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Spread-out offense, short intro

The Empty V
An example of a spread-out offense


Most people have heard me whining (whinging, for you with British backgrounds) against the stack offense for as many years as they have been in Beijing. Yet in all that time I have been here we have never as a team explored the possibility of other offenses, despite the many possible advantages. ("It might turn out to be better"; "Even if it is not as good as a stack it might increase my understanding of Ultimate"; "Do it once and maybe Russell will have to shut up about it")

The following is simply a description of the offense we will try out. It will be very helpful in understanding it to have a theoretical framework to put it in. I strongly suggest everyone look at (at least) the section on offense on my web site, http://www.young-0.com/ultimate. There I give a more in-depth explanation of the whys, and a comparison with the stack.

One of the important but simple facts there that is used here is that, to complete a pass, 2 things are needed: The receiver needs to be open, and there needs to be a way to get the disc to him. This "way" can be a curve, a high floater, or even (ugh) a hammer, but most throws will be simpler: level passes traversing an open lane on the field.


Everyone understands a stack, to some level at least. An experienced handler running it knows how it should flow and react, and the newest beginner understands he is supposed to stand at the back of the line and wait for something or other. In a stack completing a pass is relatively simple. The designated cutter moves into the emptied section of the field and does whatever he wants to. When he manages to get open, there should be by default a passing lane to him, (since there are no offensive or defensive players between him and the disc), so the conditions are right to complete a pass.

The Empty V is based on the opposite theory than the stack. Rather than crowding people together to avoid clogging in the remaining space, it does so by spreading people out, making the density low enough so that holes and cracks appear in the defense. The cutters are expected to time their cuts to be open in one of those holes, which provides the lane needed to complete a pass.

It can be thought of as the yin to the stack's yang: rather than have a line filled with people, there are lines on the field that are empty of people, except when someone is cutting into them expecting a throw. In a stack the thrower knows who he wants to throw to, but does not know where the throw will be; here the thrower knows where the throw will go, but does not know who it will be to.

Very briefly, the idea behind the Empty V is that there are 2 lanes on the field that form a V with the point at the marker and the open end upfield. The thrower looks down those lanes waiting for an open cut to go through them. Any of the offensive players is free to go into either lane at any time, though there are rules to try to eliminate clashing cuts. The prime rule is never to stay in the lanes. Cuts must be completed out of the lanes. The spaces outside the V, inside the V, and deep upfield can be used to set up future cuts, wait, or rest if needed.


Before going into details on how to do this, it helps to ask why - after all, if the cuts must be timed to be within a small crack in the defense, how is that a desirable alternative to having a throw to someone cutting in a big empty space? Actually there are several advantages, some immediate and some more abstract.

The big advantage is it allows every offensive player to be in the offense all the time. In my early days playing the stack here I used to complain that the handlers all had tunnel vision - they would stare at the designated cutter, oblivious to anything happening elsewhere on the field. After some time, I came to understand that this was not a shortcoming of the people I was playing with, but a problem inherent with the stack. When a cutter is coming in he has total freedom to go wherever he wants in the cleared-out area. If the thrower takes his eyes off the cutter for even an instant to glance elsewhere, he may have trouble picking him up again when he looks back. Though he knows who the throw is going to, he does not know where it will go.

In the Empty V, the thrower knows the throw will go down one of the two lanes. Looking down one, he can see the play developing. It is simple to see one or more people preparing to cut into the lane, and from the position of the defenders to have a pretty good idea whether the cuts will be viable or not. If there is nothing about to come off, it is just as simple to take a quick glance down the other lane to see if things look better down there. As a result, anyone preparing to cut into either of the open lanes can be spotted and thrown to.

This offers real flexibility to the cutters. If the preferred handler finds his defender overplaying him short, without harming the offense he can turn and go long, forcing the defender to respect that option. At the same time, the other cutters can make use of the open lanes, so there is no loss of time for the offense.

Another advantage is the number of opportunities. There are 2 lanes and 2 outlets, each of the 6 cutters can be preparing a cut at any time. It is expected that there will be at least one opportunity per second for a cut, rather than the 3 or 4 in 10 seconds that you can get in a stack.

The opportunities are on both sides of the field. There is a forehand lane going to the right and a backhand lane going to the left. The defense does not know where the offense will head, making recovery after the completion more difficult. It also makes fakes more believable if the marker knows that there are simultaneous cuts on both the forehand and backhand side.

As for more abstract benefits, one is that most people now have not played against this type of offense, but are quite comfortable defending against a stack. The novelty alone can make it hard to defend against.

