Thursday, May 07, 2009

Poll Thursday - David vs. Goliath

Last weeks poll was on who would move on from the Great Lakes Open Region. Funny how the order is significant on the poll result, and the actual result was Illinois first and Michigan second. Ohio State almost took out Michigan in what must have been an exciting game.

This week, there's a well written article by Malcolm Gladwell on weaker opponents beating stronger opponents (tip blog criticism and Taylor for the article). My poll question is: do you think there is some preconceived rule that we assume is correct and play by in high-level Ultimate that weaker teams can rethink and exploit (poll right).



John Hope said...

I voted for strange options.

I would say that there are preconceived approaches that we assume are correct but I don't think they are easily exploitable by weaker teams.

There are unspoken agreements in every game. If you can break one without breaking the rules you'll get an advantage. It may not be enough to win though.

Almost every team distinguishes between man and zone, both on O and D. Most teams run from fairly rigid stack structures. Similarly we're generally locked into either huck and D vs conservative play. O/D lines. Role players. Even our throw selection.

If you could come along and play a hybrid, flexible O and D (your "total flatball") with a good team, you'd be set. If you play it with a weak team, you're going to get thrashed.

Train a team who can do all the usual stuff but also drill blades until they are "safe" passes and let's see what effect it has. How do you play D against a team that can drop the disc straight into the hands of any receiver on the field?

Bill Mill said...

> drill blades until they are "safe" passes

I've often thought this could be a dominant strategy, or at least part of one.

MIKE said...

At the college level I think the equivalent is the uncontested dump reset. Too many college teams allow for a free or easy dump to another handler. This leads to swings, breaks, and count resets. Kudos for posting this, I saw the same article in my reader and sent it to some college captains.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

I agree with MIKE. I think the takeaways for Ultimate are:

- Hustle to take away first pass throws and easy hards
- Cover the dump tight to prevent easy resets
- Fast break on turnovers and move the disc quickly generally to limit the defenses opportunity to get comfortable/set

On a larger level, I think the way that most players/teams perceive offense is incorrect. Most talk about the offensive set (vert stack, H stack, spread). This is a limiting thought process because:

a. Once the disc is checked-in players are moving and so teams spend most of their time talking about a set-up they are actually in about 2% of the time and

b. Teams become dependent on that structure to start their offense thereby limiting one of the least appreciated weapons, the fast break.

Instead of focusing on your stopped-disc offensive structure (what space is occupied), teams should focus on their cutting space; What space do you utilize on the field when the disc is in certain positions on the field both horizontally and vertically?

There are ways to make a horizontal structure behave more like what we think of as vertical stack offense.


Bill Mill said...

I think the article's got a point that we're not addressing here, too.

How does a less-skilled team increase the variance of a game against a more skilled team?

In the article, Fordham beat a more skilled UMass by playing a riskier game with higher variance by raising the tempo. The reason that everybody doesn't play this way is that, when a more-skilled team is prepared to play against this style of play it can often demolish it.

(Witness UConn convincingly defeating Missouri's "40 minutes of madness" in the elite eight. Side note: how did Gladwell manage to avoid mentioning Nolan Richardson?)

Two strategies come to mind for me as analogues in the ultimate world: "huck and hope" and junk D. If a less-skilled team comes up against a more-skilled one but manages to complete a bunch of high-risk ridiculous long throws, they have a shot at beating them.

Similarly, if they throw a bunch of junky D that is unlike what the better team practices against, they have a shot at scoring a bunch of quick goals.

Anybody have any others? Disagree with my analysis?

George Brell said...

I think the problem with preconceived notions in ultimate is that you have two kinds of disparity in ultimate: physical disparity and skill disparity. The U-12 girls team he mentions won their game by conceding the skill disparity and then forcing their opponent to play a strategy that played to their physical strengths (here: endurance, effort).

In the current college level, the best teams have designed themselves so they can't be out-physical-ed. The teams that are consistently good: Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Texas; they select athletes over frisbee players. Even in the non-state schools, Carleton and Stanford both live and die by their physicality.

The only team I saw this year where I thought skill was being emphasized over physicality was Middlebury and they still had a handful of gifted athletes and both their losses at NE Regionals came after their most gifted physical player was injured.

This article makes sense if you read its message as: play a strategy that plays to your team's strengths. However, in our sport currently where most teams have developed along the same axis (emphasizing physical ability over technical skill), most weaker teams don't have an aspect where they are better than the other team, they only have aspects where they are equal or less worse.

Random post thought: I think the reason most teams spend more effort on developing physical play as opposed to skilled play is that there is a more apparent return on investment in the first and it is much easier to teach to a group, requiring much less individual attention.

MIKE said...

Along the same lines but opposite immediate direction of the article. How does playing zone against a more athletic team let the less athletic one dictate the pace? This change of pace affects both the physical and skill dominance of a superior team. So even though they have better harder cuts they will be less advantageous against a zone. Skills may be less effective but even extrememly high skill players have miscues, maybe or not due to the zone's change of pace.
I enjoy the comments.

Corley said...

I remember being told three years ago that the high-release flick was the throw of the future. Everyone had learned to throw low flicks, was the argument: marks weren't ready for the high-release. That one didn't really pan out.

