Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Interview with ESPN Announcer Robyn Wiseman

Robyn Wiseman temporarily traded in her ultimate headband for a headset to provide commentary for ESPN's coverage of USA Ultimate's 2016 Club Nationals. She admitted it was challenging and fun in a way she had never experienced (and she wasn't just talking about a Portillo's chocolate cake shake).

SLUDGE: How did you score this cool gig as an analyst for Nationals coverage?
Robyn Wiseman: The short version: get hurt, get sidelined for some of the biggest ultimate tournaments of the year, talk to people a lot

Long version: My husband connected me to Evan Lepler in person at the 2015 D1 College Championships in Milwaukee to give him some thoughts and information about the college women's division. Since then, Evan and I have talked about ultimate many times. In 2016, I've seen Evan probably a dozen times between AUDL games, College Nationals and WUGC. At WUGC, I talked to Evan for like two straight hours at a bar after the games were done. He actually introduced me to one of my idols, and then watched me fan-girl pretty hard. I mean you don't get to meet (USAU Hall of Famer) Suzanne Fields everyday and talk about ultimate with her! I think he was impressed that I knew as much as I did about her career. Then he and I talked about ultimate for an unknown amount of time.

Flash forward to about a month ago, I was driving around rural Northern Wisconsin for work and got a call from Evan. He thought that given my "not playing at club nationals due to my ACL recovery" status and our past conversations about ultimate, I could be a good fit for the gig. I had a somewhat informal information with Andy Lee from USAU, and he made the recommendation to ESPN.

SLUDGE: You referred (via Twitter) to this gig as "a dream come true." What does that mean?
RW: 2016 has been a year of a lot of heartbreak and building, from the ACL injury standpoint. Commentating itself was not a dream I ever had. I will say I really admire people who have the opportunity to say intelligent things about sports, especially women who do it. The opportunity to do that at an event I was expecting to play in at the beginning of the year, and then suffering a season-ending injury, the opportunity to contribute to club nationals and the dialog around it was a dream.

Honestly, commentating was never something I thought that I'd be good at or ever have the opportunity to do, I mean, I work in disaster response and recovery grant management--I have no experience at all in commentary.

SLUDGE: So, zero experience in game commentary or game announcing?
RW: Non-existent. In high school, I volunteered to announce at middle school basketball tournaments...but that's hardly the same.

SLUDGE: How did you prepare for Nationals?
RW: I tore my ACL. That's sort of snarky, but true.

Having ACL surgery in July, meant that I just came back from watching high level ultimate at WUGC. I was in the mode of "watch as much ultimate as possible." I got to watch US Open film, All-Star Ultimate Tour, random games that teams posted, streams from the Elite-Select Challenge and Pro-Elite Challenge. I spent an awful lot of time on a couch, on an exercise bike, or doing physical therapy in front of the computer screen. I watched teams across divisions from around the world (Australian Nats, Windmill Windup, etc.) and from the past (thanks USAU archived games, please post more!).

I am probably the most up to date on all the current teams and players I have ever been!

Also, I played against every team I talked about at some time in my playing career, many of the best players (at tryouts, Lei Out, Beach Nationals, club and college tournaments over the years), and spent time watching them at nationals.

SLUDGE: Your commentary remarkably painted the nuances of game action. Though, you self-evaluated that your commentary "wasn't perfect." What area(s) need improving?
RW: I enjoyed a lot, but also found things challenging.

I really enjoyed sharing my perspective about the game. I mean, I watch ultimate with players I coach a lot, and talk about things I see happening that I want them to pay attention to. Things like how people get open, how they time cuts, spacing and development of plays, how players maximize yards on cuts/receptions, how they break the mark, how they position themselves and move. Those are the things I find most interesting. I just stuck to what I'm interested in, which is a little selfish, but also made it less intimidating.

I generally struggled or felt very uncomfortable with the more broadcast specific parts of the gig. The opening where I'm on camera, the introductions of teams, talking over highlight packages, interviewing people on camera. Those were difficult for me, because I was nervous and had problems remembering how long the highlight clips or non-live clips were going to be. I also never knew how many camera angles they would show in re-plays or where a re-play would pick up in the game play, so I never knew how long to talk.

I also felt weird hearing the production in my headset while I was trying to talk. It was hard not to get distracted or stop talking. I think I abruptly stopped talking a few times because of people talking in my headset.

One of the coolest things about the experience was just "going for something" totally out of my comfort zone and doing it. I mean, it's out there now, and I can't take it back or re-do it. That in itself is scary to me, because I like to make sure what I put out there for the world to see is the best version of whatever I'm doing. It was a huge growth experience for me mentally to do something like this, especially as I'm struggling mentally with recovery from a new type of injury for me. It encouraged me that I can try new things and be successful in other ways, besides just as an athlete on the field.

SLUDGE: Did you have any gaffes during the broadcast?
RW: During the women's finals I said that Shira Stern has "the softest hands" or something to that effect. I meant as a receiver she does not doink the disc. The way it came out made it sound ridiculous. I certainly didn't mean that she has soft, smooth hands, I mean, she could...I wouldn't know! I meant that for such an explosive player who attacks discs hard, she never deflects a pass...and it came out all awkward. Lol.

