“Keep our turnovers in their end of the field, and we will win this game. This is going to be a siege.”
The wind stiffened again. As if it to underline the point, it pulled up a veil of dust that gave a face to the invisible — a broad wall of air as thick as an avalanche swept over the field. Discs that touched it just seemed to tumble out of the sky. Stringing even three good passes together against this weather was a game of roulette.
“So don’t take risks with field position just to reset the count. If you’re stuck on our side of the field, and you’re not totally confident that you can make a clean, easy dump pass to an open man… look for the huck. Punt it. If we have to take risks with the disc, we’ll take them at least trying to score.”
I was giving the instructions from the very back of the captain’s handbook: familiar in theory, almost never given in earnest, and completely anathema for serious competitors. They had to be stressed with cumbersome gravitas to make sure the point sank in.
“We have to try to play this game near their endzone and not ours. This is the only time I’m ever going to say this, but Hell – if you can’t huck it, then roll it if you have to.”
There I was at the the USA Ultimate Club Championships – a bonafide ivory tower of specialized skills and strategies — and I was telling players to put our money on the most inelegant gambit in the book. But it was a strategy honest with the circumstances.
In sport, we easily become creatures of habit instead of strategy. We watch good teams win, and we emulate them. We train with the expectation that performing certain habits a bit harder and better than our opponents will win us the match. We stratify different cuts, throws and tactics on scales of acceptability and finesse. But when we spend so much time putting ideas on pedestals of focus, we become tunnel-visioned to the realities of the game, where no points are awarded for artistic merit.
So when Skyd asked me to write another piece on the topic, I thought I should offer a cautionary reminder: lots of strategies can be good, but good strategy always stays honest with itself.
Shortly after Christmas, I was playing in a casual, mostly recreational tournament in Ottawa. A young and inexperienced player tossed me a wobbly pass and launched himself into the endzone. With opportunity at hand, I swiftly knifed the disc right back to him through the narrowing window. Someone on the sideline breathed, “oof,” yet the cutter caught it without blinking and without so much as a remark. He never realized that a player with a little more experience might have questioned it, labelled it a reckless, unreasonable move, and might have even dropped it out of surprise. He possessed the latent wisdom of the untrained eye.
That three-second microcosm reminded me of things I had seen on a much grander scale, taken to their logical extremes. Few things have educated me in the startling diversity of effective tactics in the world of ultimate as international competition.
At WUCC 2014 in Italy, I saw Japan’s Buzz Bullets defeat Boston’s Ironside through a heavy reliance on slashing lateral cuts that I explicitly forbid my players from employing. In 2010, in Prague, the Buzz Bullets beat my own team by running the bulk of their offense through Masahiro Matsuno’s 50yd leading blades – a throw I would have otherwise been tempted to call unsustainably risky.
These are some of the starkest contrasts in styles that I have seen. They underline a pair of tenets that must always be remembered together. Firstly, nothing is intrinsically too difficult or risky. Secondly, nothing is intrinsically easy or superior. Whether your opponents, context, and skill sets permit something to work is the only real measure of its value.
To point out good strategies and to praise them is easy, well and good, but the obvious question lingers: how do we learn from them? How do we go back to our kitchens and invent our own, in practice, or on the fly? How do we know which habits to keep and which to break? How do we tell apart creativity from craziness?
In short, it comes down to honesty: an acceptance of the realities we face. As George Santayana mused, “Intelligence is quickness in seeing things as they really are,” (and not, as our prejudices wish they were). In the end, all effective strategies — whether plain or exotic — are grounded in honesty. To keep honest with yourself, I offer these reminders:
Honest Strategies Are Executable
In case it needed to be said, your team must be able to execute a strategy for it to work. Don’t commit to something every time only because you’re accustomed to seeing it work. Don’t try to do something because someone else can. No matter what the merits of the strategy, if you’re just not able to execute it – for whatever reason — it becomes a losing strategy.
Honest Strategies Are Results-Oriented
If any strategy or component thereof does not at least theoretically and understandably contribute to the scoring of points, it should be discarded. I have heard countless unfounded and arbitrary notions about how offenses and defenses should be run over the years that this rule is a needed safeguard against such dogmatic thinking.
Honest Strategies Respond to the Circumstances
Your strategy should recognize effects of environmental factors. Weather is the most common culprit, but we can lump playing surfaces, rules, formats, and even the score into this category. Think of environment not as things that make play broadly “harder” or “easier,” but as changes in characteristics or statistics. With the wind at your back, throws are farther, but they lack lift; with the wind at your face, throws are shorter, but they are easy to lead in space.
Honest Strategies Adapt to Opponents
Know thine enemy. Your strategy must recognize your opponents’ characteristics. The mere fact that you have practiced certain strategies will not necessarily make them winning strategies. You need to be prepared to change the way your team marks throwers on defense, and what you’re prepared to throw on offense, and how you’re prepared to cut. A “bad” cut such as Japan’s 30-yard slashes from sideline to sideline is suddenly good if the space has been prepared and the continuation cuts are likewise adapted to avoid getting trapped on one side.