Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dogma and Diversity - Deconstructing Dogma

If you read the previous two posts, don't get me wrong.  More is not better.  In my college days, we were fans of having a dozen different offenses, none of which we could run well.  I think it's important to limit one's team's strategies to only as many as you can properly execute.  If you only have the time to get good at vert stack/cuts from the back and man/force flick/beat them under, then hey... that's all you have time for.  But i'd also add if you're a club team and that's all you can manage over the course of an entire season (let alone multiple seasons), then you might want to evaluate how efficiently you are using practice time.

And don't get me wrong.  All the strategic concepts i look at below are ones i am generally a huge proponent of and often can be heard espousing to my teammates.  Just saying if you hold to them too strongly, you're closing your other options off.  That's how dogma works.

And don't get me wrong.  I don't think these concepts are unique to Philadelphia.

Anyway, to get to the point of this post.  Some of the strategic concepts that have codified into dogma in this neck of the woods:

Don’t get beat up the line:  I’d say getting beat up the line is only bad if it’s for a goal or if it leads to significant yards or if it leads the dump catching it with momentum (so called "power position") that can lead to a huck.  Too often i see dump defenders play so far upline that contesting the break swing is impossible.  We played a team last year at regionals who we dump-swung and continued to the breakside over and over, and their downfield defenders who kept getting scored on would come off the field all pissed, "C'mon guys, no break!"  The problem was their team's defensive strategy overemphasized stopping upline cuts and underemphasized containing the swing.

There are times when keeping the team on the sideline is more important than stopping the upline cut:
  • when you have the deep space covered.  (e.g. you are bracketing a vert stack.)
  • when they are far enough up field that the upline cut to huck isn't extending the amount of effective space you need to defend.
Put another way, there are times i'd rather them huck it because we're ready for it, rather than letting them break us all the way across the field.

I'd also add against teams that move the disc well from the handler positions, it’s possible to play over top of the handler and hedge them into bad angles, which may not deny them the disc but contains their subsequent throw.

Beat them in:  That is position yourself underneath and force their cutters to go deep.  This underestimates throwers’ abilities to huck it, overestimates the other team’s abilities to work it underneath with tight coverage, and on many of the team’s I’ve played on, overestimated our ability to close on deep shots or contest discs in the air (my teams have always been short).

My biggest problem with this strategy is that it means the turnovers you're looking to generate will be in your endzone.  If you're the d-team, this means you now have to work it 70 yards to score (and since you're the d-team, you probably can't throw).

Always forcing your opponent deep is like always forcing flick.  After awhile, teams get used to the same defensive look point after point.

See Lou Burruss' post on backing
Win with your legs:  This one is tricky as it's not a strategic concept as much as it is a mentality (and again, i have been heard preaching this one for years).  Husting, running hard to give your throwers easy open looks, and resisting marginal decisions with the disc are all good concepts to emphasize.  There's nothing inherently wrong with this message.  To say it in the game to go at regionals when your team's delirious from fatigue is probably the right message.  To go back to my boxing analogy, when it's the last round, it often comes down to heart.

Where i see this becoming problematic is in what is unsaid over the course of a season or multiple seasons and what is de-emphasized.
  • Throwing is de-emphasized, and over multiple seasons around here, few young club players around here go from good to great with their throws.  Didn't Dusty post about how we do 6 workouts a week and only touch a disc on the weekends?
  • Going to the right space is de-emphasized (in the name of beating your defender in on the openside).  Sometimes, your team just desperately needs to have someone pop into the break lane or just go deep, but your cutters just want to be the hero and prove they can get open in the one place the other team's defending by going in on the openside.  Geoff Buhl used to call this the "man cut".  This is a vitally important cut that your team must be able to make, but if "beating your man" starts to obscure "winning the point," you're gonna run into problems.
Winning with your legs and your heart is critical in sport (no duh).  What i'm saying is that over the course of the season, don't overprioritize it at the expense of all the other assets you need to develop to be good.  Too often, teams and players focus on the physical because it's more obvious, and they lack the knowledge or sophistication or communication skills or mental discipline to work on other things.  If you gave up one workout a week to go over game film, would you and your team be better or worse off?*
Be Chilly**:  Like "win with your legs," being chilly is a mentality and often the right one to have.  What i'm getting at though is that your team's conservativism/risk taking should not be constant but rather should be dictated by the circumstances (opponent and playing conditions).  I don't think you want to be all over the map, but as a coach, you would want to be able to ratchet the risk taking up or down***.

If you're a college basketball coach for a 16th ranked team going into the first round of March Madness, maybe you know you need to have a big night from the 3-point line if you want a chance of winning.  Likewise, if you're outmatched downfield, maybe you throw more hammers**** or abide less stringently to the rule of thirds.

Again, there's a reason certain strategies have become conventional thinking.  It's because they've proven effective.  The danger is when we accept them as dogma without developing a deeper understanding and we close ourselves off to other ways of thinking.

