We've all played in swirling, gusting wind, but there are ways to use it to your advantage, as evidenced by Molly Brown and Phoenix's Pro Champs battle
February 13, 2024 by Sion "Brummie" Scone in Analysis with 0 comments
Sion “Brummie” Scone of Flik ultimate gives his analysis from filmed games at USAU Club Nationals. This content is available for free courtesy of Flik!
While most usually focus on the skills required to throw in the wind, wind also brings an interesting strategic element to ultimate. A steady breeze might make throws to certain areas of the field more or less easy to execute – which will have some impact on offensive and defensive tactics – but really interesting situations arise when the wind is far less predictable, as were conditions during the Raleigh Phoenix versus Denver Molly Brown semifinal at the 2023 Pro Championships. There were an almost unbelievable 34 turnovers in the first half, probably more than those teams have in a usual tournament.
Extreme weather has infamously hit lots of big tournaments over the past two decades – usually in the form of rain, lightning or similar – but extreme wind does crop up, too, one such example being quarterfinals at WUGC 2012 which saw top seed Japan fall to 8th seed Sweden.
Lou Burruss, author of the excellent “Win the Fields,” has more than a few nuggets of advice in one of his blog articles, including to “Accept the wind as a friend, not an enemy.” As such, I want to look at the strategic decisions both Molly Brown and Phoenix made, both what worked and what didn’t, with a view to providing guidance for teams who suddenly encounter conditions they rarely experience.
How do you strategize for sudden, unpredictable gusts of wind that might loft a throw above a receiver’s head, cause an otherwise solid looking throw to die as the wind drops, or make a disc hover tantalizingly out of reach?
Exactly how windy? For context, here are some atypical turnovers from two of the best teams in the game:
- A pass bounces in the wind and sails out of bounds
- The disc pops up and down erratically, leading to a drop
- A swing thrown downwind picks up speed and the receiver can’t catch up
- A short pass drops to the turf
Against that backdrop, and with the added difficulty of dealing with smart defenders who know how difficult the conditions are, there are few teams capable of playing possession ultimate. Remember, these are two of the best teams in the game. If they struggled, you will too.
Conventional wisdom states that unless you’re certain about hitting your downfield receiver, you should “be safe” and reset the disc. But Lou Burruss wrote about The Swing Fallacy, i.e. swings are not a zero-risk option and therefore some of our strategies need to be adjusted when it’s very windy. I’m going to go into some detail and show examples.
- Even a 90% reset isn’t high enough to allow a team to go the full length of the field reliably. With that in mind, the fewer throws, the better, so each throw needs to generate serious yards
- Remember: it’s not always gusty. That’s the point! There’s invariably a steady wind for most of the time, with occasional gusts. This is the source of the unreliability, and also means that for large portions of the game, you can probably get away with playing “normally.” The problem is, you never know when that gust of wind is going to stop you in your tracks.
- Expect more drops than usual. Receivers have more doubt in their ability to read the flight of the disc, and throwers tend to throw the disc with less touch and more pace. Faster discs are harder to catch, so be prepared for drops.
- You’ll see more wide-open throws missed on quick release throws, as the thrower’s quick “catch and throw” process is largely automatic and can often fail to take the weather into account. A slightly slower pace of play on offense can be therefore be more effective despite not being generally advisable, and certainly not something normally seen from offenses that rely on small ball.
- Generally speaking, the bigger the space a cutter is moving into, the easier it’s going to be for the thrower to connect.
Strategy 1: Huck More
Burruss also said that in extreme wind, “hucking suddenly becomes a really, really, really good choice.” He even did the math on it, showing hucking becomes the best option as the percentage completion rate per pass drops.
The epic 12 minute point for half in this Pro Champs semi featured three drops, a hand block, two passes that bounced in the wind over the receiver, three missed wide-open short range passes, two turfed short range passes, three overthrown hucks, and one block on a huck. If there are going to be 16 turns in a point, why not force your opponent to go the full field? They almost certainly can’t do it without turning the disc over.
It might seem counter intuitive to take more risky throws under these circumstances; surely it’s better to reduce the range of your throws so you retain more control? Again, I’m not talking about a strong but steady wind here: good throwers can patiently work the field against those conditions. I’m talking about the type of wind that makes discs pop out of receiver’s hands and every pass feel uncertain. The more unpredictable the weather, the more you should look to throw deep.
- Take any opportunity to huck downwind to an isolated cutter
- Particularly if there’s no mark, which will allow you to throw anywhere on the field
One tip: set up the huck. Hucking from a completely static position with the defense set is tough; it’s likely poaches will be narrowing the lanes, and a marker may shift to be more straight up. Often, these two things combine to provide the offense with uncontested swings, and moving the disc laterally to someone without a mark is the perfect way to set up hucks. It’s no coincidence Phoenix almost always look laterally first when they picked up the disc.
Below, a handler goes deep in reaction to being fronted, and the huck is set up by swinging the disc first:
Compare with how difficult it is to huck from static:
Hucking in wind is easier said than done, though. Let’s look at what happens if you show you have the intention of throwing long:
- Your cutters spread the field vertically, reducing clutter around the disc
- The opposing defense takes those cuts seriously, which often generates open under cuts you can hit for serious yards
- Handler defenders might start poaching to narrow hucking lanes, which you can use to set up free swings to the upwind side of the field
- You might connect on some of the deep shots: high reward and relatively low risk (given how risky any throw is in these conditions)
- If you turn on those hucks, your opponent has to go the full field. The absolute worst thing to do in strong wind is give up a short field turn when you’re going downwind. While this isn’t quite “huck and D,” it’s not far off
There’s a reason the receiver in this next clip celebrates the option to throw long, despite turning it over: it’s downwind, and the cutter is open and isolated in space. The disc needed more edge to make it sit in the wind, but this was a strategically smart play.
