Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Red Zone

People often treat the red zone as sacred. A red zone turn is "unacceptable". Red zone D requires a "heightened awareness". This is the wrong approach. 

Our guy with 'that throw'

It's not that the red zone isn't sacred, but rather that the whole field is sacred

A turn is a turn; a D is a D. The fact that individual players put more or less emphasis on certain areas of the field is the result of psychological pressure, not logic. 

But that's not to say that the dynamics of the red zone aren't quite different. Players do treat it as though it were special. 

The result on D is usually one of two things: great pressure and coverage, or, over-pursuance resulting in a score. The result on O can often be something like this: "holy shit I need to score right now" . . . turn. 

The interesting thing about endzone offence is that you need only advance the disc a few yards. A lot of what happens on the field before you get to the redzone is predicated either on flow or on set plays. The object of a set play is, arguably, to get the disc to a power position from which there is a high percentage devastating throw. Flow is what follows after that devastating throw or when the play breaks down. Either can be utilized on the goal line. 

Set plays are often great at getting the disc upfield. One of the major advantages that the offence can have over the defence is that they already know where the disc is going, what is about to happen. It's very common for the first throw of a set play to get off cleanly - after that, good defences smell it out and can adjust in time to stop the aforementioned devastating throw, but that first throw usually comes out. (Note: this is precisely why teams flash zone after the pull). So, set plays are a good start for how to score in the red zone. I need not go into specifics, but the general 'show one thing, then do the opposite for the score' is quite effective.

The problem with set plays is that we tend to know them. We've seen them. While there are some unique ones that will get you a score or two, they probably won't do more than that. 

Flow is also an effective way to score in that the longer you force the other team to play D the more likely they will breakdown under pressure and open a throwing lane. However, the more throws you make, the wider the margin for error. 

A variation of the set play is the guy on your team with that unstoppable random throw. Maybe he's a lefty. Maybe he's got the high release flick. Whatever he has, it works. This is set play-ish because you are expecting the throw and your opponent isn't. Use that guy on the goal line.

I guess what I'm trying to get across in this post is that red zone play shouldn't be different from 'normal' play in that you never want to turn and always want to complete the pass. It is different in how people decide to react. Because you know how they will react, you can exploit them. 

Your options are more limited in the sense that there is so much less space to work with. Nobody runs horizontal in the endzone. Few run zone. Think about why.

It doesn't matter how, but you must score in the endzone. For me, that sentence is the same as saying, "it doesn't matter how, but you must complete an upfield throw." 

There are two unique factors in the red zone: 

1. How much space you have to work with;
2. How players tend to react. 

Figure out how to exploit these factors. Then take what you've learned and implement it everywhere on the field. Your O will be better for it.

Those are some of my thoughts.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Mark

Marking is often an afterthought. Not many people realize the vital role a good mark plays in team defence. 

If I can, I'll take a moment to note that ultimate is a team game. There just aren't many players out there who can actually take over a game. This is perhaps especially true on the defensive end. While two good O players can force the issue, rare is the defensive pairing that can dictate the flow of a game. Too often there are only 4 or 5 guys playing good, strong D, while the miscues by the other players will cost you the point. That is the reality in a sport where the offence is so heavily favoured. But I digress...

Dirty break.

And here is where the mark comes in. You must have good marks in order to give your defensive unit a chance. 

You will get broken. Actually, the higher the level you play the more likely it is that a given player can make quick work of your mark. The point is that you want to make the thrower work, forcing them to their second or third option. Good marks dictate the play of your opponents O by effecting the timing and spacing of their disc movement. 

It's pretty obvious that you can't stop all throws at all times. You do want to be able to influence as many as possible though. Effectively closing down the breakside while simultaneously challenging the huck is not just any skill. You have to know:

1. Where the holes are in the way you have chosen to mark.
2. Where the holes are in your own mark.
3. What kind of thrower you are up against.

Whatever you prioritize comes at a cost. If you want to challenge that huck, you will be giving up a little more space for the breakthow. This is what I noticed when playing against JAM at UPAs last year. They were able to break the mark so well that they just abused elite players. They made up their minds that if the marks were going to play aggressively, they would simply take that extra little space, looking to break on what seemed like every throw. (Note that this is a wonderful example of the offensive theory of 'take what they give you'). Oh yeah, JAM won UPAs.

You have to choose a balance, based on numerous discrete factors. But the theory behind the mark, in my mind, is to lower the offense's percentages by forcing them away from their primary objective. It means that instead of being victimized by a thrower who can move you out of position, you clearly identify what you want to take away from them and you will yourself not to get beat. 

Anticipation, both in terms of knowing what they want to throw and in terms of knowing what your defence is giving up/taking away, is paramount. Marks are predicated on physical conditioning, reaction time, ultimate IQ, and execution. They often need to be far more dynamic (varying the spacing and positioning depending on the count). They often need to bite less. 

You can't win with bad marks. You just can't. Offences are too good.

And marks aren't individual either. Try screaming at the guy on the mark, telling him where the disc is, reminding him to stay active and work harder, and giving him the close call. It's a team game, remember. 

Those are some of my thoughts.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Zone O

As a cutter, playing zone O is one of the harder tasks. There aren't clear cutting lanes, the timing has to be perfect, handlers start to get frustrated, etc... 

