Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sports Logic: Soccer & Mêlée Sports

In medieval England, villages would play a “sport” called mêlée  that involved entire villages rampaging across the countryside. No rules, just who could get from here to there fastest. The "players" used an inflated oval bladder of an animal and drove the ball towards a goal. Tradition says the first ball was the head of a Dane. Bumping, kicking, biting, hitting, fighting permitted as everyone ran, threw, punched, kicked, and drove the object to the goal. The “game” resembled a battle or rather a  mêlée      In French, a melee represented a specific kind of battle where order had broken down and individuals fought each other one on one or gangs on gangs with little order or direction.

In that medieval game no one quite knew who won or what the purpose was except to let off lots of energy and barely controlled non-lethal violence. But the sport involved chaotic, nonlinear and unpredictable interactions with everyone striving to get through the chaos and achieve something like a goal. These melee sports or melee moments hide among many sports and have their own logic and skills that are worth remembering.

The modern Rugby scrum resembles this moment with everyone pushing, shoving and mauling to get control of the ball. Modern roller derby resembles a melee on wheels with shoving and pushing and barely controlled violence. Scrambles to recover a fumble or onside kick in American football have some of the same chaotic nature. A player once remarked to me, “you would not believe what goes on down at the bottom with scratching, hitting, head buts, biting, anything to get control of the ball.” The melee can erupt in many spots such as distance running or peloton in cycling.

At melee moments individuals collide to fight for position to gain an advantage either to control the object or control position in a race or unfolding play. Either way the chaotic jostling involves serious physical contact or muscling against each other. But the muscling and strength only tell part of the tale since the entire point of the fray is to escape with a tactical advantage. Preparation involves strength but also emphasis upon scenario practicing and pattern recognition to address surprise in nonlinear conflicts.

In the scrum model, players push and shove. They must be prepared physically to endure a physical free-for-all. They have to be both physically well trained and strong, at the same time, they must have a trained eye to see the moment when the object can be snatched and passed out to be free. In American football it can be grabbed and protected. But in Rugby it requires seeing the moment to pass it out and release. Similarly in “traffic” in American basketball, it involves seeing the crease and accelerating to break away or pass through the melee. A similar melee moment exists in American football when a play breaks down and in a melee offensive and defensive lineman battle each other in scrum like manner and the half back or quarter back waits for a seam to open an cuts to it.  So much of this involves a combination of strength, perception to assess the force vectors at play on oneself and others, patience while applying force and quick response to push, pass or commit when a seam opens.

Such skills involves a resilient strength to take the knocks inflicted by others and keep one's integrity of purpose and skill intact. It also depends upon a capacity for trained improvisation in response to emerging patterns from the chaos of the melee moments.  The players work to forge the conditions and see the moment of release.

Many sports have mêlée moments and can be combined with different logics. For instance many running events start as parallel sports, some remain that the entire way with  enforced lanes. But others can alternate between bunched scrums and breakouts. Apollo Ohne the three time Olympic speed skater described his own sport as requiring short but "chaotic bursts of athleticism" and at moments reduced to "mayhem" as speed skaters careened around jockeying for position while maintaining balance and speed. Similar combinations can be found in cycling or cross country events and football which is an organized start over sport has quick intense mêlée moments woven through its texture.

The moment of release can differ in each sport but requires the same trained eye abetted by physical prowess. In racing competitors struggle to find some ordered advantage in the nonlinear and chaotic groupings. Inside the groupings of runners, what cyclist call pelotons, runners seek to draft behind a runner to reduce drag and energy expenditure. At other times they fight off efforts to box him or her in and prevent a break out seam. The pushing and shoving for position balance against the tactics to save energy through drafting. At the same time, just as in scrums, runners look for the seam and precise moment to release from the group and break away. The break away might work, it might not, but success depends upon the combination of managing the disordered group with the pattern recognition and energy management of when to fight loose and run free.

These  mêlée sports and moments reward clear types of individuals:

1)   He or she needs the strength to survive and hold their own amid the scrum jostling. The strength need not be overwhelming but designed to hold integrity of form and purpose against the jostling.

2)   The athlete needs to enter the mêlée with a particular intention of taking advantage of it for a goal whether to recover a object, pass it out or release and break away.

3)   The athlete needs a high capacity to improvise in light of intent and chaos. Mêlée oments, even in tightly rule bound sports, defy predictable outcomes and create surprise given the numbers involved and multiple and random force vectors.

4)  An athlete needs to keep a cool head even as he or she exerts maximum pressure to both push and shove and keep their position amid pushing and shoving. Often the battle in the mêlée sports or moments may be hidden given the tight packed nature and the ability of experienced players to conceal their digs and jabs fighting for position Too often melee moments seem to reward berserkers when the opposite is true.

5)   Adapting to these moments puts a high premium on pattern recognition, but also the ability to see patterns emerge in new unplanned forms. The improvising athlete can recognize the seam or open space but these opportunities do not open in predictable ways. Often a new schema or play suggests itself from the play and pattern recognition of the melee.

6)   It can be possible to train players and teams to respond to exactly such moments and create a play from the chaos by practicing and coordinating the ability to see and improvise.

The word  mêlée  derives from the French word for uncontrolled fight where strategy and even tactics leave off. The fight occurs amid chaos and plans give way to resolve and improvisation. Strategy or tactics may have brought the warriors to this moment, but not is degrades to blunt force trauma fights.

These moments still exist in many sports and still call upon ancient and practiced disciplines of strength, energy deployment, finding the right moment to release or escape or capture. The improvisation depends upon trained pattern recognition and the practice in dealing with the surprise of chaos. Good teams and athletes can make this an art.

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