Monday, March 11, 2013

Mainz and lacrosse

Hello friends!

This past Sunday, I went to Mainz, but instead of visiting the Gutenburg museum or any of the other cool sights of Mainz (well, accept for a few that we accidentally drove by on the way home...stupid GPS...), I spent the afternoon in the rain on a sports field on the outskirts of town.  Lacrosse game!  After the semester ended, I started training with the local lacrosse club, the Marburg Saints:

This post is going to be less a blow-by-blow of the game (we lost by a fair amount, but we scored some points and made some good plays)  or anything about our opponents (Mainz is one of the stronger teams in our region, and their coach is an American, who was super nice and even gave our team some pointers during half-time) and more of a pondering on sport and expertness and what makes lacrosse different from all my previous sports.  And fair warning, I forgot my camera, and it was cold and rainly, so there are no pictures.

So, last year when I was teaching at Colgate, I sat through a lecture by Kathy Takayama, a biologist turned education researcher at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.  It was a thought-provoking talk and she was cool, but the thing she said that really stuck with me was describing the difference between "novice" and "expert" audiences.  She used a chess example; the novice chess player looks at a board and sees an array of black and white squares and a ton of pieces of different shapes and, while a novice knows the rules and objectives, has to look at and consider all the pieces.  On the other hand, a chess expert looks at the same board and sees the general pattern and then automatically hones in on the critical pieces in that set-up.  The novice doesn't know enough to tune out the unimportant things.  Now, for teaching, her message was clear; you need to teach in a way that you aren't overloading the novice, making sure that your information is clear and isn't buried in details that you (as an expert in the field) just automatically tuned out.

Now, I haven't been a novice in many things for years and years, but by taking on Lacrosse, I find myself back in novice shoes (and literally, since I'm still playing in running shoes; cleats are expensive and I haven't justified the expense yet).  For those of you who aren't familiar with Lacrosse other than my post back in November, it's both a simple game and quite complicated.  The goal is to use sticks with baskets on the end (your crosses, I think, if you use the US term, or Schläger, in German) to throw a hard rubber ball into a goal as many times as possible, which sounds simple when I put it that way.  BUT handling the ball and stick take a fair bit of skill and  there are all sorts of rules about what you are and aren't allowed to do and there are different positions for players with different rules in effect.  We had 11 field players and a goalie, and 3 are defense, 3 offense, and 5 midfield. There are these lines on the field called restraining lines, and you must always have at least 4 players behind the appropriate restraining line or your team is "off-sides". You may notice, if you do the math, that means that one midfield player has to stay back at any time.  

SO, you can see how many things there are to think about if you're a novice player and have to think about everything: Where is the ball? It's small, and moves fast and you almost have to see it by the body language of the person possessing it instead of actually seeing the ball.  Where do I need to stand to increase my team's ability to maintain control of the ball, or to gain control of the ball from the other team?  If we're defending, where is "my player" and how can I keep them from getting the ball? Are the other team's star players covered right now, or do their defenders need backup? If we're attacking, how can I get clear of "my player" on the other team so that I could catch the ball?  If I do get the ball, who is open for me to throw to?
If the ball is moving across the field, do I need to run really fast to the other end, or do I need to stay on this side of the restraining line?  Is it my turn to rotate out, or can I keep playing?  And on top of that, add in the actual "holding your stick and catching and throwing the ball if it comes to you" which are still not trivial tasks to me.

So I constantly found myself in the novice's dilemma: do I keep the picture of the whole game in my head, and risk losing track of my specific task, or do I just focus on staying with "my player" and then perhaps leave a gap somewhere else on the field that I should have filled?   

Oh yeah, and everything is being discussed and explained in German, adding another level of challenge. It was only a week or so ago that I realized that these cool moves we'd been practicing to get around other players was not some intriguing thing called a "Dutsch" or "Dötsch" but is actually the English word "dodge".  It seems obvious in retrospect.

Remember, I'm used to being an "expert" in bike racing.  I may not have always made the right calls, but I could simultaneously pedal my bike, anticipate cross-winds/hills/course changes, keep track of my teammates and any women on opposing teams that needed careful watching, evaluate any attacks/counterattacks to see if we needed to worry about them and if my team was represented, etc. That's a lot of things, so it's not that different from Lacrosse, the difference is that I was good enough at pedaling my bike that I could keep all those things in my brain at once most of the time, and I'm clearly not there yet for lacrosse after one field game.

I don't want this to come off as whiny.  It's really fun learning something new, and in the midst of feeling generally confused, I totally made a few good moves on Sunday; I made a few good passes and there were moments when I was guarding someone who could have made a great shot otherwise.  And, the other folks on the club are very understanding that I'm a novice, and give helpful advice instead of being mean when I make mistakes.  It's more that I'm thinking like a scientist, and am trying to pinpoint what I need to do to improve. 

Clearly, I need to practice catching and throwing and being more comfortable moving the ball around, but also, I need to play more games so I can start to see the bigger picture and keep that in balance with making sure my piece in the puzzle is locked in.  Sounds like a fun challenge!

AND, my new safety goggles came (, I had them delivered to work, since our mail there is more reliable), so to get in the Lacrosse spirit I think I'll wear them all labmates already thing I'm crazy, so what's to lose?  or...maybe not....

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