Compulsive strategist

I coach nearly year round. I host (at least) weekly pick-up basketball games at school and a game night at my house. I teach multiple P.E. classes every day, where, even if I’m not “coaching”, I’m evaluating strategies in every possible situation. Even in normal day-to-day life, I turn everything imaginable into a competition. Like, when I walk into my Economics classroom, I try to swing the door shut with the perfect amount of force, so the latch clicks without audibly hitting the door jamb. The whole class watches and groans when I fail without fail; it’s similar to watching a screensaver and hoping it will glide into the exact corner of the screen.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of reps strategizing, and I’m realizing my brain is getting specialized to a degree where I have trouble turning that part off.

I was passing through the gym during a grammar school P.E. class recently, and they were playing a game I hadn’t seen before. There were four teams, and three of them would line up outside the sidelines of the basketball court, armed with dodgeballs. The fourth team had to start on one baseline and try to run/sprint/make their way to the other baseline without getting hit by a dodgeball. Once they got there, they picked up a tennis ball and tried to get back, again without getting hit. If you got hit at any point, you had to return to the starting baseline (after returning the ball, if you were on your way back). Each team had a set amount of time and rotated through, and whichever team successfully retrieved the most balls during their time won.

Side note: I really enjoy seeing new games, or tweaking the rules to an existing game to see how it affects gameplay and strategy. For example, if you walk up to people playing a board game (or any game, I suppose) they are all familiar with, but you are not, for a while it appears they are speaking a different language. Harvard Sailing Team does a good bit for this, mocking Poker. Those early moments are one of my favorite things. I love trying to figure out the rules and best strategies with absolutely zero context. In many cases, people will try to explain games by telling new players the generally accepted “best” strategies, but I prefer to get the basic rules and start from stratch. Maybe you arrive at the consensus best strategy, maybe you don’t. The best games don’t have best strategies, anyway.

So, as I was watching these second-graders-or-equivalent go crazy throwing dodgeballs and screaming and running and dodging, I was also evaluating. How do you win this game?

My first significant conclusion seemed like a good one. Focus all your throws at the players returning with a ball. That way, if they get hit they have to go back, return the ball, then go all the way back to the start before attempting a new run. It’s better, timewise, to eliminate someone >50% done than <50% done. Once I had this thought, I had to fight the urge to go tell the little ones, even just one. I literally stood there and reasoned with myself, convincing myself just to walk away and let them have fun without burdening them with knowledge. My strategy was solid, I think, but it also assumes they 1) could hit someone at will rather than chance (tough at this age), 2) could organize and cooperate with other throwers (same), and 3) could even understand what I would be trying to tell them (I suspect it would take a full-blown lecture), and finally 4) are super-calculating winner-obsessed competitors rather than fling-the-ball-and-scream-when-things-happen competitors (there may be a few per class who would identify). Anyway. I convinced myself to walk away about as easily as a compulsive gambler leaving a casino during a hot streak, and now I want to try the game in my high school P.E. classes and see what strategies develop.

Now that I’m done, this feels like a particularly revealing blog post. But yeah, this is me.






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