Friday, April 9, 2010

The Flat Break

There's more than one way to skin a cat.

Chain is gangster.

There are many ways to break the mark. When breaking the mark is brought up, most people imagine the step-around backhand or the zippy flick-break that comes out on a tight angle.

I was at the park with some buddies prepping for the season last weekend. I was talking to one of them about my fondness for the flat break. He asked me what I meant...and thus a blog post is born.

If you picture the 'typical' mark, they are taking away roughly a 45 degree throwing area. You are at the locus of that angle, and it extends from you to the area behind the mark. This is the traditional break area. Flat breaks are those throws that travel from you, the thrower, straight forward, or, minimally infringe on the inside portion of that traditional area.

The throw is still categorized as a break because it travels in the space left undefended by the upfield check. Because it is basically a straight forward throw, it is, A) an easier break for the thrower than the tight flick or stretch backhand, and B) takes very little time to execute, minimizing the ability of the mark and check to defend.

Picture your team in the redzone. You get your stud handler the disc in the middle and have a vert stack stretching all the way out the back. Want to increase your chances of scoring? Employ the flat break. To make the area for the break larger, get the stack to over-shade the open-side. So, instead of the handler looking up and seeing the top of the stack directly in front of him, the top of the stack is off-set. Now the throw can be put up before the offensive cutter even moves. Just flat break to the open space directly in front of you and let your teammate sprint over and devour it for the score. A little lefty backhand or high-release flick is perfect (if being forced flick).

Get in the habit of off-setting your vert stack generally because it opens up the whole break area, not just the flat break area.

Flat-breaks are easier than other forms of breaks and can really open up the field for your offence. Try them out and reap the rewards.

those are some of my thoughts.


p.s. this is what we get up to at law school these days:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Nobody is born perfect.

I've had a hand in running competitive club practices for two seasons now and I can say with certainty that how you practice is how you will play come game-time. Now, you can certainly play worse than how you practice, but you likely won't play better (at least not for a sustained period of time, e.g. multiple tournaments).

Players who think that practice is the only time to work on their game are just plain wrong. Most of the hard work and grit must be done on your own time. And that is precisely why so many players don't do it. No one is there to watch you and encourage you when you're hitting the gym, turning down fried foods, or going to bed early in order to get the rest that so many people overlook. You can add to your fitness at practice, you can add to your throws too, but the real grunt work is for your own time. Never forget that.

Practice time is precious. It's a short period - just a couple hours - when you get to be with your whole team. If you waste that time, you do so at the expense of your individual development and the future success of the team. It's fine to joke around and shoot the shit while you lace up. But once warm-up starts, you need to be dialed in. How you warm up in practice is how you will warm up before the finals of a tournament later in the summer. Mental preparation is a common asset amongst all successful clubs. From the moment you start to warm up you need to be visualizing how you are going to do what you need to do to help your team win.

Being lazy in practice is inexcusable. Failing to step out when throwing, or using 'league' throws are examples of this. It is better to go all out for 70% of practice, exhaust yourself and de-cleat, then it is to go half-assed for 100% of practice. Practice isn't easy. Frankly if you go because you like to scrimmage and want to see your friends, then you probably aren't cut out for what it takes to succeed at the touring level. No amount of natural talent can exempt you from the hard work and dedication you need to put in at practice to succeed. Think of A.I. bitching about, "Practice? We talking' bout practice?" Then count how many rings he has. None. It's guys like Kobe and Jordan - guys who have the talent, but still put in more work than anyone else - those are the guys who rack up rings.

You do want to take advantage of the opportunity to expand your play and gel with teammates at practice. But there should be a sustained period - from the time you start warm-up till the end of the last drill - when you are doing everything within your mental and physical control to make yourself and your teammates better.

Practice shouldn't always be fun. The product of hard practice is what's fun: glory.

those are some of my thoughts.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Upside Down Throws

I think these are perhaps the most misunderstood throws.

Scobel Wiggins Photography

Younger/inexperienced players are often discouraged from practicing upside down throws. I do think that other throws should take priority when developing your throws, but there certainly is a time and place for upside down throws.

Developing upside down throws (scoobers, hammers, knifes, blades and thumbers) in place of more traditional fundamentals (forehand and backhand - and the various release points for both) is not a wise practice. I do think that the traditional throws will generally serve you better. But, adding weapons to the arsenal is always something I endorse.

