What We Did Right: Depth

There are many pieces of our 2014 season that are highlights, but one of those that I’m most proud of is the depth of our team. At Nationals, the least any healthy player saw the field was 15% of our points. In other words everybody on our team played at least 60% of an even share of playing time.

From the start of the season, we were aware that nationals is eight or nine games, with the most important ones at the end. Teams that have to rely on their best players to win all those games will not have legs left for Saturday and Sunday. Everyone knows this, so the the real question is how do you develop the depth to save your legs? Crash made three decisions that helped us build the depth of our roster for regionals and nationals: making depth a goal, playing our whole roster even if we sacrificed wins and giving all of our players the green light to work on new skills in games.

Team Huddle!

At our start of season meeting, we set a goal of developing all of our players to be ready to beat teams at nationals. Having that kind of clarity made it easy as a line caller to run open rotations. No one questioned why they weren’t on the field in tight games or why we called an iso for a less experienced player. With the whole team behind it, everything about building depth became easier.

We lost quite a few close games at non-series tournaments. In every one of those games, we played the whole team. Our entire roster got experience against the best opponents and gained reps in crunch situations. At regionals, we could already see the results. Our top lines had plenty of legs with the other two lines shouldering most of the burden. In the finals, our fourth line got the turn and scored the game winner.

As well as playing our whole roster, we green-lighted players to stretch beyond their skills. Working on a flick huck? Throw it if the cut is open. Working on an IO break? Take the chance. It meant more turnovers early in the season, but more solid options late.

By nationals, our bench was rolling through pool play and into power pools. Then in our quarterfinal game, up by 4 with about fifteen minutes left, our O line got broken, then broken again. We were still up 2 with three minutes to go, but we’d lost momentum. If our opponents scored quickly they opened a sliver of daylight to win and eliminate us from the tournament. It was one of those moments that can become a team’s nightmare. Our O line had been on the field for two long points and was not clicking. Our top D line was cold from sitting once we’d opened up a lead. Calling the line, I had to figure out if I believed in our depth enough to bet our season on it.

I looked at Chris as we huddled up to call the line. He wanted to play, he knew he was ready, and we both knew that he would set the tone for whatever line he took out onto the field to get the job done. We put out our bench, moved the disc most of the way before turning it, worked like crazy to get it back, called the timeout to seal the game and then scored the final point. On the outside, no problem, three point margin of victory. On the inside, relief that our depth had pulled us out of a tight situation.

What We Did Right: Good Decisions

I teach math. I like patterns and I like certainties. In Ultimate, one certainty is that the difference in points between the two teams at the end of the game is the difference in turn-overs, plus or minus one. If your team turns the disc less than the other team, you will never lose the game.

We identified three places that most turnovers happen: drops, bad hucks and endzones. With catching incorporated into practices, we were already working to minimize drops, so it was time to get rid of bad hucks and endzone turnovers.

Jake catches the disc over LP right at the back of the endzone.

We had three rules for a good huck. It had to meet the rule of thirds, it had to be thrown from behind half so that the yardage gain was worth the risk and it had to be from flow or from a player designated as a static hucker because of their throwing skill.

It took a lot of work to build the right habits. We ran scrimmages where any huck that didn’t meet the rules was automatically a turnover. We set up our huck drill to meet all the rules every rep. We even ran our huck drill against the rules to show ourselves how much harder it was to complete the throws. At one practice, a player put up a flick bomb from one step behind the half line and then turned and grinned at me as it was caught in the endzone. Our awareness of what was a good and bad huck was becoming ingrained.

Our biggest challenge was training ourselves to take good endzone looks. Most of our players had habits from previous teams and league play of taking risky endzone throws. We had great throwers who could run 80% completion rates on the hammer to a player cutting away, high loopy throws in wind and threads through a crowd. We didn’t want to settle for 80% completion rates, so we set about changing our habits. Drill, drill, drill and eventually we were taking better choices here as well.

I’d love to say that our completion rate in the finals was great, but it wasn’t. The good news was that those turnovers generally came from gusty wind, poaches or excellent defense. We rarely lost possession because of throwing into too small a space, choosing an angle that made the read too hard or trying something too fancy into the endzone. Given the small margin in the game, we didn’t have a lot of room for bad decisions.

What We Did Right: Fundamentals

Every play in Ultimate involves throwing, catching and moving. Most teams put in the time on throwing, especially hucks and breaks. Crash also incorporated catches and movement into our warm-ups.

