Saturday, February 10, 2018

Defining Space and How We Access It

As I get older I feel like my thoughts then to be broader.  While my youth was spent dissecting the minutia of how to play better handler defense by slightly changing the position of my body, now I spend more time thinking about broader strategy elements like how to structure and effective poach.  I think part of this comes (at least for me) with a reduction in ability.  Who am I to say how to best position your body to stop an up-line cut?  I'm old and have creaky joints so I can barely stop anyone (and more importantly have to fall back on tricks that younger players might not have to).  I guess this doesn't have to do with the specific topic at hand, and there is probably more to get into in this topic.  But the point is that I've spent a good bit of time thinking about space in ultimate and I wonder if I can codify some terms and ideas regarding the offensive use of space in this game.

First, let's talk about roles in defining space.  For the most part we are going to be talking about active space as an area that cutters use in an attempt to get the disc.  There are lots of ways to access active space (which are covered in the cutting tree that I never finish), but all of them require a particular active space.  There are other types of space, but we aren't going to be too concerned about those in this discussion.

Offensive structures are the first attempt to define space (active space being their primary focus).  A vertical stack splits the field in two vertical active spaces, with one (the open side) being the most active and the other being used.  It then finds success by switching which active space is being used as quickly as possible.  More on that later.  Horizontal stacks split the field into a near and a far space, both of which are accessible from the start.  However, as this offense (or any spread offense) continues the spaces shift and it becomes a larger, central active space (closer to the original position of a split stack).  Side stacks choose one lane and maximize it as much as possible.  The point is that offenses try to define active space with their structure.

Defenses understandingly try to limit defensive space with their positioning, marking and poaching schemes.  Let's use a vertical stack as a structure to talk about.  In a vertical stack the offense is try attempting to create two vertical lanes ~17 yards wide and space at the back.  The mark attempts to stop one of those lanes by "forcing" a direction, and the defenders likely play a yard or two off their person, narrowing the lane to maybe ~12 yards.  Maybe they bracket the last person to reduce the size of the deep active space.  In the case of a side stack, maybe they throw a person into the active lane to poach, reducing the active space.  Not to mention that once a cutter is in motion the defending player then attempts to reduce the space for you to throw the disc based on their proximity and speed relative to the offender.  The point is that defenses attempt to reduce space through schemes and athleticism.

Now let's get to the real point of the article: how do teams try to access space.  It is different for every offensive structure, and beyond that it is different for every team.  There are may ways to be successful at accessing space (some might call this "getting open" but since the theme is space I'm going to call it "accessing space).  Likewise there are many ways to fail at it.  But I think in general we can break down all of these methods into three main categories.  You can access space through cutting prowess, through throwing prowess through shifting the location of the disc and by shifting the landscape of the field through player movement.  The last is the one I am most interested in, but we need to explain the others as a reference.

First, cutting prowess.  This is how many offenses, and especially most side stacks, operate to use space.  Put a great cutter out there, let them juke and confuse their defender and eventually explode open.  It helps if you can offer two readily available active spaces (or partition your space into two sections like under/deep) so the cutter can threaten one thing and take the other.  But in the end, it is about the ability of your cutter to get open.

Second, throwing prowess.  This was on display (I think, I should watch it again) during the 2017 USAU Mixed National Finals where Amp was consistently using short breaks to the front of the stack to open up the offense.  The idea is that a person with the disc is also critical in defining the active space.  Your horizontal offense might attempt to open up initial deep strikes, but if your center handler can't throw it deep then you haven't successfully opened that space.  This happens near the end zone, where many offenses (looking at you CFS) will just throw a pass to open space and have the cutter run on.  This also happens when Brodie is trapped on the flick side of a vertical stack and just throws a hammer to the break (and undefended) lane.  We are pretty comfortable with the idea that certain throwers change the spatial environment on the field through breaks, hucks and just gutsy throws.

Third, shifting the location of the disc.  Let's call this what it is, swinging the disc.  The idea is that vertical space gets more congested the longer a disc is in a third of the field, which inherently means that other space is opening up.  If we aren't all throwing Brodie's hammer to the breakside, then moving the disc laterally is another way to access what was previously blocked space.  That isn't the only way this can happen.  In a stiff headwind your horizontal stack might not attack the deep space as effectively as in a neutral wind.  But running your resets upfield (almost like and up-line cut) allows your handlers to shorten the distance for the huck and then opening up that space.  We talk about moving the disc to change landscape often.  "High side" is probably the thing that I yell most from the sideline (thanks Nancy Sun and Alex Snyder).

