They are a scarce and valuable resource that are all too frequently wasted in inopportune situations -- or not used at all.
May 3, 2016 by Alex Rummelhart in Opinion with 5 comments
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Timeouts are valuable resources in ultimate, and using them is one of the best ways a coach, captain, or team leader can influence the game. But they are also scarce; at best, a team will have four1 per game, which in a tight contest (say a game of 15-13) translates to one timeout every seven points!
However, timeouts are rarely strategically planned or coordinated, and often are used carelessly or wasted in bad, inopportune situations. Perhaps even worse, many teams forget or fail to use their timeouts over the course of an ultimate game, losing this advantage by not exercising it.
Nearly every sport has specific strategies for utilizing their timeouts; similarly with ultimate, bringing your team together in the huddle can do a great many powerful things. It’s time to clarify how and when to use timeouts in the most important situations to get the best bang for your buck.
A first priority must be to determine who has the power to call, or communicate, a timeout on your team. Ironically, despite this being one of the biggest tools available to a team’s leadership, USAU rules do not allow a coach to call a timeout from a sideline mid-point. Therefore it is important to be clear with your team as to who gets to call timeouts — and when — on the field.
Once that logistical concern is clarified, here are seven ways2 to make the most of your timeouts.
In-Between Points Timeouts
1. Move Momentum
Stopping or building momentum can be a tricky thing, but it can save a team from drowning or push a squad over the edge to victory if executed properly. This, usually, is a timeout that you don’t want to use, but feel that you have to. Most often it’s employed when another team has gone on a run and you need to stop the bleeding.
The most important element of momentum-shifting timeouts is ensuring they are focused on your team, not on the other. Keep the language positive and keep the team focused. Everyone may be aware that you are trying to stop the momentum of the other squad, but don’t frame the timeout that way in your own huddle. Instead, call the timeout, slow down the pace of the game, get everyone to take a deep breath, and then pivot immediately to discuss a tangible tactic you want to switch to or refocus on.
Get the players refocused, try something new3 or creative, and try to take as much of the clock as you can before getting players on the field.
2. Shift Strategy
Similar to moving momentum, the timeout for a strategy switch can be difficult to execute well. While it is incredibly important for teams to make in-game adjustments — both while winning or especially while losing — it is not ideal to be trying to make big strategic tweak in the few minutes allotted for a timeout. You shouldn’t be wasting precious mid-game time trying to communicate entirely new concepts to players — you should save that for practice or at very least for between games.
Keep the strategy shift subtle and simple. Again, this is not the time to retool the offense or teach a completely new defensive set. Timeouts don’t last that long; make the most of your minutes. Communication is key.
Quickly and clearly explain how the other team is finding success and what your team is going to do to stop it. This could mean something as basic as a shift in person-defense philosophy (like switching from shading deep to shading under) or a recommitment to an offensive principle (like using more handler swings). Even a reminder of something the team already knows can be important to get everyone on the same page.
3. Load A Line
Often employed in conjunction with either a momentum move or strategy shift, this is one of the biggest ways for a coach or captain to emphasize a single point as a critical moment in a competitive game. Maybe the game is deadlocked and you’ve been unable to get a break. Maybe you’ve given up a run of points and need to stop the bleeding. Use a timeout to give your best players additional rest and more time to mentally and physically prepare for an important upcoming point, then call your best line.
For teams which typically split into offensive and defensive lines, this is the time to use the hybrid lines, the universe point studs, the playmakers who can win you a goal (usually a break). Have a strategy in place in advance for various lines and player combinations that work well together. It is critical to have these types of lines set for various common situations, such as zone offense, going into a strong wind, or a defensive point that simply MUST generate turnovers. Using the timeout gives you time to get that line communicated, lay out any specific strategy, and have a fairly rested strong core to execute the gameplan.
This is one of the best ways to use an extra timeout at the end of a half when it otherwise may be left unused; points on either side of a half-time break are natural moments to build momentum. It can also be an intentional late-game strategy, which requires that you have a timeout dedicated expressly for this purpose. In that case, you will have to make an effort to conserve a timeout during gameplay.
On the Field Timeouts
4. Powerful Field Position
One of the best places to use timeouts is in important field position. To clarify, this should be from a position of strength — when you’re in the redzone on an important point or break, or when you’re past midfield attacking a tough upwind endzone — not a moment of weakness (say trapped on the downwind sideline).
