Article written by Luke Burgess-Yeo
Conventional thought on ultimate strategy views the team as a mechanical system – a machine with the players as the moving parts. Teams strive for a highly disciplined style of play, reducing the number of variables as much as possible and applying the theoretically optimal tactics to achieve a simple, predictable system.
This view, however, is limiting. Treating ultimate as a mechanical system allows for a high degree of control but misses the opportunity to explore naturally occurring, organic, styles of play which may be just as effective, if not more so, than conventional strategies.
Here I will argue in favour of an ecological approach to ultimate strategy, analysing the shortcomings of mechanical systems and the advantages of organic play styles.
Historically, offensive strategy has been almost exclusively focused on a “stack”. In stack-based offenses, players position themselves in a specific area of the field to open up other areas of the field which can be cut into to receive passes. The aim with each pass is to advance the disc towards the endzone as much as possible.
If the defense is marking players one-to-one, then stacking is a logically sound strategy. Stopping a throw to either of two or more available spaces (e.g. under or deep) is incredibly difficult for an individual defender and the stack maximises the available space by isolating the intended receiver. Furthermore, because it can never be guaranteed that a pass will be completed, reducing the number of passes required to score – by aiming to gain as many yards as possible with each throw – reduces the chance of a turnover before scoring. Again, the stack facilitates this approach by providing as much space as possible to complete a yard gaining pass.
Over time stack-based offenses have become more and more refined with teams training players to perform extremely specific roles within the offense. The obvious examples being “handler” and “cutter” but beyond these simple roles more specific roles may exist within any given team. As well as refining individual player roles, teams have also refined the overall behaviour of the players on the pitch with the use of set plays and cutting patterns.
This type of strategy views the team as a machine, with the players as the moving parts. For the machine to be successful each moving part should be restricted to perform as specific a task as possible. The relationships between each moving part should be as simple and predictable as possible to reduce the chance of errors occurring and the machine breaking down. Simplifying the machine (running set cutting patterns) and refining each component (giving players specific roles) are good methods for improving the machine overall.
A similar analysis can be applied to defense. One-to-one defense reduces the larger team wide problem to the smaller individual problem of marking a single player. Zone defense again treats defenders as isolated individuals but this time covering a single area of the field rather than a single player. Both of these styles of “single-role” defense view the team as a machine with highly specialised moving parts performing specific tasks. If all players perform their individual roles well then the whole team is successful.
This mode of thinking may well have been inspired by American Football in the early days of ultimate. However, even since then it should come as no surprise that such a mechanical approach to the game has dominated thought on strategy given that a large proportion of players in the ultimate community come from highly technical backgrounds. Ultimate strategy has also been pushed forward by coaches who are predominantly men with careers in some form of engineering. The stack is very much an engineering solution to the problem of offense. Similarly, single-role systems are engineering solutions to the problem of defense.
An alternative view of the team is as an organic system, with the players as the various different flora and fauna. Instead of trying to engineer the team to perform optimally, the team can be cultivated to flourish as much as possible. However, in order to understand an organic system an ecological approach is required. Rather than attempting to reduce the system to a rigid set of narrowly defined interactions, the full complexities of the system are embraced. A deep understanding of how each component works is considered less important than understanding the principles upon which the system is based and how the system behaves overall.
Viewing the team as a garden, and the players as the various different plants and animals within that ecosystem, the conventional techniques for improving a team are no longer sensible. Trying to make a garden more beautiful by focusing on each individual flower is significantly less effective than cultivating the overall environment so that all of the plants and animals can exist harmoniously, helping each other to flourish.
Flow-based offenses, like hex, and team defenses, like flex, take the ecological approach to improving the team’s performance. Players are given an environment, in the form of a set of principles, and are encouraged to flourish by connecting with their teammates as much as possible. The exact interactions between players are allowed to develop naturally rather than being defined by strict cutting patterns or rigid defensive sets. This can result in teams performing extremely complex sequences of actions that are highly effective without ever having practiced those specific sequences.
Roles within organic ultimate strategies are analogous to the different types of plants and animals within an ecosystem. Each role is integral to the overall system, but players are given much more freedom than in mechanical ultimate. This is similar to how, for example, bees might pollinate flowers in a garden but the exact paths which the bees take are not controlled in the way that a component of a machine is.
As theoretically sound as conventional, mechanical, ultimate strategies are when analysed in a vacuum – they do face significant challenges from external factors. A mechanical system will grind to a halt if the cogs become jammed. Similarly, a team’s strategy may need to be adjusted significantly due to weather conditions, injured players, unexpected tactics from the opposition, and so on.
Teams playing mechanical ultimate generally approach these problems by making their strategies more complicated. For example, if their vertical stack offense is not performing well against a deep poach then a team may choose to run different cutting patterns. For elite teams, this is not a big problem – but when introducing new players to the sport the complicated nature of these strategies can distract from learning the fundamental skills required to play any strategy.
In contrast, organic systems cope extremely well with adverse conditions – being innately more flexible and able to adapt. The same is true for organic ultimate strategies. In general, teams playing organic ultimate rely upon the fluid nature of their systems to deal with difficult circumstances. Small tweaks are made but the fundamental guiding principles are left unchanged and the team is trusted to naturally respond to the situation – in much the same way that a vine might grow around an obstacle.
One clear example of this is how hex offense changes very little when played against zone rather than match-up defense. The players themselves are tasked with reacting to the circumstances they find themselves in, rather than following a predetermined plan to deal with each type of situation.
