The rules of the game

The rules of the game matter, because people respond to incentives. This lesson is a breeze to teach in Economics class, but it’s essential to survival as a P.E. teacher. All teachers have to learn how to adapt on the fly, but the physical aspect of P.E. gives it a sense of urgency. Games can break down quickly, and if you don’t recognize it and know how to fix it, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Late in my second year teaching P.E., I introduced a game called Jetball. It’s basically dodgeball sharks and minnows. It’s a fun game, and fairly safe up until high school. Well, once the new game had lost its novelty, one of the basketball players in the class suggested a variation. “What if the minnows all are dribbling a basketball, too?” These sorts of suggestions are quite common — another hurdle for P.E. teachers. Students are basically always *suggesting* other things they could be doing! I find that doesn’t really happen in the classroom. Students will complain about a test, but at least their form of complaint acknowledges the test need to happen (they just want it to be easy). In P.E., no activity seems inevitable. But, I digress. Back to Jetball variations.

One more aside first. My policy is never to accept suggestions the day I receive them. First, rules matter and deserve serious consideration. Second, I never want to give the impression that I don’t have a plan for the class, or that I’m willing to drop my plan on a whim and do something else. The activities for the day need to be inevitable. [Similarly, I never answer “what are we doing today?” until I’m in front of the entire class. I don’t want to incentivize every kid to ask me that question independently.]

So, I thought through the basketball variation, and I liked it. It would make it easier for the throwers (sharks) to keep up with + hit the runners (minnows), and the sharks often struggle to get outs early in the game. Plus it would work hand/eye coordination and peripheral awareness for the dribblers. We tried it out soon after. Most of the class lined up against one wall with a basketball, while a few throwers were on the baseline, ready to trigger the mad rush across the court by throwing their dodgeballs against the wall.

THWUMP! (that’s the sound a cloth-covered ball makes when it hits a cinderblock wall at high speed, and it’s the signal to start running, now dribbling, if you’re a minnow).

There were nearly double-digit injuries in the first round, one trip down the court. Three different head-to-head collisions as two kids crossed into each other, plus a few others from tripping and hitting the ground. The attrition was unlike anything I’ve seen in a P.E. activity. Something about adding dribbling completely changed the nature of the game into a force for destruction. Maybe it was because they were all looking down at the ball and lost awareness of their surroundings? Whatever it was, I did not see it coming.

That example was supposed to convey how quickly things can go south, and how high the stakes are. Yeah, in P.E. Yeah, this is still the introduction.

We have had several large dodgeball tournaments at school the past few years. We have done it for the Archer Games, where the six different “houses” field teams; we have done it for fundraisers, where kids make their own teams or sign up as free agents; we have done it as icebreakers at the beginning of the year, where entire grades face off against each other.

The whole-grade tournaments posed a new challenge. Standard dodgeball is 6 on 6, this could approach 30 on 30 depending on the grade and gender (girls vs. girls and boys vs. boys). P.E. dodgeball rosters can get up to 27 per side, but with much lower stakes. Plus, with a large tournament during a set period of time, there are constraints that you don’t run up against in P.E.

When I first received the directive (plan a dodgeball tournament for the entire upper school in a two-hour segment), there were a few obvious new questions to solve. In athletics, you solve problems by changing the rules.

Q: How do you encourage everyone in the grade to participate? (Note: in P.E., you learn pretty quickly that forcing people to participate can only have sub-optimal results when it comes to team sports).

A: Determine the winning team by the amount of players left on the court when time expires. More players = advantage = everyone will be recruited to participate, even if they don’t throw or catch.

Q: How do you keep games moving and on a schedule?

A: Set short time limits; have a bracket posted with teachers assigned to each grade to let them know who is up next. Catching a ball no longer gets a teammate back into the game. When you’re out, you’re out. Sudden death overtime in the case of a tie.

Q: How do you keep everyone on the court and the balls changing sides?

A: Assign specific groups to be “rebounders” who retrieve stray dodgeballs and roll them back into play. If you assign 8th-grade boys to rebound on the opposite side every time 8th-grade girls play, they will have incentive (because of grade pride) to track down loose balls and get them back to the team they support.

Q: How do you determine a winner fairly while allowing for different-sized rosters?

A: Use the scoreboard to track the number of players left on each side. Two scoreboard operators, one for each half. They count the players to start the game, set the score so both sides know what they need to do to win, and subtract the score as outs occur. When the time runs out or one side hits 0, the larger number wins. Since the number of students per grade decrease slightly as they go up, most of the time the younger team will have a numbers advantage at the start.

Q: How do you prevent (eliminate) cheating?