* Depends of course on where your team is and if you have any idea how to use the information available.
** Do club players still say this?  "Chilly-O" seems like "shit ultimate players say."
*** The championship Sockeye teams in the mid-2000s always impressed me with their apparent ability to dial down their risk taking based on their opponent.  Pike beat them in pool play and then lost to them in the semis at 2004 Nationals.  There was a marked difference in their o-team's risk taking in that second meeting knowing they could work it under against our defense, compared to the supposed "huck and hope" strategy the northwest was accused of having.
**** Hammers are seen as riskier throws in this area.  Is that true in other parts of the world?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dogma and Diversity - an Australian Aside

I am currently in Australia for a couple months, and I went to my first pickup game the other night.  In one night of playing 6v6, defensively we ran man with various marks, 3-2-1 zone, and 1-3-2 zone; offensively, we ran vert, ho, and German.  We were just goofing off, but it was nonetheless impressive that we tried so many things and with a decent level of competency.  And my teammates were not all veteran players by any means.

By contrast, the last team in Philly to my knowledge to have a German style offense in their bag of tricks was the Philly Peppers back in the late 90s.

Why is that?  Well, in Sydney, they have to travel more to find decent ultimate.  It doesn’t seem uncommon to find someone who’s only been playing a few years who has been to Worlds, so the average player here has been exposed to a broader range of teams.  Just as I believe traveling is important to having a balanced view of the world, gaining exposure to a diversity of ultimate strategies is important to having a balanced view of our sport.

Dogma and Diversity - the Philly scene

I have recently had a few different conversations about how the teams in these parts (Philly) are so strategically similar.  While it’s probably quite common for a particular geographic area to have ideologies that dominate the local teams, my sense is that Philadelphia is more of a closed ecosystem than most metropolitan areas of its size.  Certainly the Boston teams don’t all run a 6-person stack, right?  So where do these ideas that are so prevalent in Philly come from, and why is there not more diversity in the strategic gene pool?  (Disclaimer:  I’m just gonna ramble and I’m sure I’ll say something I disagree with tomorrow).

Where do these ideas come from?

A current teammate of mine was recently crediting the philosophies and plays that are run around here to the Pike teams of the early to mid-2000s.  While that was a NJ team, we drew a lot of the recognizable faces from the Philly scene, who in turn disseminated these strategies to other area teams.  So I wouldn’t argue against that lineage as I see PADA summer league teams calling plays by the same randomly chosen names used in the 2002 Pike playbook.

But to give proper credit, that playbook was pilfered straight from the UCSB* teams that 3-peated in the late 90s brought east via Jim Regetz (though he made considerable improvements).  And the style of play (conservative, possession-oriented offense) comes from the dominant mid-90s DoG teams.  Before them came Earth Atomizer and Big Brother? (Before my time.)

Not saying any of those strategies aren’t still sound, but I think there’s something to be looked at if there’s been minimal innovation on 16+ year old thinking in a sport as young as ours.

Why isn’t there more diversity?

I can only speculate, but I’ll throw out some ideas.
  • Philadelphia is not a particularly transcient community.  People don’t move here for a few years and leave.  Not that many people move here from other metropolitan areas.  Not that many people leave.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few male** players who’ve recently played in Philly who had history with other top clubs (Joel Wooten – not much of a Philadelphian, Trey Katzenbach – more on him later, and Carl Deffenbaugh).  My impression is that in other geos, it’s more common to find players who’ve played on multiple top clubs.
  • Trey really is a force unto himself.  Through the sheer force of his personality and his history of successes, his ideas on how the game should be played have really pervaded the minds of a lot of the community.
  • What about all the different college teams people have played on?  Honestly, I don’t know.  All of you who played outside the Philly-metro area, why haven’t you brought back new zones or new plays or new offenses?
  • It’s not a particularly cerebral scene here.  Maybe I’m just not talking to the right people, but there don’t seem to be a lot of players nerding it up over strategy.  Maybe Philly’s not an intellectual town.  Or maybe it’s because there aren’t as many college teams with coaches around here.  Regardless of the reasons, I think you’d find the percentage of players who can articulate why their teams run a particular strategy is lower around here than say… Boston, San Fran, or Seattle… or even NY.
Now, I’m not saying being nerdy about strategy is critical to success.  But I do think diversity is important for a community, be it an ultimate community or any other.  Otherwise, you fall into “it works for insert top local club team name, so we should run the same thing” mentality because you aren’t aware of other options.

A real world example: Pike ‘02-’05 ran a vert stack with 2 dumps.  There were no give-gos built into our offense, so handlers never got the disc moving into a power position.  In order to run this offense, you need handlers who can bomb and break with a set mark on them.  Our o-team happened to have Walt, Regetz, Heckman, and Bailey, so we could pull it off.  Unfortunately, our d-team didn’t have the same depth of throwers (though we did have Ian).  If you were one of the unfortunate college teams that adopted our offense, you probably suffered until you gave up, or you got good at those types of throws.

But even if you are good at running your strategies, I will point back to a previous post about pulling off upsets: If you’re not the more talented team on the field, playing the same strategy as your opponent is a losing game plan.  It’s the same as a boxer who goes toe to toe with a slugger who is faster and stronger.  Ali wasn’t The Greatest because he was the hardest puncher.

Next post: Deconstructing the Dogma.

*Funny enough the Condors and Pike had essentially the same playbook when we faced off in quarters of 2004 down to the play calling system.
** I specify male because women and women’s team tend not to drive innovation in our male-dominated world of ultimate.  There have been some transplants of female talent in Philly, but for various reasons outside the scope of this post, they have not led any shifts/growth/evolution in ultimate strategy around here.  If i'm wrong, and it's only because i'm a guy that i don't get to hear about what happens in the women's game, then i'd love to be educated.