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Let’s Talk About Space

Recently I have been consuming quite a bit of Ultimate. After an injury-induced hiatus I am now playing in two leagues and I have also been watching as many games as I can find online, particularly with some great content coming out of Worlds. I have really enjoyed being able to watch so many great games!

Whilst being exposed to all this ultimate I have observed an emerging point of interest that I’d like to talk about a bit in this post. Specifically, the importance of space on the field and how space can be considered a commodity. It is a fairly fresh thought process for me so hopefully it comes across as something useful for other players to consider.

On an ultimate field space has value. Offensive players will be attempting to firstly create space, then aiming to occupy that space in a structured way. Defence will have an aim of defending space in some form or another. As an offensive team moves up the field their access to space becomes increasingly limited, and more valuable. For defence the space they need to protect decreases but the cost of losing the space increases.

Effectively space is a commodity that is traded back and forth between the two teams. Further, space is also managed within each team. Offensive players take it in turns to make use of the space that they have created together. They can also gift space to their teammates by staying still, or cutting long with the aim of drawing defenders away from occupied space.

Defenders will also trade space within the team. At any point a defender will be responsible for the space around a certain player, or a specific area when playing a zone. In a zone setup the defensive players are effectively mandated to guard any threats within the space they are defending.

So with space as a valuable commodity, lets have a look at a couple of examples of where this concept has been put to good use on the field:

Example One – WUGC2012 – Open – Japan v Canada

This is a game that has sparked a lot of controversy and discussion in terms of spirit, observers and umpires in Ultimate. The whole game is worth a watch if you have some time. The good folks at were generous enough to make this available online for free. If you like their Facebook Page you can check it out.

There’s certainly a lot to talk about regarding the spirit in this game but I took away another interesting observation. The Japanese offense were very good at getting a player cutting deep and catching a huck up the field. Whilst this isn’t that unique, the interesting thing was that this long cut often didn’t make it into the end-zone. The Japanese would end up with the disc 5 metres short.

In a previous post I have written about following your teammates into the endzone when the disc is heading in that direction. Japan did this well and there was always another offensive player on the scene not long after the successful huck. From this position the score was almost guaranteed, and Japan definitely played it well.

There were many factors that made this play turn into a score. A great long cut, an accurate throw and good follow-up by other offensive players. However, one other major factor was that when Japan were in this position they were very space-rich. The second offensive player had an entire end-zone in which to make a cut. A defensive player was always in the mix but a goal was almost a certainty with so much space for the offense to work in.

I have been in this position myself in the past, both on the offensive team and on the defensive. At one point in my game last night I was marking a player who was sitting on the end-zone line waiting for his teammate to get free from my defensive teammate. The odds were definitely in their favour and those odds were being skewed that way due to the space-rich situation that the offense had created. They scored.

Example Two – Zone Offense

This example is from a game I played in two weeks ago. To set the scene, this was the first week of our local mixed Advanced League (or Div 1). Our team has maintained a small core but we have a lot of fresh new players who are stepping up from the intermediate division.

In our first game our opponents played a solid zone defence on most points. Many of our players had yet to be exposed to much zone offense so it was challenging, and a steep learning curve for everyone.

Luckily one of our more experienced players is talented at looking at the movement on the field and identifying where things could be improved. Whilst I’m the captain, his insights are always appreciated and he really helped me to recognise an area where we could improve.

Specifically, we were in an offensive situation whereby the handlers were swinging the disc back and forth across the field. In this situation a prime opportunity to move the disc upfield occurs as the disc swings to the sidelines, before the cup/wall catches up.

It was observed that all our offensive players were noticing this opportunity and trying to take advantage of it by cutting in towards the disc for an upfield pass. The result was a clump of offensive players clogging up a great opportunity to move the disc forwards.

During a timeout (or half time) my observant teammate had a chat to the team and introduced them to the idea of creating space for their teammates. The poppers and wings were instructed to watch for the disc swinging and move appropriately to drag defenders away from the space upfield, allowing room for the handler to gain ground and then look for their wing further upfield.

This was a bit of an eye-opener for me as it made me view the space on the field in a different light. It also brought forward this whole idea of space being a commodity that is bartered back and forth between the teams. Even more importantly, teammates need to think about space on the field as a shared possession that needs to be managed within the team. There’s a lot to be said for moving around the field with the intention of gifting space to your teammates, rather than only moving when there’s an opportunity to get possession of the disc.

In conclusion, I would encourage players to think about their roles on the field in terms of the space being created or taken away. Whilst there are technical implementations for all tactics the aim of the tactics is always to manage the commodity that is field space. No matter what is happening on the field every player has an impact as they are occupying space, whether stationary or moving around.

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