Category Archives: All genders

Harvard thesis says no to vertical stack in endzone!

In April, 2015, Harvard undergrad David Zhang presented a thesis on ultimate analytics to the Department of Applied Mathematics (archived PDF version). The thesis has some nice diagrams of basic concepts that may be useful to youth players and coaches.

Black circles are offense; black lines are defense. The white circle is the disc. The mark is trying to “force” the handler to throw a (right-handed) flick to the open side, thereby allowing the other defenders to be a few steps ahead of the offensive player they are guarding.

He also offers this elegant synopsis of the two basic forms of offense in ultiamate: the vertical and horizontal stacks —

The basic two formations for any offense are the vertical stack and the horizontal stack. Any other offense is a variation of one of these two formations or a hybrid of the two. The vertical offense employs two handlers in the backfield and five cutters spread vertically downfield, creating a perpendicular L shape. Usually, the vertical stack lines up centered with the disc so that there are two lanes to throw into: both the open side and break side (see figure above). The horizontal stack uses three handlers in the backfield with four cutters spread horizontally downfield of the handlers, creating a parallel set of two lines. The same principles in a vertical stack hold true in a horizontal stack. In either stack formation, the cutters have one of two options to cut: either “deep” (away from the handler) or “under” (toward the handler). The horizontal stack is the most popular form of offense right now at most levels of ultimate. However, most elite teams default into a vertical stack in the “red zone.” Generally, the exact type of offense is less important than the overall idea of maintaining space on offense and throwing to favorable matchups.

Zhang’s thesis also proposes two alternative offensive strategies for the “red zone” — the area within ~20 meters of the endzone where you’re trying to score. The conventional strategy is to form a vertical stack, but Zhang argues that fewer players in a limited space give the offense an advantage. So he suggests isolating two offensive players (and their defenders) either in the back corners of the endzone, or as dump opportunities for the initial handlers. Finally, he suggests thinking of the remaining 5 players as two triangular groups working to score in the increased open space within the endzone.

Both end zone offenses are motivated by two principles: maximizing space while maintaining the ability to change the point of attack (allowing the disc to swing laterally). These offenses are created by taking two of the seven offensive players out of play and allowing just five players to run the offense. (Fewer players gives an advantage to the offense. Imagine the opposite, extreme scenario where teams play 100 players on offense and 100 players on defense. The disc would never be able to advance downfield.)

In the first end zone set, the two players stand in the back of the end zone, where they are threats to score, albeit, minimally. In the second end zone set, the two players sit wide behind the handlers on “rails” acting as dumps. These two placements—the back of the end zone and the rail dumps—are not distinct to either end zone set; we could
have easily switched them around. The five other offensive players are the intriguing part of the end zone offense: Both sets rest on the principle of three players working the disc. The first end zone set sees two handlers and one cutter, and the second set sees one handler and two cutters. Depending on the strengths of the offensive team and the individual match ups on defense, teams should adapt one of these two end zone sets in order to maximize their chance of scoring.

Just before each game, my team of 40-70 year olds (Che‘s motto is “Old, but slow.”) traditionally runs an “endzone drill” in which we form a central vertical stack spanning the endzone and practice cutting from the back of the stack to the front corners of the endzone (with handlers cycling through the rest of the “red zone.” These new ideas from Zhang suggest we may need to create some new drills — with some folks practicing staying out of the way while others learn to throw and cut in equilateral triangles!

United Ultimate League: professional mixed play could accelerate U.S. youth development & gender equity

In early 2018, a new professional ultimate league was proposed that would advance gender equity in the sport with great symbolism for youth players. If you’re a coach, parent, or player that would like to explore how professional mixed ultimate could inspire and accelerate youth development, then you should back the United Ultimate League (UUL) Kickstarter — a community fundraiser that is now in its final stages (end of February, 2018).

If you can’t contribute financially (and even if the Kickstarter fails) it’s worth understanding the suite of proposed ideas — many of which have implications for the development of youth ultimate in the United States. This blog post is my attempt to pull together salient details about the proposed league. I hope it will promote discussion of gender equity and professional ultimate, particularly in Seattle where the UUL campaign and ideas seem to have received little attention, possibly because the league proposal has been led by Todd Curran, the CEO of the Savage ultimate apparel company which is based on the East coast.