Now, upside down throws do seem to end in turns a disproportionate amount of the time. This is so even when the throws themselves are good (both the look being good, and the actual execution). Interestingly, the fault lies with the thrower less than one might think.

Upside down throws are harder to catch. There are a couple of reasons for this. For example, the disc cuts through the air, and thus is often traveling faster. Further, the angle the disc is descending on can make the catch difficult. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the receiver has simply not had as much practice catching upside down discs. This is crucial, and, in my mind, is one of the principal reasons that upside down throws result in turns. The ratio of good look to turnover is disproportionate in upside down scenarios in part because 1) the throw is generally more unexpected, and 2) the throw is generally more difficult to catch.

That being said, upside down throws are very effective break throws because of where they are released (not to mention being more unexpected from a defender's perspective, meaning that the reaction time will be slower). Many players are able to effectively use little scoobers and knifes to get a quick break off. Others are able to utilize the hammer to break the field wide open. I think we can all stand to work the upside down throw into a more regular part of our offences. It's the extremes that we should shy away from. Falling in love with these throws is a real danger. So is surprising your teammate with an upside down throw - even if the look is good.

those are some of my thoughts.


ps - a tip for improving hammers: practice throwing blades. a good blade goes a long way to developing a good hammer.

pps - the double helix scoober is not for the faint of heart. frankly, i didn't even know it was possible until i saw this:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cutting for Yourself is Less than Half the Story

What is the purpose behind a cutter's decision to move?

Scobel Wiggins Photography

First, I want to point out that moving itself is a decision. The key behind cutting is some combination of: keeping your defender busy, creating space for other players, and attacking space with the intention of being open for a pass. (Obviously, that list is not exhaustive.) Sometimes, not moving is the best option, counterintuitive as it may be.

All too often players cut for the sake of cutting. There are a number of problems with this: it clogs and eliminates passing lanes, it detracts from the offensive rhythm, it wastes valuable energy, it allows defenders to pay less attention to you, etc... Decisiveness is a mandatory component of effective cutting, and if you are just running around the field, chances are it's not in a decisive fashion. Decisive cutting requires that you commit 100% to the cut. That will allow you to take advantage of your offensive advantage, namely that you get to decide where to go while the defender must react to that decision. Strong defenders are able to recover quickly and stay with you on your cut. That is why you need to put the maximum amount of pressure on them by going full tilt.

Now, great defenders will anticipate where you A) want to go, and B) can go. That is one of the reasons you can't just cut anywhere. If you cut to a non-threatening area, the defender knows he doesn't have to play you close, and can lend his defensive services to a teammate. On top of that, the non-threatening space you just cut to may have been valuable real estate for one of your teammates (that is until you stupidly infringed on it).

Ultimate is truly a team game, and if you are cutting out there for yourself - whether you are just focusing on getting open for the disc or simply trying to shake your hungry defender - then you aren't playing a team game. Advancing the disc with the best risk/reward ratio is the only goal of the offence. Now, how you solve that ratio is entirely team-specific. However, there are meta-principles for all offences.

All offensive players are disc-advancers. As a cutter, you need to (not) move in the way that maximizes the range of options available to the thrower. Everyone who has played ultimate knows that feeling when you have the disc, and all the downfield players jam the open-side throwing lane right in front of you. They all rush to the obvious space where you should be able to throw an easy pass. The result is that they collectively render the throw impossible. Why? Because even though there are multiple receivers, you only have one throwing option, which happens to be into a pack of defenders who know you only have that option... And cue the turn.

The thrower should have all options at all time; the full range of angles and the full range of risk: Short and deep looks on the open-side, two dumps, a short break, and a longer (probably over the top) break. Think of these options as areas on the field, not as players occupying those areas. These areas are always there for a given disc location on the field. They may differ in size, location and risk, but they are almost always present.

So, the job of the disc-advancer can be seen to be two-fold: both enter and exit these options within the structure of the offensive system and in a productive fashion. It's how you enter and exit these spaces that determines how good a cutter you are. Recognizing who should be where, what the best combination of which players in which spaces at any given moment is - that is the incredibly difficult process that a cutter is expected to instantly, constantly, and flawlessly execute at all times when on the pitch.

