My son’s fifth grade basketball team has a 23-page playbook. When I was in fifth grade, we had give-and-go and fake-and-go. When I first made Nationals in 1989 with Earth Atomizer, we didn’t have plays, just positions. We added some calls the next year to designate where the first cut should go, and we nearly made semis. The following year, with the same offense and only 16 players, we made the semis at Club Worlds, where we were trounced by NYNY, 21-7. In a shocking fit of hubris, we decided that being a top five team wasn’t enough and that we needed to shake things up. One of our players had been a member of Los Angeles’ Iguanas, then a perennial Nationals semifinalist, and we implemented much of their playbook. We struggled all year and failed to make Nationals.
What went wrong? To be sure, there were other problems with our team, but the playbook prohibited us from playing the game the way we knew how. It just wasn’t our style. We had a nice easy-flowing offense that used the dump extensively at a time when throwing the disc back toward your own goal line was considered a sign of weakness. Our new playbook had us stacking on the sideline and designating what all seven players should be doing. The complexity forced us to rely on our slow-thinking conscious mind (“Self 1” from The Inner Game of Tennis) instead of putting the fast-thinking intuitive mind (“Self 2”) in control, and we were never able to get to the clear mental state where we were just playing ultimate.
We had the same problem that my son’s team sometimes runs into: the playbook may have been memorized, but it wasn’t internalized. Players were blindly following a script, even when the reality of the situation was screaming for improvisation. My kid’s team has a simple pick play for inbounding under the hoop. Occasionally the defense will know it’s coming and position themselves to thwart it, but that means they’ll leave their man open under the hoop. Unfortunately, the poor kids don’t yet know enough about basketball to realize they’re wide open and instead will run into a jam because they’re just trying to follow the play.
By 1994, we finally figured out the ideal playbook: no diagrams, just a summary of concepts we needed to be comfortable with by the end of the season. Our offense and defense had evolved into what we considered to be solid fundamental ultimate, and the playbook simply codified this. The plays were events that happened organically. Learning the playbook was really just a matter of learning the offense: create some space so the cutter had options and take the easy pass. Everything flowed from that.
I can understand that some teams and players need the certainty that comes with a highly-structured offense, but I feel that this too often gets in the way of learning the game and learning your team. If all you’re doing is following a set of instructions, then as soon as there is a wrinkle, like with my kid’s team’s inbound play, you’re running into a turnover.
I’m not advocating anarchy here. An offense needs to have a describable style. Our old DoG offense’s mantra was “take what they give you”, so if the defense was willing to concede the under cut, we were perfectly willing to jam it up the sideline with a succession of 10-yard cuts. But the players need to recognize that the offensive structure is a set of guidelines and not rigid rules, and that there are special situations that call for specific actions. The team ought to have calls available to make sure the cutter and thrower are on the same page and so that the other players don’t cut into the open space. One of our special situations has always been that if certain players are being forced backhand on a walkup, the first cutter should cut deep. However, sometimes it’s helpful to confirm this with a call. I’ll often make the call for the give-and-go on the fly just after releasing the swing pass and realizing there is a lot of open space. And once or twice a year, Alex or I will whip out the 25-year old call for “the cut is going to the break side”. These are just a subset of the category of “on-field communication”, an essential ingredient for success in any field sport. So often, we could eliminate turnovers due to uncertainty simply by using plain English words like “you”, “switch”, or “go” or with simple hand signals.
One mistake I’ve seen teams make is failing to educate their players on which calls work best in specific circumstances. A team might have ten plays in their playbook to run off a stopped disc after a foul call, and only five of those ever get called in a game. But among those five, players tend to default to a simple one like “run the play to the primary downfield cutter” rather than picking a play tailored to the situation. In my latter years, on the way to Nationals I would review our play calls and figure out which ones I would want to call if trapped or if on the line being forced middle or if there was a lot of space downfield. I would also remind myself that there was no need to force a throw simply because that was the play.
Another way I think teams can do better is by empowering cutters to make more of the calls. The thrower may have just been mugged by an overaggressive marker and is being pressured to put the disc into play and doesn’t have time to scan the field to see who is already open, but a cutter will know that his defender is out of position to prevent a particular cut, if only the rest of the offense would stay out of the way. Even if this alerts the defender, this risk is outweighed by the certainty gained by the offense.
I can already see my son’s team improving in their ability to run the play as called, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of repetition or memorization. Rather, they’re figuring out that all of their inbounds plays begin the same way: with a player running away from the ball to set a pick. During flow, they’ll occasionally execute one of their give-and-go plays after having seen it work as a called play off a timeout. I’m not expecting them to achieve the fluency that we had on DoG after playing together for 10 years, but maybe they’ll get to page 23 by the last game of the season.