Archive for Tips

The Goalie as a Megaphone

Lancaster United Pick-up tourney (41)

Thanks to Paul Donald, who gave me this idea for a post

When I get into goal, I get chatty.

For one thing, it’s boring to just sit back there when the ball is scooting to the left and right–even more boring if you’re down by 3 and are trying to make sure that nobody is gonna sneak one in by taking a big, dumb, long shot.

But getting chatty isn’t just my way of entertaining myself: the goalie (that is, the person who is hanging back in the defensive half), has a pretty good view of the action in the offensive half. One trick I’ve learned in bike polo is that a team that communicates well plays well, and the person back is a key player in that communication.

Instead of getting all #quietcore about what’s going on up front, consider (basically) narrating the action. You’ll feel goofy at first–or even after doing it for a year or so, but it’s invaluable to team-mates who can then use that information to make faster plays or better decisions.

It’s hard, in the heat of play, to be completely aware of where the ball, team-mates, and opposing players are. Having one person who is able to feed you that information via yelling down court is a boon to anyone who wants to know more than they can take in with their own observations.

So what should you tell your team? Well, I always try to let them know what the other team is doing (“GOAL OPEN” “ONE DABBING” “HE LOST THE BAAAAAALLLL”), and sometimes where their own player is (“YOU CAN PASS BEHIND” “IN FRONT OF GOAL” “HE HAS YOUR PICK”). I’ll also put on the coach hat on occasion, too, letting the player know if their breakaway was successful and they can take their time on the shot or if they have a player right behind them who is gaining speed.

It’s not quite the move that will people to ooh and ahhh at you, but it’s one that your team-mates will appreciate and might just make enough of a difference that you’ll win a game that you’d otherwise struggle in.

BUT–there are also times when you shouldn’t say a damned thing: this is when it’s apparent that your two players have a connection established and don’t need your help or calling. I, as an opposing player, often use the calls from the opposite team to put myself in position to interrupt the play they’re trying for. Point in fact one of my favorite things is to shout the same thing the other team is shouting at each other while interrupting their action. It’s a delicate sort of balance to know when you should or shouldn’t be a megaphone. My suggestion is this: if it seems like your team is trying something sneaky, keep your squawkbox closed.

Mallet Orientation, IMHO

Chris2

This is the first installment of a series of thoughts Chris Hill of Ginyu Force has about particular skills in bike polo. The series, (IMHO), will run whenever he sends me another article–but if this first article is any indication, we’re in for some awesome talk about building your skill set.  

There’s an abandoned tennis court down the street from my apartment. I like to roll over there after work and shoot around until sundown. Squint at a fence post, look down at the ball, squint back at the fence post, swing, and hope for that sweet “plink”. On the sidelines at a tournament, I once overheard someone say “50 shots a day” when talking about their practice routines, and I really took that to heart.

Since NA’s I’ve been thinking especially about shooting. It’s so hard. It seems like so many players can put the ball perfectly, exactly where they want every time from anywhere. But how? I love/hate that there isn’t a clear answer. There’s no right way to take a shot. Our sport is still DIY in the technique department. Leaning on the boards, watching NA’s these past few years, I’ve noticed common subtle tricks the top level players use: how they carry their mallet, positioning the ball just so, swinging a certain way. Trying to emulate these techniques has shown a surprising improvement in my shots. So Crusher and I came up with the idea to start a series about practicing and perfecting the fundamentals. I’m not trying to say that I’m of any caliber to be handing out lessons, but I’d like to share some of the things I think about when I’m poking around the ole’ tennis court.

First, mallet orientation.

I remember the Beavers playing at North Americans in 2013. It was my first NAs and I remember watching every one of their games. I was studying, trying to figure out what makes them the best in the World.  Besides being struck by their sheer size and stickball wizardry, I noticed they carried their mallets in a different way. Read more

Getting Better Doesn’t Just Happen, Bub.

blame

There are times in my past where I felt as if a switch would be flipped. Like a lever would be pulled down in my brain and suddenly I’d be up-to-snuff with other bike polo players that I’d come to respect and admire. But the fact is that doesn’t happen.

