In my time coaching, I've developed several offensive strategies -- and plenty of defensive ones -- as a way of experimenting with different ways of playing the game. One roadmap for improvement that I like: 1. Expand your toolkit; 2. Find something suitable for your team; 3. Know what to expect.
June 3, 2014 by Sion "Brummie" Scone in Analysis with 6 comments
Preface: Most (if not all) teams should be dedicating part of every practice to individual skill improvement. Fundamentally, it’s a game of throw and catch — but there’s not enough focus on the throwing or catching! Most high level players I’ve spoken to in the UK, Europe, and beyond seemed to dedicate all of their time to individual conditioning or to team strategy. 99% of players and teams would do better if they dedicated more time to analyzing their skill weaknesses as individuals, and worked to eliminate those weaknesses.
In my time coaching, I’ve developed several offensive strategies — and plenty of defensive ones — as a way of experimenting with different ways of playing the game. Some were successful, others not, but from all of them I’ve learnt something that has helped my understanding of the game. Here are some of the things that I look at when I’m developing offenses.
Risk and Reward
So, to set up some basics. All throws have risk, all throws have a reward, even if it’s just resetting the stall. If you throw 70m, the risks are high and so are the rewards. If you throw 5m, the risks are low and so are the rewards. There are plenty of other factors that can alter the risk and reward of each throw.1
When designing an offense, we want to maintain a relatively low risk while increasing the reward.2 Three things that can help:
- Improve your Toolbox
- Pick something suitable for your team
- Know what to expect
Improve your Toolbox
How many people have a decent toolbox? The more throws you have, the more options you can hit downfield, the more adaptable you are to the options in front of you, the more difficult you will be to stop; if you were playing a team that could only throw backhands, what would you do against them defensively? Having lots of offensive weapons makes it more difficult for teams to play against you.
Case in point: Australian World Games team 2009. They had several players with superb overhead throws that made a forehand force fairly impractical, and they were superb at using the backhand give and go. As a result, there was no simple defensive adjustment that would prevent them from using at least one of their strengths.
More to the point, if you practice a throw, it becomes high percentage. If you watch ultimate from 10 years ago, you’ll rarely see anything other than flat backhands, forehands and flat hucks. Watch any of the Callahan videos online now and you’ll see a huge array of throws being used. I’m waiting for the time that a team are taught solely blades, hammers and scoobers. Throwing has always been, and will always be, the most important skill in ultimate.
I am not saying that if you learn “funky” throws, you will be better as a player. What I am saying is that ultimate is a game of opportunities. The more flight paths that you can execute at a high percentage in a game, the more often your teammates will be “open”. You’ll start to see the game differently. And matching up against you will become that little bit difficult if you are able to throw a variety of shapes from different release points; for more on the subject, see this excellent article. If you’re matching up against more athletic teams, you’re going to need this.
Specifically, I would say that very few players are capable of accurately adjusting the amount of curve on a lead pass. For example, if a pass thrown to a lateral cut (horizontal or slashing cut) is caught by a team mate facing downfield, you often create a second of opportunity for continuation – a deep or break throw – because the marker is trailing and can apply little or no throwing pressure. This continuation throw is a “freebie” in that it allows you to get the disc to the break side or into open space without ever breaking a mark; you’ve increased your reward while reducing the risk.
The same pass, thrown where the cutter must turn to face the thrower at the point of the catch, allows the defender a chance to catch up and establish a mark. A more familiar situation is the dish to a handler cutting downfield, but the scenario is the same; if you put the disc in the hands of a player without a mark, and they can punish the defense. The difference between an easy continuation throw and a difficult one is down to whether or not the disc had sufficient curve on that first pass. In short, just because you completed your pass doesn’t mean you did your job; setting up a team mate with easy continuation should be your aim.
There is a player in the UK by the name of David Pichler. He is a tall guy, a big defender, and when he first played for Great Britain in 2007 he could barely throw. Pichler was good for a few big plays per game, would reel in wayward throws and generally made match-ups tougher.
But not that tough, unfortunately. When deployed on the O line, David was a bit too one-dimensional; force him under, then pressure the dump, a tactic that Australia used to force a turn against us in the 2008 WUGC quarter final. I coached Pichler in 2011 when he played for Great Britain, and I actively encouraged him to identify and focus on his weaknesses, rather than on being an athletic receiver.
Pichler worked really hard on becoming a thrower and playing as a handler. He used the season to solely focus on his weaknesses, and learned not just solid fundamentals but also how to execute everything from leading hammers to lefty scoobers and the high release flick (which he used at high stall in the European club final that year) by sticking to the Kung Fu Throwing routine on a regular basis. When Great Britain went to play at Labor Day a few months later, I asked Ben Wiggins for his thoughts on my team: “Very tall guy…David P? Extremely effective against us, both handling and going deep. Good at starting plays since he can throw around smaller marks without trouble, and then takes off deep.”
