While the college season is picking up steam, a lot of club players are just getting in gear for the coming tryouts and season.
Ballometrics has been maintaining a fitness list for the past few months (tryouts start soon, if you’re interested in playing competitive mixed out of Boston, drop a line); people are starting to do track workouts now that the land is thawing.
I sent the following to the list about doing pre-season track workouts, which segued into a lot of thoughts on running form. As we still have the luxury of training without the constant performance demand of weekend tournaments and practices, it’s a great time to focus on technique and go into the season not only with a good base of strength and conditioning, but efficient form, as well.
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An anonymous commenter calls me out on a lack of drillable/practice-able recommendations. Thanks for catching me, anon–I value actionable info a lot and have been remiss.
To preface: zone, being inherently team-based, is hard to drill and train. It’s not like man D or throwing skills where all you need is a few more people, and I’d even go so far as to say that practicing zone O and D is only useful inasmuch as you’re practicing with the same group you’ll play with–familiarity is a foundation to dependable D and O.
That said, skills like reading a disc and boxing out, marking, and being heads-up as a defender are things you can practice with limited personnel/outside of the context of pure “zone” training, and these are useful for zone situations too.
In terms of drills…there’s something of a “standard” zone drill of running 3 guys in the cup around a circle, forcing the throwers in the circle to repeatedly break through or around the cup in a big convoluted game of monkey in the middle. While this is perhaps useful for the bare basics of how to not get hosed, I think it serves best as a stepping stone to higher-level/more realistic drills–in other words, game situations.
Things like set start and finish points for a scrimmage are perhaps one of the best options for game situation practice. E.g.: start with an offensive line vs. a defensive line in a trap, stop as soon as the trap is broken (or allow a few extra passes for more realism); start with the disc just past the cup, as if on a break through/over it; stop when the defense recovers or is scored on. Reset if the D generates a turnover.
You can impose unique restrictions on this to emphasize certain facets for O or D: for example, you can add/subtract a receiver or defender to work on finding receivers in open space/covering multiple receivers in the backfield or flooding areas to overwhelm a single defender, respectively. I’ve also seen variations where the deeps are removed from the equation, on both O and D, to emphasize side-to-side and short motion to beat the zone.
One thing I haven’t seen, but would love to, is changing the field size–narrowing the field to favor the defense more, or widening it to favor the offense. Creativity is encouraged through restriction, and I’d like to see what kinds of adjustments are made in such situations.
With all of these other adjustments though, the essential thing is to keep getting reps. If you want to, you can scrimmage with limitations, but you’ll keep focus and get more bang for your buck if you emphasize one situation at a time. It’s great that Dorner can bomb a forehand to Sam streaking deep off the turn, but probably a waste of time when you want to quickly reset for the O to try again.
If you want your team to execute on a given strategy repeatedly, give them lots of reps to help recognize situations in which to apply it and experience so they can adjust to what works and what doesn’t. This takes a bit more critical thought on the part of a practice planner, which is why I don’t have too much in the way of specific recommendations.
You might look to ultitalk for some discussion, and I’d also point you to the huddle for some more espousal on the matter of teaching team D (you might also peruse what they have on zone D to inspire your thinking as far as what to focus on).
Any commenters out there have more to add with regards to teaching and drilling zone?
Jim Parinella adds his thoughts. The standard DoG endzone O is also, coincidentally, the standard endzone O for most all of the teams in New England.
Anyway, reading his post for whatever reason made me think of the importance of working on this endzone offense via drilling. You’ve perhaps done 5-pull–Offense gets 5 pulls (or maybe starts at a set position on the field–particularly for a D line), if they turn defense gets a shot to score, if they turn the ground wins the point. Repeat for a total of 5 (or insert arbitrary number here) times, then do the same while having the defensive line start with possession.
At any rate, you should extend this same mindset–getting reps in with a specific focus for the offense (in the case of 5-pull, the focus is on valuing possession), to the endzone as well. In the same way that you would do marker drill or a dump drill to work on marking, I think it would behoove teams looking to improve their endzone O to do offensive possessions starting at the endzone. If you want to excel at something, you should have no problem with doing it to the point of redundancy (efficiency for use of practice time concerns aside).
