit

By: Gene Buonaccorsi

There’s a hum that I can’t stop hearing in media surrounding college ultimate. The issues of USAU’s rankings algorithm, and how the teams that you play affect your bid situation never leaves my ear. My personal experiences won’t leave me alone either. During my five years in the college division I stomached the agony of a season slipping through my hands in the game-to-go to Nationals and I felt the comfort of qualifying on Saturday in a controversially fruitful year. The issue manages to hit close to home and stay nationally relevant simultaneously. Most recently, I read through a concise and uniquely presented statistical analysis of tournament attendance. And I still don’t really have any clarity.

 

Photo courtesy of Ultiworld

 

Two years as the captain of a top 25 college team left me hard pressed to think of a more bizarre task than arranging a spring tournament schedule. The moving pieces are impossible to prepare for, thanks to veiled information and differing motives. Tournament options are at least somewhat consistent, but you’re never really choosing just what tournaments to attend, you’re choosing what sacrifices to make in the team’s trajectory. Traveling to some tournaments is financially irresponsible, but cheap tournaments might provide lesser competition. You can optimize competitive opportunities by blasting through Centex and Easterns back-to-back, but substitute a Saturday or two at mid-level tourneys and you can build a deep team that can sustain through tournaments. In retrospect it would have been easy to call any of the above the better choice…

 

…when it was a choice at all. As a fringe Nationals team, qualifying 3 of 5 years, my squad was always at the whim of the TD’s opinions of our abilities. This was frustrating for a number of reasons, none more so than the unregulated nature in which selections are made. 

Without a third party (remember Cultimate?), or even a structure like the Triple Crown Tour, tournament makeup is completely up to organizing captains and coaches. In other words, it’s up to people whose primary goal is to get their team the best shot at Nationals or Regionals possible.

 

Photo courtesy of USA Ultimate

 

Let’s back up for a second. I am in no way suggesting that TDs across the country organize and give bids to tournaments for the sole purpose of increasing the chances that they achieve their end of season goals. I am, however, pointing out that there are pretty huge gains to be made by these people if they nudge close-call decisions in the direction of their motives. Don’t believe me? Consider the relative parity in the one bid Southwest the past two years, and then explain why Stanford is offering a Southwest Region strength bid to the invite this year, if not to bolster the RRIs surrounding theirs. Or how about the practice of rolling bid acceptances while holding out for more appealing teams? My co-captain and I once waited for an email response from a competitive tournament for so long that we accepted a bid to a lower level one to make sure we filled the schedule…only to be accepted to the competitive tournament the very next day.

 

Sit tight, I will try to bring a more salient point out of all this. First, though, two quick side notes:

  1. I would probably have participated in favor nudging, bet-hedging, etc. if I had ever been in the position to do so.
  2. I’m not vilifying TDs, coaches or captains who host tournaments. I accept that these are the circumstances.

With that said, here’s the thing that the hum never focuses in on, and what statistical analysis doesn’t show, and what my complaining has no effect on: if you don’t lose at Regionals, or at Sectionals, or in the 5th place bracket, or wherever you’re hoping to succeed, it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season. College ultimate is notoriously volatile — any game can be won, regardless of the competing teams’ assumed statuses. Was anyone outside of the program counting on Luther to be there in 2013? Pretty doubtful. The media ignored them and they grabbed the North Central’s 3rd bid on the heels of their ability to win. Bid situations fall into the category of uncontrollable elements once you step on the field. Coherent team development is the strongest tool against this particular enemy.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t frustration to be drawn from the situation. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t shine a light on the influence that teams like Stanford, Texas, UNC-Wilmington and USF have on who plays who. At the end of the day, it makes sense to reconsider the parameters that dictate who has the best statistical chance of earning a bid.

 

In a practical sense, though, it’s much more worthwhile (if you still have/are a horse in the race) to prepare for the need to win out. If you know you might get snubbed by some of your top choices, find solid tournaments where you can teach the lower half of your roster to win instead of waiting on bids. It’ll keep returners fresh for your later runs. If you can’t afford financially to do the full circuit, evaluate the linear development of your team over a few months. Are you still getting to know each other, or can you start to finetune at Warm Up? The examples I gave were chosen to illustrate the disconnect between bids and success, and to emphasize that there is a level of preparation that college captains, coaches and leaders can engage in to make the most of their tournament schedule.

 

Photo courtesy of Ultiworld

The hum is still there, and it’s probably going to stay. Until some massive sea change, we’re going to have to live with this system. The motives that I discussed are a part of it, and a volatile one, but they should only be important to some who’s finally relegated to armchairing it, like me. If you have to react to, and play around those challenges, the effort is much better spent evaluating the processes at hand and planning for success.

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