Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Coaching Doublewide’s Field Spacing with Alex Thorne

by Jonathan Neeley

You know an offense is doing something right when one of its players catches a disc and there isn’t a teammate within 15 yards of him. It means that player had space to cut into, enough time to establish a relationship with the thrower, and that there is now ample space between him and his teammates for them to repeat this process. Being able to create and use space is a must no matter what kind of offense your team runs.

But how do you coach it? While throwing and marking come with specific actions like moving your wrist this way or shuffling that way, isn’t space an abstract that takes either years of playing or a high school soccer background?

No. Just like any other skill, understanding field spacing can be taught through explanation and repetition. Learn. Practice. Take Over.

Doublewide impresses me because of how intentional the team’s cutters are about creating and using space: their stacks are disciplined, their players are always scanning the field, and their cutters know where to go when it’s their move. I spent the weekend checking out Ultiworld’s footage of Doublewide vs. Revolver at the 2013 Pro Flight Finale and then caught up with Alex Thorne, a new teammate and Doublewide player, to get his thoughts on some of my big takeaways.

The Field is Large. It Contains Multitudes. Doublewide starts the game on offense, and of the 11 catches made on the point, only one is in traffic. That’s the kind of clean offense we should all be striving for. Looking more closely, when the disc is centered off the pull and it’s clear that a cut will come on the right side of the screen, the Doublewide players who aren’t cutting all push to the left. This could be a set play, but could also just be smart ultimate: when you move away from where the disc is or where it’s about to go, you create space.

Practice It: Making that last sentence a mantra that you repeat to your players is a good start, but you’ve got to pair verbal instruction with visual examples and opportunities to learn by doing. One of my go-to tools for illustrating and practicing sound field spacing is to place a line of short cones down the middle of the field whenever we’re doing game simulations (could be 3v3, could be full-on 7v7). Sometimes I just set the line out and don’t say anything, and other times I require the offense to cross the line X amount of times before they can score. The point is to give an easy point of reference for just how wide the field is that makes it easier for players to evaluate their spacing (“Hey team, are there too many or too few of you on the flick side of the line?”) or how they can more effectively attack open space (“Let’s fight to get the disc over to the other side of the line since our last three throws were to the same side.”).

Go Hard in the Space: On Doublewide’s third offensive point of the game (6:35), the back of the stack sends cuts to both sides of the field. As Will Driscoll (#21) cuts in to the break side, he does so at a dead sprint rather than wasting time with fakes, and Alex (#2) can comfortably float a throw out wide because he doesn’t have to account for extra bodies in the space Driscoll is cutting toward It’s worth noting here going hard at a space is the best way for a player to create separation for himself while also leaving room for a teammate to cut (Driscoll’s in cut leaves the deep space open), and having a clean stack makes break throws far easier.

Practice It: I use a drill called “Throw, Cut, Actively Chill” to teach players to see and attack space decisively. Start by setting up a 25×25-yard box with four players and a disc inside. At all times, there is a thrower, two ive cutting options for him to throw to, and a third cutter whose job is to actively chill in space that is not being used. As soon as the disc is thrown, the players assume new roles based on where they are in the box– it’s likely that the person closest to the new thrower should clear out and allow the other two to be live cutters. Cutters must move in bursts of six steps or more, which makes it certain that they’ll either receive the disc or leave open space behind them. All three players without the disc should strive to touch the sidelines of the box as often as possible, and you’ll know your players are doing the drill right if you can freeze it and nobody is within 8 yards of one another.

Chill Out. Actively. On the offensive point starting at 22:55, the disc is centered to Jeff Loskorn (#5), who kicks it out to Driscoll on the backhand side because there’s a lane poach. Check out the cutters in the stack: they’re all watching with the knowledge that Driscoll is the live cutter, and they’re deciding what to do next based on where he receives the disc. Once Loskorn hits Driscoll, Mike “Tank” Natenberg (#18) sets up a continuation cut and the offense flows from there. Getting players to be aware enough to watch a play develop while remaining threatening is difficult—you don’t want chickens with their heads cut off, but you also don’t want guys to stand still for so long that they can be effectively poached.