Progression would include doing this sort of work after conditioning to simulate end-of-hell-point conditions, starting with a lone receiver (and a trailing defender) as if off of a deep reception to work on endzone O in flow, running the same situations with the depth chart shifted–take out stud playmaker A and see if you can fill the gaps, or better yet, put him on defense…I’m sure there are other intelligent permutations to be had out there too.
Hint #1. Guess what lift the mark shares body positioning with? You got it, the squat.(Hint 1a. You lift on your heels. What do you mark on?)
Hint #2. The squat is a stationary lift. Is marking stationary? Which direction are you moving primarily when you mark? Hey, horizontal (in the frontal plane)!
Hint #3. Core strength enables what is a “reach” for some to be easy for others. Athletes are Athletes for a reason.
Hint #4. How do you teach players to use their legs instead of relying on their reach on the mark? Courtesy of one Peter “Socks” Bonanno, ’08, #88, I’d like to date, he’s really great…we call it the black knight drill. (Yes, I know–Miranda Roth in The Huddle beat me to it already. But I’ve had this written out for a while, and redundancy only reinforces the utility of the thing).
Really simple. Take your regular marker drill…and start channeling Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (“Just a flesh wound.“). Mark as normal, but put your hands behind your back.
You’re not exactly going to stop a lot of throws here. Try and resist the urge to footblock (too much), and focus instead on moving your body such that you force the thrower to move (fake, pivot, or otherwise) once or twice. Your thrower should start off with fairly basic pivoting and faking just to allow the marker to get used to the notion of moving to follow before making a serious attempt to throw past. Keep the drill relatively honest, no over-the-tops and try to avoid the temptation to take the shot through the big hole left by no arms (make the mark work laterally rather than frustrating her with a quick break past the body at stall one).
Of course, you can scale this any number of ways. Early last year we would start a marker drill with some 5 seconds of Black Knight (with no throw) before allowing the mark to use his hands and the thrower to make his pass, which seems like a nice compromise between learning and practice (the dichotomy coming from the eternal dilemma in which things that might help the team learn more quickly [i.e., dedicated, focused, deliberate drilling, with no consequences] are not as appealing to players as jumping in headfirst and “practicing” or scrimmaging, which is essentially just performance with lower stakes than a real game or tourney).
I think it might have been one of Zip’s Tips (though I can’t find it now) to always push beyond your comfort zone in marker drill; if you’re not getting point blocked or turfing every so often, you’re not expanding your repertoire enough. This applies just as much if not more so for the guy on the mark as the guy with the disc. Figure out your thrower. Experiment with baiting. Choose what throw you’re going to make your quarry take, and deny everything else with extra gusto. Learn.
So, focus. I’ve harped on visualization a bit here…you might be aware that focus, properly applied, can increase ability even without physically practicing. But did you know that focus can be trained, too? (There’s a whole school of Buddhism devoted entirely to the pursuit of better focus, in fact. Perhaps you’ve heard of zen?)
A former captain of mine was once mocked for telling the team to “focus on focus.” While it sounds silly at a glance, there is something to be said for being aware of one’s ability to focus, and there’s something more to be said for deliberately working on improving this skill.
How? That’s the trick, isn’t it. As Dr. Goldberg has put it, it is not the ability to sustain focus, but the ability to refocus, that separates the high performers from the rest. It’s not that Michael Jordan didn’t get distracted; it’s that he was able to put these distractions aside and return to living in the moment that allowed him to thrive in the big moments (granted, a lot of other things went into that success, too).
Any practice on focus and re-focusing is going to resemble meditation in some form or another. You know that whole “flow” thing? Flow is essentially an active meditation. If there was nothing to it, you wouldn’t see so many practitioners still at it today.
So, in short: meditate.
In long: take the time to simply live and breathe. If you need something to focus on, pick up a frisbee and place it in front of you. You only think I’m kidding, Daniel-san. Pick something simple to say and easy to remember (Goldberg suggests “one”).