Pichler showed that with concerted effort, even in a short time, you can turn a weakness into a strength, give your team more depth, and your opposition more to worry about.
How to improve? Fortunately, there are some excellent throwing regimes already out there: Lou Burruss’ Kung Fu Throwing and Ben Wiggins’ Zen routine are the best I’ve seen, or you could even try the bastardised version that I used with Great Britain, which was tailored specifically to our offense. You too should focus more on the throws that are required for your offense, so it’s worth coming back to this section once you’ve picked something suitable. Speaking of which…
Pick something suitable for your team
There are plenty of offensive strategies, that boil down into four basic types:
- Vertical stack was the primary offense for many years, then came horizontal stack around a decade ago. Split stacks, side stacks and handler weaves are also occasionally employed, but remain rare. All just ways of creating space in such a way that you know what to expect from your team, and all have their pros and cons; there is no magic bullet (or is there..?)
- Despite Ben Wiggins’ claim that “Plays don’t work”, every team has plays, such as the dump & swing, the ‘Moses’ or ‘Zipper’, or a simple sideline reset.
- Often used in conjunction with plays, principles can guide your offense or be the basis for it. Examples could include “take what they give you”, “keep the disc off the sideline”, “dump on stall 5”, etc.
- Great Britain Open 2011-12 had a principle along the lines of “take the 1-on-1 throw”, which is any situation where there is one offensive and one defensive player in the endzone. We just trusted the thrower to do the right thing, and, despite a few errors, it generally worked out for us.
- More often seen at college level, or during finals when lines get shortened, this is just the principle of using your playmakers and letting them make plays, as well as adapting the cuts to the current thrower. When John Hassell has the disc, you can cut pretty much anywhere. Likewise, if you have a player who has a reliable, unusual throw, then use it. To paraphrase Ben Wiggins in his talk about getting more from your D line’s offense, you know that person on your team, with the weird high-release that looks really wobbly but no-one seems able to stop? Why not use it to your advantage? You can also use this strategy to run strings of cutters: “Bart to Beau” seems to have been a popular combo for Team USA / Revolver for a number of years, and it seems that DoG was relying on this when they were the most dominant team in the game. If you give great players space and time, they will get the job done; why restrict them into cutting in a particular way?
These can be the start of a sensible offense, so long as the defense doesn’t know what you’re going to do or can’t stop all of the options even if they do know what’s coming.
The best teams rely on a combination of these to maintain the element of surprise. Compare USA and Canada open teams from their WUGC semifinal and you’ll see USA utilizing principle-based offense which allows space for one cutter at a time, with everyone else staying out of the way, while Canada’s cutters run a flood play to one half of the field to achieve the same effect. Both throw in a hefty dose of just allowing their dominant handlers licence to take control whenever they like, effectively combining all of the above. This is a really important point, as having multiple methods of scoring means you can maintain the ability to be adaptive.
The ability to be adaptive is hugely important. You may have a 6′ 2″ sprinter on your team who just keeps going deep, but what are you going to do when you play a team with a taller / faster player, or if the weather makes this option too unreliable, or maybe just when they are having a bad game? What is your game plan then? Many teams fall into the trap of overconfidence in a specific connection; even very good ones. In short, play to your strengths, but don’t ignore your weaknesses.
Some examples of adaptive teams:
- Sockeye 2010: Having lost their main offensive receivers, Sockeye were no longer able to use their usual offensive strategy of relying on dominant athletes to get open; creating large amounts of space to get open was actually working to their disadvantage. Rather than trying to fit their new players into an old system, they reworked their systems to focus on moving the disc at blistering pace, and were able to take a relatively inexperienced team all the way to the final at WUCC. This is a fantastic example of picking something suitable for their team.
- Buzz Bullets 2006: Buzz were comprised of some very athletic players, but a lack of height made them vulnerable in the air. The thing that made the difference for them was the speed with which they moved the disc. All throws were thrown hard and fast, and they hit receivers in stride when throwing deep. Their game plan was that anything that hung in the air was likely to be a turnover, so they kept the disc low and threw it hard. Sometimes they missed those aggressive throws, but they all bought into a game plan and knew what to expect. They won WUCC 2006 and came third in 2010.
So, how do you use all of this?
- think about what your team does well
- think about what your team likes to do (not necessarily the same as what they do well!)
- think about what is difficult to defend
- train and play with those things in mind
- it is also worth noting that your O line can play a completely different offense to your D line; D line has fewer reps, so probably needs something less “perfect” and more “just let us get on with doing our thing”. Having a few simple plays can really work well.
Know what to expect
Tying into ‘Toolbox’: Your team knows to expect it, the opposition will not. That gives you an advantage. Will it work every time? No. But you don’t need it to. Have a few little tricks and put together combinations of patterns.