Believe me, I’ve pulled on everything I could all over my body, and the only thing that changes is you’re not allowed to go into certain businesses anymore.

I think part of the problem was that I was hoping, incorrectly, that the problems I had with certain fundamental skills (shooting, passing, speed, court awareness) could be ignored until I played long enough that they would, inherently, be corrected.

But I’m here to lay some truth down on you, friend: the problems you have now as a player will be the problems you always have unless you work to correct them.

If you find that you aren’t very good at connecting with the ball–like your mallet scrunches up as if it were some delightfully hilarious flamingo when you’re whapping at the ball–then that’s something you need to address right now. Not down the line, not when it magically solves itself because somehow at seven months of play it disappears, right. now.

If you’re not too good at disrupting a play and then getting control of the ball, work on that with a friend immediately. If you can’t collect a pass or make a quick shot on goal; try to exercise those muscles at your next pickup day.

There isn’t a magical clock in your abilities that suddenly starts going off as soon as you play X amount of games or reach an undisclosed amount of years playing. Truth is, if you just keep playing the same way you’ve always played, you’ll…uh…always play that way.

You must take ownership of your own development if you indeed want to grow as a player (if you don’t want to grow as a player, then ignore this whole post. If you’re just in it for the funsies and nothing else, you’re all set, really. Just keep having fun. I’m not talking to you lucky devils). There isn’t anyone who is necessarily going to take you under their wing and teach you how to become the next great polo phenomenon unless you’re asking around and listening to their advice (even then, in all honesty, chances are you already know what they’re going to tell you, but aren’t willing to practice enough to make that knowledge anything more than knowledge).

There are limitations, of course–both physical and situational–that can limit you in your growth. Believe me, if there is one person who should be aware of limitations in growth, it’s me. BUT! That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about even the most basic skills going un-developed because players aren’t willing to work on those skills. I’m talking about always having trouble getting the ball off of the wall, wanting to get better, but ignoring the fact that getting better means putting in the work to do so.

So this is my tip for today. My plea, really: take ownership of your development, and accept the challenge of working at getting better at bike polo. Don’t rely on time or pickup games to somehow bless you with the skillset you need to get great. Become a student of the game and get your hands-on-education started up!

I Just Met You, And This is Crazy:

maybe

But There’s this Tourney–So Team Up, Maybe?

One of bike polo’s greatest strengths is the ability for any 3 people to team up and play around. This is doubly true for tournaments where all of us can find friends from new places and play around at this goofy little thing we’ve got ourselves wrapped up in.

Do we normally win when we do that? Well, no–but it’s not always about winning, is it?

Oh…oh for some of you it is? Oh. Well then.

Uh…

Hmm.

So let’s say it is about winning, for you. Let’s say you know how to have a good time and you’re not trying to bloodsport around out on the court, but that you do want to make it further than your first 2 games on the second day. If I might make a suggestion in that regard: play with a team you’ve played with for at least a season before.

Yes, it means that some of your spontaneity will be gone–you won’t be able to just post “anyone need a third?” for every tournament you want to involve yourself with–but I suspect you’ll begin seeing a bit more reach on your 2nd day tourney adventures than what you have in the past. This is also why, I believe, you shouldn’t necessarily think that teaming up with the best players you can is equal to if not greater than teaming up with the most consistently-available-to-play-together players. The way I’ve witnessed it, the team that plays together more…

dogAh damn…let’s see here.

The team that plays together more…hmm. Stays together more? Like, stays together during Sunday because they aren’t boozing and crying by themselves. I don’t like that one but it’s all I’ve got. Damn.

The only other one I have is the team that knows each other grows each other, but that seems to be a bit more sexualized than what I’m going for. I really worked myself into a corner. Shoot.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at (a team that lasts is one with a past? Hell.) is how much more important it is to have experience playing with the other people on your team over how much your team has experience or skill on their own. Naturally if you bring in an all star your team is going to pummel most other teams–but it won’t pummel other teams full of all stars. To have a better chance at that, look to the inherent expectation and ability to read your team mates that comes from having a history with them.

A team that gets it can’t quits it?

Forget it, I give up.