Look at the frisbee. Breathe. Focus on every detail of that hunk of plastic. Notice the ridges on top, the imperfections from use…hey, that Vegas graphic is pretty cool. I wonder how this whole Conference 1 thing will shake out?–
“One.” Refocus on the disc. Use the phrase (or simply a thought) to cue yourself to refocus. Work your way from a frisbee on the table to a frisbee on top of a TV playing highlights from the club championships, and you’ll have developed a pretty potent system for getting your mind in the right place.
More conventional means: Sit. Close your eyes, or don’t. Breathe. Count your breaths. Count to 100. Count to 200. Count to 300. Start over when you lose track for your thoughts. When you feel good at that, start over when you simply wind up distracted from your breathing and your counting, instead of when you can’t remember the number. But start simply.
Other means: You can practice focus in a wide variety of situations. Read The Inner Game of Tennis, read The Art of Learning, embrace the ability of your body to execute without your mind’s chaperoning it all the time. Focus on relaxing your mind…focus on letting go. When you’re out for a drive, forget the thoughts racing through your mind, and simply let your body drive the car for a while. (driving is one of the most complicated tasks a human performs on a day-to-day basis, and is a great candidate for flow experience)
Rather than subscribe to stress, free yourself with focus. The opportunities to let yourself go and be content to simply live are limitless. You can become a better ultimate player in this way, and a better person, as well.
UPDATE: Micah adds in the comments that Dr. Goldberg has his own site up and running–I haven’t given it an in-depth look to say for or against it yet (it can often be the case that such sites are simply used to hook more customers without offering any of the meat of their ideas), but you might find it helpful.
This thing called “field sense” is, at it’s most basic level, an awareness of space–of open space on the field, motion into and out of space, and what I’ll call “closed” space where there’s congestion or for whatever reason the space is not directly relevant to the motion of the disc.
I’ve already talked about this a bit in the context of anticipating on defense–the “intuitive sense” I refer to is what we tend to call field sense.
How does one develop this intuitive sense? Look here for a nice perspective on the matter (originally found this through Parinella’s blog, by the by). It’s hard to teach, but something that can be developed and intuited with time. You can, of course, offer guidelines to guide this development–your team’s offensive or defensive structure, a player’s progression of looks, etc. But I agree with the premise of the article–loose, free-form play is one of the best ways to develop field sense.
At Dartmouth, we play boot (apparently the San Francisco variation). I’m not going to say it’s directly responsible for the development and success of some of our players…but I will say that the ’08s played a lot of boot over our four years at Dartmouth, and this year our handling corps was anchored by those same ’08s–and any team we played against can attest to the degree of chemistry our handling corps had this year.
Play. Please don’t just play ultimate, either! Boot is a wonderful small-group game. I’ve heard hotbox, goalty, and mini are also very popular, and all encourage the sort of fast-paced free-flowing decision making that you don’t get nearly the same exposure to over the course of an ultimate game. Experiment. Develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t and what you might want to look for. Know what you want, and then find it.
Visualize, visualize, visualize.
Visualization is a SKILL. Former teammates or blog readers should know that I’m a big proponent of visualization as a means to success.
So, you’ve hopefully read the link above and/or are familiar with visualization, generally. How does that apply specifically with regards to layout training?
For me, there are a couple crucial points to master if you expect to lay out successfully in game situations:
- Pre-layout–anticipate, be ready
- Disc is in the air–go for it!
- Layout execution–technique
- (minor point)Get back up and play!
Now, to touch on each individually…
Pre-layout–anticipate, be ready: A huge part of defense is anticipation (more on that later this week). If you’re laying out on defense, before you ever get horizontal you need to know when you should be ready to bid and when you should be priming other actions instead(again, more on this later). You can help yourself to recognize some of these situations more quickly and effectively through visualization, but some degree of in-game experience is also necessary here. You can think up simple situations which lead to layouts (you’re on defense, right on your man’s hip, as he cuts in for the disc), but invariably there are other situations where you might want to bid that you won’t anticipate. Learn to see these opportunities when you miss them, and prepare yourself mentally to pounce on them in the future. Offensively the situations tend to be more clear-cut, but if you always expect perfect throws to your chest you’ll find yourself surprised by the rare errant ones. Try to err the other way in your expectations and you’re liable to catch a lot more that comes your way.
