We’re proud to release part 2 of Matt Allen’s piece on teaching new players. Once again, we’ve highlighted specific ideas that are best practices and processes in teaching/coaching. Here’s part 1 if you missed it. Enjoy, and happy coaching!
Breaking Down the Lessons
Now we’ll dive into the details of the “what” and “why” of the tactical approach. I’ll include here any teaching specifics, theories, and ideas involved in teaching the lessons I’ve supplied. At the end of this article, there is an appendix with my written lesson plans, which are cues and block plans for the six lessons I’ll describe. The bulk of the written portion that follows are theories and ideas geared towards the mentality of the teacher and the concepts to be taught. The lessons include only the games and skill building exercises, while the reasoning behind them is provided in the written portion of this paper.
The formula is the same for teaching all the tactics – situational game, skill practice, situational game. The teaching philosophy is also totally different than the command approach; we use guided discovery to let people try different things, share their experiences, and then try to help them figure it out themselves. Unlike the command style “stand here, cut there” approach, we ask a lot of questions, encourage different techniques and tactics, and try to figure out the best tactics (the ones we should know as teachers) through question and answer.
Throughout the beginning lessons, I advise dealing with rules issues – picks, fouls, travels, marking violations – as they present themselves with your students. I do not advocate for having students learn all the rules in one sitting. A lot of people involved in sports are kinesthetic learners, and learn best while they’re participating in the activity. I can describe where most of the issues start to happen, but there is no real sure fire way to predict what students will start doing in this kind of experimenting environment.
Remember, ultimate is a game where players are encouraged to play the game to have fun. High levels of competition are encouraged, but not at the cost of losing respect for one another. We must avoid contact that will surely result in injury, and respect the points of view of other people – because the game is self-officiated, we trust that whenever a call is made, it is made with good intention and we discuss the situation to figure out what happened and come to a satisfactory conclusion. Players should always speak up if they believe something was done unfairly and is against the rules – even if they don’t know the appropriate name of the call (pick, foul, violation, etc). Discussion and conflict resolution are key social aspects of ultimate that should be learned and internalized.
Lesson 1: Possession, Throwing, and Catching.
The first game to teach in ultimate is always “keep-away.” Set up small boundaries, simplified rules on guarding the thrower (called marking, the person guarding the thrower is called the marker or the mark) and the stall and be clear that everyone must touch the disc. Also be very explicit on the goal of the game: complete 10 passes in a row. Once that goal is completed, or there is an incomplete pass, the other team takes the disc immediately and play is started. Play for 10-15 minutes and then bring it in for a quick Q&A: “What was the goal of the game?” “Were you successful?” “Why or why not?” “What do we need to work on?” Almost always, the glaring topic is throwing and catching – which ties directly into our concept of possession. Even if their throwing and catching is good, it’s important to work on skills to directly help the tactic – no one is perfect at throwing or catching.
Once this is established, the teacher gives specific instruction on forehand, backhand, and the different ways of catching (really breaking it down to every little detail to help anyone and everyone). Have them throw in partners, walk around and offer specific corrective feedback and also specific positive reinforcement. Focus on how to make their throw better – what to do on their next throw. Avoid talking about what went wrong and what they shouldn’t do – focus on what to do next time and what they should do. Even if they’re performing the skills well, use specific positive reinforcement and tell them exactly what they’re doing well so they are more likely to replicate it. After some partner throwing for another 10-15 minutes, bring it back into another game of keep-away (same simplified parameters, same explicit goal setting, newly improved skills).
Once they’ve had some touches and some play, drive it home with another Q&A with the same questions: “What was the goal of the game?” “Were you successful?” and “Why or why not?” Having people talk about the strategies is essential as a check for learning. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers in these Q&As – coaches are simply here to help our students understand their own experiences and help them improve next time.
Lesson 2: Creating Space Without the Disc and 1-on-1 Cutting.
After possession, the next idea to learn about is “creating space” – which has become my favorite part of teaching Ultimate. The game is small-sided keep-away with end zones. You want to set up the field size to be appropriate for the number of players. Using the same type of simplified rules system (marks, stalls, everyone touches the disc), the goal is to complete 5 passes in a row, then complete a pass into the attacking end zone. We also want players to think about how they’re creating space or how they’re getting open. Play without pulls, and have the scoring team just drop it and have the other team immediately put it into play towards the other end zone. Let them play, then bring it in for another Q&A, asking “What was the goal of the game?,” “Were you successful?” and “Why or why not?” The focus is simply how to create space from your defender, or the defenders in general. We will simply be focusing on creating space from the defender first.
