The birth of the AUDL brings with it three major changes: professionalism, refs and a wider field. Justifiably, most of the attention has gone to the first two of these. The impact of the wider field on playing style has been largely unmentioned, but I have some advice for the AUDL coaches: start watching women’s ultimate.
There are many ways men’s and women’s ultimate differs, but at the strategic level they are different because the field is bigger in women’s ultimate than in men’s. While it is true that both men and women play on a 40×70, the differences in athleticism mean that the women’s field is functionally larger. When explaining to men how women’s and men’s ultimate differed (especially new coaches), I would often ask them to imagine playing on a field that was 80 yards long and 50 yards wide. Currently, men’s ultimate is really focused on a tight, vertical game that uses the spaces in front and behind the defender/cutter. With a wider field, women’s ultimate is able to use much more lateral space to the sides of the defender/cutter. Without further ado, here are three strategic possibilities:
1. Turn the page. This is a classic cut at all levels of ultimate. Variously known as ‘turning the page’, ‘the banana cut’ or other more vulgar expressions, this move involves an out cut down one sideline and then a turn to the far back corner. The thrower fakes to the initial cut and then throws the giant outside-in across the field for the goal. This throw is practically forbidden in elite men’s ultimate. The field is so narrow, the defenders so fast, the poaches so aware that the space to land that pass into is tiny. When I transitioned from Sockeye to coaching Syzygy, this throw drove me to fits. Jenn Willson would drop it in on other teams and I’d tell her: “You really shouldn’t throw that.” She’d look at me like “It worked.” Over time, I gave up trying to stop her from throwing it because it worked! Only later did I realized that the reason it worked is because the field is bigger and the defenders’ range smaller. The relative size of the field changed a bad throw (Sockeye) into a good one (Syzygy). The extra 13 yards of the AUDL field is more than enough extra room for this throw.
2. Zones won’t work. Actually, this isn’t true. Despite the increased amount of space, zones obviously work at all levels of women’s ultimate. The main reason is that the disc travels through the air quite slowly. A longer throw quite often has more hang on it and takes longer to travel than a snapped swing. To make the same distance in two passes is also quite slow because of the necessity to catch, pivot and release. Zones in the AUDL will need to modify their structure to account for the fact that there are more men who can complete a 30 yard hammer consistently than women. A simple strategic adjustment like playing deeps left-right instead of up-back should solve that problem. There will be a lot of space to swing the disc, the trick will be to contain the play off of the swing.
3. New offensive possibilities. The challenge of designing an offense given new conditions is an exciting one. The current state of men’s ultimate really only contains two choices: horizontal and vertical. I don’t see a horizontal greatly improved by a wider field, but a vertical certainly is. There was a team called Godiva (you might have heard of them) who ran a ladder-continue style vertical stack offense that was quite effective. The difference between Godiva’s and a team like Ironside’s is timing versus cutting. Godiva’s offense assumes the cut will be open if it can be timed right because there is lateral space to work into. Ironside’s relies on the threat of the deep cut to free up the underneath. There is also an opportunity to run a new and more radically designed spread offense. Poaching has always been a major problem for the more innovative spreads and the width of field should make that more of a challenge for the defenders.
Feature photo of Stanford Superfly at Stanford Invite 2011 by Andrew Davis