Tuesday Tips: Building Your Strategy (from Sun Tzu)

"Know your enemy as you know yourself."

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

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“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”- Sun Tzu

The difference between strategy and tactics is an important one.

Strategy is the big picture. It is the long-term view, the grand goals, and the way you want to proceed in achieving them. To use the military analogy, strategy is the campaign of war, run by the general.

Tactics, on the other hand, are the concrete moves made in the moment. These are the small picture ways of achieving immediate goals. To keep that same analogy, if strategy is the campaign, tactics are the small battles, led by the captains and sergeants on the field.

Both are important, but tactics are what tends to get talked about. Especially in ultimate, athletes are looking for ways to gain advantages over opposing players, and teams tend to focus on set pieces or plans that will win in the moment. In ultimate, tactics are things like forces, stacks, zones, and player matchups.

Strategy, however, is even more important. It is the way your team is run, organized, and proceeds to enter any battle. It is the mentality you have when entering into games, planning for opponents, and playing on the field.

Strategy is the big picture, and it guides a top-down approach to the squad’s entire attitude in each individual battle. For the course of a tournament, a season, or the creation of a long-term program, strategy cannot be neglected.

Take a step back and look at the strategy, alongside some words of wisdom from Sun Tzu, and how this informs the way your team is run and fins success.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”- Sun Tzu

Strategy revolves around your values and core identity. Strategy can’t be therefore prepared unless you really know your team. It takes a process of reflection, of analysis, of really knowing your players, your strengths, and weaknesses, and what your identity as a program is (or what you want it to be) before you can set a strategy for your team.

Truly the best teams are the ones that are utterly aware of what they can and cannot achieve. They know what they are good at, what they can and cannot do, and what they want to achieve on the field. You have to first look inward and know what you see there.

Only after you have reached that point can you proceed to look at the opponent and begin to have a good idea of what you want to accomplish against them. And then attempt to do that same very in-depth process while scouting them.

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”- Sun Tzu

In other words, your team needs to be ready.

The more cohesive, prepared, and practiced your squad is, the better likelihood you will have success. It is still true that the majority of the time the team that is better trained and more fundamentally sound will succeed.

For ultimate, this means practice. There is a reason the best sports teams in the world (or soldiers in the world) are constantly drilling, training, and practicing. Ultimate is limited in scope, often because of real life concerns (time, money, availability), but the more your team can practice, the better. The fewer turnovers you have, the more likely you are to win. The more accurate your throws, the more likely you are to reduce turnovers.

It all sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But people so often want to skip right past it. You talk strategy in ultimate and the first thing everyone wants to talk about is the other team. How should we beat them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Prepare yourself first!

Consider adding practices if possible (a team that practices three days a week consistently is better than one that practices once), or returning to fundamentals, doing more to improve yourself before looking at the enemy.

“All warfare is based on deception.”- Sun Tzu
“Know your enemy as you know yourself.”- Sun Tzu

Once you’ve moved past your own inner analysis and training, only then can you begin to look at the enemy.

Sometimes there are teams that, on paper, are superior to your own. Indeed, every team, if they are allowed to play their normal game and be confident, will succeed.

The key, then, is to make them uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. The more you can confuse and cloud the opponent, the more likely they are to make mistakes, get out of their game plans, and allow you opportunities.

Your team strategy is always be able to make the opponent confused and uncertain, whether on offense or defense. If they are playing against a new tactic, stack, or set, they won’t have any frame of reference for success. They’ll be uncertain, and it will take them time to adapt or adjust. That’s where you will succeed.

On defense, it is fairly straightforward. Teams have things they want to do (push the disc to certain players, attack certain spaces, run certain sets). Don’t let them.

If a team is a massive huck team, back the deep space. If a team is a thriving off of a handler, poach the lanes and force that person to swing to someone else. If the enemy has good speed, slow them down and make them throw a million passes with a zone. Try whatever you can, whenever you can, to make them annoyed, frustrated, uncomfortable. The greatest compliment to your squad is when the opponent is annoyed to the point where you’ve forced them to stop playing their version of ultimate (True story, once I heard someone claim against a defense that “This isn’t even real ultimate anymore.”… They lost the game big.)

Now, of course, really good teams can adapt. The best teams don’t just have one weapon, or one star, or one tactic that makes them succeed. So, certainly, they’ll find a different way to score. Which means you’ll need to find a different way to confuse them.

An average game may have three to four shifts in tactics on defense, as each team adapts to the other, but the larger piece strategy of confusing the enemy should still be the same.

Offensively, confusing the enemy means disguising your strengths as long as possible, exploiting their defensively weaker players (your matchups), and being flexible enough to succeed. This last piece is important because also know that good teams will constantly be trying to throw your squad off their game too.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”- Sun Tzu

With the constant back-and-forth of tactics and adjustment, games might get a bit wild.

Of course, in some ways, there is no better ultimate than back-and-forth, gritty contests. Especially if you are a team facing what on paper would be called a “superior” opponent, you want games to be a little chaotic and maybe even sloppy (there is a reason upsets tend to also happen when conditions are not always ideal).

But strategically, your team needs to be ready to thrive in such environments.

Flexibility is key here.

A well-trained team is great, but it’s useless if they get out of their normal sync (what you normally want to do to the team you’re facing). Your team needs to be not only well-trained, but able to adapt to any situation.

This means switching stacks completely if you need to, being ready and willing to have a few different defenses to try, and having a general comfort in the mentality of your team that in chaos you can thrive, even if things aren’t going to “plan.”

In other words, you need a large number of practiced tactics and a confidence in your ability to fight and win, no matter how weird the game may get.

This means practice, and, specifically, practicing lots of different situations. Your team should not be able to excel with just one stack or one defensive set (again, this is bad strategy). If you rely on one key zone to win, you aren’t going to win many games (especially if that zone isn’t clicking with that opposing team).

Have at least three offensive sets you can run; do the same with defensive schemes. The more different they can be from each other, the better. Practice them often, and what’s more, practice them against different situations and schemes in themselves.

For example, don’t just practice vertical stack or isolation offense against force forehand. Practice it with force backhand, with zones, with wind and rain, with anything you can imagine. And do the same for every play and tactic in your book.

Practice specific situations, like short games that go to cap (maybe down by one and must score to force universe), games with weird weather (playing in rain, snow, and wind are not a pain, but exciting opportunities you should be ready for with lots of different situations and scrimmages), and any other strange situation you can think of.

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” – Sun Tzu

Let’s end with this final idea and put it all together. Here are the big picture strategies from Sun Tzu in summary:

– You want to reflect to know yourself and your team as well as you can.
– You want to be cohesive and as well-trained as possible.
– You want to be unknown, to create unknown, confusing situations for the opponent
– You want to be flexible and prepared to take advantage of the chaos this creates

Overall, you want to be the one forcing change and discomfort. You want to be the one with matchups you want to exploit, tactics you want to try, and the one prepared to take advantage of any chaotic situations or conditions that may arise.

Your strategy to be the team that revels in the bad weather games, that can survive the chippy slugfests, that loves the back-and-forth contests of a dogfight.

It’s easier said than done, but if you keep these big picture ideas in your mind when putting your season together, you’ll be far more likely to achieve victory.

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  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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