Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Snapshot of the Slowball Strategy

By Kenny Stowe 

“Advance the quaffle.” If you have been around the pitch recently, you’ve probably heard this phrase once or twice from the head referee. More than likely, the referee isn’t just saying it because they are an impatient person; otherwise they would have issued a blue card for delay of game. The strategy adopted by many teams that has become prevalent and downright frustrating is none other than the “slowball” approach.

Slowball is exactly what you would expect: a method employed by teams who find themselves outmatched against their opponent. It involves slowing down gameplay in an effort to kill time, often relying on limited offensive possessions and lock-down defense. It is utilized by teams who wish to control the pace of a game and is by no means an innovative strategy, even for this unique sport. Its potential for use in other sports explains why basketball implements a shot clock.

Perth Phoenixes slowball and catch against defending champions Melbourne Manticores at the Australian Quidditch Championships (QUAFL) 2016 | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography
Teams use the slowball strategy because they want to win. The essential purpose of slowballing is to keep the game within snitch range when seekers are released. It is in this critical moment that we see the rise of a savior, a lone star who can singlehandedly determine the outcome of a match. If you have an Achilles of a seeker (someone who you can reliably depend upon and is outright dominant at the position), why not risk it? After all, remaining in range after 18 minutes is usually acceptable.

As a part-time seeker myself, I don’t want to discredit the position nor demean the athletes who make this sport so entertaining, but the slowball approach is getting absolutely ridiculous. It converts this team sport into a battle of seekers, and although one may argue it actually revolves around beater play, the beater play is not the determinant. Slowballing promotes lazy play and one-dimensional offenses, and it discourages dynamic and creative playmaking. It degrades the competitive importance of every other position and undermines effort throughout.

Most importantly, it hurts our player growth. Slowball makes playing the game largely unenjoyable and mentally frustrating. Physically, it doesn’t push our limits, and although it keeps a game in range, I believe it doesn’t stimulate the competitive edge our sport possesses. The intangibles, like a deep roster, are endangered, and if left unchecked, this trend will weaken our credibility as a sport. 

So to the ones who pride themselves on winning through slowball, you might as well lobby for a 150-point snitch catch. When teams leisurely stroll down the pitch, they give more power to a position that was never intended to define the game (at least in the real-life version). It is not a surprise that discussions to change the fundamental nature of the snitch or to remove the snitch entirely continues each season.

The rumored origin of the slowball strategy is Kansas Quidditch. | Photo Credit: Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
If quidditch is to truly continue to develop, we must maintain the balance between understanding how to adapt to slower gameplay without forbidding it. The exploitation of loopholes isn’t going away anytime soon, and this slowball tactic is no exception. How will quidditch respond? Quidditch is not at the developmental stage it needs to be to solve this problem with a swift stroke. The most important resources in tackling this issue lies with the refereeing corps and the rulebook itself.

Referees will need to become more organized and draw from a pool of staff that doesn’t consist of players. Players tend to favor certain playing styles over others and carry those biases over into officiating. Although impartiality is making headway, it is not a reality at present. Head referees have the authority to enforce delay of game, and this power is a step in the right direction because slowball is mostly affected by the ball carrier and only requires one focal point of attention. The challenge in regulating it stems from the fact that the head referee cannot call delay of game if the defense is forcing a retreat. 

It is important to recognize what a retreat is, though. Slowballing is well disguised with experienced teams and it is because of that exploit that delay of game is rarely called. For example, moving into pressure and passing backwards is by semantics quite legal, and passing up and down the sidelines appears to comprise an offensive attempt. Therefore, it’s not really a retreat to fall back, but to the knowledgeable eye, it is. As an extreme case, some sacrificial players may even allow themselves to be stopped near midfield (tackled or wrapped) by the point defender to slow the game down. If you  really think about it, being flanked by other chasers or ball-wielding beaters poses no real threat as a turnover, and it often attracts the defense to push up and fall out of formation. I think the best recommendation to officials is to issue more warnings to dispirit abusers and help them understand the boundaries of the rule.

Durhamstrang slowball at British Quidditch Cup 2016 to knock out defending champions Southampton Quidditch Club Firsts in the quarterfinals | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography
The rulebook, on the other hand, needs to address this issue with more clarity and transparency. The conditions under which a referee can call delay of game are loosely defined and relies on an individual’s subjective judgment. To take an example given in the rulebook, if an offense is forced by the defense to move backwards or erratically, what constitutes defense and under what conditions should it be permissible? If the rule is fine as is, then why is delay of game rarely called? Should anything be changed? 

These are the types of questions that the rulebook will need to address, and I think timekeeping will become the essential resource to combating slowballing in the future. The main challenge with the current use of timekeeping is twofold: First, the lack of financial support for any sophisticated type of timekeeping technology, and second, the ability of a sole timekeeper to manage yet another responsibility. As it is, some fields might not even have access to outlets and some teams may find it difficult to purchase official scorecards, so placing the financial burden of a stop clock on a host should be out of the question. In addition, it is already difficult to track game time and players’ penalty times – and now also possession time? Simultaneously managing all of these tasks is quite unreasonable, and if you can find someone who can multitask, I’d question the quality. But if these tasks can reach an attainable point, then it could become a prospective tool to introduce.

In the longer term, there are some approaches that would make a lot of sense for the sport. When quidditch reaches an organizational gold standard, several possibilities present themselves. One would be to implement a system similar to a shot clock in which the attacking team has a certain amount of time to execute an offense, whether it is a shot or progression of the quaffle beyond a certain point (say, the opponent’s keeper line). Another possibility is to implement a system with a point of no return; once you cross your keeper line (or if ambitious enough, the center line), you may not move back even if you are being pressured and forced through it.

The Los Angeles Gambits accredit their modified slowball strategy as the reason they were one of the few teams who were able to consistently beat Lone Star Quidditch Club during the the Texas team’s championship runs in 2015 and 2016. | Photo Credit: Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
Personally, I believe a combination of these two rules could serve. As a short-term fix, a system of no retreat is feasible and very possible. It would only require a slightly more acute attention to detail by the referee and is highly objective; it doesn’t require a revamp of strategy or the rulebook, and it reduces the sustainability of slowball. In fact, an opportunity of this was tested in an exhibition match within Major League Quidditch, which stipulated an “over and back” rule. It restricted the ability of a team to fall back through its half of the pitch more than once, unless a special condition like an overshot occurred. Unfortunately, the situation never arose in this game, so it is unknown how this may have affected play under a stagnant pace. But it is an important first step in recognizing that a problem exists and something will need to be changed.

If and when quidditch is ready to support the financial investment of a shot clock, this will be a fair alternative to the current system. It allows free reign for opponents to retreat if needed but penalizes them in time management. It can also provide second chances (like clock renewal) that reward offensive effort. 

Slowball is a double-edged sword: it demands adaptability but should not be the only path to victory. It is a difficult scheme to execute effectively (score enough to reach out of range), but if it is here to stay, then defensive awareness and IQ will truly separate the elite teams from the rest of the pack. Real development comes through hard work, training, and skill-building, and if we want to continue to grow as players and as a sport, motives need to change and priorities need to be reevaluated. After all, no one is being paid to play this sport, and most of us started for the uncommonality and excitement.

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