Another is it helps foster field sense and foresight of what will happen. Recognizing the passing lanes on offense transfers over to defense as well. On defense, playing the passing lanes rather than the man is both more effective and takes less energy. Developing this skill is a very valuable side effect.

Similarly, and contrary to what many think, it is a very good way to get new people involved in the game. For one thing, this idea of "lanes" is not unique to ultimate. Anyone who has played basketball, soccer, hockey, or such types of field sports is quite aware of them, can recognize what they are, and knows how to use them.

At the same time, for beginners who are not as sure of their skills, there are still places to hide and watch, but there are also cuts they can make without interfering with the other in the offense. This allows them to move into the game as their confidence allows, rather than deferring to everyone above them in the stack.


The first question most people have about this is, where do these magical empty lanes come from? Can't the defense just step inside a lane to shut it down?

This actually brings up one of the main strengths of a spread out offense. Yes, a defender can cheat and stand in a lane - lanes are after all visible to the defense as well as the offense. But if he does that, what happens? A new lane opens up elsewhere on the field.

How can I be sure of this? Imagine there is no lane. That means the defense is clogging up the entire field. That describes the goal of a perfect zone defense. Since there is, to my best knowledge, no zone that can shut down an entire field (without leaving other serious vulnerabilities), there will therefore be a lane. (stop quibbling, there will be 2).

This shifting of lanes is the greatest strength of a spread out offense. Why? Because the location of open lanes on the field is a means of communication between the thrower and the cutters far more effective than a wink or a hidden gesture.

The thrower takes the disc and looks up field. He looks not for an open person but for a space to throw to. The receivers, from their perspectives, look for the same thing. They know what the thrower is thinking, and where the throw is going to go to. This is the hook that allows this offense to grow as the team becomes more used to each others thoughts and skills.

A second issue most people seem to have with all non-stack offenses is that they "have to clog". It is true that by allowing everyone to run anywhere this possibility exists. It is not true that it cannot be dealt with.

In general, I consider any rigidity or order has a cost to the offense. A good goal would be to have 7 people running at will on the field, able to take advantage of any momentary opportunity. However, aiming too soon for this ideal will cause clogs, as a human wave of cutters swarm into the same spaces.

To deal with this, positions are used. Players are divided into handlers, middles, and deeps. These positions are used only to determine priority, not to limit where people can go. The general rule is, cutters should be aware of where they are cutting to. If 2 players head for the same lane at the same time, the handler has highest precedence, and it is up to the middle or deep to back off. Similarly, if a middle and deep head in together, the deep should back off. If there is still a problem, positions can be subdivided into sides, where the left middle has precedence in the left lane over the right middle, and so on, but this is not usually a problem. The cutter who pulls back can often provide a good second cut to the one who continues through.

Eventually positions should not be needed. The players should be aware of whose cut is better, who is in the better position to provide continuation, and so on, and one should defer to the other. At the start it is better to have a more concrete criterion.

This, then, is the core of the offense we will be trying. The following points are also important.

Besides the two lanes, there are also the outlets on the left and right side. These leave 4 places where the thrower can look for cuts. When a cutter is covered through a cut, he often has the choice of continuing the cut through the next lane, or pulling out parallel to one of the lanes. If a thrower does not see an upfield cut available or developing in the first few second he should swing to an outlet, to start the process again from a new angle

An offense is able to attack as soon as 2 people (the thrower and a receiver) are ready. The defense is not set until all 7 are in position. Thus, transition time is most valuable to the offense. On a turnover it is to the offense's advantage to get the disc into play and moving as fast as possible. Once the defense has a chance to set up it is as strong as it is going to get. Once the defense is set any offense becomes more difficult to work. If the disc is stopped near the goal there is not much space to spread out the offense. This is one case where a stack can be useful.

For the same reason, keeping the disc moving is important. On the catch, the thrower should take a look upfield: left lane, right lane, maybe long if he can throw it. If nothing is there and he sees nothing developing in the next couple of seconds, he should take an outlet. Ideally the disc should never be held for more than a stall count of 4, otherwise the defense gets a chance to set up. Outlets should be off to the side rather than straight back if possible, since that changes the defensive angles.

This same offensive philosophy works not only when the offense is set, but also on a scramble, after a turnover or a breakaway pass downfield. The lanes may not be in exactly the same places, but the open spaces on the field and the momentum of the thrower should provide clues for receivers on where the continuation throw will probably be to.

"Spreading out over the whole field" means vertically as well as horizontally. This is important not just to keep the lanes clear, but also to allow the offense to continue after a completion. On the throw off someone (usually the deeps) should proceed a good 30 meters or so upfield before turning back to participate in the offense. From there they can watch the middles, offering them second cuts and perhaps following them into the rotation if they want.

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