I mostly concur with George. I play for Carleton-GoP in the central region and my (possibly inaccurate) understanding is that right now we're in something of a post-revolutionary period. If I have my history right, Carleton won central regionals until 2005 with a skill disparity: better throws than Madison's. Then Wisconsin set about purposefully creating a physical disparity with an aggressive workout regimen (Muffin's contribution, I believe?) and started taking regionals. CUT has been counter-reacting the last few years with a massive fitness emphasis of their own and has closed that gap. As I understand it, though, Wisconsin's strength in the last four or five years can on some level be read as exactly what Gladwell's talking about. Am I wrong about this? Interestingly, though, I think that fitness emphasis reverberates from one team to another--GoP (a separate club from CUT, sort of a quasi-B-team) has definitely been emphasizing fitness more since CUT began to, and at Sectionals this year we felt like we had a valuable fitness edge on the teams in our peer group (bottom half of central regionals), winning late games on Saturday and Sunday with our legs. I'll bet every year more college teams start emphasizing athleticism and gaining an advantage on the ones that don't.

If that is true, though, and if the country as a whole is slowly being pulled (by competitiveness as much as anything) in the direction of athletic edge, it seems like eventually we arrive--and I think many of the top teams arrived a few years ago--at a general level of athletic parity. From there, I'm not sure what the insurgent strategy looks like. I spent a few minutes yesterday thinking about whether GoP could use any of Gladwell's ideas to give CUT a better game than usual but I couldn't come up with much.

I wonder if the structure of our game doesn't make insurgent tactics inevitably defensive. Assume your underdog team started using blades or high-release flicks or the no-spam motion offense and found a way to score against any 'conventional' team twice as frequently as it does. You'd still lose a lot of games to the top teams if you didn't have any reliable way to generate turnovers. Contesting dumps harder could be a really strong tactic except for the fact that its fiendishly difficult to aggressively pressure the dump without getting beaten up-line, which is a lot worse.

A half-developed thought: both Lawrence of Arabia and the girl's basketball team were able to depend on their opponents being constrained in ways they weren't: the basketball team made immense use of the 5-second inbounds clock and 10-second halfcourt clock to make its tactics work. Lawrence's Turks had to defend specific cities and seats of power. But in frisbee the constraints (maybe) are on the defense. Specifically--you can't stall without a mark. GoP would love to be able to double-cover Grant Lindsley but there's noone on the CUT we can afford to leave open in order to do so. The stall is the only meaningful constraint on the offense, but most defenses are already designed to use the stall in some more-or-less explicit way, I think.

Bill Mill said...


Great comment.

I think, however, that the emphasis on fitness at the college level is necessary. The season is so short and the players come to college with so little skill that it would be very hard to try and win in college with a DoG-like emphasis on never turning the disc over.

At the club level, though, it would be interesting to me to know how elite players thought the best teams stack up in terms of skills vs. raw athleticism. Obviously all the best are great at both, but I mean to ask how they stack up relative to each other.

MC said...

The best example of an elite club team that did something successfully disruptive on offense - or the one that most readily comes to mind - is Jam's "Plinko" offense in 2000. I'd guess that about 95% of their throws were 6 yards or under. It was weird, it was strange, and it was incredibly difficult to defend. If you wanted to get a block, you had to lay out before the thrower had released the disc, because it wasn't in the air long enough for you to react otherwise. This would be example, I think, of using a team using a skill disparity over a physical disparity.

However, as I recall, it was a physical game that brought them down that year. In semis at Nationals, Jam went up on Furious.... Then the monkey brought their usual high-impact style of D, ran off some late breaks, Jam's offensive personnel got tired, but they didn't have many subs because (apparently) only the 9 O-team guys on the team had the knowledge and chemistry to run the Plinko. Furious wins.

I've heard that the development of the Plinko was more of an accident than a top-down strategic decision, but I've always admired it for its original approach (and for the record, yardage WAS relevant to the Plinko offense!). I'm sure I'm getting some facts wrong though, so feel free to set me straight, Idris. :-)

parinella said...

I'm surprised it took 10 posts for someone to bring up the "motion offense". Any system based on lots of short, quick passes is sufficiently different from the standard ultimate package that is will give difficulties to any good team.

A variant of this was the Flying Dwarves team from Fools about 10 years ago. All the players were 5'6" or under, which meant that most of them were quick handler-types. Expand that concept a bit so that you recruit or train so that every player plays offense that way, and the other team will have huge matchup problems (though you might also if you don't have any tall or good-jumping players).

The German (iso a guy in the middle of the field and throw a pass to space) was another example of what worked. A German team (Mir San Mir?) without great athletes became the dominant team because they developed this new style.

A team could play a slowdown game, reducing it to a game to 8. Zone D, some kind of four corners offense, wasting time during stoppages.

Finally, one could say that using the rules (correctly or incorrectly) can be a difference-maker, though the team has to be good to begin with. There is a compact in ultimate that players will try to follow the rules and minor transgressions are generally ignored. A team can take advantage of both of these, by calling every single violation and by systematically committing minor violations or fouls, knowing that only a few will be called.

Bravo #17 said...

"The German (iso a guy in the middle of the field and throw a pass to space) was another example of what worked. A German team (Mir San Mir?) without great athletes became the dominant team because they developed this new style."

While the German offense was started in Munich, Feldrenner (Mainz) perfected it. (7 national championships in the last 10 years) The offense is great for a team with one or two really talented handlers, and only a couple of athletically gifted receivers. Basically, the idea is that ultimate is a one-on-one match-up, so if you can choose which matchup you want, the game is in your favor. The German offense works because it uses this concept most effectively, and can be used by teams that aren't as deep as others.

Jim, I would like to point out that athleticism and skill is still a factor. Feldrenner was centered around Robert Pesht (extraordinarily gifted thrower and athlete in his day) and would not have worked without someone like him. The common approach to stop the offense is to try and poach in the lanes, but Robert would just find the open receiver.

Offense is only half the game though. Athleticism is by far the best return for effort for a defensive line. I think that's why teams that have embraced tougher workout regimens have had the most success in college.