How do you practice for your new method of playing? Firstly, you might not need to reinvent the wheel; look to existing resources that you can borrow ideas, patterns or drills from. If you enjoy handler cuts, then focus on that aspect of your offense. You would do well to review the RiseUP handler offense videos, and watch a bit of Sockeye playing catch for inspiration. If you enjoy hucking and catching goals, then practice until you have the best long game in the country. Be sure to vary up the places that your cutters go deep from, the distance between thrower & cutter, the force, and the angles of the cut if you want to truly be able to hit the deep shot consistently from anywhere. Challenge yourselves at practice. You may need to re-train your cutters as much as your throwers; Buzz became famous for their slicing, crossfield deep throws which seemed to surprise defenders, yet the cutters themselves seemed to know exactly where that throw was going.
Don’t be concerned if your brand of ultimate is unusual. Certainly don’t be afraid to play ugly ultimate; remember that a catch in the endzone is worth a goal, no matter how pretty you make that happen. This has particular relevance for defensive line offense, who are likely to play against far more simple defenses. If you have a simple game plan when you get a turn, it can be very effective if you use the element of surprise.
- Example — Sweden 2012: In the WUGC quarter final, Sweden played a very different game than they had previously. They used their height (both on zone D & man O) to beat the Japan team who were predicted to go all the way to the Open final. Knowing the conditions favoured an ugly yardage game rather than a ‘pretty’, high percentage one, Sweden threw directly to the endzone as soon as possible on offense, outmuscling Buzz Bullets’ offense which was centered around crisp, fast disc movement. They were unable to adapt to the conditions.
It’s natural that any new offensive strategy will invite opponents to try a variety of defensive looks to see what is effective. You should therefore expect some attempts to stop your offense with new tactical innovation. At practices, actively get your D line to come up with things that make your offense difficult to execute; consider your O & D lines as two competitors in an evolutionary battle against one another.
Different defensive looks encourages your offense to learn on their feet, while different offensive strategies forces your defense to learn new styles of defending. Don’t keep hitting your head against that brick wall — adapt! And equally, don’t cheat yourselves at practice by not allowing people to do things that stop your offense dead in its tracks; if your teammates worked it out, you can be sure that your opponents will too, eventually. If anything, choose drills that make practices more difficult than the real games, and ones that continue to force you to improve every practice.
Some general tips:
- Put the disc where the defender can’t get it; even with an athletic mismatch, if you can break the mark then you will have success. Develop a good long game; it doesn’t have to be pitch length throwing, you just need to be able to hit cutters running away from you, in stride, and this could be 20-30m throws
- Minimize hang time; the disc should be in the air for the exact amount of time it takes to get to the receiver, and no more. Extra hang time just gives the defender a chance to close. Practice by marking out a target area for the reception, and get the disc is sit in that area. This is one of those really basic drills that is done with complete beginners over very short distances, but actually can scale really well. When you can huck and get the disc to sit at a catchable height in a 10m x 10m box anywhere on the pitch during drills, you’re not going to struggle to hit your targets in a game
- Develop a solid zone offense; if you can score against zones, then you can effectively force the other team to play man against you; use 8+ defenders if you need to
- Learn to tweak in real-time; get your D line to come up with small changes to their defense in between points at practice. Not only does this teach your D line to analyze and respond to threats in real-time, but your O line gets to play against a few more unpredictable opponent
- Breaking the mark gives you lots more options, enables you to maintain field space, and can set up some really easy assists.3
- Avoid your opponent’s strengths; if they like to punt to their athletes, and those athletes are better than yours, then their defenders are likely to be very, very good against deep cutters. You should therefore avoid throwing big throws to your outmatched receivers. Have practices where you assume that your targets are mismatched athletically; combat this by only throwing deep if they have good separation, and throw much shorter passes to minimize hang time that your imaginary athletic opponent might have the chance to catch up to. Then add a defender; if the defender is able to (safely) tap the offensive player before the disc is caught, it’s deemed to be a turnover.
- Periodically go back to the beginning; which throws are most useful in your new offense? Make sure everyone’s toolbox is kept up to date. Which bits are not effective and can be scrapped? Keep your own house tidy and you’ll save a lot of heartache down the road. There are no pride points here; the number of times I’ve said to my captains “I’m not sure if this is going to work, but let’s try it and see…”. Some worked, some didn’t. Challenge the status quo.
- Use everything in your toolbox, and keep adding to it
- Create a strategy that suits your team; their toolbox, their physical attributes, what they like doing
- Know what to expect from your team; if you’re all on the same page, you’ll get better results
Weather conditions, the relative strengths of the player with the disc and the intended receiver, and the defense being played are probably the main ones. ↩
To be clear, bear in mind that this trade-off always exists. There is no such thing as 100% in sport. You have all seen an unguarded throw hit the floor, just when the score was “certain”. And you’re all seen someone catch something you didn’t expect. So take all of this with a pinch of salt ↩
Interestingly, as an aside, none of the World Games teams adopted strategies that relied on breaking the mark. Maybe it’s just too low percentage at a high level? Or maybe these things run in cycles ↩