And at its core, the focus is only ever partly on cutting for yourself.

those are some of my thoughts.


ps - crafts is just sick:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Handler/Cutter Binary

Being able to throw and catch makes a dangerous combination. It sounds obvious, but I think a lot of us forget.

Ray Illian. It was even filthier live.

Complete players are not fun to play against. They are able to take advantage of whatever you decide to do. How can you stop that?

A player able to punish you from either side of the disc on offence is an example of a complete player. Such a player threatens to end the point with one devastating throw. But, if you push them out, they can go the distance for the score (and they'll crown you and another defender while at it).

Those are the guys you don't want to play against.

Now, not many of us are going to be superstars. It makes no difference. The key is being dynamic, flexible, unpredictable, responsive, and lethal. You must be a threat to take off deep, or range around the disc and make productive throws. You need not be a master at both, or either. But you do have to be a threat. Even the portliest 'handler' has roasted someone deep.

One of the major offensive advantages presented by the ho stack is the ability for any player to slip downfield. If the spacing is proper, then the deep should constantly be open for strikes. Weak side handlers - the second reset position - should be actively looking to enter the fray. And in similar fashion, the far cutters should be expecting to fill that spot when it becomes vacant.

The whole notion of being a cutter OR a handler is destructive. You need to be both at all times. Just think of JAM. All those dudes could be handlers or receivers on top flight teams. Now, because their bodies and disc skills are so finely tuned, JAM players can torch you in or out. The point I want to get across is that you DON'T have to be a dominant player to taste, and enjoy the fruits of this strategy. Just take advantage of the situation as it presents itself. Don't stand around and wait for something to happen. Generate offence by actively moving to, and moving to create, space.

Being stagnant as a reset, hanging out's the same thing. It creates the same problems. In ultimate, the fluidity of the offence is what puts the defence at a constant disadvantage. You need to be able to throw and catch if you want to continually apply pressure on the other team.

those are some of my thoughts.


ps - in my opinion, Hass is the best example of a player who defies the handler/cutter binary.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Vertical Stack

The current trend is to play horizontal. Do you know why?


Without a proper understanding of the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of a particular offensive set, offensive players will not be able to maximize efficiency and defensive players will not be able to achieve their potential. At the beginning of the season when I am explaining plays to my club team, I always preface the explanation with the underpinnings of why we are employing a specific offensive structure (e.g. vertical, flood, split, horizontal, iso, etc...).

I don't have a full understanding of the vertical stack, but I do know a thing or two. The purpose of this article is to examine the vertical stack: its advantages, its disadvantages, and the trend that has led our sport to near universal adoption of the horizontal stack. 

Once upon a time everyone waged war with the same weapon: the vert. Usually the distribution of players sees two handlers back with five cutters in the stack. The 'top' of the stack (i.e. the person on whom the stack is set) is the third handler who can come back and help if need be. 

The Advantages

The vertical creates two clear lanes on the field, namely either side of the stack. The cutters isolate themselves on one of the sides, typically making long, pounding cuts ('V' cuts). Successive, well-times V cuts create flow up one side of the field. 

If this flow is on the force side, the disc will eventually end up on the sideline. At this point, the disc is swung to the middle. Rinse and repeat.

If the break comes out, all the defenders are out of place and the field should be shredded up the break side.

The vert is good for isolating players. It is hard to poach in the vert because your man can easily slip to an open space and burn you. 

The vert certainly facilitates the long bomb, but I would argue that it is more of an in-cut offence. The one place players always cheat is at the back of the stack where the defensive player will customarily 'cap' the stack (i.e. stand behind his man on the open side to provide help should there be a deep look). As such, going deep usually requires the back of the stack to be in motion, negating the defensive player's positional advantage. That being said, the very structure of the vert (a deep line of players extending towards the endzone) makes the deep look that much harder. 

I think the vert is particularly amenable to set plays. The players are more spaced out. The throwers have clean lanes to work with. As mentioned, it is hard to poach. 

One problem with set plays is that they tend to take longer to materialize because players are so spaced out. This allows the defense more time to adjust. 

