It was lovely to have a steady stream of ultimate on the television this past weekend. There were times I sat and watched intently and there were times I just had it on the in the background; but the simple pleasure of being able to watch ultimate at home is hard to quantify.
The biggest storyline had to be the wind. It all but guaranteed a Revolver victory and made the women’s final into a slug fest. Although it is hard to feel the wind through the monitor, once you know what the conditions are for each game they are an excellent resource to learn how to deal with the wind. Taken as a whole, the catalog of games (both NexGen and ESPN) from this weekend serve as an excellent example of how to game plan for the wind. The games from the first two days were played in mild, but increasing wind. Things started as a thrower’s wind* and progressed into moderate upwind-downwind conditions. On the semis and finals days, the wind worsened to the point that routine throws became an adventure. Accordingly, strategy must shift for each circumstance.
The first thing to realize about playing in windy conditions is that wind isn’t something to fight against; it is just something else to use. There are throwing possibilities that exist on a windy day that aren’t there on a still day. There are defensive possibilities that aren’t there on a still day. The relative value of choices (offensive and defensive) changes dramatically. The best way to play the wind is to accept these and adjust accordingly.
As an example, consider marking in an upwind-downwind game. If the offense is going upwind, I want to keep my hands low and do my best to prevent low, flat releases. If the thrower wants to throw high or seriously banked throws, I’ll let him – those kind of throws struggle significantly going upwind. Turn things around and I’ll put my hands high. The bottom always drops out of downwind throws and I am happy to have a thrower release low in this circumstance.
Two throws stood out to me as making a significant difference on the outcome of games. In the Traffic-Brute Squad semifinal, Brute was able to pull away in the second half by throwing around backhands down the sideline. These were thrown for power and distance; they were anchored by excellent technique with lots of stabilizing rotation. Conversely, Traffic was doomed once they began letting these throws out. (Discipline in a highly windy game is often defensive – you can’t afford to make a mistake that leads to a goal.) The second throw was Revolver’s gut-throws in the final. Again and again, they ripped forehands right into the receiver’s gut at short distance. These throws are fast and powerful, they are minimally susceptible to the swirling wind. The challenge is that they have to be very accurate and the receiver has to handle a bullet at close range. Revolver’s use of these throws was exceptional – it displayed impressive tactics and technique.
An interesting paradox of ultimate is that as throwing skills have increased, the percentages of throws that are hucks has decreased. Unthinkingly, you’d expect that as throwers get more skilled, they’d be more accurate on long throws and the number of these would increase. Oddly, there’s been a decrease in the amount of hucking in the last ten or so years – a decrease that coincides with broad increases in across-the-board throwing skills. This is connected to the Swing-Pass Fallacy**. Because teams can throw so well up and down their rosters, the chance of an execution error on a swing or underneath pass is very, very small, while the odds of completing a huck haven’t gone up as substantially***. Severely windy conditions radically change this math, returning all of us to the days of our first ever forehands. Every throw becomes an adventure and exercise in concentration. Hucking suddenly becomes a really, really, really good choice. At the lower percentage levels of the sport, huck-and-play-d is the best choice. At the upper levels, you get a game exactly like this year’s US Open Finals: every huck that has a reasonable chance of success gets thrown.
A sophisticated understanding of the wind game means that you don’t always huck. There are moments where you can gain an easy twenty with minimal risk. Although field position is always part of the calculation, the farther you advance down the field, the smaller its importance. Making decisions is a complicated process of calculating expected value over and over again. Obviously you can’t sit down during the point and run the numbers. (Even though ten seconds is a loooong time.) It takes a lot of experience to internalize the appropriate decisions for any situation in ultimate – the challenge for the teams at the Open is that very few of them get the opportunity to play in the wind on any kind of regular basis. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Sub Zero over performed this weekend – they are the only team that routinely sees the kind of wind conditions that were in effect.
Here are some basic tips for playing in the wind:
- Accept the wind as a friend, not an enemy. Wind makes possible things that aren’t possible on a still day.
- There are roughly five categories of wind and each demands a different set of strategies: Still, Thrower’s Wind, Windy, Sarasota and Boulder. The lines between each category differs based on the division you are playing and the skill sets of the throwers.
- Spend extra time throwing before the game. You need to figure out what throws you have and which you don’t have. What will be possible and what won’t.
- Downwind throw high to low; upwind throw flat. On defense, mark accordingly.
- Don’t assume that zone is the best choice in the wind. Often zones allow teams to throw passes they are comfortable with. Aggressive defenses are best – make each throw a challenge. This can be done through person defense or a trapping zone.
- Defenses on windy days are often very unbalanced. Try to catch them napping. One example is the deep-deep who is too far under suddenly exposed by a fifteen yard gainer. Another is a sudden calm on a gusty day; that impossible hammer is briefly alive.
- In a crosswind, classic strategy is for the defense to force the offense downwind and pin them there. The offensive strategy is therefore to try to work the disc to the high side and avoid the downwind trap if possible.
The three leading contenders in the men’s division (Revolver, Ironside, Bravo) are all utilizing a very similar strategy. They are all playing very vanilla defenses, relying on the strength of their athleticism to carry them. The problem with this is that only one of these teams is making a good decision in doing this because only one of these teams has the best athletes. Combine that with the fact that the majority of the best athletes on these teams are playing offense and you’ve got a recipe for some high percentage offense.
Part of the difficulty here is the sheer volume of false positives these teams get from this strategy. In the vast majority of their games, they are the superior athletes and the strategy is successful. The problem is that these games aren’t the ones they should be basing their strategies on. There are only a small, small handful of teams that are true contenders to make semifinals in Lecco or Frisco – the next strategic step for the top teams is to get better at tailoring their tactics, particularly defensive tactics, for their main opposition.
* A thrower’s wind is a very mild but steady wind. This light wind provides more structure and texture to the air than is present on a completely still day. This greatly increases the number of options a gifted and creative thrower has accessible to them.
** The Swing Pass Fallacy is the idea that a short pass is 100%. Under this belief a turnover on a swing is an execution error, but on a huck a decision error. However, no pass is 100% and stringing together multiple short passes is often substantially riskier than a single deep shot. Throwing multiple unnecessary swing passes is a tactical error, as is looking off a high-percentage huck.
***Here is some rudimentary math to make this point. We’ll compare a 10 pass possession to a 1 pass huck. If the chance of completing these conservative passes is 90% each, the chance of completing ten in a row is a paltry 35%. If a 1-pass huck has a 50% chance of completion, it’s a far better choice. Now, let’s say that as throwers improve, the odds of completing a pass increase 5%. The huck only improves to 55%, but the 10-pass possession now has a 60% chance of success.