 

You’re Out Of The Club: Dealing With Problem Players

ejected

Problem players: people who lose their cool, who verbally or physically attack other players, who are generally bringing down the happy-fun-times that bike polo was created to bring about. These are the people who cause a lot of heartache and headache for a club who might not be readily prepared to deal with such a person. I’ve been there, as I think all clubs have been–and I want to help in the most Dr. Phil-ish like capacity I am able to. Hell, I might even throw out some Southern witticisms while I’m at it just to really drive home the comparisons. Who knows.

I think the trouble with trouble players comes from a few sources. One, there isn’t any sort of hierarchy inside of a club, which makes it impossible to discipline someone effectively (or even talk about what’s going wrong). Two, there isn’t any sort of code of conduct (written or otherwise) to indicate what is and is not good behavior. Three, and this is the toughest of the three; there is a fear of losing a friend (which, presumably, this person is despite their ridiculous behavior. These three all together lead up to a significant problem for any club who has someone who did something very much so against the spirit of the game (let’s say they punched another player in the face) or someone who repeatedly commits smaller actions which make other players uncomfortable or upset (someone who, let’s say, consistently picks on another player to a point that is far beyond heckling).

magnaIn these cases, as with any case where there is an element of an organization that is causing harm to themselves, to other individuals, or to the group itself, it’s important to remove the emotional and instead work of facts. To do this, there must be some form of expected conduct–whether that’s something that is verbally understood by your club or it is a literal document that states what is and is not acceptable to do as a club member. This isn’t something that tells you what you can say or can’t say–or what you can do in your off time: it’s specific to pickup and (if you want to get really thorough) tournaments. It should have both the types of infractions and the punishment for infractions. Something like:

1. Purposeful physical attack on another player:

-1st time: 2 week suspension

-2nd time: 1 month suspension

-3rd time: banned from club/pick-up

 

2. Purposeful physical attack on player’s equipment:

-repayment of any broken equipment in money or in replacement within 30 days

 

Now, this all seems pretty stodgy, and it is. There is nothing that should make you feel good about having a document like this on hand in your club, specifically for something so loose and free flowing as bike polo. BUT–when it comes time when a player lashes out at another, you’ll be happy to have this document to lean on.

Why is that? For a few reasons: you remove the argument that you’re just punishing the player for no other reason than to get back at them. Point in fact, you (as the club president or representative or whatever) are simply following a document that your club agreed on. There doesn’t need to be any emotion in it at all. The other player did X, and the result is Y.

But this also means that there must be some sort of hierarchy in the club (someone who is elected or chooses to enforce the rules agreed to by the club. Really this can just be a collective thing–everyone is responsible for knowing and enforcing the rules–but generally people don’t want to be bothered. Instead, having someone who is willing to enforce the rules (and having a club that’s willing to abide them) is the key.

But what if the person to be disciplined doesn’t agree? Well, I don’t envy you, but the best thing to do in this case is simply make sure the club refuses to play with them on the regular days of pickup. The thing of it is, you’re not this person’s parent and you aren’t their boss. The most you can do as a club is punish them within the confines of regular activity (as far as a suspension or removal from the club is concerned). If this person shows up during a suspension, your club should simply stop playing if they try to jump in. Likewise, if they show up after being kicked out of the club, you should let it be known they aren’t welcome to play.

But: Read more

Hacking Bike Polo

hackers

There are players who play the game, and there are players who play the system

At North Americans, it’s hard to bump into a player who doesn’t know what they are doing. If everything turns out the way it should (which it seemed to me was the case), the best players from each region show up at Minneapolis to challenge each other. There aren’t any brand-new players (well, okay, there might be–but they are very good), and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t deserve to be there.

But there are different types of strategy being employed: people who are just really good at playing the game, and people who are really good at hacking bike polo. Those are the people who are the most exciting to watch, in my opinion, simply because they are using their brains to win.

battlefield 1942I think the best way for me to relate what this looks like is to nerd out and tell you about my (past) enjoyment in playing Battlefield 1942 when I was in college. The computer game is your basic, first person shoot-em-up game where you fight Nazis, among others, and try not to get killed yourself. If you were in a particularly good game it played out in a way that was acceptable to nerdlings like myself who wanted the experience of being at war without actually getting out of their chair/losing weight/making a difference for their country. But because of this, games became very repetitive (if X happened that meant Y would happen, which meant Z and a bazooka blows off your face).

