Thursday, February 20, 2014

Zone Offense - What do I do?!

It seems most of my entries are based on whatever the weather is doing in Colorado. The last two days it's been 35 mph winds up here in Fort Collins, so this post is going to be about zone offense.

I actually think zone offense is one of the harder things to teach young players. There isn't some defined set of rules to follow. Most of the best zone offense players I know have gotten that way simply from experience. However, there are several core principles that I teach that tend to give people a good understanding of the intricacies of the offense.

Before we get into those principles I think it's important to briefly touch on the most important part of any kind of zone play: winning the transition game. The most important part of a zone-oriented game is the ability to win the transition battle. This can mean defense to offense, zone to man or any combination therein. I've seen so many teams (especially ones I've coached, *sigh*) destroy a zone defense, only to turn the disc on the first or second throw after the transition to man.  I've also seen many games where one good fast-break transition on a turnover completely breaks a game wide-open because it ends the upwind stalemate that can take place in heavy wind conditions.

How you transition well is something that's more mental that physical. You have to recognize the differences in play from zone offense to man offense and zone defense to man defense, and be able flip the inner switch accordingly. Drilling transition heavily is very beneficial in allowing your team to win the transition battle, and come out on top of the games that take place in crappy conditions.

Anyway, let me get back to zone offense specifically. Teams tend to break zones in a couple of ways:

The first is having one absolutely dominant thrower. Florida of years past comes to mind, when their zone strategy was to keep the disc in the hands of guys like Tim Gehret, Cole Sullivan or Brodie Smith and allow them to find the holes in the zone with their ridiculous arsenal of throws. Their resets tended to be very short 2-3 yard passes that they used to get the disc into their main thrower's hands.

The second way teams break zones is with good overall team movement and flow. This isn't to say these two things are mutually exclusive. You still need strong throwers for movement and flow, and oftentimes that dominant thrower's zone breaker needs to be followed up by his teammates' continuation. But the second concept here is definitely more general and team oriented, so that's where I'll focus for the specific zone principles I'm eventually going to discuss (I promise!). Ok, ok, here we go.

Core Concept One - Touching the disc is not important in zone offense.

This is probably the biggest mistake young players make when first playing zone offense. They think that if they don't touch the disc they haven't contributed to the point. This idea is completely untrue (for man offense as well). Spacing is incredibly important for zone offense. Young players all want to be directly involved in the play, so they tend to crowd towards the disc when they lose the 'structure' of their normal man-based offense. When they crowd the disc they allow the defense to collapse more and more onto the thrower, which tends to cause turnovers.

Spacing is the key word here. Oftentimes poppers need to make themselves a threat, not by being near the disc, but by being elsewhere on the field. This, in turn, draws defenders out and opens both throwing and popping lanes for teammates.

Since every zone tends to be a bit different I usually talk about zones in terms of levels. Level one is where the teams cup, whatever it may be, is. Level two is the wall, or wings or whatever your team calls it. Level three is the deep cover.

The basic spacing idea I try and get my players to understand is, the farther you can stretch one level from the next (both horizontally and vertically), the more likely you are to open up easy throws for your team. This could mean forcing their deep farther down the field to open up a shorter hammer behind their second level, or placing yourself in a a threatening shallow position to pull their short-deep away from the flow of the disc for a big swing or whatever. The basic idea is make their defense cover the entire field. If they don't, you're going to be open; if they do, you've made your teammates' jobs easier by drawing defenders away from the disc.

Core Concept Two - Swing for the fences.

Now this concept may be titled a bit deceptively. The goal of many zones is to bait big, over-the-top throws. I'm not saying every team should try and jack up big hammers or blades. What I'm saying, is that IF you're going to put up a lower-percentage throw, it should be a zone-breaker, something the defense won't be able to recover from. A hammer 40 yards across the field that gains 0 yards downfield, with continuation easily contained is not worth the higher risk of the throw itself. If you're going to take a chance on a throw like that, make it worth the risk-reward, in that, if completed, it will force the other team to transition to man or gain significant field position (even if it's incomplete). It's similar to the idea of the long two in basketball being a terrible shot to take. It's horribly inefficient because it has around the completion percentage of a three, but for less points.