Disc is in the air–go for it!: So, you recognize the situation. You’re right there, ready to go. The disc is thrown…what do you do? It’s not at all uncommon to pull up or choke in this situation when you’re just learning to lay out. Why? You’re still uncomfortable with executing the layout. Maybe some situations–big game, you’re really fired up–you go for, and others you don’t. It’s normal to have a threshold for this sort of thing, but you want to make that threshold pretty low–so that you laying out or not laying out is not a matter of how revved up you are, but whether you decide to lay out or not. Again, visualization can help here. Run through situations in your mind–remember to perceive these situations in detail, focus on the disc coming your way–and get the reps you need to get over the mental block with some mental effort.
A friend of mine got over his mental block by mixing visualization with physical practice–he would have me throw a frisbee to some target–he started off with a trash can, and worked up to progressively faster-moving human targets (they started off at a walking speed, worked up to 50/70/90%, etc), running up and laying out past the target to get the disc. You might have success with the same.
Layout execution–technique: I’ve already gone into the physical components in last week’s post, so give that a look. The key is to visualize these components in slow motion–you absolutely will not be able to focus on all of these things in the heat of the moment (in fact, focusing on anything other than the disc is likely to hinder your performance), so you have to do the mental legwork well beforehand if you’re to get it right without thinking later. Again, visualize detail–see (or feel) yourself exploding into your takeoff, extending forwards, flying through the air, and absorbing the impact through your torso while keeping your head, knees and arms all out of harm’s way.
Get back up and play!: Successful bid or no, you need to get up. This is particularly important on defense, when a missed bid means your man is getting off an unmarked throw–or on offense, when a missed bid means your man could now be sprinting deep uncovered or picking up the disc to get off a throw while you’re preoccupied on the ground. This is partly a visualization exercise–recognize (anticipate) the need to get back up before you hit the ground–but this is also part fitness. Upper body strength is underrated for importance in ultimate, and it is in exactly this situation that all those pushups/bench presses/burpess (the third is my personal favorite, as it actually trains pushing up into a standing position) will come in handy. I take pride in my bids, and I also take pride in recovering from my bids.
Oft lauded, much coveted.
The bid. How?
There’s a mental side to it. But, as with most skills, the mental merely enables the physical–you still have to do the work. What are the fine points of such?
Please keep in mind that I’m talking about ideal layout technique; circumstances may dictate a more reckless bid (with regards to your own body; I do NOT advocate laying out into other players) in order to ensure success, but if you want a long career as an ultimate player more of your bids will be like what’s described below.
If you don’t care for nitty-gritty you check out some of the example bids I size up at the bottom of this post to get a sense of what I mean.
LANDING is perhaps the most important component of a good layout. Sometimes you’ll sacrifice this for the sake of the big play, but honestly, in the big picture you’re going to want to get up and walk away from any bid you make (without an arm held to the side, to boot).
- Should be absorbed primarily by your stomach and chest. Ancillary components of impact absorption include your arms and (upper) legs, but both of these have their risks. With arms, keep them extended in front to avoid landing ON them or torquing them in such a way that you might tear something/absorb the brunt of the impact with them. The arms are more for guiding the landing pad that is your torso, and for assisting in keeping your head up. With legs, you might get SOME force here, but this is an injury risk for the knees, so they should not be the primary absorbers at all (ideally they won’t absorb any impact).
Bend your knees and lift your head before you land, and the resulting position you hit the ground with should force your torso downward so it hits the ground first.