The skill building in cutting is a simple 1-on-1 cutting drill with a thrower, defense, and offense. Break up into small-sided drills again so everyone has a lot of playing time. The instruction, however, is more complicated and very important. Most people don’t understand what it means to be “open,” or how to effectively create space from a tight defender. In regards to what it means to be open, there are two big ideas: position and hips. Position means that wherever your defender is standing, you are likely open on the opposite side. The second idea (which I find more powerful and the target goal of this skill practice) is hips, where the defender is ready to run in the direction their hips face. If your opponent is between you and the disc with their hips facing deep, they are ready to sprint deep; they are letting you go deep and prepared to try and stop it. It would be very tempting for a new player to just run deep in this situation, but we need them cutting more efficiently and effectively. In this situation, if we really wanted to go deep, we need to make our defender turn their hips to face the opposite way before we can safely cut deep and truly be open. Ideally, you’d like to make your defender turn around and start facing the disc before you cut deep.
Using the idea of hips, the big overarching idea of offense starts falling into place – making our defenders commit to something and take what they leave open. It is imperative that we teach this overarching theme to our students, as it will come back over and over again, and is an offensive idea that transfers to every other sport.
After you give instruction on this hip commitment idea and have made it very clear, bring them into the 1-on-1 cutting drill. Encouragement and positive constructive criticism are your best tools – this is something I cannot stress enough. Be observant and whenever someone turns their opponent’s hips and creates space, let them know with specific feedback – not, “Great job, Chris!” but “Way to turn his hips, Chris!” When someone doesn’t turn their opponents hips, or has their hips turned but doesn’t capitalize on it, let them know what they did well first (they were open, or they turned their hips), and then tell them how they can make it better; “Trevor, you made a great move and were open for the in cut. Did you notice when you cut that Adam turned his hips towards the disc and put his back to you? When he did that, he was totally committed – both position and hips – and you could have made an easy deep cut.” Specific feedback should be something all our teachers do on a regular basis, for everything – throwing, cutting, marking, down field defense. As a coach, there is no such thing as too much specific feedback! Also, focus on what to do next time- the past cannot be changed, so help them with thoughts for their next effort.
Now that you’ve given them some practice time with 1-on-1 cutting, bring it back into the small-sided game of keep away with end zones. The goal here is to really emphasize that no matter what you’re doing on the field, you have to make solid cuts to create space from your defender.
Lesson 3: Creating Space Without the Disc, 1-on-1 Cutting, Vertical Stack.
We’ve already spent a good chunk of time working on solid 1-on-1 cuts and creating space from defenders. Now it’s time to coordinate them onto the same page as an offensive unit and using their space wisely. Have them play the same game as before – end zones, keep away, small teams, simplified rules – while explicitly stating the goal and focus. We’re focusing on how to find and create space on the field as a team as well as in our 1-on-1 match-ups.
After they play, bring it into the circle and ask inquisitive questions to elicit thought on how hard it is to find open space. They are hopefully creating space from their defender, and running into their teammates. I encourage you to try and let them figure out the vertical stack on their own. Ask questions: “So now that we’ve gotten fairly comfortable with cutting 1-on-1, and we see how easy we can make it, how do you think we can use this same idea and let us go all the way down the field with easy 1-on-1 cuts without running into each other?” Maybe they’ll come up with it all on their own, maybe you’ll suggest it yourself, or maybe you’ll help. In any event, players are smarter than you may think (even young kids). Questions like this help to reinforce the value of vertical stack, even the minds of experienced players. However it comes about, by the end of your talk you should have given really specific instruction on the formation, the goals, the methods, and all the reoccurring applications – 1-on-1 cutting and possession – for the vertical stack.
To clarify for any readers unfamiliar with competitive ultimate, the vertical stack is an offensive strategy where players without the disc create a line in the middle of the field with arm length space between each person, starting about five to ten yards up field of the thrower. The cuts are from the back of the line (furthest from the disc), and can be made to whichever side the cutter thinks a throw can be made by the thrower – in or deep on either side of the field. If the throw is unable to be made by the thrower, or the cut is unsuccessful, the cutter should clear out of the open space back into the stack. When complete passes are made, the stack must push down field as quickly as possible to continue clearing out of open space – ideally people should start pushing down field when a throw leaves the hand of the thrower, before it is even caught.
Now that they understand 1-on-1 cutting and the vertical stack (or the basic tactical ideas behind it), let them play a game of keep away with end zones as they’ve done several times now. Use the same simplified rules, state the goal of the game (complete 5 passes in a row, more if they’re really good at 5, less if they have strong deep game and you think they’re not excluding anyone, then catch a pass in the end zone), and let them play. If you want your students to run with a dump (whats a dump?!) in the back field or square to the disc, by all means, incorporate the dump – just be sure you tie in the idea of making the defender commit and take what they leave open. I have recently become a huge fan of running six people in the stack with the front two or three of the stack as the reset. The front of the stack dump leaves a lot of space to cut in and really lets the front of the stack read the hips and make good cuts.
The most relevant rules issue that will probably come up while doing these last two lessons is the pick. When a defensive player needs to slow down or change direction in order to avoid contact with another player while trying to run with their opponent, it’s called a pick. The affected player calls the pick, all players stop, the offensive player comes back to the location of the pick, and the defensive player catches up to where they would have been without the pick.
Check back for Part 3…