Low-percentage also has to be qualified here. In different conditions and for different throwers different things are low percentage. In 35 mph wind, any throw is low percentage. In pristine conditions, with a stronger thrower, over-the-top throws like hammers or blades can be as high-percentage as a backhand or forehand.

Core Concept Three -  Attack the disc

This is a pretty simple idea that most players learn early on. Attack the disc, run through the disc etc. However, in zone, offensive players often end up a stationary position where they only appear open. This is where the majority of Ds happen in a zone: the defender comes flying in and gets a block on a non-moving receiver. This is why attacking the disc is so important. You have to be aware of the players around you and aggressively go get the disc, even if you were initially stationary.

Core Concept Four - Keep the disc moving

This is a fairly simple concept that most teams understand. Unless you've got that one player with the ridiculous zone-breaking throws and your offense is just trying to feed him or her the disc, then you want to keep the disc moving.

Defensive players in a zone will be farther out of position the more the disc moves around. If the disc stops for any significant amount of time, every single defensive player gets to assess where the disc and offensive players are, and position themselves accordingly, essentially allowing their defense to settle into it's ideal setup for the scheme.

If the disc doesn't stay at any one player long enough then the defense will always be on its heels trying to catch up to the offense and will never reach the 'ideal setup.'

Core Concept Five - Avoid throwing through a set cup

This concept directly relates back to core concept four. If a cup has settled onto you as a thrower, then you have allowed them to reach their "ideal" setup for their defense, more specifically for whatever they are doing close to the disc. Sure, throwing through that set cup is possible, but you're essentially taking their best defensive setup and saying you'll beat it. Five throws through a stationary cup aren't worth more than the one that gets blocked.

If you're going to try and break through a cup, do it before they've settled. Two or three or four players in a cup simply can't run 100% as a unit, so as they're moving the holes will be bigger, that's when you want to go for the kill. Swing the disc around, get them on their heels, tire them out a bit, THEN strike it through.

Let me clarify also that through a cup and over a cup are different things. If you're going to break a cup with an over-the-top throw it really doesn't matter if they've settled or not. The focal point here is threading the needle between their cup members.

Obviously, there's more to zone offense than these five things, but these principles are a great starting point for players to begin to understand what goes into playing zone offense.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ultimate in Colorado - Travel Times and Unpredictable Weather

As per usual, let me apologize for my writing hiatus. Since my last entry I've purchased a new home, captained a burgeoning club mens team, joined the FC Ultimate board of directors, and worked through the fall season of my 6th year as the coach of the Colorado State Men's Ultimate team. I've had several ideas as to what I wanted this first post of 2014 to be about (hopefully this translates to more entries soon!), but as a huge winter storm hit Colorado last night I think mother nature has decided for me.

I  first thought about the subject matter for this entry when I saw this map linked from the USA Ultimate Facebook page:

Membership Statistics

It's an interesting picture of the density of competitive ultimate players. Obviously, the high population west and east coast hubs make up a huge concentration of players but what jumped out to me most notably was the "island" that is the 1500+ members that live in Colorado.

While it's a blessing to live and play in a state with a large concentration of players, it still presents a unique competitive challenge for college teams in the area: travel distance.

My freshmen year of college (2003) this was just our spring tournament schedule(the team has always driven to every tournament we attend):

Masochist - Colorado Springs, CO - 2 hours (one way, Sunday ended up being cancelled because of 6 inches of snow Saturday night)
Mardi Gras - Baton Rouge, LA - 19 hours (one way)
Southerns/High Tide - Statesboro/Tybee Island, GA   - 29 hours (one way)
Fools Fest - Lawrence, KA - 8.5 hours (one way)
Sectionals - Golden, CO - 1.25 hours (one way)
Regionals - Santa Barbara, CA - 19 hours (one way)

The moral of the story: to be a competitive college team in Colorado you must travel, and you must travel far. When the college restructuring moved Colorado State from the Southwest region to the Southcentral, travel times went down for us slightly. Instead of 18 hours to San Diego or Santa Barbara we'd go 14 hours to St. Louis or 15 hours to Austin. Now our tournament totals have tapered off since my first year, we travel less than in the past and set up more local scrimmages, but the raw travel numbers from that first year are still pretty daunting.