SLUDGE: Besides the Boston Sweep, what were your takeaways from the 2016 club tourney? 
RW: The gap is closing between the bottom and the top in the women's division. Heading into the tournament, few people would have expected to see two new teams in the Pro Flight and close games between who they may have characterized as the middle or bottom tiers with the top tiers. I think there were definitely surprises for everyone; even though the top 4 seeds were in semis and the top 2 seeds in finals, the journeys of some of those top 4 teams had bumps along the way that would never happen in past seasons.

Also, wind throwing is one of the most crucial skills people can develop to level-up their game. I mean, at the Elite Club game, it's hard to develop your game and keep improving. But even the best ultimate players at the top of the game have room for improvement in their throws. The difference between successful teams and players at Club Nationals and those that struggled was the ability to throw in the wind. Successful teams had numerous players with a wide range of upwind throws and release points that hold an edge until the disc is caught. If you have that you're going to make a bigger impact on the field. Unlike athleticism, this is a skill that is almost entirely built upon hard work and getting reps, at least at the elite level of ultimate. I mean, I'm a thrower...I know this. But it's validating that I can say something like that to the women I coach and back it up by showing them footage of pool play this year.

SLUDGE: Did you learn anything new about ultimate at 2016 Nationals?
RW: I'm trying to increase my knowledge and understanding of vertical stack offense. All the teams I called games for played a lot of vertical stack or side stack. I loved it. So much knowledge to gobble up and process! So excited to go to work with it.

SLUDGE: How do you keep current on your ultimate knowledge and expertise?
RW: I watch a lot of ultimate. Actually, it's almost embarrassing how much I watch and think about ultimate. Any game film I can get my hands on, I watch. Across all divisions and levels of play.

I also find that coaching keeps things pretty current. As a coach I constantly am looking for strategies or adapting strategies for my players to fit our strengths or attack an opponents' weakness. I will often think about the things I see in a game I watch and then talk about it with people from that team or people who have played against it.

When I'm healthy, I play as much ultimate as possible; again, across the country in different areas, with different people, in both women's and mixed. I believe it's only a positive thing to be exposed to as many different strategies and think about incorporating successes/strengths into your game.

SLUDGE: What is your approach in providing details when you were commentating?
RW: During the game play, talking in the booth really was just having a conversation with Evan. Evan knows a lot about ultimate, but I've definitely been exposed to more strategies and tactics with my playing and coaching background. The on-air conversation really paralleled some of the conversations about ultimate we had in the past at Worlds or College Nationals. When someone asks you open ended questions to pick your brain, they genuinely want to know what's going on. Evan's interest in what i was thinking and seeing is genuine, so my responses were honest and genuine too.

It is very similar to how I talk about the game with players I coach, I mentioned that already. If I wasn't responding to a question from Evan, I was trying to make a point that I thought was interesting about a player - how they develop cuts or get open, how they take a line on a bid for a disc, etc. I'm really working with a lot of players on making safe, aggressive lines on discs to make plays, so there were a lot of comments on that. It's a pretty big topic right now in ultimate. I tried to highlight players who do those things right so other people can learn from the best people doing those skills.

SLUDGE:  Were you given an idea of how many were watching the live streams? 
RW: I have no idea how many people watched any of the streams live or have seen them since then.

SLUDGE: What advice would you give others seeking to be part of an ultimate game announcing crew?
RW: 1) Start developing your knowledge of the game and how you talk about it with others.
One thing I generally feel confident in, is that I can watch a game, quickly pick up on strategies that are developing and describe it to someone. My experience in ultimate says that watching/dissecting film or live games and coaching are the two best ways to build this part of the equation. You do not need to be an elite player to recognize the strategies that elite players use on the field. You just need to watch, think/analyze, and practice describing/teaching to others.

If you're interested in color commentary, you need to think beyond the surface stuff. Who is touching the disc, who scores, who is throwing, etc. You need to think about the HOW and WHY more. How are they doing those skills? Why are they doing those skills in those situations? How did the play develop? And then, you identify trends. You should be able to talk about those things.

One thing that Evan emphasized to me, is the tone I speak in when talking about ultimate. When I'm talking on air, I needed to bring energy and speak slower than I normally would when excited. I have been practicing that at college practice this was helpful during the broadcast!

2) Connect with people

I mean, if I never talked to Evan about ultimate in the past, he never would have thought about my name when they were looking for someone. Some of the easier, low-barrier things I've done include writing a blog, writing some articles, helping cover college/club tournaments, doing interviews for ultimate sites or blogs, coaching, volunteering to talk to the media about ultimate for your team(s), running leagues, etc. Those are easy things to start expanding your "media" experience in ultimate. The more you get your name out there, the more credibility you can establish.

3) Watch sports and think about what you value in analysis
Watch other sports and reflect about how those analysts describe things that are happening. What things do you appreciate? What things annoy you? What do you want to hear? What adds value?

Outside of ultimate, I watch a lot of basketball. Analysts are using game-specific terms, like boxing out, rebounding, fouls, etc. Analysts are talking about positioning and movement and how a shot or fast break developed. Apply that to ultimate: someone should be able to understand what an "around backhand" is or what a fake or mark is based on watching the game in context. I assume people are smart and can figure it out, and could follow when I described why those things matter in a particular instance.


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