- Should be done at speed (i.e., not from a standstill): My biggest issue with the fall-over layout (and I’ll touch on this more in a little bit) is that it forces your torso on a downward vector when it impacts the ground. Ideally, your impact vector should have a much larger horizontal than vertical component. Ever wonder why layouts hurt less in the rain? It’s partly due to give of the mud, but largely it’s due to being able to slide further–by extending the duration of your impact (sliding means your impact is spread over more space, and therefore more time), the overall force on your body is lessened. This means less achy, quicker return to action. (UPDATE: See the comments for some dispute on the matter–details of the physics notwithstanding, I stand by my point).
- Should have you hit with your chest flat to the ground. Sorry, ladies, but this is the easiest way to ensure you get maximum surface area for impact (again, the more you can spread the layout impact over space, the less force any one point will experience). You’ll see sidewise bids, rolling bids, but there are a few risks in such layouts, number one being the shoulder. You do NOT, under any circumstances, want your shoulder(s) taking the brunt of the impact. This is why I encourage caution with using the arms to cushion a bid, and this is a large part of why I discourage rolling or sideways bids. Even if you lay out sideways, you can torque in midair to avoid the shoulder and encourage more chest/stomach impact.
Soccer goalie types will be familiar with the sideways/rolling/fall over bid to absorb impact, but doing so is pretty technical (and beyond the scope of this post). Roll at your own risk.
The TAKEOFF is where the real trick to laying out comes. Landing properly ensures you live to bid another day, but a good takeoff makes a good landing a LOT easier.
My main thought with regards to takeoff:
If you’ve swum, or have been watching Phelps dominate the Olympics, you’ll know what I’m getting at here to some extent. What I don’t mean is jumping upwards and out with your body arcing (think gazelle bounding through the African Savannah–explosive? Yes. Impressive? Sure! Efficient for laying out? No).
What I do mean is exploding straight towards your target in much the same way you would jump upwards for a sky–only instead of exploding vertically into the air, your torso is tilted such that your momentum and thrust direct you horizontally toward the disc.
A simple drill I like to do to teach this kind of form, with which I’ve had mixed success (about as much as I’ve seen with all manner of layout drill–this is a tough skill to teach, and to some extent you can only guide your athletes to a point where they will figure it out for themselves):
Hold a frisbee several feet in front of the athlete. Have them get in a “starting” position as they would for a race (no hands on the ground)–lowered center of gravity, weight on the front foot. If that’s not a good cue, have them get in the position they might when jumping off one foot–again, weight on front foot, lowered center of gravity. Have them tilt their body forwards until their upper body is directed toward the disc (perhaps not completely horizontal, but as close to it as possible–they’ll need to feel it out for themselves a bit with trial and error). In this position, where their weight is pulling them forwards to the point of falling, tell them to explode forwards and grab the frisbee (you can also do this without a disc, but it’s good to have a carrot for motivation). It’s critical to hold the disc far enough in front that they have to get forward momentum before impact, otherwise they’ll flop straight down and it’ll hurt (and that doesn’t particularly encourage further practice!).
The tilt of your upper body directs the force of your legs, so really emphasize the direction the upper body is pointing in (i.e., horizontally) as a means to ensure good takeoff form along with arm drive. Encourage them to explode forward (not upward!) as much as you can.
This drill teaches the critical last takeoff step. The penultimate step is also critical for lowering the center of gravity going into the last step, but to add that complicates the drill a little; I’m a fan of simple progression. That said, I’m still searching for an ideal drill here; your own experiments with adding an extra step might yield better results.
I vastly prefer this drill to more brute-force approaches which simply tell players to run and lay out without much guidance (but with a lot of pain along the way). You can get to doing the real thing eventually, but train the components first!
For the landing, fall-overs from one’s knees can help with getting used to taking the impact on the torso (make sure they get the legs up on every fall, so they’re not learning to hit their knees first).Then I’d suggest doing the no-step drill I’ve described above, and then perhaps add in a one- or two/three-step approach before shifting to a full running start.