Now I know there are other college teams that deal with similar situations or worse (sorry Montana teams), but the simple fact is, to play the sport we love competitively, it's a very large time travel commitment on top of all the other (physical) commitments there are.

So what does mother nature have to do with any of this? Well, not only does Colorado State get to drive hundreds of hours every season we also deal with wonderful Colorado weather. Our IM fields on campus close from November 1st until the end of the end of March. We are very lucky to have an awesome sports club staff who negotiates with our athletics department for time on the outdoor and indoor turf fields that our football program use for this down-time, but our late fall and early spring practices are oftentimes completely limited to track workouts.

All these factors came together in a brutal reminder when the team traveled to the Santa Barbara Invite this past weekend. After the debacle of weather delays and cancellations from our spring tournament schedule in the mid west last season, the team leadership decided we'd forgo regular season games versus regional competition, swallow the longer travel times and travel to tournaments with somewhat guaranteed good weather.

So, this past weekend (January 25th and 26th, the first weekend after our semester started) we rolled into Santa Barbara with a small squad of 17/29 of the players on our roster (travelling during the first week of school proved difficult for a number of our players). I had hoped some veteran experience would mitigate some of the rustiness since we hadn't played "real" Ultimate since MLC back in November, but with our 5th year captain tearing his MCL skiing over break, and losing one of our other main handlers to a bad ankle sprain, the team was woefully thin at the handler position.

This video of our game against Arizona Sunburn (awesome editing by the way Sunburn, thank you!) sums our problems pretty effectively, sloppy play from the handler spots and inexperience on rotations and swings:

Colorado State vs Arizona SBI 2014

In addition, many of the California teams are from schools on the quarter system, so they'd had several weeks of practice leading up to the tournament whereas we had only one practice in 2 inches of snow the Wednesday before the tournament. (The point of this is not to provide a myriad of excuses for our poor performance. When we scheduled the tournament at the beginning of the fall, we knew the difficult situation we'd be putting ourselves in.)

We got steamrolled, simple and true. We finished 17th out of 18 teams with both our wins coming against a spirited, but very small UC Irvine squad. As we did our team wrap-up after our last game Sunday I strove to drive this key point home point home: a lot of sloppiness and team mistakes we made over the weekend were correctable (drops, throwaways etc), and that the experience our young players got from playing against solid west coast teams would be hugely beneficial for the rest of the season.

We got back to town just ahead of a big storm front Monday and Wednesday night's practice  was cancelled due to 2+ inches of snow still caked on the field. Thursday, a new storm rolled in and we moved our practice time two hours earlier to try and beat it.

This is where this whole rambling piece comes to fruition; as the snow began to fall harder and harder during our Thursday practice, the intensity level picked up. Partly due to the soft landing surface the snow provided and partly due to just being fired up from getting our butts kicked at the tournament five days prior, the amount of bids and defensive intensity went through the roof. As it got colder and the snow got deeper the team just kept working harder (the more you run, the warmer you stay). We wrapped practice up with a series of sprints and as I watched the team running through the falling snow I could help but marvel at how incredible the whole scene was: 20+ young men, soaked from the snow, running their hearts out through what would turn into a full-blown blizzard in an hours time.

As much of a bummer as it was not to do better at the Invite, that practice, with that energy, and the way the scene played-out as the snow fell was a perfect reminder as to what makes Ultimate such a wondrous sport. Practices like that make all the 19 hour van rides 100% worth it. I can't imagine a better place to call my Ultimate home than Colorado and everything that comes with it.