One note from a defensive perspective: it’s absolutely vital you have markers on downwind throwers. Poaching off swing handlers is far less effective when the offense is going downwind than when going upwind. Molly Brown went on a huge run in the second half to draw within one, but Phoenix eventually got on the board with a one pass score, hucking downwind with no mark on the thrower.
Strategy 2: Play in Big Spaces
Closely linked to the above: the bigger the space, the easier the throw, and the far bigger reward per throw, which all leads to higher percentage play. Both Molly Brown and Phoenix often tried to work the disc exclusively through their handlers and struggled at times to adjust their usual small ball resets to the conditions:
Getting a cutter isolated and throwing fewer longer throws is easier than hitting dozens and dozens of resets under fatigue. Throws don’t need to be as accurate if you’re throwing to someone isolated in a huge amount of space.
If you’ve demonstrated your willingness – and ability – to connect on deep throws in these conditions, your opponent will likely start to back the cutters; this then gives your cutters the space to come under for big gains:
Like a lot of offenses, this requires good spacing, making sure other cutters stay out of the way and keep a large area of the field open.
Throwing to a fast moving cutter with a defender in hot pursuit is still a challenge, and both teams had drops in those circumstances. It’s far easier to throw to options left wide open, such as when your opponent is playing a zone or poach set, and both teams found those defenses quite ineffective as a result. Like Lou said, “Don’t assume that zone is the best choice in the wind. Often zones allow teams to throw passes they are comfortable with.”
Strategy 3: Backup
If there’s one top tip when it comes to playing in the wind, it’s this: back each other up. None of these plays worked out as intended, and none were caught by the intended receiver, but all were completed:
In each case, the person who caught the disc played it like it was meant for them, making a judgement about where the disc might end up if their teammate read it wrong and getting in position to make a play.
Get bodies under the disc, and anticipate how the wind might impact throws. Each extra person who can catch your throw increases your chances of completing the pass, so why just aim for one person when you can aim for two?
Strategy 4: Get Off the Sideline
A continuation of above: get off the sideline. The sideline drastically reduces the space you have to work with, and makes throws more challenging. This is particularly true of the downwind sideline.
So often in windy conditions, everything looks like it’s going well until there’s a sudden, unexpected turn. Take this next point, where Molly Brown work the disc down to the attacking end zone when suddenly, what looks like a certain goal becomes a turnover. While each throw during this section of play went to a wide-open receiver, it’s telling Molly Brown didn’t manage to move the disc off the sideline at all. Perhaps they were unwilling to take on that upwind swing when they could choose to take yards downwind, but at some point, someone has to look to move the disc back to the upwind side.
Here are more examples of Molly Brown trying to work the disc down the sideline and turning it over. Aiming for small spaces means you have to be more accurate, but the thrower also has to put more spin on the disc than usual to account for the wind. Being accurate and powerful in your throws is more challenging than just one of those.
Strategy 5: Unfieldable Pulls
Strong and unpredictable wind makes it far more likely you will struggle to control a pull, get distance, and get it to hang all at the same time, things we’re usually trying to do with pulls. Given this, the roller pull becomes a great option. Unfieldable pulls should be your aim; give your defenders plenty of time to get set up, and force your opponent to start in a difficult position.1
Both teams did a great job of putting the offense in an undesirable position when going upwind. The only slight improvement would be to make sure the disc rolls out the sideline.
A fast moving disc with an erratic flight path is not something anyone wants to catch.
To counter these types of pulls, both teams could have used additional handlers to field the pull and get the disc moving before the defense set up.
Let’s finish by looking in detail at a few sequences of play impacted by the wind.
This first clip shows the importance of maintaining focus as a receiver: Molly Brown defenders get three chances to get a block in three passes, but Phoenix score regardless. Note the offense uses a large upline cut, the early deep strike, and the intention to score quickly after catching a short huck while it’s still 1-on-1 in the end zone, thereby maximizing available space to the receiver:
A similar series of events but this time Molly Brown on offense: the initial reset pattern is run in a tight space and would almost certainly be a turnover without backup from another receiver. I also love how early the deep strike goes: before the disc is even caught, the receiver knows there’s an opportunity to go long. The throw has edge, which makes it easy to read, and is caught in acres of space.
The final clip shows how to counter being backed: big away and under cuts which generate easy yards. Again, we see the importance of backing up receivers in the middle of this sequence, but also how important big spaces are to a flowing offense:
In short, try to use the wind to your advantage.
- Set up more deep cuts relentlessly, particularly downwind. Then look for big gains on under cuts if you don’t get it. The perfect way to clear space for a teammate is to go deep again
- Throw bigger throws in bigger spaces to increase the expected gain and reduce the overall risk required to score
- Slow the tempo of your offense: fewer throws is better
- Get bodies under the disc and back each other up
Hopefully you can use these adjustments to shift the odds in your favor.