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The Playbook For Underdogs: Take Risks For A Better Chance At The Upset

Upsets in ultimate are rare. But the underdog can increase their chances with these strategies.

Ottawa Phoenix stunned Japan's Buzz Bullets at the 2014 World Club Championships with a huck-heavy strategy. Photo: Brian Canniff -- UltiPhotos.com
Ottawa Phoenix stunned Japan’s Buzz Bullets at the 2014 World Club Championships with a huck-heavy strategy. Photo: Brian Canniff — UltiPhotos.com

In June of 2005, Johnny Bravo attended Eugene’s Solstice tournament as a tryout event. At the time, Bravo was in the middle of a five-year run of making it to the quarterfinals of Nationals. In consolation, we matched up against the Oaks, the third team out of the Bay Area. The Oaks had never made it to Nationals and never would. In that game, as I recall it, the Oaks hucked and hucked some more and came down with far more than their fair share of those hucks. The Oaks, improbably, would go on to beat us 15-12.

In the world of competitive ultimate, more games than not are between two teams with a clear disparity in athleticism, skill, and experience. Sometimes that gap is a big one and other times it’s smaller, but, by and large, it seems like upsets are rare.

Maybe the lack of upsets has something to do with a disparity in mental game training. Maybe it has to do with our formats, which don’t tend to reward upsets until late in events. Maybe it has to do with the gameplay itself; perhaps ultimate has a lack of variability and chance that can lead to upsets? Maybe it has to do with the fact that there isn’t much difference between teams’ playbooks. It’s probably some combination of all of those — and perhaps more.

But, when it comes to the strategy, too many underdogs are content to draw their plays from the same playbook as the favorites and shy away from introducing variability and chance into the game that could help them score a big upset.

During Bravo’s run of quarterfinals in the early ’00s, we had a very vanilla playbook full of fairly straightforward vertical and horizontal offensive sets and a commitment to hard, person-to-person defense — “Bravo D.” We had faith in our skills and athleticism. And, it worked as you might expect it—by and large we beat the teams we were more athletic and skilled than and lost to the small group of teams we weren’t. And we’d often lose to teams that matched our athleticism and skill but were slightly craftier than we were.

The year we lost to the Oaks at Solstice, we would go on to lose in the quarterfinals of Nationals to a Death or Glory squad that we felt we were more talented than but that was able to confound us with an aggressive trap zone D.

It’s understandable why teams might draw up conservative playbooks. Introducing risk into your basic playbook could lead to your team losing in situations where you’re a favorite or possibly losing by greater margins in games where you are not a favorite. Non-standard playbooks might also come at the expense of developing players in the “standard” way that we think players should be developed. But, for some teams on the brink of an important milestone (qualifying for Regionals or Nationals, beating a rival), those risks may be ones you want to take while underdogs in that pursuit.

And, as a sport, while most new, risky strategies won’t end up becoming standard best practice, we need more teams taking risks to advance our strategies and understanding of the game.1

Let’s take a look at a few strategies for teams looking to introduce a little more variability and chance into their game.

Highly Variable Offensive Strategies

Increased Hucking

In that game between Johnny Bravo and the Oaks, the Oaks earned the upset by putting up the deep ball a lot — considerably more than the standard “take the shot if it’s there” approach that most teams default to. If that game had been played ten times, chances are the Oaks wouldn’t have completed so many of those hucks in a vast majority of the games. But, the chances would have been even worse for the Oaks had they tried to challenge us with a more balanced mix of unders and aways.

Hucks, by nature, are high risk and high reward. If you can get the hot hand—a thrower and/or receiver who are just on for a game—you can take down a more skilled team. When working, hucks can shorten points, allowing shallow teams to save legs.

One downside to a hucking strategy is, of course, not being on and continually gifting possession to your opponents rather cheaply. The other big downside to a hucking strategy, particularly as a season-long one, is that it can significantly impair the development of players who aren’t throwing and catching those hucks. As such, this a strategy that might be best for a one-off game where your chances are particularly bad.

Quick Disc Movement

The most high-profile recipe for offensive success at the highest levels has been to combine great athletes with solid skills and give space and time for those athletes to get open. Every repeat open and women’s champion of the last 25 years has used some version of that formula: NYNY, DoG, Godiva, Furious, Sockeye, Fury, Riot, Revolver, Scandal. While the mechanics of their offenses have differed, the framework is the same.

However, when you are facing a defense that out-athletes your offense in open space, an offense that depends on winning a sequence of one-on-one battles in open space is bound to break down. The high-variable alternative is accelerating the disc movement to create more transitional cutting opportunities: moments where cutters have an advantage due to new offensive angles being created. Quick disc movement reduces the need for cutters to repeatedly overpower defenders in open space. Seattle Sockeye’s O-line offense in 2014 and 2015 is an example of quicker disc movement (although I’d say they are still only scratching the surface) — and a team that many consider to have outperformed their talent in those seasons.

The downside to quick disc movement is simple game mechanics. Outside of being stalled (which is exceedingly rare in any offense), you can only turn the disc over when you put it in the air. Putting the disc in the air more frequently is therefore inherently more risky. One solution is to combine this strategy with that mentioned above: move the disc quickly until you get a somewhat favorable huck look and take it.

