WiMU Pt.6: Principles Of Effective Mixed Ultimate
By Laura Manescu
In part 6 of this series, Laura starts to delve into the practical applications of the theory covered so far. If you're a coach or captain of a mixed team, this is essential reading.
Click here for Part 5 - Talking preferences
Irrespective of gender, we all have a role to play in understanding and showcasing the best brand of mixed ultimate. However, because there are limited resources and coaching currently dedicated to mixed-specific principles domestically, there are still many players who lack the knowledge and skills to adjust their game for the mixed division. If we don't tackle this gap, then we will continue to see the examples of bad mixed ultimate covered earlier in this series.
The principles of effective mixed aren’t groundbreaking, they're just a set of logical adjustments designed to capitalise on the diverse mix of skillsets on field. But just because they're simple ideas, it doesn’t mean that they're not worth talking about. The more we talk about and coach these principles, the more we improve players’ effectiveness in the division and the overall experience of mixed ultimate. This article brings together the thoughts of some of our top mixed players and coaches on the adjustments they make for the division.
I want to start by making two important distinctions about recognising mismatches. First, mismatches are about contribution not just skill level. We need to think about more than the on-paper skill difference between our team and our opposition, and take into consideration the way teams are actually playing. Exploiting mismatches against a team with top quality women that isn’t playing through those women can be just as effective as against a team that uses their women but where there is a large disparity in the skill level of those women compared to our own. Second, mismatches are relative. We may have the top male talent in the country on our team, but we need to remember that what matters is the relative mismatch between players. We need to exploit the players on field who have the largest relative skill gap compared to their opposition, irrespective of whether there are stronger players on the field at that time.
Heading into a match, we may recognise a gender-specific mismatch in the depth and skill level of our team, compared to our opposition. Designing an effective team strategy is then dependent on our ability to communicate and commit to a team plan which capitalises on those mismatches. If we’re playing on a team with a relative advantage in the strength of our women, then our focus needs to shift to actively making space for our women and keeping male defenders occupied out of valuable field space. We saw a good example of this with the 2010 Pie Wagon World Clubs team, who designed their strategy around actively creating deep space for their women to dominate their match ups. While this played hand-in-hand with a number of other team strategies, actively recognising and using female mismatches to their advantage was a core part of their team strategy and it helped earn Pie Wagon 5th place at WUCC that year.
Designing strategies that exploit mismatches at a team level is just the first step. Adapting that strategy point by point based on recognition of individual mismatches is what really determines our ability to capitalise on them. Let's stop calling individual male defensive match ups and telling our women to “sort yourselves out”. Though unintentional, this fairly common practice damages our overall effectiveness as a team because it prevents our line from being aware of the match ups we want to exploit. We can take active steps to overcome this by having an even number of female and male line callers and making sure that they understand the strengths of all of our players, irrespective of gender. On the line, we can ask our women to identify their key mismatches and call specific offensive and defensive strategies to capitalise on those mismatches e.g. encourage strategic poaches and actively look for those players as part of our offensive strategy.
How effective we will be in translating mismatch recognition into an effective poach can be broken down to a few individual skills: 1. Overall field awareness and recognition of space and threats; 2. Ability to read the body language and eye contact a thrower is making with their teammates; 3. Awareness of how active and aggressive our player has been as part of our opposition’s offensive flow and what spaces they are generally attacking, to weigh up the likelihood that our player will capitalise on the space we give them.
Effective poaching can broadly be split between plays in the deep space and plays in the under space. Peeling off to make a play on a deep throw is dependent on our speed and ability to make ground, our vertical jump, our ability to box players out, our read (particularly in windy conditions) and how early we can recognise threatening spaces and likely opportunities for deep throws. While both genders can be effective peeling off into deep space, overall the most efficient use of team skill sets on most mixed teams is generally to use male players to cover deep threats. On the other hand, we see plenty of examples of both male and female players poaching effectively in the under space. Off-handler defenders or mismatched cutter defenders can occupy valuable space in the lane, make plays on the break side (it’s also easier to screen out of view of the thrower on the break side) or take away cuts through the shallow centre of a horo. This can be very effective against teams with dominant under cutters/utilities who generate primary movement through the midfield and play plenty of short ball – watch Cath or Max next time they're playing if you want to see an example of effective occupation of space to stifle central movement.
Currently we rely on players to learn from experience what the appropriate moments to poach are. But our lack of explicit coaching for effective poaches and help D in our mixed division, means that we aren't setting our players up with the skills they need to make calculated risks and execute consistently. If we don’t do those things well, poaching creates significant gaps in our team defence and reduces our defensive effectiveness, rather than increasing it. While these skills aren't unique to the division, the opportunity for capitalising on mismatches is greater in mixed due to the diverse combination of skill sets and athleticism that come together on field, so coaching for them in the context of mixed is important.
