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Tuesday Tips: How to Run a Socially Distanced Practice

North Carolina’s Matt Gouchoe-Hanas at Easterns 2018. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by Ian Whitman, a captain of Denver Sweet Action.

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

As we enter September 2020, we have hit another COVID-19 milestone – the awkward university reopening phase. With some colleges opting to go full-send on opening, others keeping everything remote, and most somewhere in the messy in-between, many college ultimate programs will have to navigate if and how they will hold practices. One option for some teams may be to hold socially distanced practices, i.e. practices without defense.

My club team opted for this strategy over the summer, at first to prep for a potential season, then eventually as a way to keep some semblance of physical activity and friendship in our lives. With that in mind, this Tuesday Tip focuses on just that: how to run a meaningful socially distant practice.

Offense-only practices require much more stated context for drills. Each drill needs to come with a mental framework to envision, one which explains what the force would be, how the defense could be set up (briefly, don’t get stuck on this), and how this throw/cut would exploit a defensive weakness. Within that, we found there to be two specific keys to developing a useful drill:

1. Tighten the margins on what constitutes “success”

The easiest way we found to do this was to add cone boxes on the field that represented the target location for a completion. This not only gives the throwers a meaningful goal, but also provides structure for cutters, as they could be instructed that they should not only be catching the disc in the target box, but needed to be doing it in stride. Any time a cutter was slowing down or standing still to catch a disc, it was blamed on the cutter starting too early, as opposed to a throw being too lofty or late.

2. Design drills to test unusual and more challenging skills

Assuming your team is not made up of complete beginners, throwing unders and simple dump passes with no mark and no downfield defense is a waste of time and your players will know it. Adding in drills that work on more niche skills — such as quick-release throws, IO hucks, and inverted throws — will develop your throwers and help them to stay engaged during a practice that can otherwise feel dangerously close to meaningless.

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A well-run ultimate offense should always have an advantage over the defense, so our drills were designed to answer the obvious question: what does a “well-run” offense look like? Often a good offense is described as having a lot of team chemistry, which we came to understand as two broad goals: anticipation and timing. Drills should be designed so that throwers are throwing to a specific space and have a goal involving the distance and shape of a throw. Cutters should be making timing adjustments for play development, including who their thrower will be, and should be attacking spaces from a set-up clear cut, not just going straight for a spot. At more typical practices, cutters are frequently given too vague of instructions (“cut under, then deep”) and get away with things that look like success, but which would not work well in a game – no longer!

Below is an example of a simple offense-only endzone drill. The scenario is as such: a handler has gotten a continuation around throw towards the break-side of the field; with their mark trailing, they can get off a quick-release trust throw to the front break-side cone; the cutter at the front of the vertical stack sees this developing – they need to pull their defender to the force-side, then cut hard towards the break-side cone. Success in this drill is defined as a non-floaty leading pass to the handler, followed by a quick touch OI throw, thrown to a cutter who ran near 100% speed their whole cut and who caught it in-stride, in the box. If all of those things were to happen in-game, this play is usually a goal and does not rely on a massive defensive error. If any of those things do not happen, there is room for improvement and, more importantly, where that improvement can come should be obvious to all players involved.

This drill can also be easily modified by adding a pump fake on the OI throw and pivoting to throw a touch inside throw (cutters need to know to start a beat later) or by splitting the cutting stacks and putting a single box of cones in the middle of the field (more of a fast break continuation scenario). Ideal size: 8-10 players

Click the play button to see the drill in action. UltiPlays link.

Familiar drills can also be easily modified for more structured goals. Our most popular drill of the summer was a modified handler-kill-drill (AKA triangle-of-death) where a thrower repeatedly cut for upline bumps, then quickly put the disc with an OI edge out to receivers for 35-yard throws. Cutters had to cut first away from the thrower, then back towards the target box – it is important to instruct cutters to not drift as they wait, but to instead commit to their cut once they begin, to continue to work on timing. If you are working with more developing throwers, you can relax the drill slightly by allowing throwers to watch their throws for a moment, so they can see if they flew as expected (we liked to run once through the full team at full-speed, then a second time through with players allowed to watch their throws). Other modifications include running with a split-stack (cutter from the opposite side of the thrower should take three hard steps infield, then go straight deep); running without target boxes, to let throwers push for more distance (more fun, possibly less useful); and running with a pump-fake, which then leads to a 7-cut and an inverted throw (most fun, but only if it is not windy). Ideal size: 9-12 players.

Click the play button to see the drill in action. UltiPlays link.