Youth benefits

From my perspective as a youth coach (elementary and middle school) and a father of both a female and male player, the idea of regular, local, high-level mixed ultimate games in major U.S. cities is most attractive for one key reason: the youngest kids learn to play co-ed (in elementary school) and it would be more meaningful if there were both women and men on the field when these youth first watch a professional game. We liked and supported the MLU Rainmakers and we love and support the AUDL Cascades — especially their impressive ramp up of youth-fostering activities over the last couple years. Live-streamed mixed games from USAU club championships are great, too.

But only a mixed professional team could inspire all of our youngest players equally, and rid us of the dissonance we feel when they earnestly ask upon first viewing the professional field “Wait, where are the girls?”

The UUL Kickstarter site makes two good points about additional benefits the new league could offer to youth ultimate:

Why 6v6 and not 8v8?
We chose the 6v6 style and slightly smaller Ultimate field to follow with our core values: gender equity and youth development. Having a smaller field means it’s harder to reach top speed. Also with fewer players on the field, it makes “looking off passes” less advantageous. On the youth side, the smaller field allows for two fields to fit on one soccer field. This increases playing opportunities and keeps costs low.

Equal-gender 6-versus-6 format

The UUL proposes 6-person teams (instead of the adult standard of 7) with equal number of players who identify as men or women. (How genderqueer players would/could play hasn’t been specified, as far as I’ve seen.)  The Kickstarter site points out that if this format became accepted and popular, youth teams could also convert to 6v6.

In Seattle the elementary league has transitioned to 5v5 over the past two springs, in part because the format generally means more touches per player and less complexity on the field (making it easier to learn to create and take space, and safer by decreasing the odds of a collision). Perhaps middle school leagues could start playing coed 6v6 which would not only match the UUL format, but also provide a transition to learning 7v7 in high school.

Or maybe we would optimize development by staying with 5v5 through middle school and transitioning to 6v6 in high school? As males catch up developmentally with girls in middle and high school, youth players might also benefit from the UUL’s concept of promoting gender equity by using the smaller field dimensions to lower the likelihood of players hitting their top speeds (thereby decreasing the risk of more-injurious collisions and de-emphasizing the speed differentials between genders).

Smaller field

In Seattle, where field access is an on-going and increasing problem, it would be strategic to shift the game to a smaller field (with dimensions that fit twice within a soccer or football footprint). This is part of the reason elementary teams shifted to 5v5. If both middle and high school leagues switched to 6v6, we could effectively double their supply of fields instantly.

The field size is 70×40 yards overall with 20 yard endzones, dimensions which have been tested successfully in flatball, another ultimate variant that has been sponsored by Savage Ultimate. Since the standard soccer field width is 70 yards, a soccer or football pitch could accommodate two of these new ultimate fields, with a generous 10-20 yards for a safe sideline between fields.

Other aspects of the UUL: good, bad, and not yet defined…

The positive implications for youth ultimate I’ve outlined above should be enough to inspire most ultimate community members to back the UUL Kickstarter. There are, however, lots of other interesting ideas that the proposed league has offered for our consideration. And there are some areas of ambiguity where the community has asked for and/or could provide innovative solutions.

Since the sources of information and discussion about the league are pretty spread out, below I’ve distilled the ones I found most helpful in answering questions I had after reading through the Kickstarter site.

Resources, interviews, discussions

Deep Look: United Ultimate League, U24 Worlds

 

More links to explore:

United Ultimate League Prepares for 2019 Launch | Introducing Ultimate’s First Professional Mixed League from ultimate

 

 

Review of softer discs for youth ultimate in 2017: Aria and the flexible-Jstar

Aria discs as they arrived as Kickstarter rewards.

Two notable new discs flew into my coaching bag in 2017: the Aria Ultimate (175 gram) disc as a reward from the Aria Kickstarter and a soft version of the Jstar (145 gram) disc being tested against the USAU disc standards.  Both offer some exciting advantages for youth ultimate players. After throwing them alongside our teams’ standard quiver here are my initial impressions.

The new soft Jstar is super-flexible! (So I’ll refer to it as a flexi-Jstar to be clear I’m not talking about the harder, stiffer earlier Jstars.)

