Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): Marking

In the fall of 1994, I went to Chicago to play the first ever Tune-Up with Buddha (who became Sub-Zero in 1998.) For a period of five to six years, Tune-Up was the premier preseason club tournament and it was my first experience playing the likes of Dog, Rhino, Chain and Ring. I was arrogant and naive, over-confident and inexperienced. In short, I was about to get my ass handed to me.

There are two moments that stand out from that weekend. About four losses into Saturday, we were playing against Huntsville. I had a pretty good step-around backhand and all day I'd been trying to get it off, only to get hammered by the marker. Finally, frustrated and indignant, I went up to tall Donovan and whined, "You guys are such big cheaters. Every time I try to pivot and throw my backhand, you guys foul me. This doesn't happen in college ultimate. Why can't you play spirited like college ultimate?" Donovan looked down at me and said, "Go back to college," and walked off.

The second was in the Dog-Rhino final. Rick Melner (#00) v. Cork (picture not available). Cork catches the comeback about fifteen yards out and leans out into his classic straight-leg forehand. Ricky climbs right up Cork's leg like they're dancing the tango. It's such a brutal straddle that Cork's pivot foot must have been a good foot-and-a-half behind Ricky. But Cork leans out a little more, throws the goal and calls "Foul," just as cool as a cucumber.

The title of this series is How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating), but we need to be honest - these marking tricks are cheating. They all amount to trying to get away with whatever you possibly can. They depend on putting the onus for legal play on the calls of the thrower, not where it belongs, which is on the play of the marker. Here's how it works:

1. Get away with whatever you can. If you can hug them for ten seconds, do it. If you can fast count them, do it. If you can put both of your arms straight out and keep them from pivoting, do it. Straddle? Check. Less than a disc space? Check. In everyone of these scenarios, you put the thrower in a position to enforce fair play. If they don't, because they don't want to or don't know how or haven't realized you're cheating - big advantage. At the college level, the two most effective tactics are the hug-a-mark (arms straight forward to prevent pivoting) and the not-a-disc-space mark. That's because college players don't realize what is happening or have the skill set to take advantage of it. At the club level, it's the backpack, the bump on the catch, rough play early in the count. That's because even if the thrower does something about it (like call a foul), it still helps the defense.
2. Even against good throwers, foul between 0-5 in the stall count. It's during 0-5 that throwers do good things: like throw goals and big gainers. Stopping play here is a big advantage for the defense, so even if the thrower calls the foul, it's a win for the defense.
3. Backpack. Even if they catch it, they still have to stagger ten steps, losing yardage and time the whole way.
4. Fast count. The advantages here are obvious. On a side note, all of these strategies are designed to induce the rush state in the thrower and nothing hits the panic button like a quick trip to stalling 6.
5. Don't foul between 7 - 10. This is when turnovers happen. Really, it should be rephrased, don't get called for a foul between 7 and 10. See rule #1 for details.

How do you beat it?
1. Poise. The best weapon you have against a hack is the same calm composure Cork showed while throwing that goal. The effectiveness of the fouling mark is partly because of what it prevents you from doing, but even more so because of what it makes you think you can't do. Recognition of the problem is the first step to solving it. Once you realized you are being hacked, you have a number of excellent options.
2. Take the free throw. If the marker is continuously fouling you, step through and throw the backhand. Call foul. Make sure your move maintains contact with the marker the whole way, so when they try to argue the foul was before the throw, they'll be wrong.
3. Play through. Generally, stoppages benefit the defense. They can rest, assess the situation and stop the rhythm of the offense. The one time a stoppage benefits the offense is if you are about to get stalled. If you are being fouled, then this previous post applies.
4. Play fast. If you are throwing quickly and playing in an uptempo offense, there are far fewer static marking situations. It is the static situations that really allow the marker to clamp down. If you are releasing on stalling 1, before the marker can even get to you, they can't foul you.
5. Observers aren't that helpful for dealing with marking. Well, they are if your team really doesn't know how to deal with physical marks. But for everyone else, the more effective solution is to deal with it yourself in the ways described here. Club Nationals is the proof of this: tons of observed games and physical marking remains endemic.
6. Advocate for the "contact" call.
This new call, where a fouled thrower can call "contact," thereby resetting the stall count without stopping play, is a good cure for this problem. It removes the two biggest advantages the defense has in this situation: the opportunity to stop a throw and stop the rhythm of the offense. I talked to USAU Observer Scoops about it over the summer and I know it was in a trial phase then, but I haven't heard much since then. It remains to be seen how the game will evolve around such a big rule change, but I think it will be largely positive. (Although likely requiring another adjustment that will benefit the defense, like stalling 7.)