But I learned early that I could simply not think like a player and instead hack the mentality of the game. I’d go far around the map–all the way away from the action–and then circle back behind enemy lines. I’d sneak to a good position and plink off other players at random–letting some get very close to my position without attacking them to cover myself. It made the game fun for me and infuriating for other players. All of my dork-tentacles wiggled in self-esteem.

Now coming back to another nerd endeavor: in bike polo between two equalish teams, you can pretty much expect a fair amount of back and forth passing and shooting–someone being the fast aggressor, someone being the defensive back, and someone floating around the middle and diving back or forward depending on the situation. If it doesn’t make for a boring game, it does make for a predictable one. Essentially, the game becomes one where both teams are waiting for the other to make a mistake.

hackBut then there are players who simply hack that expectation. They are figuring out what the other players are expecting and working around that expectation. This is where the Nino Dios did very well, and where the Ringers did very well, too. These teams didn’t play traditional polo, necessarily. They were using the rules and the expectations of play to their own ends, allowing them to confound the people they played against and to present situations that people were not used to.

Consider the power you can gain, here: even if you’re not a great player, you can use that brain of yours to figure out what others are expecting you to do, and not do that. It’s the smoke and mirrors of bike polo, and teams that do it very well find that they are presented with easy opportunities to score simply because the other team is so out of position that the goal is open or the goalie underprepared. Some of this stems from fancy footwork with the ball (passing to yourself, sneaking it through someone’s bottom bracket, etc.), but other elements include thinking outside of the game itself–thinking of the game as a thing to be puzzled out rather than to be played.

Is it for everyone? No, probably not. But it is a fun way to come up with some new techniques to win–particularly if you find yourself matched up against an equal or stronger team.

Complain Better, And Other Useful Polo Skills

angry coach

Complaining is (and if that darned reality TV has its way) always will be a part of the human condition. It helps us externalize and internal discomfort, it helps us commiserate with others, and it makes grievances known. It’s also a pretty great way to get under someone else’s skin, if you do t all wrong.

Bike polo is a factory of complaint. Take a look at the online forums, at discussions around the rules, or even just chit-chat courtside to get a taste of what bike polo runs on: a general mal-content and bitter dislike for anything less than what you want. 

Okay, I’m hyper generalizing here. But there is a whole website (up until recently it had gone dark, but now has a fresh new post) dedicated to complaining about bike polo. C’mon now!

However, there is a stark difference between a good complaint and a bad complaint, and just to help out in only the basic, altogether useless way that I normally do, I’d like to talk about the difference between the two.

So far I’ve come across much more “bad” complaining than “good” complaining in our sport. Bad complaining (as I see it) is made up of:

  • Bringing up problems without solutions
  • Attacking individuals rather than ideas
  • Complaining only for the sake of creating malcontent
  • Complaining only for the benefit of oneself

These four generally bring about more negatives than positives (sure, you’ve just made yourself feel better about shouting to the organizers, but those boards that are falling down are not going to magically prop themselves back up because you cursed and said something clever, for instance). Furthermore, consider whether what you’re saying is actually for the benefit of all (complaining about how there is a big ol’ hole in the middle of your court) or just for yourself (complaining that you don’t like how player X always takes the ball from you, and how they shouldn’t be allowed to because it’s not fair).

So what’s the bad outcome of complaining in a jerk-ish manner? Well, besides stirring up aggression in an already aggressive game, you’re pinning yourself as a–you guessed it–complainer. While there is fundamentally nothing wrong with bringing up problems (squeaky wheel getting the grease, and all that), there is a problem with complaining so much–and so often about things that only concern you–that others will simply begin to ignore you. You may find yourself soon bringing up valid concerns, but having those concerns land only on deaf ears.

Bike polo breeds a certain amount of dissent–it’s part of what makes the game so fun, really–but don’t try to go so far as to complain about everything without considering how you can first solve the problem yourself. If all we become are complainers, we’ll drive away the next generation of players through our drone of whining.