The Disadvantages

If your team cannot break the mark well, the vert will be tough to run well. Think about one of the primary advantages of this formation: you have two clear throwing lanes. If you can't get the disc to the break side of the field (i.e. 50% of the throwing lanes), you are going to get stuck on the sideline - a lot. There aren't a lot of places where the disc can go in  a vert, so the defense (and marks) have the potential to be more effective in controlling the location of the disc. This can be problematic.

The deep shot is not always available in this formation. Not everyone is a threat to strike at any given moment (as they are in the horizontal), and the defense knows this. 

In the vert there are only two handlers back. The means the reset can be more problematic if the primary dump is shut down. 

As plays tend to take longer to materialize, and the primary option is often isolated, the defence can read the offence more effectively.

I think the combination of improved marks (and defensive play in general) resulting in offenses getting stuck on the openside sideline led people to rethink their formations. It is hard to speak about the vertical stack without comparing it to the horizontal, which, in my opinion, provides a far more dynamic offensive structure. But I will leave the horizontal for another post. 

Writing this article makes me realize how little I know about this offence. The way my teams have traditionally used the vert is to execute a set play, then to morph into horizontal once the play is completed (or abandoned). My teams almost never stay in the vert for the whole field. 

From what I remember, JAM still relies heavily on the vert. Not only are they reigning UPA Champs, but I believe they have been in the semis or finals each of the last ten years. Coincidence?

I think that it is a huge disadvantage to remain ignorant of the vertical stack. There are many top teams that have used this formation to succeed at the highest levels (JAM, DoG, and Sockeye to name a few). The vertical is far from a lost art, but it's moving in that direction. If you don't understand it, you can't take advantage of it or defend against it. 

A last note: the vert is much better than the horizontal for players who are not very experienced. This is simply because it avoids having people scattered all over the field. It creates two clear lanes for players to cut and thrown in. 

those are some of my thoughts.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Second Place

Finishing second means you lost your last game.

Catch your Ds.

My university team, the Western Sharks, played at the Canadian University Ultimate Championships this past weekend in Montreal. We suffered our only loss of the season in the finals, and with a final score of 15-11 it wasn't really even close. 

There were obviously some very long faces as we were given our silver medals. The thing about losing the championship game is that you lost. Sounds obvious, but it's true. You win third. You win fifth. Hell, as my club team found out in Boston this year, you win 27th. But you lose second. 

So what are the lessons from the weekend? There are many, but I'll focus on a few:

1. Dominating the field has its downsides.

We never had a close game all season until the semis. That sounds like it would be a good thing, but there are some negative consequences, namely that while it means you are performing, it also means you are not being tested under pressure. There is a much different feel on the O line when you know you have to score. There is also a much different feel on the D line when you know you are running out of time to break. 

2. Tournament Strategy.

This is what leading and coaching is all about. I have heard about NBA coaches who micromanage like all hell and stay up at night thinking about what they could have done differently to put themselves in a position to better control the precious final seconds of a game. This type of reflection (and the "what ifs" that accompany it) always permeate my thoughts after games and tournaments. I think we were more tired than we should have been in the finals. If I could go back and change one thing, it would be to rest our starters far more in the blowouts, ensuring that we had stronger legs in the final. 

3. Canadian University Ultimate.

The calibre of teams out there this past weekend was impressive. I started on the university scene with Tula 4 years ago, and the increase in level of competition is very noticeable. Gone are the days where there are really only 2 or 3 legitimate teams at Nationals. Well done to those who have invested the time and effort to build programs. 

4. Our Competition.

First and foremost, congratulations to the Carleton Ravens; a well deserved title.

I want to thank the UBC boys for making the trip out. Going as far as you did with a true skeleton squad demands a lot of respect. Our semis against you was a very memorable game. Well played. 

I look forward to taking the field with Western next year. Losing makes the off-season less enjoyable, but it also lights the fire. Championship game experience is not something easy to come by. If you aren't able to capitalize in the moment, all you can do is take that experience and use it to make you the best player you can be. Anything less is unacceptable.

Losing hurts. You cannot change the past. The future is all that is left.

those are some of my thoughts.


P.S. - Shout out to my boy Jesse Mighton who played competitive ultimate for the first time and made some huge grabs and Ds at Easterns and Nationals. He also may or may not be the best trash talker in the game today.