There are two posts remaining in this series: the Lightning Rod and a final wrap-up/comment discussion.


  1. Isn't the 11th edition "disc space" call basically your "contact" from number 6. I mean, it's not exactly the same stall scenario, but you get 2 seconds (and it feels like more since most markers screw it up). Plus, once you call it a second time, you start getting all the 0 stalls you want. And there's almost always a second opportunity.

    Or do you think the first-call-goes-to-0 is a big enough deal that we need this additional rule?


  2. I think that often teams expect to be able to remain poised, play through the foul, and take the free throw against physical marks just by reminding themselves to do it. These are skills that also need to be practiced at practice.

    If your team's own marking style is aggressive (code word for cheating), then you get to practice playing against that all season. You'll be prepared for other teams that play that way. But your marks are also going to be illegal, perpetuating the problem and institutionally violating SOTG. Instead, I would advocate practicing legal marking (which takes a lot of skill to be effective), but also have certain drills where the marks are encouraged to cheat and the throwers are forced to recognize when they are being fouled or fast counted or crowded and play through it appropriately.

    After my team recognized we were being bullied on the mark by certain opposing teams, we changed some of our warm-up drills to become more comfortable facing illegal marks. Through the course of the season, it made a difference--in particular reducing the number of pointless foul calls when we were still holding the disc and increasing the number of times we were able to get the throws off that we wanted.

  3. My biggest pet peeve with the "disc space" and to a smaller degree, the "fast count" call is that they dont roll off the tongue.

    If the thrower didn't have enough to think about, calling marking violations and seeing to their enforcement is just too much.

  4. I was thinking a tall guy named Donovan from Huntsville that played in 1994 could have any number of people! But after reading the response to whining I will have to credit/blame for the comment. You just called my team a bunch of cheaters – how else should have I responded? More importantly, that comment and my reaction was funny, at least, if you have my sense of humor. I giggled when I read it. I would have said that to my best friend in the world if he had just called my team a bunch of cheaters.

    It doesn’t mean that I do or have condoned to win cheating. I have admitted in the past that I have made regrettable calls that I would never make now, but that is another story. I never had the opportunity to play in college, but I have played a lot of college teams in the past and in 1994 very few of them even marked, much less held a solid mark. It also doesn’t mean that I was cheating, your side of the story could be different from mine. Are sure we weren’t standing still when you pivoted into us :-). Now to be completely honest, I can't say I (not speaking for my teammates now) wasn't fouling you on the marks. I used to play a super aggressive game. I learned to play competitive Ultimate in Florida. You have never been marked till you played Miami in a game that mattered. I was willing to give up the stall count to hold my mark.

    Ideas for your next blogs:
    stepping into a solid mark and calling foul to reset the count (I was going for irony here)
    rule changes from 1994 to 2010
    foul calls on hospital passes (you can really ping me on this one) on second thought, please don’t do this one I don’t want to have deal with all that noise

    I like the foul = zero stall count rule – if I wanted to cheat to win I would foul you once(before a five/six count) to keep you from getting off the quick down field throw while the defense is having to transition to a new throwing angle. Costing me two seconds of hard D with the angles being cut off is a lot better than having to play the additional five/six seconds if you reset the count.

    ps I just called out for something that happened in 1994 – seriously ;0)

  5. Nice post, Lou. I like the perspectives from the marker's and thrower's sides.

    We played with the "contact" call at ECC this summer, and it was a huge improvement over existing marking rules. I had it called on me a number of times, and called it a few times. By the end of the tournament, I'd stopped making contact with the thrower after 1 or 2, cause it wasn't worth it. Stall at 0, without breaking the offense's rhythm - much more effective than the current "drop 2" rule.

    Different question: how will refs affect the marker/thrower interaction?

  6. John, now the reset to 0 also comes with a stoppage (stoppage = advantage: defense), whereas play does NOT stop with the "contact"/reset to zero (no stoppage = advantage: offense). I think THAT was Lou's point.