Skills Practice: Let’s Talk About BRUCE! Ball

BRUCE

Lead photo by Steve Bourque

Last night Horse, Kokus and I were waiting for the rest of our club’s players to come out for humidity +6 bike polo, and we found it hard to just sit in the sun like that and wait. Horse suggested we play BRUCE! ball so we did that for a while, and something struck me.

I’d played BRUCE! ball before, but I hadn’t played it after taking time off nor when I planned to really pay attention to what I was doing. I found it was both fun and a great way to sharpen up multiple skills all at once.

For those who are uninitiated, BRUCE! ball came to Lancaster via DC bike polo (and, point in fact, isn’t at all what DC calls Bruce Ball. It’s actually just called “Five Hole” or something down there. Whatever. We like calling this game BRUCE! ball anyway). I don’t know where they got it from (and feel free to tell your creation story below, DC), but the way we play it here in Lanc-Land is as follows:

  • There is at least one ball used during play. You can do more than one, and that adds a bit more excitement.
  • Players attempt to shoot the ball through the 5 hole (the space between the back wheel and the front wheel) of other players
  • Each time a ball passes through your own 5 hole, you earn 1 point
  • Once you reach 5 points, you are eliminated from play
  • The goal is to not get any points, or to at least get the least amount of points out of all players

I really like this game for a few reasons. To start with, it’s something to do when you don’t have numbers. It’s also a good way of just goofing around with other polo players. In a more practical sense, however, you’re learning how to defend your 5 hole against shots (which will make you a stronger goalie), you’re learning positional awareness, as you’re always trying to stay perpendicular to other players who want to shoot at your 5 hole, and you’re gaining accuracy/ball control.

On top of all of this, you’re also learning how to shift from offensive to defensive positioning and mindset quickly, which is a skill that pays HUGE dividends in the long run of your time in the sport.

BRUCE! ball also didn’t feel like something stupid to do while we were waiting to play a match. It felt like a completely different game entirely rather than a replacement, which was enjoyable. I felt like I was warmed up for playing polo, sure–hell, I even felt like my mind was more prepared for hand-eye coordination and skill–but I wasn’t upset that I was playing it instead of being in a match.

Anyway, I thought I’d pass this along for folks who hadn’t considered it before. I thought it was a pretty swell way to pass the time while building up some core skills all players need to have.

YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO

YOU

There are times–rare as it may seem–when a fellow player on the court will take a moment to tell you what, in their opinion, you might have done better with the previous play/error. It is during these times (again, rare as it may seem), you might have the immediate desire to give that person a wedgie and then push them into a puddle.

This is almost a ritual in bike polo, I’d say.

The thing about that impulse–that you-are-no-better-than-me-shut-up-already feeling, is that nine times out of ten it’s unwarranted. But only 9 times, so don’t completely lose that fighting spirit.

When it comes down to it, I think the frustration folks feel when getting a tip or suggestion from a fellow player may stem from a few frames of mind, including:

  • This person always tells me what to do
  • This person isn’t a better player than me
  • I already know what I did wrong
  • I’m grumpy
  • I don’t want other people to know I messed up

All of these are very much so ego-driven. Much like a Zen master, you must release your ego in order to actually grow a bit in this area of the game–you need to re-frame your brain space in order to accept that you aren’t the center of the universe and you don’t need to take suggestions like laws. 

I’ll give an example:

Kyle, for better or worse, gives a lot of suggestions on the court. By suggestions, I mean he yells stuff like “you GOTTA stay BACK!” or “You NEED to look for those passes, bud!”

And sometimes this rubs me the wrong way–I think it’s the way he phrases it (he seems angry). But after a period of years I’ve come to realize that  Kyle really is just trying to help me out, even if his delivery isn’t the best mode for my sensitive nature. Now he’ll instruct me and I either listen and agree or I say “yes sir,” which means I heard what he said but I’m ignoring it because I’m I’M NOT JUST A PIECE OF A CHESS BOARD TO MOVE AROUND okay, maybe a bit.

Anyway, what I’ve learned is to take the advice when it’s beneficial, ignore the nagging feeling of being “put in place”, and likewise ignore advice when it’s given maliciously or for any purpose other than making me a stronger player. Try that out, if you can.

