This is part four in six-segment article, the last in our four-part series offering advice to players on the steps necessary to create a championship caliber Ultimate team in their area.
Practice 3. What’s a Cutter?
The next day was our last practice of the first week. We started it with the three basic drills. We ran the QB Weave for a couple of minutes, and then I introduced the cutter pattern. I’ve played a number of different cutter patterns through the years and they each had their advantages and disadvantages. I started with the Stanford, transitioned to the vertical stack and then to the flat stack. Before the practices even began, I went through a list of cutter patterns that I thought might be appropriate for a new team. To do this, I spent some time on the Internet looking through both offense styles and the drills to teach them. It turns out, there were two basic types of offensive cutter patterns: those that are easy to teach and those that are worth a damn. I guess it makes some sense to teach an easy offense to get things going and then change things up once the skills develop sufficiently. The downside of this is that the team won’t be successful the first year and in our case, this would put the seniors at a disadvantage in their college try outs the next fall.
In choosing a cutting pattern I wanted four things. I wanted a pattern that would allow a straightforward mechanism for synchronizing the handlers and cutters. I wanted a pattern that would present passing angles that would be easier for the inexperienced handlers to read. I wanted a pattern that left room for the handlers to attack down field. Finally, I wanted a pattern that would present defending problems for the more experienced teams.
I settled in on a cutting pattern with in-cuts along the sidelines followed by diagonal out-cuts to the other side of the field for the reset. This met my offensive criteria. Since the cutter routes were initiated with an in-cut along the side line, the cutter had a good view of the handlers for synchronization. The in-cut presented an easy target for the strong side handler and the following diagonal out-cut was easier to read then a straight away deep cut. The diagonal cuts also leave the center of the field open for the handlers to attack up the middle. Finally, most defenses assume that offensive cutters stay on one side of the field. Diagonal cutters significantly increase the workload of the other team’s sideline spotters. The harder you make the sideline spotters work, the more likely they are to miss a call out and leave one of your cutters undefended.
I understand that Santa Cruz ran an offense like this a couple of years back and called it the butterfly. While I didn’t copy their offense, I want to make sure they receive proper credit for its first implementation. There are some differences between the Santa Cruz butterfly and my implementation, the single biggest difference being that my offense is prioritized on motion and not yardage.
Coach Tip: It turns out establishing any sort of a flowing pattern with the cutters is quite difficult. Human nature being what it is, some cutters seem to forget everything they were taught once they get on the field. This isn’t a flaw in the human or in humanity, it’s an acknowledgement that some of the finer points of Ultimate are not intuitive and will need to be learned through repetition. For a cutting pattern to be successful, everyone on the field must follow it. If any one of the four cutters breaks the pattern, then everything falls apart. I can see how other cutter patterns are designed to survive with a rogue cutter without as much difficulty as we would experience in synchronizing our four cutters.
The situations where we experienced the most problems with the cutting pattern were with cutters not running to the proper spot on the field and with the cutters camping in a spot once they felt they were open and deserved the disc. This happened in two places: the short center of the field and 5 feet in front of the handler with the disc. Since our offense was designed to keep the center of the field open for handler attacks, the cutters would sometimes get in the habit of running into the center area because it was always open. They would stop in this open area and begin calling out for the disc. This would disrupt both the handler and cutter routes. Another problem was with the in-cuts. The players would in-cut and be open, but not get the disc. They would then camp and begin calling for the disc. The other cutters would then back up deep waiting for the in cutter to clear or worse run to some random spot, camp and they too would start calling for the disc. Less often, the in-cutter would run in too far and end up behind the handlers, camp and begin calling for the disc. This happened mostly with cutters who felt they could also handle.
Rogue cutter routes troubled us the entire season. The solution is easy in theory. It involves the handler invoking the magical all-powerful words “Clear!” In reality though, the power dynamic between a 12th grade cutter and a 10th grade handler was a bit of an issue.
The third scrimmage went better with a couple more points scored. There was still a problem with there being more in-cuts then out-cuts and sloppy throws to the middle drawing snide comments from me. I continued to encourage handler cuts that spread the field side to side. Mostly though, the scrimmage was about players getting game experience and learning each other’s timing. At this early stage of player development, experiencing the game was the most important thing.
Practice 4. Defense
Week two started immediately after school. In a bit of a departure from the first week, I didn’t have the discs available for warm up. Instead, I asked who the team chose as its four captains. Turns out no one chose anything. So I said, “No problem, we’ll start practice after we get some captains”. I walked off to the side and waited. After about 10 minutes the captains were in place and I started handing the discs out. The team did its usual three warm up drills and I called them in for today’s plan. Today’s plan is to expand the QB weave pattern, teach the man defense and then scrimmage more.
To practice the QB weave, I put the handlers in their positions and I described an enabling tactic that turns the simple dump swing of the QB weave into a powerful offensive weapon. I won’t bore you with the details here. Anyway, I had everyone split into groups of three and practice it until they were comfortable with the sequences.
Next we changed gears and start talking defense. To this point I hadn’t said anything to anyone about defense. I felt it was important for the offense to experience some success before I taught the defenders how to shut it down. I wouldn’t have done that with a more experienced startup team, but most of my players were new to the game and this seemed to make the most sense.
I started with the mark. I explained that you can’t stop someone from throwing the disc. After all, you can’t stand on both sides of the thrower; one side is always open for an easy pass. But what you can do is discourage the thrower from throwing the disc where they want and how they want. You, the marker, can make it so that your teammates can position themselves in such a way to deny cuts to the open areas of the field. This idea of only allowing the thrower a restricted passing area is intuitively called the force.