If done well, this can be like hitting the reset button for a team, letting them refocus and not get caught up in the emotion of a big moment. Clearly communicate what should happen after the disc is tapped in (what play or movement you want) and emphasize a backup option as well.
Some critics dislike using a timeout here for two reasons. One: a timeout allows both teams to regroup and forces the offense to set before the defense has to read the situation and get in position; nothing is worse than calling a timeout and then turning the disc over on a first pass that doesn’t work because of an unanticipated defensive set up (a truly wasted timeout). Two: some believe timeouts should be saved for more important matters.
There is some merit to the idea of “saving” timeouts if your team has a specific strategy in mind for how else you’d use them — but remember that they disappear if they are not used, so don’t miss a golden opportunity to use one and then fail to use it at all.
As far as allowing the defense to set, that is a risk under the current rules system of “freeze in place” ultimate. However, the risk is worth it. Have a specific play or movement called — as well as a backup plan if the defense changes4 — but encourage your players to run a normal offense if a play doesn’t work. Remember, more important than the strategy is the “reset” mentally that allows your team to regain its focus, calm down with the disc, and eventually score.
5. Defense To Offense
In the pro leagues this can be a literal change5, but in regular ultimate it becomes a mentality shift after a turnover occurs.
After forcing a turn, you have a few seconds where the leadership can communicate from the field or sidelines. Rather than making this a hurried affair — trying to call a play aloud that may or may not be heard by everyone — use the timeout. It may not feel ideal, but calling a timeout and resetting your team’s position and strategy is far better than immediately turning it over again in chaos.
Even more important than strategy is the mental personnel shift. The ferocity and run-and-gun mentality of many defensive players needs to be calmed, as does the focus with the disc. Sometimes just a reiteration of this, of reinforcing the need for the team’s offense to take over, is enough.
6. Punishing Point
We’ve all been there: it’s a ten-minute long point and the seven on the field need a rest so badly you burn the timeout.
Often, this timeout is the evidence of a team who has not prepared themselves adequately with fitness. As we discussed above, using a timeout due to lack of legs is not the ideal as it allows both teams to recover and reset, often to the defense’s advantage. It is far better to take advantage of the length and situation, using superior fitness to carry over the edge.
One way to make sure that you use the timeout correctly is to pick the right moment to call it. Find a time when the disc is either in an ideal situation or an attack position on that long point, or push your players to try to move to that situation before calling a timeout. Calling a timeout after a huck went astray is rarely the correct option. Both teams may be tired, especially if there have been a series of long-ball tosses, but calling the disc dead on your own endzone line is likely asking for trouble, and may either lead to the opponent’s score or a continuation of the marathon point. Use the timeout as a dagger to help punish the enemy and tip the balance in your favor.
7. Scary Situation
In other sports, where timeouts are more plentiful (or outright free), they are used when a team is really desperate, perhaps trapped or on the ropes, and may be close to throwing a turnover.
Calling a timeout in a high-stall situation isn’t a bad thing, IF the moment is critical AND salvageable. For example, calling a timeout while trapped on the sideline at stall 8 isn’t going to improve your chances and may actually give the defense an edge. Especially early in a game, it may be better to put up a desperate throw to your top receiver than waste a time out to get an equally iffy look to maintain possession on the game’s third point.
On the flip side, calling a timeout at stall 5 or 6 near your own endzone when your offense is out of position, especially if you absolutely can’t afford to give up the point, might just save the game. In this type of situation, you don’t have time to communicate a play or a strategy, you simply have to give your thrower options. Draw up two-three moving cuts, let the defense set, and then trust the thrower to pick the right matchup based on who is going to be open.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Most teams don’t practice using timeouts; it makes sense that in a scrimmage a team would keep the ball moving to save time. However, timeouts are like any other piece of strategy, and a team would do well to practice the various situations they may find themselves in.
Use these set pieces to vary up a boring “free-for-all” scrimmage and to give the leadership and captains clear guidelines on who can call a timeout and when. Practicing this way will not only make sure you don’t waste your timeouts in a critical game, but that you’ll use them effectively to score.
It is occasionally possible to get a fifth if you have already used all timeouts before entering overtime. ↩
Expressed in alliteration! ↩
NEVER lose a game playing the same strategy the entire time. ↩
For example, between man and zone ↩
Teams are allowed to substitute entire lines during timeouts. ↩