Remember: horizontal jump. Not a flop. Not a gazelle. Perhaps “horizontal explosion” is more accurate a description. I would add video here, but my means are currently limited–perhaps in a later post…
THE CATCH/D (Arm use while in flight). I’ve already mused about layout grabs a little bit. Short version: you might want to teach two-handed grabs to rookies to encourage proper body position. In the long run, however, the one-hander allows for a bit more arm guidance/cushioning on landing, which also helps a lot. Almost universally, you want to grab with fingers underneath or be prepared to roll your hand over to ensure that the disc isn’t stripped from your grip on impact with the ground (thumb facing the ground on impact=generally too weak, unless you’re two-handing).
Keep your arms extended in front of you! Under no circumstances should your arms be caught under your body (off to the side is acceptable). If you’re doing a close-to-the-chest pancake grab or likewise more of a fall-over bid, landing on your shoulder (BAD! BAD!), try and roll as much as you can to avoid crushing your arms and to spread the impact so your shoulder isn’t completely hosed (I’d suggest avoiding this sort of grab entirely if you have shoulder issues).
Other common means of learning/practicing layout technique:
- Laying out onto a soft surface, such as a bed or high jump pit. Rainy days also make wonderful layout practice days. The dirt and mud add an extra degree of “cool” to the proceedings.
- The pool. Careful not to belly flop! But you can layout into a dive to work on takeoff technique and getting comfortable in the air.
- Visualization. More on this elsewhere on the blog.
- Gratuity/overzealousness on the ultimate field. You’ve all known that guy who lays out for everything. I feel like it’s a phase for a lot of layout learners–building confidence in the skill and testing one’s limits–but sometimes it comes too early, before technique is good enough, resulting in frequent injury or injury risk, and other times this phase never ends and you get guys who routinely lay out for discs they have no chance of D’ing or catching. Whoops.
Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts and ideas here. More than anything else in ultimate I’ve found layouts to be very difficult to get a good universal teaching method for. Sometimes people take to layouts like a fish to water, and others like oil. How do you reconcile the gap between what we think we’re capable of and what we’re actually capable of?
Pulling on some of the’08 College Natties photos, which capture a LOT of great bids…
This I would characterize as a painful landing. You can tell (look at the previous pic) that he’s curling instead of extending for his impact (likely due to the looming collision with Robin), meaning he’s probably going to hit knees first. Extend your torso into your landing…though he might be in the right here bracing for impact instead of the landing.
This sequence shows a good takeoff. You can see pretty clearly that Dermo is extending off of his left leg, explodes forward with a good body tilt (torso forward), and his trajectory is such that his torso is thrown directly towards his target (that might be harder to tell in the initial two photos, but you can tell by the follow-through in the third and fourth). His left leg winds up staying a little low for impact, though sometimes that’s the sacrifice you make when you really put all your effort in to getting the disc as soon as possible (but note that Dermott has suffered from consistent knee issues from bashing them on layouts. Note the pad on the right knee).
This is more of a fall-over bid (though done from a run). You can tell by the way his entire body moves downwards in the second picture, rather than his chest carrying from takeoff. Note the awkward-looking landing there, where his right leg is clearly going to hit the ground first (and not just any part–the knee gets full service). Also note that a layout in which he explodes more directly towards the disc instead of falling over is likely a D, given how close he is on the fall over.
This is me laying out (I got my hand on it, but guys don’t win Callahan awards without knowing how to go to). I wish I had a sequence so I could analyze my own layout technique (and so you could better decide if I’m preaching what I practice), but in this picture you can at least note the curvature of my body–thrusting my torso forwards, legs are curling so they won’t impact first. The momentum of exploding forwards with my torso means it’ll come downwards to hit the ground before my legs do–and you can hardly tell this in the photo, but my right arm (that isn’t reaching for the disc) is already positioned such that it can help absorb impact when I do hit the ground.
This sequence is a wonderful example of a bid at height. You’ll note the right arm moves on descent, preparing to cushion impact out of the way of the torso and that, for having laid out to reach above his head height for the disc, there’s still a torque throwing his torso down faster than his legs as they begin to come up out of the way.
There are most assuredly countless other great layout pictures. But don’t just look through pictures or watch video with a mind for “wow,” watch with a mind to learn. Key in on the little details. Make your own judgments. Use the images as tools for visualization (!).