Fast Breaking

One of the themes of these high variable strategies is winning in transitions. There are plenty of transitions that occur in ultimate: thrower-to-thrower transitions, playing-field-to-redzone transitions, environmental transitions. But the most obvious one is defense-to-offense transitions. For teams that you can’t beat with skills or athleticism, these posession transitions open up a new corridor to success.

Fast breaking prevents your opponent from setting the defense they want and getting the match-ups they want. While you might be outmatched across the board, fast breaking could create opportunities like your best cutter working against your opponent’s worst cutter defender. If your opponent is slow to recognize a fast break, you may also find yourself with a numbers advantage as well.

As with all highly variable strategies, there are risks with fast breaks. Effective fast breaking requires quick, solid decision-making skills and mistakes in the fast-break transition immediately erase the previous defensive effort that preceded the fast break.

Highly Variable Defensive Strategies

Aggressive Zones

There are several strategies on the defensive end that can increase variance in a game. The most common one is to have a highly aggressive zone look to take risks early in possessions. These zones should challenge opponents to take a high risk option, conceding that if they complete that option, they’ll have a good chance of scoring.

An aggressive zone can take many forms, but typically forces the disc toward one or both sidelines, traps the offense when near the sideline, and stacks more defenders near the disc than the offense has. Downfield, aggressive zone wings and deeps are often cheating toward the disc and tempting big crossfield throws. Where most conventional zones don’t encourage defenders to bid on hard-to-get Ds, aggressive zones often give more latitude to defensive risk-taking.

One classic aggressive zone defense is the four-person trap zone. The University of Florida’s men’s team used this defense extensively in the late ’00s, and both Sockeye and Austin Doublewide have used it as well. That zone, which forces one way (typically toward the forehand side), brings four defenders at or within 10 feet of the disc when on the sideline.

One side benefit of zones of this type is that the overloading of defenders near the disc provides tremendous fast-breaking opportunities when the disc is turned over.

Fluid/Dynamic Zones

The last few years have seen an increase in more dynamic zone defenses, which find themselves between the more structured zones and person-to-person defenses. While the concept has been around at a high level since Death or Glory debuted the “clam” in the mid-90’s, defenses like Oregon Fugue’s “6 and 1” or the GB Mixed U23/Brighton’s “flexagon” have shown that teams are innovating in this area.

The success of these defenses is based on constantly shifting the space that the defense is taking away and relies heavily on communication and defensive player intuition. For these zones to work, they need to be intuitive for the defense yet unpredictable for the offense. Underdogs can use defenses like these to increase variance against a favorite—particularly when overmatched athletically or skill-wise. These defenses may not be as useful against less athletic but highly experienced teams who know how to read the field.

Like the other strategies, these come with risks. Failure to recognize threats or communicate can result in easy scores for your opponent. In defenses intended to be dynamic, defenders can easily get stuck in patterns making the open spaces predictable for skilled and experienced offenses.

Baiting Defense

For a highly variable defensive look within a person-to-person framework, baiting defense provides opportunities for blocks. Baiting most often involves playing behind your downfield cutter by a half-step (DIP, back pocket, high), giving them what looks to be an easy undercut, and then, when the disc is in the air, attempting to make a play for a block. Baiting is most effective when the defender is more athletic and has a higher top speed than the cutter.

There are two essential parts to baiting, the first is making the receiver think they have a clear path to the disc and do not need to hit top speed. The second is making the thrower think the receiver is wide open. The best baiters are able to move behind the receiver at the moment when the thrower is making their decision. By staying low and minimizing the thrower’s visibility of themselves, defenders can make the cutter look more open than they are. Once the thrower commits to the throw, the defender takes the step around the cutter to give themselves a line toward the disc.

To use baiting as a team, you should put your most athletic/explosive defender or two on another team’s slower (but still involved) cutters to bait. Every other defender should play fundamentally but conservatively to allow short gains but not get beaten deep.

As always, risks exist. If you’re baiting and don’t get the block, you are giving your opponent easy yards and often to players that you could stop from getting the disc. Worse yet, if you make an aggressive bid but miss the disc, you’ll be out of position on the mark and give your opponents a significant advantage. Baiting is the exact opposite of what we think of as fundamental person defense, the highest goal of which is to force high-stall-count bail-out throws because no one appeared to be open (increasingly known as coverage sacks, borrowing a term from football).

***

There are a multitude of strategies to increase variability in your team’s play. You should choose those that play to your team’s strengths and toward the potential weaknesses of your opponent. You can even combine multiple strategies that complement each other. But, if you’re an underdog, be careful about drawing all of your strategies from the teams at the top. More likely than not, those are not the best strategies for teams facing a clear deficit in skills, athleticism, or experience.


  1. While this article has been churning in my head for the past few months, this reddit thread made me finally put pen to paper. This article is also worthwhile follow-up reading. 

  1. Kyle Weisbrod
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    Kyle Weisbrod has coached several teams including U of Washington women’s team, Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls national team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA. You can reach him by e-mail (kyle.weisbrod@gmail.com) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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