Regionals and Nationals is the season for throwing games. Thrown games at Regionals and Nationals?! Not every team is trying to win. At Regionals, some teams are content to lose so long as they qualify for Nationals. At Nationals, some teams are happy to just make quarters or the play-in game. The tournament formats are also inefficient. In a pool play format, teams play more games than are necessary to pick a winner. (Single elimination is most efficient.) I’d like to look at how teams will throw games and what the advantages and dangers are. (Here’s the Nationals format if you want a look.)
Rest your injured players. This is standard practice for the top teams at the end of the day on Friday in the 1v2 games. While there is some advantage to going into the bracket as the 1-seed (typically, you face an exhausted 4-seed), 1-seeds do lose sometimes (Ring 2004, Sockeye 2008). However, every team at this point in the season and tournament has important players nursing serious injuries. These players don’t play in this game.
Play an even roster. This strategy is to preserve energy. Nationals is without question the most grueling tournament in ultimate. The weather is punishing, the teams are all brilliant and the level of play intense. It is to survive this tournament that club teams have such massive rosters. Playing even does two things for a team. First, it rests the legs of your starters, particularly on defense. Second, it gets playing time for a huge number of your bench players. The classic team to do this would be Goat. They play Revolver in the first round (a probable loss) and then a huge matchup with Bravo in the second. The winner of the Goat-Bravo game is probably making the power pool and the loser down into the S-Box. This strategy works; I’ve been the victim of it. It makes me nervous though, to start a tournament not playing your best. It becomes a real test of your mental ability and strength.
Sit your starters. Although all kinds of teams use this strategy at Regionals, it is very unlikely that a men’s team will employ this at Nationals. This is a very good strategy when teams are extremely unbalanced. On the men’s side, this situation doesn’t exist too much. On the women’s side, however, it is quite likely that a 2- or 3- seed would bench their starters against a 1-seed like Fury or Riot. Physically, it makes sense. There is a big drop off (although it is narrowing) between the top few teams and the second level. Those second level teams are typically dependent on a handful of players for success and resting them keeps them fresh over a long weekend. Psychologically, it is a bit dicey. You aren’t playing your best. (Ugh.) You are creating an internal division between stars and not-stars. (Ugh.) I have seen this work (painfully) and fail (even more painfully.) It is a very risky strategy.
Implementation The benefits of throwing games are largely physical and the dangers psychological. Managing the implementation of these strategies can preserve the former while mitigating the latter. Should you consider these, I would avoid team-wide discussions. Prepare as always, even people who might not be playing. (Injured players aside.) A very successful implementation is the ‘decide at half’ technique. Down 3-8? Bench the starters. Up 8-6? Go for it! Gradations of these strategies are also quite good. Play your starters a half or a quarter of their usual points. Realistically, all of these strategies fail more often than they succeed, no matter how well they are implemented. Quite simply, teams chose to use these risky strategies because they need to. If they were more likely to win, they’d just step up and play.
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