“The play was for Will to catch the pull and bust deep, but his defender stayed deep so far that he just took the free swing for a slight gainer,” said Alex. “Everyone in the stack knew it was Will’s move first, and once he got the disc Tank knew to go from the back. It’s on the cutters to be aware of whose turn it is to cut and always be in a position that’s a threat in case they do get poached.”

Practice It: As a coach, you want to teach players to read and react rather than follow a script. I often randomly stop game simulations and ask offensive players to count how many pairs of teammates and their respective defenders they see between themselves and the disc. The immediate goal is to have players literally see and think about what is around them, a skill that leads to increased field awareness and anticipation with repetition. If you don’t want to stop your scrimmages (but I recommend you do—practice is for deliberate learning, and it’s usually worth stopping a scrimmage to send a disc back to give players another chance at proper execution) you can set up cut-to drills where cutters are given some kind of signal on where to cut just before its their turn to make a move.

Clearly. Doublewide’s offense struggles to move downfield as quickly as usual on the offensive point starting at 25:13. This happens to every team: cutters tire as games move on and defenses find strategies that take away preferred options. Two things lead to a Doublewide breakthrough: Max Cook (#4) hits Driscoll with cross-field throw at 25:41 that sucks the defense to the right side of the screen (an easy throw because the space Driscoll is going toward is wide open), and two throws later a short swing from Natenberg to Trey LeMastres (#11) opens up a huge gainer to Cook on the left. Alex emphasized clears when he watched this point.

Wide open spaces. Oh and watch Cook's clear before he makes this cut.

Wide open spaces.

“We used pretty standard ‘back of the stack goes next’ strategy most of the time, and if the cut didn’t work out players cleared behind the guy at the front of the stack. What’s challenging is getting players out of the way for the next cut if they don’t get the disc. Similarly, timing cuts off of swings is also fairly straightforward, but its more difficult counterpart is the clearing. If you see a swing go up and you are in the lane it’s coming toward, you need to get out of the way so someone can make a cut into that space.” 

Practice It. Emphasize the importance of clears by adding them to your team’s cut-to drills– it can be as simple as asking for and then praising hard clears after throws, or you can find a way to incentivize them based on what your team responds well to. Next, incentivize clears by running scrimmages that are scored not by goals caught, but by the number of hard clears you count per goal caught.

Push It. Finally, a pattern that’s noticeable all game long: Doublewide’s cutters do a good job of pushing downfield just before and as in cuts are thrown to. What coach hasn’t run into the issue of seeing a 20-yard gainer while the back of the stack stays even with the disc?

“It’s on cutters individually knowing where the disc is and where they need to be, but another easy way that we used was to leave this responsibility on the top of the stack (the third handler). That guy needed to be about 10 yards deeper than the disc, and he needed to make sure everyone else was behind him by being vocal about getting out of the way if they’re too shallow.”

Practice It: First, establish a vocabulary word that tells players they need to get farther downfield because the disc is moving toward the endzone; on my teams, it’s usually “push.” Yes, you can say “get downfield” in plain English, and sometimes that kind of straightforward direction is helpful. But by developing a word that represents an on-field concept– “The disc is moving downfield and I need to do the same so that I’m in a better position to attack as the play continues to develop”– you give players a richer understanding of how to evaluate situations on their own.

From there, run a drill where two players– Wayne and Sue– start next to each other, one with the disc and one as a cutter. Their objective is to move from one endzone to the other in a straight line, but before Sue can receive the disc, she must run– “push”– out 20 yards, then turn and cutting toward Wayne for the throw. After she catches it, Wayne must overlap Sue and cut out 20 yards before turning and cutting toward Sue. It doesn’t get much more basic, but this drill is great both for the practice of getting out and away from the disc before cutting and for building player fitness. Next, freeze scrimmages to praise your team when individual players push downfield aggressively and ask questions like “what could have happened two throws earlier, as we saw that cut developing?,” if they are struggling.

Want More? Here’s a list of when each of Doublewide’s offensive points begins: :06, 4:30, 6:35, 10:00, 11:50, 19:03, 22:55, 25:30, 31:35, 35:00, 37:19, 38:15.

YouTube has a lot to offer these days when it comes to watching great teams do what they do. Models of excellence are all around you, and as a coach you should be identifying and designing ways to replicate them.

  • Eric

    This is great. Thank you for the ideas around spacing drills