How to Build a Championship Ultimate Team – Part 2: Team Makeup

by | January 3, 2011, 11:00am 0

Fury at the 2007 Club Championships. © James McKenzie

Elite Club

Observing an elite team playing a lesser team, the most obvious difference is percent body fat.  An elite team puts in the time and it shows.  The dedication required at this level of play is immense; three-four days a week of practice & conditioning, paying attention to the diet, and constant communication amongst teammates.  Anything less isn’t elite, it’s a weekend activity.

Elite teammates know each other well.  They know who zigs and who zags, they know who likes what catch, who lays out and who will have a clean jersey at the end of the day.  This is why it isn’t until the third year that a new teammate feels comfortable with the O or D schemes of the team.

This familiarity gives a confidence and mental toughness to the team.  High stall count, no problem.  Trapped in the corner of the end zone against a zone, look out D, this is gonna bust it open.  Pulling at double game point? Put me in.

I remember once in a game – sectionals, I think – one of those meaningless placement games in the consolation pool.  One played only for pride and the love of the game.  Well anyway, I was a deep cutter and I saw the disc heading towards Murph, one of our better mid cutters.  Not to brag, but I felt I was one of Murph’s favorite targets and if I got open, he would get the disc to me.  Murph was about 15 yards short of the end zone so I go tearing towards the Promised Land under close guard.  I get to the end zone, I do a drop shoulder, double juke fake, first out and then in, I’m still covered tightly so I then do a 270 spin back to the middle gaining maybe half a step on my defender.  I start to twist to look back to Murph and then I see it.  There’s a piece of white spinning plastic floating out in front of me.  I didn’t even need to reach for it.  I can still remember standing in the end zone holding the disc, thinking “Where in the hell did that come from?”  Murph, it seems, knew my moves, knew my tendencies, knew my timing, and knew what I was going to do with the defender.  These were things I had no clue of.  What I experienced at that moment was a once in a lifetime moment.  I see that same thing in every point of every game at the elite level.

As for team makeup, I’d go with the usual 25 player roster.

What kind of players do you need?  Well, I’ve noticed that size makes a difference.  Player height has a significant impact on a team and many of its strategic decisions.  The tallest team has the option to dictate the game flow. If your team is taller than your opponents, a whole spectrum of O & D tactics can be implemented and the other team must adjust to you.  If you’re smaller, your options are limited.  All things being equal, the taller team has the advantage and will win.  I know, I know, many smaller teams have won.  So… I’ll agree that the smaller team can win, if you’ll agree that they probably won’t.  You’ll need 6 tall players with 4 of them being able to go O or D.

© James McKenzie

As for position players, you’ll need handlers.  10 should be a good number.  4 for the O line, 4 for the D line, and the others who can play both O & D.  The O line handlers need to be so in tune with each other, it’s like they’re one person.  They spend hours practicing quick cuts and specialty throws amongst themselves.

The D line handlers are the border collies of Ultimate; oversized, cyborg, mutant border collies.  They harass and harangue the opposing handlers incessantly.  They’ve studied their opponent and know their strategies and tendencies.  If the opponent wants to go right, they force them to go left; if they want to go deep, they get forced short; if they want to go short, they’re out of luck.  Their constant pressure creates tremendous mental fatigue in their opponents.  This pressure wears on the O line handlers and eventually if the marker doesn’t get a block, the opponent puts up a low a percentage, high risk throw into the teeth of the next level of the D.

Then after the D is made, the berserker D line instantly transitions to calm, calculating O line and dissects the now defense with surgical precision for the break point.

Next, you’ll need 4 mid-cutters.  These players need to make strong quick cuts up and down the field. Once they get an open cut, they need to be fast enough to increase the gap, catch the disc and get the next throw off before the marker can set.

The biggest difference between O and D line mid-cutters is that D line players are better jumpers and the O line players have better throws.  Although that’s a generality, because the best mid-cutters play both ways effectively.  You can also look at it other way and just say “if they can’t jump they’re on O and if they can’t throw they’re on D.”  If they can’t jump or throw, well… let’s just hope they’re on the other team.

I’d say in the horizontal stack heyday, it was the opposite. If you could jump, you were a deep threat and probably playing some O.

The deep defenders are the wolf hounds of the team.  They are ambush predators with a taste for the disc.  Sure, the deep cut looks open, but as soon as the disc is in the air, the deep defenders react and converge, cutting off the disc before it can find its intended destination.  Deep defenders need the legs to sprint the entire length of the field repeatedly and the hops to out jump the receiver.

Shannon O’Malley reaches at the 2009 College Championships – © James McKenzie

The deep cutters on the O line are there to keep the D honest.  If the deep defenders play under, than the thrower launches a deep throw for a quick score.  If the deep defenders play behind, it opens up passing lanes underneath. That’s of course assuming you’ve got some height.  If you don’t have height, the D will front you and just dare you to put up a deep one.

The difference between an O and D deep player is aggressiveness.  The best deep defenders aren’t afraid to mix it up on a contested catch.  Of course, the best deep defenders are pretty darn good on O as well.

The remaining 5 players are specialists, rookies, and players who don’t really fit in, but who you sure don’t want playing for someone else.  There’s always a need for players for a zone D or for when you need a monster sacrifice point.

The three most important aspects of building an elite team are practice, practice, and practice.  That’s why “come together for the tournament” teams struggle in the later games and at crunch time; they just don’t know each other well enough.

Chain Lightning is a good example of a team that is an exception to the rule you’ve posed.


At the school level, coaching is the most important thing and everyone who wants to play should be welcomed.

At the league level, teamwork is the most important factor.

Above the league level, athleticism plays an increasingly important role.

At the highest level of Ultimate, all three are equally important.

Part 3 of this series will discuss X’s & O’s as explained in “The Art of War.”


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