One advantage of removing defense from the drills is that there is no randomness in how a play can develop – everything should always go as planned. With fewer players on the field, it also becomes easier to see disc movement and play development, which is great for players still working on those skills. We found this environment ideal for teaching movement in a horizontal stack. Our focus was specifically on two core tenets: clear the space in front of the disc and attack deep from the far-side of the field. With this in mind, we developed three drills which could be run both on their own or as a series of options, with cutters needing to read how a play develops and then adjusting appropriately. These plays are not meant to be prescriptive necessarily, but to get players thinking about how spaces are created and seized by movement on the field. We also limited the number of players on the field, both to help with lower attendance practices and overall clarity (also a good reminder that not all players are involved in all plays).

Baseline premise – The disc is trapped on sideline, with that same force being applied by the defense as the play develops. The middle handler is being face-guarded by an honest defender. Our offense wants to get the disc moving towards the break-side and to continue attacking on the break-side for as long as possible. Cutters are 1, 2, 3, 4, with 1 being the most force-side cutter. All drills begin with cutter 1 immediately clearing across the front.

Option 1: Inside throw (IO or OIIO) goes off to cutter 1; cutter 1 bumps to the center handler; center handler throws deep with an OI edge towards break-side (alternate push-skill version: pump-fake OI throw and pivot inside for deep IO throw to the same break-side space). Cutter 2 goes out (straight out! Sell the deep cut!) and under, cutter 3 pushes into force-side (away from the disc’s movement) and then attacks the open break-side space.

Click the play button to see the drill in action. UltiPlays link.

Option 2: Sideline handler opts for around throw to space behind center handler; center handler throws continuation to cutter 1; cutter 1 throws deep with OI edge. Cutter 2 pushes out and under in same pattern; cutter 3 pushes away from the disc, then deep in the same pattern.

Click the play button to see the drill in action. UltiPlays link.

Option 3: The sideline handler again opts for the around, but the center handler instead sends it back for a give-and-go with an upline cut; they can then either put a deep throw to cutter 3 (throw should have a hard OI edge and be drifting towards the break-side space, to create an ideal box-out opportunity and increase overall margin of error) or throw an under to cutter 2. If they opt for the under to cutter 2, cutter 3 needs to recognize this (ideally without the sideline yelling “Under! Under!”) and also come underneath from their deep cut. Cutter 2 cuts out like the other two options, but needs to see the give-go cut developing and push a little deeper before turning underneath; cutter 3 should see the give-go and adjust their timing to start slightly later and with their set up now being just 3-5 hard steps towards midfield; their deep cut needs to be straight downfield – this is a great chance to talk about how poorly angled deep cuts can both clog cutting lanes and tighten the window for throwers.

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Click the play button to see the drill in action. UltiPlays link.

All of these drills cycle the same way – players enter the drill as the center handler, then move to be the sideline handler, then move to cutter 2, then cutter 1, then cutter 3. Keeping players in the drill for five sequential reps forces players to maintain focus for longer, keeps players engaged, and allows for a longer break while players walk back from the cutter 3 deep cuts, which means you can do these with a smaller group. Ideal size: 9-12 players.

Notes

  • Important – When running a socially distant practice, especially with drills such as these ho stack options, you need to address the potential for “okay, but what if the defense does this?!” questions. The purpose of these drills is to teach good habits and create opportunities to work on skills, particularly throwing skills. It is not worth thinking through every variation on how defenses could set up. The focus needs to stay on executing at a high level, not on worrying about how a defender could poach into a lane or how a mark could adjust to take away a desired throw.
  • Overall Structure – Our practices were around two hours long and generally followed the same pattern as normal seasons: dynamic warm-up; warm-up drill (something like box drill or Four Lines, just to get people moving); then 1-3 larger drills, such as the ones provided above. We liked to pick one skill to highlight and then choose drills accordingly. Keep in mind that there is no scrimmaging to fill the end of the practice! This means you will need more drills than usual. To avoid getting stuck in a drill for an unnecessarily long time, drills like the ho stack variations can and should be done in both force orientations, which will lengthen them naturally.
  • One Last Thought – Practicing when there is no season in sight is an act of love for both one’s teammates and the sport itself. It is important to keep players engaged and playing hard, while also creating an environment that will keep players coming back week after week. Drills like the end zone drill above create opportunities to develop skills, but also are not always inherently very exciting. One should not underestimate the value in deep throws to not only work on an important skill, but to also repeatedly create the excitement that comes from chasing a disc, a thrill that gets many people into the sport in the first place. Team leaders should encourage cheering and be building up throwers, especially developing ones, for successes. Players may not be able to impress their defender with their skills but impressing one’s teammates still counts for a lot on its own.

This article was submitted as a part of our new Tuesday Tip Jar program! Submit your own Tuesday Tips to our Tip Jar to win a free subscription and even become an Ultiworld writer.

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