Can you consistently take a disc high, pick it off the turf, go one handed with either hand and corral a laser throw? Crash made a lot of tough catches last year. (Check out the faces of the Dame players in the background on the series in that last link.) Having a roster of athletes to get to these discs before the defense is key, but once there, completing the catch is crucial. We put in the time during our warm-ups to build consistency and confidence with our catches.

Heather catches the disc over top of a MagnetX defender with impeccable positioning!

Movement in ultimate has received a lot of attention recently with experienced trainers like Tim Morrill, Ren Caldwell and Thom Wendelboe sharing their knowledge. Practice time is precious, but even with an experienced team it pays to spend time on movement basics. You might even discover that one of your best players can only jump off one foot. Generating power and moving efficiently are skills all players can improve on, and their frequency of use in our sport makes it worth spending the time.

Throwing is easier to convince people to practice, but a group of Crash players went above and beyond by throwing every day. It’s hard to require players to make that kind of time commitment, but wow did it ever pay off!

Our team-wide ability to catch, throw and move helped us to maintain possession and get Ds. It gave us a consistency of play that saw us through games against very tough opponents. We will certainly spend time on our fundamentals again this year.

Editor’s Note: Here is the second post in our series on things that went well last season and why we had the success that we did. For those looking for specific input on how to work on Fundamentals [Season 7 of Rise Up][9] is all about building fundamental skills. I haven’t seen all of it, but from what I have seen it looks pretty solid.

What we did right: Building team culture

Editor’s Note: Yaacov wrote up a number of posts about things we felt we did well as a team last year. We’ll be posting these as we lead up to tryouts next month. We hope you’ll find them interesting and potentially useful.

Winning a championship is a great feeling, but you can’t stay there forever. A day after the medal ceremony for CUC 2014, I was thinking about Crash’s season, what we had done right and what we needed to do better in 2015. In some ways, what we had done right was simple and obvious, but looking back, I realized how long it had taken me as a coach to understand those simple and obvious things.

Crash cheers after winning pool D!

1 Team Huddle

The mythology of coaching is about great play designs and fiery pump-up speeches. In my first year of captaining, those were how I wanted to make my mark. Ten seasons later in 2014, I coached a team with one play and our fiery huddle talk before the finals was basically “Let’s go out and enjoy playing Ultimate on a beautiful day in front of friends and family.” Which isn’t to say that how a team organizes itself on the field or the words that are said in the huddle aren’t important, they are very important, but they have to come from your identity as a team, not from movies.

Our season was about four things: team culture, fundamentals, depth and decision making. This identity was built through team discussion and each player and captain took responsibility for making it happen. I’ll write about team culture first.

Crash’s culture was about hard work, focus and spirit. In every single huddle during the season, we talked about working hard. Sometimes at length, sometimes just as a quick reminder. We celebrated hard work in practice and and at tournaments regardless of whether it generated the outcome we wanted. We pushed ourselves to play every point of every practice and every game the way we wanted to play on double game point in an elimination round. When we were down 4-0 in the semis at Regionals, there were tactical adjustments but we didn’t have to find a new mental space. We just played with the same pedal down mentality that we’d always played. When we had to score two in a row to win the semis at Nationals, again there were tactical adjustments, but we were in a familiar mental space of giving full effort. Hard work was part of every moment that we were on an ultimate field.

Hard work is about physical effort; focus is about mental effort. Being present in the moment, keeping your mind on the disc, on your check, on the stream of information from the sideline without slipping into thoughts of frustration over a turnover, excitement that a win is close at hand or simple lapses from fatigue, is difficult. Keeping a high tempo in practices, eliminating mental breaks when a player isn’t active in a drill and walking and talking on the sidelines are all ways to keep focus high. The more we worked on holding focus, the better we got.

Spirit is one of the best things about competitive sports. It’s also one of the most difficult. Crash committed ourselves to playing with Spirit of the Game foremost. We spent time learning the rules, practiced discussing calls in a respectful way, and made a point of letting teammates know when they had made an incorrect call so that it could be rescinded. It wasn’t easy, and we weren’t perfect. We had great spirit from opponents and help from observers that taught and inspired us to be better. I’ve played a lot of games in the mixed division and this year was by far the best year for spirit that I’ve ever seen. It was great to be part of it.

Our team culture contributed to our success, but it also made us proud of what we’d built as a team. If we had lost an elimination game, we would have still walked away knowing that we’d lived up to who we wanted to be.

There are lots of ways to choose a team culture. Revolver’s Intensity-Humility-Discipline and Riot’s Excellence-Trust-Love are other great examples. Our 2015 team culture may change as our team grows towards new horizons of who we want to be. But it’s guaranteed the culture will be the core of our team, and our plays and system along with what we say to each other will be tools to help us live up to that culture.