Similarly, a team playing hex offense in high winds may choose to position their players more closely but continue to focus on short, quick throws and maintaining flow. This is a simple adjustment to make but could result in a far more successful offense. A team playing a side stack offense that makes heavy use of longer throws needs to adjust their cutting patterns to account for the reduced range of their throwers. Even though teams do prepare for playing in high winds, this kind of play style adjustment is much more significant, and complicated, to make.
This also makes organic strategies very suitable for teaching to new players as they can focus on the fundamental skills without being distracted by complicated tactics. Teams playing mechanical ultimate will often spend hours drilling intricate cutting patterns with new players – patterns which may not even succeed in games even if they are performed by experienced players. New players can instead be taught the fundamental skills required to move the disc and then practice these skills in dynamic, game-like, situations. When those players are in a real game they can instinctively respond to their teammates and the opposition rather than hope that the patterns that they drilled will work.
Despite coaches continuously urging their players to trust each other – to take the first open pass on offense, to do their job on defense and trust that their teammates will do the same – mechanical ultimate is not conducive to building trust.
In stack-based offenses the primary aim of each throw is to gain yards – hence we are conditioned to immediately turn downfield and look for a yard-gaining pass, ignoring the previous thrower who is often the first open option. Once we are looking downfield we are given as much time as the stall-count allows to analyse our teammates’ cuts and only throw the disc when we are satisfied with the resulting field position.
This approach encourages us to be highly critical of our teammates – if we don’t believe the likelihood of a completion is high enough then we will not attempt the pass. This breeds inequality between the involvement of individuals on the team, as it is preferable to only entrust the strongest players with possession. Of course this is perfectly acceptable for competitive teams, but can limit the enjoyment of the game for more casual players. The development of new players is also affected as these players will typically be thrown to less often and find themselves only ever throwing backwards, which can be demoralising when so much emphasis is put on gaining yards.
Similarly, single-role defense involves relatively little teamwork. Even though we are told to “trust our teammates to do their job” what is really meant is “hope your teammates do their job” – because there’s nothing you can do if they don’t. The situation is slightly less severe in “help”-defense systems, but even then the task of assisting players who are being beaten is usually left to one or two defenders who are given the task of “helping” rather than the full team having the joint responsibility of shutting down each option that the offense tries to present.
This can lead to frustration on teams where some players are simply not as capable as others – or are perhaps just having a tough game or tough match-up. Teams may be able to improve their performance by reducing the involvement of their weaker players, but long term those players will not develop as much as they could if they were more involved.
The organic approach to ultimate, on the other hand, places trust at the heart of the strategy. Much less emphasis is placed on individual players to perform their predetermined task. Instead, the whole team is tasked with working together to find success.
Flow-based offenses allow very little time or space for players to criticise their teammates – if a player is free, they should be thrown to regardless of the field position. Team defense again relies on the whole team staying connected and responding dynamically to the offense as a unit. Rather than hoping that your teammates are doing their jobs while you focus on doing your own, you instead communicate with your teammates to ensure that every option is being covered. This communication, together with field awareness, also allows the defense to make more effective use of any spare defenders who may be marking inactive receivers.
These systems, by design, require new and casual players to actively participate as core parts of the team, whilst still allowing more experienced players to play larger roles. The team as a whole is responsible for its own performance, which can reduce the pressure felt by newer or more casual players. Not only does this make ultimate more fun, but also allows new players to develop faster as they are more included.
As for elite teams, these systems only become more powerful with better players. Organic ultimate provides greater opportunity for creativity than mechanical ultimate as well as allowing teams to use trust and teamwork far more effectively to raise their potential skill ceiling.
One very attractive feature of mechanical ultimate is the sense of control which mechanical strategies provide. Their rigid nature gives coaches a clear set of buttons to press, and levers to pull, in order to make adjustments to the way the team is playing.
Furthermore, if a team is not performing as expected then the players (individually or collectively) can be blamed for not executing the systems well enough. Certain players may well be underperforming but “trusting the system” can lead to coaches missing, or perhaps ignoring, the inherent problems that the system itself has.
The role of the coach in mechanical ultimate is to design the systems and then train the players to play within them. This gives coaches a high degree of control over the team. Relinquishing this control can be unnerving, but this is necessary when taking the organic approach to ultimate. The philosophy of organic ultimate extends beyond the interactions between players on-pitch to off-pitch interactions as well.
The role of the coach in organic ultimate is not to control, but rather to cultivate the team, fostering an environment in which the players can flourish. This applies both during training – where improvement through experimentation and discovery is preferred over drilling rigid patterns – as well as during competition – where players reacting dynamically to each situation is preferred over following predetermined plans. Players should be allowed, even encouraged, to explore skills outside of the bounds of mechanical play styles. Coaches should not be engineers operating machines, but horticulturalists tending to their gardens.
Despite the dominance of the mechanical approach to ultimate strategy, this is only one possible philosophical approach to ultimate. Viewing the team as a garden, rather than a machine, and adopting an ecological, rather than engineering, mindset can provide an entirely fresh perspective on ultimate strategy.
Mechanical strategy – stack-based offense and single-role defense – has numerous drawbacks including constraining how players play, limiting teamwork, not facilitating trust between players, struggling to deal with adverse conditions, being inherently complicated and difficult to teach to new players.
Organic strategy – flow-based offense and team defense – on the other hand, allows players to play with substantially more freedom, fosters teamwork and trust, is easily adaptable when faced with challenging conditions, and is built upon a set of principles that are easy to teach to new players but can be mastered by elite teams to win games at the highest levels of the sport.
This article was inspired by ideas from Garden Mind – Sue Goss and Ultimate in motion: Balance and dynamism – Marie and Florian Gailliegue.