Coach Tip: New markers instinctively force away from the end zone thinking that’s what should be done. I teach that this doesn’t work because it gives the other team’s cutters too many options to be defended effectively. I teach that it is the marker’s responsibility instead to restrict throwing angles and give the other defenders a chance to deny the cutters a viable open route. The marker must sacrifice what is safest for them for what is best for their teammates. The whole roles and responsibilities thing with the man defense is something that needs continual reinforcement and practice.
To teach the man defense, I had the team divide into pairs, with each pair standing somewhere in the field. I gave one person in each pair a disc. We had a quick vocabulary review. I explained the terms “home” and “away”. I demonstrated a home force, being clear to show proper stance and spacing. I had half of each pair assume the defensive mark position with a home force. I then suggested that it’s the person without the disc that gives the defensive mark. I walked over to every pair to give individual feedback. The two main things I found that needed to be adjusted were the height of the hands above the ground and the direction of the force.
As it turns out, there’s more than one kind of marker. There’s the quick reflex marker who baits the thrower by holding their arms in, and then, with a quick thrust, hand blocks a lazy throw. Then there’s the more normal marker who needs to keep their arms low and extended to be effective. We had trouble all season with players thinking their reflexes were quicker than they actually were, thereby severely compromising the effectiveness of the defense.
Coach Tip: How do you handle the great players you’ve inherited? Jeeze, they poach off their man, they successfully throw passes they shouldn’t, they force the wrong way and get a hand block, and they encourage bad throws because they know they can take the disc away from the defender. They are successful at all the things you don’t want anyone else to do. Ah, what’s a coach to do? There’s not really anything you can do except smile and say “nice play”. I don’t fault the player all that much. After all, they learned and excelled under a different system. Now they’re in a new system with inexperienced teammates. Can you really fault them for their occasional lapses back to how they were taught? Over the course of the season, I spent quite a bit of effort trying to redirect their talents into a new system.
The students were paired up on the field and we were discussing the mark. I like the marker to hold their hands low and wide. Low hands force high release break-mark throws. I like to force high release throws because they are typically softer and give the defense more time to adjust. After explaining the mark, I stood off to the side and call the different forces. I made sure the markers understood the terms home, away, strike, no huck, no dump and trap. After all that, I had the marker and the thrower switch roles and I repeated the explanation.
Coach Tip: One thing that I’ve noticed in modern Ultimate is the loss of the up call from the marker. Markers today seem to think that once the disc has been thrown, their responsibilities are over and it is the responsibility of the sideline to make the up call. I know as a deep defender how important the up call is. The up call gave me two important pieces of information. One that the disc is in the air and two, where the disc is coming from. It is the marker’s responsibility to provide as much information as possible to the affected defender. In my case, as I was chasing my opponent I would be listening for something like “Up, deep, Paul, left.” This gives me the information I need to adjust my position relative to my opponent before I look back for the disc. The other important marker call out is “Broken!” Broken means that the thrower has gotten a break mark pass off against the marker. This means all the defenders must immediately adjust their positions to prevent a continuation throw and to recover the force. In the case of a broken mark, the marker should call out two things, the word broken and the destination of the disc, i.e. “Broken middle.” I can’t say enough about the importance of communications between the defenders. If the other team gets off a break mark throw followed with a continuation, your defense is severely compromised and any competent team will quickly score before the defense has any chance to recover.
One more thing about the mark: teaching it will take many weeks with lots of drills, repetition and practice. If the importance of the mark is not constantly reinforced, the marks will get real sloppy real quick.
Next we talked about the off-disc defenders. I explained how the marker and the off-disc defenders must work together. Since the marker denies throws in a predetermined direction, the off-disc defenders must deny offensive cuts into the resulting open areas. At this level of play and experience I tend to teach the defenders to stay between the cutter and the thrower, but offset them just enough that they can see both the thrower and cutter with minimal head movement. The direction of the offset can vary depending on the opponent’s skill level and offense, the wind conditions, their field position and the force direction. As for the distance between the defender and their opponent, in the beginning I like the spacing to be large enough to give the defender enough time to react to a cutter getting the initial advantage on a cut, yet close enough to get a hard mark on a catch in 1-2 seconds. I want the mark following a catch to be set within 1 second if the cutter beats the defender to an open area for a catch and 2 seconds if it’s a break mark throw and the defender has to deny the continuation throw before reeling in on the mark.t
To put all this talk into action, I called for all the discs. The students were paired up and standing at random locations on the field. I threw the disc to one of the designated offensive players and I called out the force direction. I observed as the marker and off disc defenders assume their positions. I spent some time adjusting the players’ positions. I threw the disc to another person and continued to observe as the defensive players adjust. I made a break mark throw and teach how to stop the continuation. We kept doing this until every O player held the disc. Next, I made a turnover throw and had the pairs switch roles. I repeated the sequence of instruction with the other half of the pair.
We spent the remainder of the practice time scrimmaging. Whenever we practiced a new skill as a team, I made a lot of interruptions for clarification. As the scrimmage continued, I would slowly reduce the number of my interruptions, until in the final 15 minutes I limited myself to comments only. I’ll do this regardless of the team’s actual progress with the new skill. After a certain amount of time, interruptions are counterproductive.
I’m noticed a continuing problem. The team wanted to throw floaty throws into the middle or wild throws deep. When it comes to bad throws, it seems like the players only remember the one time the throws worked and never the four times they didn’t. I really don’t think you can build a successful team around throws that have a 20% completion rate. I needed to have a solution for this by the next practice.
Part 5 goes over hucking and reaching a point of consistency.
Feature photo by Kevin Leclaire (Ultiphotos.com)