Softer, more flexible plastic

Both are remarkably sticky and pliable in comparison to the discs that I’ve used in coaching for past 5 years (Discraft Ultrastars and Jstars). This means that they are easier to grip and much less painful when they hit you in the face. Both benefits are a big deal in elementary ultimate. On a cold day the stiffer, more slippery Ultrastars or earlier-model Jstars can be tough for 3rd or small fourth graders to grip and throw. And kids will REALLY appreciate the softer, more-rubbery material of the Aria or flexi-Jstar when they happen to D a fast throw with their lip or ear on a cold day (a common, tearful occurrence — even with fewer players on the field in the 5v5 games we’ve adopted in Seattle).

To give you a strong impression of how much softer these discs are than the current standard, I had my 14 year-old handler-son throw our whole quiver, one-by-one GENTLY at face level. I could not will myself to take a hit from an Ultrastar, but I toughened up for an Aria hit. It was still painful, but MUCH less than the hits I’ve taken from Ultrastars (mostly during middle school practice, and mostly involving a lot of blood or muffled cursing). The Jstars offered a better comparison.  There’s a very obvious difference in the pain levels that you’re likely to experience from a facial hit by the old, harder Jstars and the new, flexi-Jstar. I think you’d need to pay me somewhere between $1 and $5 to put my face in front of the old Jstar, but I’m willing to demonstrate a hit from the flexi-Jstar anytime for free!

The softer plastic seems to come with one possible cost for youth players, though. It seems to be a little harder to catch, possibly because it tends to bounce a bit as it hits your palm. So if you don’t close your fingers on it quickly, the more rubbery material may cause you to drop the pass. This cost to the receiver may be outweighed by the disc not hurting as much when catching a hard throw on a cold day. In any case, it will be interesting to test these new materials during play in the colder Seattle winters, as well as the hottest summer days on a turf field…

Impressive aerodynamics

You’d think that the softer material would also come with an aerodynamic cost. Yet both discs fly extremely well! Both the Aria technology innovators and the Discraft engineers seem to have found an youth ultimate optimum between aerodynamics, grip, and safety. The flexi-Jstar flies remarkably straight, whereas many adults and youth have noted that the old Jstars tend to fall off as they lose speed, causing curved, less-predictable flights — especially on windy days.  The Aria also flies great; both my son and I were able to throw the Aria and Ultrastar similar distances with similar accuracy.

Both of the softer discs feel novel in the hand. It’s both strange to be able to deform the disc with your standard grip strength and satisfying to feel the extra spin you can get with the stickier plastic.

Implications for youth ultimate

Overall, I think the Aria and flexi-Jstar will be great additions to the equipment from which youth coaches and players can choose. If they were both available now in the bulk quantities of discs typically needed by youth ultimate teams in Seattle,  I’d upgrade my Ultrastar/Jstar inventory immediately. The gain or no-net-difference in aerodynamic performance is already compelling, but the potential  of these new discs to improve throwing mechanics and reduce injuries for our youngest players make these discs a very exciting development.

As of September, 2017, Aria is offering a handful of fun prints for $12 per disc.  It’s unclear what their bulk pricing will look like (I’m inquiring), but the Aria FAQ says they do offer some sort of deal. A coup would be if Discraft produced the flexi-Jstar with an option for custom printing. My kids are getting tired of the red, white, blue/gray options in the old Jstars…

Aria approved for highest levels of play

Great shot of Aria disc in play during the 2017 U.S. Open in Burlington, WA.

The reviews of the Aria disc by USAU must have been consistent with our positive experience, because on Aug 29, 2017, USAU announced that the Aria disc is approved for Champion level play in USAU competitions. This means it is also approved by WFDF for approved for elite ultimate play worldwide.