The most important fundamental for effective team offence on any team is knowing our teammates and building strong connections. In transitioning to mixed at the start of each season, this becomes even more important and building connections across genders early is essential because there are so many different styles, speeds and skills coming together on field, which need to work cohesively to be effective. If we want to increase our effectiveness, focusing on drills that build flow and connections between genders early in season is a must - more ideas on this in part 7.
Listening to the adjustments some of our top women make when cutting in mixed revealed a few consistent themes. They talked about starting cuts earlier and continuing deep cuts further downfield to account for the fact that men can generally throw further and shoot later than women. They called out the pace of play, viable space on field and the speed with which the disc changes channels, all of which increase the need for continuous awareness of the play. They use longer fakes in their cuts to make them more convincing within the increased viable field space. Finally, our best women run with the play. In women’s, we’re coached to keep running when a huck goes up because it’s less likely those hucks will hit the full field length, but it's surprising how often a huck goes up in a mixed game and female players stop to watch and let the boys run it down, with that play falling just short of the end zone. Running with the play allows us to capitalise on those easy 2-meter goals after a big huck.
As for our men, active engagement and awareness of defenders is crucial. If our team strategy is to allow women the deep space, this means actively making use of shallow open and break space. Punishing poaches early by seeking the disc in free space is even more important than it is in men's because the consequences of allowing a defensive player to occupy valuable space or get involved in a play a female teammate is making can be much more punishing in the mixed game. Another important adjustment is to be more mindful of the bodies on field and the potential for injuring smaller players (generally females) in the process of making a play on the disc.
For women this may include stepping out further to adjust for larger wingspan in the case of a mismatched mark, for example in a zone. Because the margin for error on throws is generally higher and the pace is faster in the mixed division, moving the disc earlier and preserving flow through the centre of the field is sometimes more valuable than waiting for the “perfect” option, though this is highly dependent on the strategy and playing style of our team. There may also be more options available on field earlier in the count, as cuts develop quickly and constantly. Finally, we need to recognise that space and separation may change a lot faster than it does in women's.
For men this generally means more accurate throws, lower throws to account for height differences and fewer bullets – focusing on touch over power. Throws may need to come later and, particularly in the case of hucking, this means waiting for cuts to develop and “not just punting it early for Brendo to chase down”.
Irrespective of gender, we need to be aware of poaches, mismatches and baited throws when we have the disc. This means paying attention to help D set ups, and being aware of the speed and likelihood of our players’ defender bidding based on who their match ups are. In order to capitalise effectively on poaches we should be actively seeking poached players in open space.
Mixed gives us unique options for match defence like setting gender-specific defensive focuses to exploit our oppositions’ weaknesses. For example, women push their girls under and force a more active role around the disc, while men push their players deep and away from the disc. This is particularly useful against teams whose strategies avoid hitting women through the midfield and where men are crowding female throwers for a reset. The reverse is useful when playing against teams who are regularly looking for their men deep and not shooting to women in the deep space. It also gives us options to play around with gender switches in lower risk spaces, for example using aggressive female defenders to cover a male handler, allowing a mismatch downfield intended to create chaos and generate poach blocks. A final point for thinking about our adjustments for match defence is that our female players need to be aware of the increased viable space on field. Greater viable field space means that the offensive players we are guarding can be hit in a greater range of field positions than in women’s, so they may be actively engaged in the play and a viable threat more often than we’re used to.
The division also offers plenty of opportunities to get creative with our zone structures and looks. A good example of this is the 2-part transition zone: an initial zone set, followed by a first transition where female match ups and the male primary handler match up set with a 3-player male bracket downfield, followed by a second transition to set the final male match ups. These types of plays create chaos by changing the active space on field multiple times during one point and increasing the chance to capitalise on player mismatches to generate blocks.
The final defensive adjustment I want to talk about is the fem zone. Traditionally this has been played with 4 male players running honest match defence, while 3 female players set up in the deep space, in the lane and in the break or inside space (the mark when a female gets the disc). With the choice to play 4 women becoming more common, we’ve also seen the fem zone adapted with 4 women on field. Here the 4th player generally either plays as stack coverage to create chaos downfield, or as an assassination on a strong female handler. Fem zones are most effective on teams with few female handlers and on teams where females are weaker and/or under-utilised overall. This is because fem zones create the most chaos when defenders don't have to dedicate as much of their attention to where the female offensive players are within their space and have licence to get in the way of dominant male players and plays.
The way we coach mixed
The adjustments covered above are only a starting point for this discussion, not an end point. As a community we have an opportunity to increase our investment in resources and coaching specific to the mixed division. This is crucial if we want to raise the standard of mixed ultimate domestically and positively impact the way our players’ experience the division.
I’d like to close by sharing a quote from Dan Rule, Head Coach of the 2017 Australian Crocs. Dan’s attitude towards the mixed game gives us a great lens for thinking about the make up of our teams going forward and for the way we approach mixed coaching: “There is a lot of variance in skills and abilities within genders as well as between genders. There are not 3 male crocs and 4 female crocs - there are just 7 crocs, and we need to work together to achieve the best outcome.”
Click here for Pt.7: Improving The Way We Experience Mixed Ultimate