A: This was the toughest to solve. Our first high-stakes competition had a lot of “cheating” (apparently it was obvious to observers with different angles than the officials, leading to an internal crisis about the integrity of our students). I was never concerned, because I teach P.E. In P.E., students who are good people with solid moral grounding cheat to gain an advantage all the time. It’s fascinating. My (dodgeball) theory is, within a split second, they actually convince themselves that they weren’t hit, or that the hit shouldn’t count, for one reason or another. Or they want to win so badly their mind legitimately blacks it out instantaneously. Year after year, I have seen students take a direct hit and keep playing without hesitation, only to blow up at me when I remove them from the game. This happened last week, too, and my response was “listen, I’m not sure if you’re insane or a liar, but I’m 100% sure you’re out.” I get into a pretty intense zone when I’m refereeing (#separateblogpost).

The first few tournaments I rationalized it like this: getting out in dodgeball is like getting a foul called on you in basketball. [“What is a foul? When the referee calls a foul.”] But it bothered me. I don’t like when people get away with breaking the rules, at least when I’m in charge of enforcing them. So, I’m always thinking of ways I can improve my systems. Enforce the perfect set of rules, perfectly. Adding extra referees during the final rounds has helped, and another new rule: if a referee sees you stay on the court after being hit, you’re out for the rest of the tournament. Still not enough.

We did a 7th through 12th grade tournament last week, on the first day of school. Now that we have the basic format, it doesn’t take much time to prepare, so I focused more on my other responsibilities most of the day. I had a 30-minute window during lunch to set up the brackets and coordinate plans with the other referee. It had been months since I had taught P.E. or thought about dodgeball, and as we were talking, all the information in this post came flooding back into my head. We need to minimize cheating. How?

I narrowed in on the two types of events that create the biggest challenge for referees. First, when someone catches a thrown ball, the thrower is supposed to be out. This is difficult to enforce, because when the referee sees a catch, they have to whip their head around to try to see who threw it. We use close to 30 dodgeballs for these big games, so, yeah. Unless you’re lucky or other onlookers help you out, you have little chance of identifying the origin of the throw after it’s caught.

Rule change? Catching a throw doesn’t eliminate the thrower. Now, referees can focus on one half of the court and have no real need to see the other side.

Second, students often have a ball in one or both hands they use as shields, and they use them to deflect incoming balls. The difficulty arises when someone makes a blocking motion, and the incoming ball is knocked down/away, but the referee can’t tell if the live ball hit the “shield” or the arm (or other body part). From a physics perspective, it often looks right, but from an auditory frame of reference it sounds wrong, and the referee’s policy has to be don’t make a call unless you’re certain. Trust your eyes.

Rule change? Dodgeballs are part of your body when you’re holding them. You either dodge the live ball cleanly, or you catch it. Any other outcome and you’re out.

I could tell my ref partner was a little hesitant to make such a sweeping rule change just a few minutes before the tournament started, but I figured the worst that could happen would be we switch it back for the next tournament. When I announced the rule changes over the speakers, a murmur swept through the stands. The competitors immediately started scheming on how to adjust their behavior in light of the new costs and benefits.

[Side note: you may think dodgeball is simple, and if so, you’d be surprised how advanced it can get in an iterated high stakes scenario. One spillover benefit from the first rule change is that it undermined one of the more cutthroat strategies: intentionally avoid targeting the weak throwers on the other side, because you want to catch their throws. Now, everyone is free to throw without potentially hurting your own team.

[[One unintended benefit of the second rule change is games progressing more quickly.]]

The tournament was the best officiated we’ve had, easily, and the quality of play wasn’t noticeably diminished with the new rules. There were definitely times where someone forgot the second rule change and deflected a ball intentionally that wasn’t going to hit them, but for the most part, everyone adapted instantaneously.

Just before I took the mic to start everything off, I saw my headmaster. He is a former P.E. teacher and has helped me referee in previous years, so I wanted to share the new rule changes with him 1) to see what he thought and 2) in case he decided to make some calls from the sidelines. As I was describing my shiny new toys, his eyes were darting around, clearly with much bigger things on his mind (it was his first school day as a headmaster). As I hurriedly wrapped up, he looked at me and shook his head, amused and/or impressed. “Do these things just come to you in the middle of the night?”

Well, yeah. The rules of the game matter, why would I be thinking about anything else? The perfect set of rules is out there, and I’m always in pursuit.

2 thoughts on “The rules of the game

Add yours

  1. “…listen, I’m not sure if you’re insane or a liar, but I’m 100% sure you’re out!” Great line! If we could instill this attitude in enough people we’d eliminate much, maybe most, of the dysfunction in society. Reality isn’t optional or mere opinion, and this is a nice way to teach that.

    Very good article in numerous ways!


    1. Thank you! I’m not used to people commenting directly on my post, so I missed this notification. I would love to get to a point where the dialog can continue in the comments.. Honestly, I think I understand society only because I understand sports, and that’s one of the things I hope comes through in my posts. Sports are easier to understand, but the analogies still ring true in the real world


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