Schteattle Schtick: build ultimate skills in a fun game with 75 youth & 25 discs

Ok, here’s how Seattle kids play Schtick.  We’re gonna call it Schteattle Schtick and it’s best played with 10-75 youth players (assisted by their coaches and/or parents) and lots of discs — at least 1 for every 3 players.  (If you have more players and discs than this, you should play Galaxy Wars instead.)  Either way, you’re in for a lot of fun and intense aerobic conditioning (even if there are minor inconsistencies with developing good fundamentals, e.g. you’re allowed to run with the disc)…

Schtick field schematic (from http://schtickdisc.org/official-rules/ )

Here are the basic rules of Schteattle Schtick — forged on the first-mucky then sun-hardened grass fields of the DiscNW summer camp fields.  The main difference from standard Schtick (described below) is that there is no stoppage of play upon scoring (in fact there really isn’t even any “keeping score” amid the mayhem), and there are no pulls — even at the start of the game.  The Seattle variant simply adds these stipulations:

  1. The game cannot start until all players and all their discs (half the total available which must be at least 10) are packed inside the scorebox they will be defending.  Everyone must be ready to rumble, and silent (ha, ha).  The coach (or some responsible person) yells “go,” or whistles, and everyone runs amok.
  2. The only way to win is to get all discs out of your territory (across the middle line (hint: always keep at least one in reserve to counter stockpiling).  You get a billion bonus points for getting all discs not only over the middle line, but also within the scorebox you are attacking (it’s never been done, BTW).
  3. Dimensions may vary based on team size and field space available.
  4. Follow the rest of the standard rules (see box & links below).

Local variants:

  • If you have even more kids, you can add scoreboxes, e.g. two boxes per side!
  • Played with a 2×2 box and a triangle half that size. Triangle worth 2 points. But we never really keep score of course!
  • If you have way too many kids, try Galaxy Wars…

What is (Schtandard) Schtick?

From http://schtickdisc.org —

  • It is played with 2 or more discs (AKA “Frisbees”) simultaneously.  Usually you play with about 1 disc per 2.5 players. (see official rules)
  • It is way more fun than most sports.
  • It can be played on grass, sand, or snow, and has many cool variations.
  • Players may run with the discs (unlike ultimate).
  • The playing field consists of a middle line which bisects the globe into the 2 teams’ territories. On the ground within each territory, about 20 meters from the midline, is a 2×2 meter scorebox.
  • 8-80 players are divided into 2 teams. Each team is assigned one territory to defend (like capture the flag).
  • Scoring occurs by getting a disc to rest on the ground within the scorebox in opposing territory.
  • Players with a disc who are tagged by an opposing player in opposing territory must relinquish their disc.
  • In practice, the play of Schtick is flexible enough to permit people of widely different disc skills & athletic skills to legitimately face off on the same field.
  • It is imbued with a spirit of the game that is rarely paralleled in a sporting world otherwise geared for jocks only. More important than athletic prowess is a flexible mind & willingness to try.
  • It is fun for every player almost every time. See what people are saying.

The Northwest Challenge: free inspiration from the best of college players

Tomorrow night (Friday 3/24/2017) the exhibition games for the Northwest Challenge will begin at 6:30 pm with the women of the University of Washington’s Element facing off against Syzygy from Carleton College.  The men’s game immediately afterwards (8:30 pm start) will showcase the UW Sundodgers vs BYU CHI. These free games in Seattle’s Memorial Stadium will be a great chance for local youth players to get inspired.  More information on the Northwest Challenge Facebook page

If you’re busy Friday night, there are also a bunch of games happening at the UW’s IMA fields in Seattle on Friday, and then up in Burlington at Skagit River Park on Saturday and Sunday.  All these games are free, so you should consider volunteering for a couple hours (they’re still looking for help over the weekend).  Here are schedules and game locations for the women and men (Tier 1 | Tier 2).

According to Ultiworld’s “Power Rankings” for college teams, UW Element is ranked 20th and will play rank 16 Carleton Syzygy.  For youth spectators in Seattle, here are the other women’s games that will be played tomorrow (Friday):

Fri 3/24 10:00 AM IMA 1 – # 2 Dartmouth (1) Washington (19)
Fri 3/24 12:00 PM IMA 1 – # 2 Dartmouth (1) Pittsburgh (9)
Fri 3/24 2:00 PM IMA 1 – # 2 Carleton College (12) Michigan (14)
Fri 3/24 4:00 PM IMA 1 – # 2 Pittsburgh (9) Michigan (14)

Similarly, the men’s exhibition game has Power Rankings of 16th for UW Sundodgers and 12th for BYU CHI.