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. 

Monday, October 5, 2009


Why are you on the field?

Western Sharks. Eastern Champs 09.

One of the beautiful aspects of our sport is the versatility individual players possess. Even at the elite club level there are those who reduce the categorization of their style to silence; their talent allows them to play either side of the disc against any player, as well as enabling them to be equally efficient as cutter or handler. 

You likely aren't one of those players. And the truth is that as our sport develops those players will become far more rare - and this is a good thing. Specialization is evidence that skills are being broken down into discrete categories that individuals are mastering. It means we are getting better at what we do. 

Each player has to understand their role. After all, ultimate is a team sport. You need to identify what purpose you serve. There are plenty of players who compete with top notch teams, not because they are better all-round players then they guys who got cut, but because they do one thing really, really well. 

What is your purpose on the field? Don't tell me you are a handler or a cutter - tell me specifically what kind of handler or cutter you are. Are you the unstoppable reset? Are you the timing striker who simply pounds the endzone? Is your help D the best in the league?

Two weekends ago I played for Western at Canadian Easterns. Before taking the field, I told the boys to look to themselves, identify what they do best, and then go out there and do it better than anyone else on the pitch. I find that this type of focus is precisely what is needed to keep players on track.  

Everyone is on the team for a reason. Don't overextend yourself trying to play beyond your means (note that this will often require an ego check). Know why you are on the team, then prove that you were picked for the right reason. 

Why are you on the field?

those are some of my thoughts.