Swordplay: A Few Tips on Keeping The Ball

swordplay

I’m not a particularly fast player. I’m not particularly good at shooting or at creating plays or at using my weight to check other players in an entertaining manner. But if there’s one thing I’ve been working on for quite a while (and, if I allow myself a moment of egotistical clarity, something I’m decent at), it’s keeping the ball when challenged by other players.

Okay, not all the time–maybe I’m not terribly good at that, either–but I’m probably better at it than those other things I mentioned above.

Swordplay is my pet name for when two or more players are manipulating their mallets and the mallets of other players in order to gain possession of the ball or to revoke possession of the ball from the opposing player. It’s not hacking per se, as if done correctly the contact between your mallet and the other players’ mallets should be light and intentional (rather than, well…)

The wild swing

But proper playing-of-swords takes quite a bit of technical skill as well as foresight and patience. Doing it well also requires you to work against your gut impulse, and that’s the first lesson I’d like to share:

Work Against Your (And Your Opponent’s) Impulses

Do you remember playing keep-away as a kid? You’d take something from another child (who now, surely, is in therapy) and keep that thing just outside of their reach, mocking them with some horrible nickname like dingus or fart breath or Matthew. 

Wait. Wait.

Anyway–the premise of that maneuver–pushing the other person to reach out for their ball/hat/pants and then pulling it back away from them just before reaching it–works because you’re using their monkey-impulses against them.

Bike polo is a game where most wrong moves are amplified simply because we are on bicycles and not our feet. If you lose the ball when bombing up the court, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to recover it easily. In much the same way, if you can strip the ball away from another player when you are facing the opposite direction, then you are putting them at a serious deficit for getting that ball back quickly.

The natural impulse when someone is coming for the ball is to pull it in closer to yourself, or to shield the ball with your mallet. While this works with some players, it certainly won’t work all the time. My suggestion is this: misdirect and re-maneuver. Instead of pulling the ball into yourself, try pushing the ball through the other player. By this I mean push the ball behind their outstretched mallet or through their bottom bracket. If they are stretching out to get the ball from you, they are leaving the bubble around themselves wide open for you to use.

Let The Ball Float 

Players have a tendency to hold onto the ball like it was life itself. They feel the need to always touch it with the mallet–tiny re-alignments and pushes so that there is no doubt it will go where they want it to.

This is a dangerous thing to do if you’re hoping to keep the ball from players–but it’s also useful to use the expectation against them as well. Since there are many players who always touch the ball with their mallet, people are just as likely to try to hit your mallet head as much as they are the ball. I’ve discovered that it’s quite possible to give the ball a little push just before someone’s mallet comes in contact with mine (and, presumably, in contact with the ball). The ball might be only six inches ahead of my mallet, but the opponent is still aiming for my mallet head, resulting in nothing more than a momentary strike against my mallet head and leaving me free to continue moving up court.

Floating the ball in situations like this might seem very counter-intuitive, but the truth is you don’t need to be controlling the ball to protect it. If you want to practice this, try the following:

  • shoulder up against a wall with a ball on the outside
  • have someone else try to take the ball from you
  • using your mallet, move the ball just before they strike

Eventually work up to a point where you’re doing this while moving, and you’ll see why it’s so effective. Players, generally, want to get the ball and keep moving for a breakaway–so use that built up momentum against them. Missing the ball will destroy the chance for the breakaway, but they’ll still be heading that way anyway–removing them as a threat.

It’s scary at first, I grant you, but floating the ball around your bike while defending it is very effective.

Mallet Down–always

This is a more general suggestion but it’s useful for swordplay as well: keep your mallet down: when shooting, when passing, when moving the ball–keep your mallet head down. Reason being that you’re creating the opportunity for an accidental save or play on top of taking away those seconds of possible steals or interference (with the ball). By swinging wide you’re opening up a chance for some clever player to take the ball or hang up your mallet–you’re putting your “sword” straight up and away from your body, leaving yourself open for an attack.

Wow, that last comparison really came together.

 

Anyway, those are my tips. I think you’ll find the more you work on quick but light mallet  swordplay, the more you’ll be able to defend the ball from attackers and make your run up the court towards their goal more productive.