Monday, March 17, 2014

Mike Caldwell's Cutting Tree and "Cutting" as a skill

Recently Mike Caldwell wrote a response in Skyd about his cutting tree  Having recently been thinking about how to get our boys to be better technical cutters I was super excited.  Mike has been a premier cutter for a long time and if he was going to break down something like the route tree, that was going to be huge.  Often cutting technique in ultimate gets described as running harder for longer, and that isn't going to work against better athletes (of which there are plenty as you get older, trust me).  Mike is a great athlete, but he has also been a premier cutter for a long time and is a tireless workhorse.  Surely he has some insight on different ways to get open.

Unfortunately his piece, while having many excellent points (including one on sente which does a good job of explaining who should cut when), doesn't really describe how to cut better in general but rather how to run a certain pattern well.  The pattern to run is along the diagonals and sides of a trapezoid.  If you go back and watch Sockeye in the mid-2000s it is no surprise that this is the pattern Mike gives you.  Their use of isolated thermals as a cutting style to make an aggressively under-cutting alternative to Furious' H-stack was revolutionary and created a pattern that many college teams hope (and fail) to emulate with their offenses.  Mike's coaching points of what to think about, how to get better at the pattern are good insight and practice for young cutters.

I think the place that I take issue, or was disappointed by the piece was in the use of the term "tree."  The route tree in football is a description of the different paths that a receiver can take within a football offense.  The premise is that it contains all of the options for the receiver and that since both the quarterback and the receiver know the same tree they can be on the same page more easily.  With that in mind Mike's "tree" kind of holds all of the cuts that Sockeye ran (at least from their cutters) in the early-mid 2000s.  But it is more of a flow pattern and less a "tree."  In part that is a dilemma of continuous sports like ultimate being put in contrast to segmented sports like football.  There isn't a clearing pattern in football, there is a stoppage of play.  Maybe flow patterns are ultimate's equivalent to cutting trees, describing broad paths for players to take?  In that case, Mike's piece is a description of the old Sockeye flow pattern and is invaluable to players trying to be excellent cutters in that system.

However I think that cutting and flow patterns are different things.  Flow patterns tell you where the next cut should be and where you should go when you are done cutting (or aren't cutting at all).  Sockeye's H stack called for hard under cuts through the middle (often at an angle) and clears down the sideline (that could easily be deep cuts).  Cutting feels different.  Cutting is a move that is designed to create separation between you and your defender and is somewhat independent of the placement of the disc and more about the placement of the space you are trying to access.  I digress lest I spend the next 2000 words talking about space.

One of the big advantages of the football route tree is it tells you how to get where you are going.  It involves a discrete cut/movement to get open.  Five yards hard out then a 120 degree turn towards the quarter back (hitch).  Ten yards you then a 90 degree turn across the middle of the field (dig).  That is the element that I (perhaps naively) was looking for in Mike's piece and found missing.  I think I was hoping for a description of methods that Mike used to get open in different situations (with a defender fronting him, with a defender playing even, from a lateral reset, etc.).  What Mike provided really has only one (maybe two) cutting movements: a sharp change in direction at the top and another at the bottom of the trapezoid.  But that leaves a lot of different ways to get from A to B unexplained.

That is one of the other values of the football route tree.  Even if a particular offense doesn't use all of the tree (the Packers love their slants but don't throw too many flats), the branches are there for everyone to learn and understand.  It establishes the language of cutting in football.  Every community has a vernacular for their cuts, but the football route tree is almost universally consistent (sure there are subtle changes between things like a go route and a fade, but there is broad agreement on post, hitch, dig, out, slant, etc.).  We currently lack a common language for how to talk about these cuts.  What is a scoo or a whoop cut?  Is it a double cut or a triple cut?

So I think what I am going to spend some time on is developing a cutting tree that is about creating separation between you and your defender.  I'll talk to various coaches about different ways that they cut in hopes of generating the fundamental movement patterns/breaks that make up all of the cuts.  While many offenses don't use most of those cuts, coming up with a common vernacular and skill set to teach young players will hopefully help coaches develop talent faster and help players figure out multiple ways to get open to the same space.  This will be quite a little project, but I think there is some really work to be done there.  With that being said, what is your favorite cut?