I am going to mention a few thoughts on running the zone O, from all positions. I think the most important thing to keep in mind at all times is that there is no single answer to a lot of questions about how to deal with, or react to, a given scenario. The offence must remain dynamic and be willing to exploit any weakness without being stifled when forced to throw extra passes.

Toly Throwing Against McGill's Zone

Assume that the defence is showing 1-3-2-1.

I favour a 2-2-2-1 offensive set. This means that there are 2 handlers, 2 wings, 2 poppers, and 1 deep. 


These two should be spread quite wide across the field. You must realize that a common, and effective, method of exploiting the zone D is by creating seams in the defence by forcing the players to get out of position. There are a number of ways to do this (e.g. faking hard, popping into the cup, reversing the field quickly), and one is by tiring out the cup. If the two handlers are spread wide, then the cup has a longer distance to run. This results in a more tired cup, more likely to not move as a unit and therefore create throwing seams. 

Handlers should aggressively dictate the offence when playing against the zone. Throw and go is a must. By sprinting after their passes, handlers keep the defence on their toes, chasing rather than dictating the flow of the disc. An added bonus is that defenders will often follow the handler who has thrown and is now going (which, again, drags them out of position and opens seams for the player with the disc).

One last point for the handlers: the easy open-side throw should not be the first look. Always move against the mark to the upwind side. Realize that the defence wants you to throw to the downwind sideline and is often baiting that throw in order to clamp down with the trap. You certainly can take that throw. However, use the first couple stalls to try and get something better. And if you do throw it to that weak side, the receiving player must get it off quickly to avoid the trap. 


The wings are placed quite close to either sideline. Do not be level with the handlers. You want to be catching for yards - every time. Recognize that the handlers (and poppers) will be doing a lot of the work, flipping little passes and breaks to each other. The wings are more a spacing position. If they are placed correctly, then they should be able to receive the disc in a power position. Both wing players must be able to make quick decisions and throws. Once they get the disc, if there is a well timed cut, then there should be a good up field look. If not, get that disc back to the middle. 


Poppers play a rather opportunistic position. When I mentioned at the beginning of the article that I find it quite difficult to cut in the zone, this is the position I had in mind. I find it difficult because it's almost like a combo of what the handlers and wings are doing. Many times it is correct to simply stand in a gap or right behind the cup, waiting for the thrower to break or lift something over to you. Other times you want to be darting around, forcing the mids in the zone to make a decision about who they are going to cover, or crashing the cup in order to then quickly turn and throw through it. 

One thing you always want to do is keep your eye on the disc. Never turn away when playing zone O because you really could get the pass at any point. 

If you receive the disc through the middle, you are now in a power position. Think about it. Four of the opposition's 7 defenders are behind you. Try not to rush throws, but know that if you keep the disc moving quickly the defence will be scrambling to catch up. This is precisely what you want. 

Note also that the poppers should take the opportunity to switch with the deep if the timing works out. As with everything in ultimate, you have a given position, but you should be dynamic and flexible enough to change on the fly. 

A last thought is this: timing is crucial for the poppers, both to set up their own cuts and to set up continuation flow once a dangerous throw has come up the middle or out to the break side. Be aware that there is a deep behind you and that he may be coming in for a big gainer (this is usually the case when the disc comes out to the breakside wing). Don't cut him off. 

The poppers and handlers are essentially probing the zone to see, 

A) Where its structural weaknesses are (i.e. the theoretical weaknesses of the particular zone itself), and, 
B) Where the actual weaknesses are (note that these may be different as the defence may make mistakes/strange decisions, or you may have a special thrower, etc...).


When running zone O, I'd be happy if the deep touched the disc once, when catching for the score, or never. Now, that is probably an exaggeration but I think you take my point. The deep is not looking to actively get in on the action. All too often this creates clogging and draws in an extra defender. The guys up front need space to work, space that is generated by the deep staying back. Keep your defender busy by moving and trying to get behind him at all times. This is a great position to practice timing your cuts as you can clearly see all the action. You should be shifting from side to side, opposite the disc, and when the big lane opens up, feel free to take the big gainer (note, as mentioned above, this will likely happen when the disc quickly swings out to the breakside wing). If you do come in for that gainer, it could be a good time to switch with a popper. Be vocal. 

That's a basic rundown on some zone O thoughts. Nothing is ever set in stone, though there are some principles that should be adhered to more rigorously (e.g. handlers spread wide, don't take the easy openside throw, etc...).

Be aware that the reason teams throw zone is usually two-fold: 

1) They want to break up a set play
2) They want to force you to throw a greater number of passes. 

Take some time to think about this second reason. No pass is 100%. By forcing you to throw multiple passes, the defence is using math to lower your completion percentage. It's not good enough to complete the first 20 passes, then gaffe the 21st in the red zone as the zone is melting because you want to score as quickly as possible. A lot of throws will be 'easy' against the zone because they are very short. Make sure that your focus is high and that you don't get ahead of yourself by thinking about the next throw before catching the disc. The only thing that matters at the end of it all is if you scored, not how close you got.

One last comment is on defensive adaptation. Just because throw X worked the last 4 times, does not meant that it will work time number 5. Just as the O is probing the D, so the D is probing the O. They are waiting and watching to see exactly how you go about beating their zone. Good teams won't come out of the gates laying out for everything (that's the stuff of college boys). They will hunt the throws they think they have a chance at, then pounce when a lazy one comes out. This is yet another reason why it is imperative to fake and be hyper-aware when throwing in the zone. 

those are my thoughts.