The fourth one is the one that I don't think we spend enough time thinking about.  We think about cutter movement as accessing space and clearing space, but often those are still the active spaces in the general structure of the offense.  There are instances that are maybe not thought enough about, where the offense opens up new space because of native player movement.  Many of these instances are involved in plays.  A sweep in a horizontal stack is designed to vacate space on one half of the field while a player from the other half enters that space.  A split (or "red sea" as we called it in high school) in a vertical stack takes the front/back two cutters out to either side so the third person cuts in/deep.  The very premise of the split stack I run is based on how this concept works on a mixed team.

The concept, to be more concrete, is that defenses understand the spaces you are trying to open up through your structure.  They position to limit your cutting ability.  They mark to reduce your ability to throw to spaces they don't want the disc.  All of those things can happen to limit your space, and we are good at them.  But all of those things require an understanding of the active space.  But by moving cutters you can open up space that wasn't there before, and therefore the defense might not have been ready to defend.  As a result cutters, who might understand this shifting space, can easily get open there in a new way.

Let's take a specific example that isn't from a set play.  The game of adjustment and counter-adjustment in the side stack is fun to play since it has been a dominant offense for the past 5-8 years.  One thing that started to happen is that when the lane is crowded the disc will swing and the stack will sweep to the other side.  This takes the space that was previously occupied by the stack and turns it into the active space.  Let's now think about the person defending the back to the stack.  That person is clearly defending deep because there is a lot of clutter in front of them and defenders that could help if their person cuts under.  But why would they?  That space isn't even open because all of the offenders are there.  But when they move that space opens up and that offender in the back of the stack is open by player movement rather than cutting or throwing (ok, technically there was also disc movement and the counter to this is easy because you just keep your poach towards the top of the side stack in place to cap the cutter and then you are done . . . but there are more examples where it is all player movement but this one happens natively rather than in a play).  This method (similar to disc  movement or throwing prowess) allows a person to get open without being a great cutter, but also is hard to defend.  That is especially the case when this happens in the middle of offensive flow rather than a set play.

So what does long diatribe mean aside from I need to go back, edit it and add pictures to further this idea?  It is worthwhile to think about how your team accesses space and whether or not it makes sense for your personnel and team ethics.  It is worth knowing that some modes of accessing space require different skill sets.  It is important know ways to use all four methods for accessing space in different situations for different offensive structures.  Not all four are easy at all times, and some structures really limit different modes of getting open.  I'm growing increasingly partial to the fourth because it works regardless of your cutters and throwers ability.  The flip is that it requires people to be really aware of the field.  But everything has its drawbacks.

I'll try to clean this up at some point, but I had it on my mind and wanted to get it out before I forgot.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Further review on PT totals between Revolver, Ring of Fire and USX

Jacob's comment in the last post started this, and after spending some time trying to figure it out I decided that I can't add pictures to a blogger comment.  So I started a new post.

The gist of the conversation was that I would have liked a more even PT distribution between players during the finals (although I understand why it wasn't flat and commend Tallis Boyd on doing a great job with a difficult task).  Jacob asked if that was all that uncommon, so I look at particular games that he suggested.  Here are the graphs, where the y-axis is the number of points played.  For reference, the Revolver-Ring game was a slow bleed where Revolver won 13-10.  The USX final was a closer affair until the very end, when we won 13-11.  Graphs (Revolver, Ring, USX, respectively).

From the looks of it, Jacob is right that the USX point distribution isn't that different from the others. A better question would be if it was different from our semi-final against Canada.  One thing that might be worth paying more attention to is where the ramp starts.  For USX our minimum point were 3 out of 24 (1/8 of the points).  For Revolver the minimum was 3 out of 23 (stupid prime numbers), while the Ring one was 1 out of 23 (ignoring the 0's which might have been injured players).  It would seem that the starting position of the ramp would likely determine how steep it could be.

One other thing that is really worth pointing out, is that a more flat distribution isn't "better."  In this case it was something that we might aspire to, but that doesn't mean we are playing a better form of ultimate or have a higher chance of winning.