Don’t Be An Optimist, Be A Realist: On Adaptability In Ultimate

It's not enough to be optimistic; you have to be realistic to win games.

The MLU's Seattle Rainmakers v. San Francisco Dogfish.
Photo by Scobel Wiggins —

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward

This quote really speaks to me as a coach.

I’ve heard people complain about the conditions during a tournament many times. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy, or combinations of these. Maybe it’s a teammate who got injured, or being five goals up against a weaker opponent who nevertheless runs “too” hard and the game needs to be put to bed.

“Too” whatever; these are the pessimists. They often beat themselves. Just as the weather changes, you can see the fight drain out of them.

Some wise people will encourage you to only focus on the things that you can change, asking you to ignore the cold or heat, the wind or rain or humidity. To fight through the pain, or to ignore the fact that your star receiver is hurt or that your main thrower has been having a rough day. “Just get on with it” is their mantra. These are the optimists. They tend to beat the pessimists, naturally.

But they can be their own worst enemies, bashing their heads against a brick wall relentlessly as they refuse to change despite circumstances that have drastically altered the scenario. These are the people that need to remember that its how many goals you score that matters, not how beautiful your offence is.

Realists in ultimate are surprisingly rare. The kind of people who recognise instantly that their best chances of winning in a given scenario is not to keep playing the way they’ve practiced, but to change to suit the new scenario. Adaptability is hugely important in ultimate. If you normally huck relentlessly, but today’s combination of weather and injuries means that your usual tactics aren’t effective, then you should change. Optimists don’t like this. They think it’s like giving in to a team that wants you to beat them with your weakness as Jonny G once opined.

Some examples of defensive adjustments based on conditions:

– Playing college ultimate against a team where one superstar player got every other pass and seemed to be making a mockery of us despite strong wind; switching to zone had little impact as their main guy could still dominate possession. Only by switching to a hybrid zone, with one player assigned to mark the superstar as though it were man. This forced the disc into the hands of weaker players, and the wind did its job for us

– UK Tour, 2007. A depleted Clapham team – down to 11 men – is playing in a 3v4 matchup with an extremely athletic Scottish team called Fusion. The weather has been torrential rain – a typical English summer – and the pitch conditions are extremely boggy. Knowing that changing direction was going to be difficult in mud, we improvised a force-middle poach set to clog up the lanes and neutralise their athleticism

– WUGC 2012 quarter finals: Sweden recognised the strength of a Japanese offence reliant on speed, that the gale-force winds would neutralise much of that speed, and that they had an obvious height advantage. Sweden ditched their usual game plan and hucked relentlessly for yards in a huge upset over the number 1 seed. Sweden also adopted a zone to take on Great Britain in the semis in order to neutralise GB’s athleticism in still conditions.

– Playing domestically in a game with tough, choppy winds yet where both teams were capable of shredding zones, we switched to a man-to-man defence, practically giving up the deep throw downwind and relying on all deep throws being thrown too far. When they were playing into the wind, we played just behind them, forcing contested underneath passes and preventing them from punting and pulling down a hanging throw.

And some offensive adjustments based on conditions:

– Short forehands are tough to get right in choppy wind. By changing the spacing around the resets, you can give your team a better chance of completing throws that would normally be easy. One example is to be more comfortable losing big yards on a dump; see Japan Open 2012. They’d rather throw a longer pass into lots of space for a loss of yards than attempt to gain a few yards with a riskier throw.

– Switching to use an additional handler in zone; a 4-person “bucket” ensures you can dump directly backwards and means the swing is always available. You might not gain yards, but you can get the disc off that trap sideline

– Moving the horizontal stack deeper in calm weather to give more yards on the unders while still having the defence worry about the deep throw

– Trying to keep the disc on the upwind sideline, regardless of defence by changing the primary cuts to repeatedly attack the upwind sideline, rather than taking the obvious yard-gaining throw that would take you back to the trap side of the field

– Two of your top cutters are injured? Shift your vertical stack deeper, and rely on handler movement to work downfield instead of punting to less favourable matchups

So, how do we create a culture of realism? Teams play the way that they train. If you only train to play in a certain way, then it’s difficult to adjust when you need to. The easiest and most effective way to learn how to adjust is to make time for this at practice.

Start with getting your coach to throw new defences at your O line; this gives your offence the chance to adapt by themselves. If they struggle to adjust, then you as a coach can provide some guidance; the first step is to ask them whether they know what defence they were playing against.

If your O line can’t even tell you what defence they faced, then either they beat it really easily, the defence were doing a terrible job, or your O line weren’t paying attention. A lot of defences win by making minor adjustments after lulling an offence into a false sense of security; as a coach, you should keep your O line frosty.

In a similar vein, your defensive captains should be analysing their performance after each point; were they scored on because of poor body positioning? A spectacular catch? A handler cut that created power position on the break side? How many times were they able to force low percentage throws, or high stall counts? How did they manage to do that, and can it be repeated?

Then you can get your defensive line to try new things. This goes beyond their playbook; this is an active attempt to use their knowledge of the O line’s weaknesses against them. It should be relatively simple to switch up marks, throw in a poach or two, and try to constrain the offence. Your D line should know what the O line like to do… so cheat. Even if you don’t get a block, the mere act of forcing your O line to go through their Plan B will make them stronger and more adaptable.

Naturally, a coach can help with guidance at practices, in half-times and between games at tournaments. But the gold standard for any team is the ability to react and adapt to overcome in real-time, during a point. Since you’re only able to throw whatever combinations of defences you can think of at your own team, how do you prepare for the defences you haven’t prepared for? And how do you prepare your defensive line for new offensive tactics they might be naive about?

Let’s assume that your team has spent months practising an isolation offence that relies on sharp turns and fast disc movement to score as a blur. How will your team be affected after weeks of heavy rain when the footing is so bad that agility is affected? An optimist would insist on perfect execution rather than admitting that the tactics don’t match the conditions, and going to Plan B like a realist would. Why not learn a new offence and new drills that help you to overcome your weaknesses?

Here are some training suggestions to get better at adaptability:

– “Imagine player X is injured” and sub her out for the last 3 points of your scrimmage.

– Practice with four handlers instead of three for a game, just to get used to the spacing, in case you ever need to implement that wrinkle.

– Switch one of your handlers into a cutting position for a game to see how they adjust.

– Get your defensive captain to make adjustments mid-practice purely to put the offence out of sync.


Gewirtz was right to say you should make the other team beat you with their weakness. I’m saying that realists should expect this, and be ready with a strong ‘B’ game.

For more coaching tips, Flik has a library of detailed drills for ultimate, practice plans and theory to learn more about ultimate. Train Better. Play Better.

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone

    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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