Extra Note:  I've spoken with Kyle about this and I think he and I are going to work to make sure we are using the same names for cutting to start the ball rolling towards a common vernacular.  

Monday, March 03, 2014

TUFF vs UCF Coin Toss: What To Do With The Wind

I was reading an article by Jimmy Leppert on Skyd a second ago and was struck by some of the responses in the comments about a decision Texas had to make after the toss.  Apparently, and I hope I am getting this correct since it is all second hand, UCF won the coin toss and decided to take the up-wind side on a very windy day.  I guess kudos to Andrew Roca for choosing the correct side, but that was an easy choice.  Then Texas, coached by Calvin Lin who has been through his share of games, decides to start on offense.  Jimmy, the post's author, states that he was surprised by this decision and then people in the comments state that they would do the same thing.

So let's go over the rationale for receiving the pull going upwind to start the game:
-You can put your best players on the field going upwind with fresh legs
-You have to score upwind at some point anyway
-You hope that their defense isn't playing well early in the game
-You have the most amount of time to recover from the break that you give up by not scoring

I think most, if not all, of those fail to hold up to much scrutiny.  Let's just give up on the last two, because I think those are the easiest to dismiss (although if I need to in more detail I'll be happy to do so in the comments).

Let's focus on the 2nd on because that is the one that was being supported in the comments.  It is the one that seems to have the best chance of winning against scrutiny.  Texas DOES have to score an upwind point to win the game since the lost the coin toss, but not all upwind points are the same.  By receiving the pull Texas is likely to start at the brick (as the best scenario) or in the back of the endzone on the sideline (as the worst scenario).  Somewhere in the endzone is most likely.  Now Texas has to work upwind a full 70+ yards to score against a defense that is set and focusing on D.  That is a tall order even though you might have the best pieces in place (point 1) to accomplish that task.  UCF gets to set whatever defense they want and knows their assignments prior to the pull.

If that is how you are going to score your upwind point, the odds are pretty low.  Instead lets looks at an alternative: you start on defense.  This is the choice that Texas had and didn't take.  Here are some of disadvantages:
-"Weaker" defensive players on the field
-You have to get a break from the opponent
-They can always punt to force you to go 70 yards
-Pulling upwind you are likely giving the offense a shorter field to score

These seem like good reasons to go with the offense, but are they really?  The advantages of pulling are pretty decent too.  You get to control the tone of the point by setting the defense and as a result you can hope for an unforced error or block such that you get a short field.  That seems like the most compelling argument for pulling first.

If you pull you can try to get them stuck on a sideline and force either lateral throws to get off of the sideline or a straight punt.  At worst, if they punt, you have to work no more than 70 yards against a transition defense that may not have their assignments figured out yet (or might have a particular match up you can exploit).  At best you can block the punt or force backward passes to reduce your field even more.

So if you start with the pull you can at worst be in a situation better than if you started on offense, and at best have a situation that is better than all likely ones when you start on offense (I suppose there is a chance that your opponent will shank the pull and give you a short field, but those are super low odds).

If we go back through the list of advantages of receiving and think about them again I think the decision becomes clear:
-You can put your best players on the field with fresh legs: You can do that while starting on defense, and you can find a way to manufacture that later in the game if need be.
-You have to score upwind anyway: True, but not all upwind scoring opportunities are the same and the possible outcomes for an upwind score are better when you are starting on defense.
-You hope that their defense isn't playing well early in the game:  O.k. but if that isn't the case then their transition defense isn't likely to be playing well either.  Giving a slow starting defensive line the chance to play the defense of their choice with the opponent going upwind is a pretty friendly start to a game.
-You have the most amount of time to recover from the break that you give up by not scoring: True, but it would also be nice to not need that time.

I have ignored the mental aspects of starting down a break (likely 0-2 by the time the game gets back on track) mostly because those are so specific to a team's make up.  In general it would seem like you would never want your team to be in a position of weakness, but I have played against plenty of teams that seem to find strength in those positions.  The subject gets murky very quickly, so best to just leave that alone.

I guess my outcome is that it is almost always better to start on defense if you are forced to choose going upwind.  Maybe I should ask Kyle, I'm sure he's solved this already.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Young Players and Stats

This post is kind of a train wreck, stream of consciousness, piece of nonsense.  I'll try to make more sense of it after another tournament.

Last weekend Paideia finished 4-2 at Deep Freeze, losing in the semis to Carolina Friends School.  The two losses were both to the finalists (Holy Family Catholic was the other one) and to teams that will be attending Paideia cup.  Probably the biggest struggle for us was how much we had to play young players.  They were mostly sophomores (we have 9 on the team) and they had to take tough assignments and handle most of the weekend.  They all rose to the challenge, but it was difficult for them.  In particular having to at times get upperclassmen to do the "right" thing was hard.  How do you tell a senior that they need to get you the disc on the swing when you can't drive yet?  I think Tiina would solve this through clearly laying out player expectations, but I don't think Paideia is there yet.

One thing that I focused on this past weekend was figuring out what stats I wanted to track.  I broke my stats down into two different categories: in-game and post-game.  The thought was that some stats I needed to be aware of in the middle of a game in order to manage it properly while some stats I didn't really need until the end of a game for trends.  The rest of this post is going to be about stats, so I don't want to get too far into the weeds here where there are more enticing weeds up ahead.

The statistic that I found had the most post-game utility was Unforced Errors.  I decided to ditch turnovers this season for UE since those are the easiest for us to control.  An Unforced Error was counted every time we had a drop or threw the disc away.  Basically a turn over without the defense touching the disc.  Tracking raw UE was pretty interesting and showed a team that uses all of its players and hasn't had much on-field practice time.

But what I am more interested in is thinking about how to track UE in a useful fashion and how to use it as a metric for the over all "quality" of our team.  Presumably lowering UE would be good for a team, but it doesn't even necessarily mean that the total number of turnovers went down.  One could lower their UE score while still  having the same turnovers by simply having the defense get more Ds.  That would feel doubly inaccurate because not only would we not be "playing better" as the metric might suggest, but we are actually playing worse because we are throwing more contested throws.  So a teams decision making ability affects UE, but I don't know how much that really matters.

What I really wanted to do is find a way to get meaning out of UE across disparate games.  This past weekend we beat Birmingham Forge 11-9 and Catholic High School B 13-0.  How do we compare numbers against such a range of opponents?  Perhaps the easiest way is to track UE per point, so the fact that there were 19 points in the Forge game and 13 points against CHS-B will be divided out.  But that doesn't account for the gap in opponent skill.  Without useful rankings in youth ultimate we can't use "strength" as a balancer because we don't know an opponent's strength.

So I started thinking of different ways to approach getting more meaning out of UE.  I came up with some things that I'm confident Sean Childers will be appalled with.  But I'm not a statistician, I'm a coach, and I would like to think that Bill Barnwell would at least be happy that a coach is trying to find more meaning in a number.

I'm stuck between two things to do to UE to give it more meaning.  They both related to score, as the best proxy for "strength" I can find in youth ultimate.  The first would be to take the delta of the score by the end of the game and use that to modify the number of unforced errors.  I think this would take the form of a divisor so that if you are winning by a large margin the value of an unforced error goes down.  But what about when you are losing?

Which brought me to my next idea.  The value of an unforced error (or a D?) is at least dependent on the current ratio of scores (with opposing score in the numerator).  As an example, if we dropped the disc when the score is tied at 6s that UE would have a value of 1.  If the score was 6-3 (so we are winning) it would have a value of 1/2.  If the score was 3-6 then it would have a value of 2.  I'm not convinced that this number is going to more accurately reflect the value of a turnover, and I know that there are some situations that would break this metric (a punt, for example).  But I'm thinking it might do a better job than just raw unforced errors, and there might be a number that we can use from year to year as a metric of "quality."

NOTE: as a side, this metric would highly value unforced errors when you are losing, which might feel counter to common sense.  It also would skew the data early in the game when the ratios could be further away from 1 with similar point differentials.  I guess the big questions (that we all think we know the answer to) is whether or not an unforced error is more devastating when down 3-2 or when down 13-12.