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Learning to Layout: Practice & Progressions

January 17, 2011

One of my 2011 goals (Facebook Ultimate page resolution) was to lay it out on the fields, practicing and progressing toward a prettier, stronger, safer layouts, and I’m glad to say I made good progress in my first 2011 USA Ultimate college series tournament just two weeks into January, getting horizontal on O to save an errant cutter dish & score at the same time, laying out past a supermodel height handler to stop an endzone score, and getting low to save an swilly rookie handler dump.

In this post, I’m going to describe some of the practice methods, methodology, and progressions I’ve been working on in the last two years to both learn & more safely teach good layout form.

In the classic Essential Ultimate, Tiina Booth and Baccarini describe one way of teaching kids to layout, by developing familiarity with the ground (roll in it), and then progressing to a drill wherein the player starts on their knees and then falls forward to catch a falling disc [see step 3 in this YouTube video, for example].

Simpler instructions can be found on eHow for how to layout, which reminds you to land on your chest and mentions some important warnings for wannabe layout-ees (try not to lay* into people, keep wrists/hands up, knees away from ground). And insert standard disclaimer here: talk to your coach first before attempting the following methods and progressions, and get prior injuries checked out by an MD and a fitness professional.

While I think these are good starts, I do think that it can be challenging to teach, for example, college-aged women or taller/heavier athletes to layout with these progressions. Falling whilst on your knees seems great for kids and teenagers, but if you are above 5’8″, and are either skinny or ripped, it seems more challenging to get this drill to work well.

In this post I’m going to describe two different progressions, one which I learned from RKC II Asha Wagner who used to play varsity volleyball (now coaches), competes in rugby, and works as a firefighter near San Jose. Damn yo’! =)

"Dig" by Taryn Socha #9, photography by AJ Guel

Anyway, this drill is designed to teach volleyball athletes to dive / dig / layout on the court.

Step 1: Walk forward, crouch into a split squat (a sort of lunge with feet closer together), lean forward placing both hands on the ground in front, and then come down the the ground, bringing your chest to the basketball/volleyball court (slide-y!). Now push out with your feet and slide along your chest, pushing backwards against the court with your hands-like-penguin-flippers.

A bit tricky to explain, I know but check out Anja demonstrating a similar Step 1 on grass here on YouTube, but instead do this (a) inside (b) with some forward motion (c) from a split squat rather than a bilateral (two feet same) position and (d) push backwards with your hands.

The idea here is that the bball/vball court is lower-threat (and easier to slide on! and probs more accessible than a slip n’ slide), and using your hands [although highly discouraged for Real layouts] is a simple guide for new layout-ees. The bilateral–both feet pushing at the same time–motion is somewhat not natural insofaras we typically do not leap forward with two feet at the same time save for horizontal jump tests. In contrast, a split squat is slightly more “functional” in the sense that many layouts will happen from something closer to a split squat position (running forward).

Okay, step 2: start progressing into a slow jog, and start getting more slide-y distance.

After that, progress to no-hands-ma (arms up, back [thoracic-spine!] arched), and then to on-mud, and finally on-grass.

This drill sounds good on paper but I actually haven’t used it too much and will now describe the progression I’ve been working on.

Strength / Mobility Prerequisites

Laying out (landing on the ground) requires quite a bit of eccentric muscle strength as well as strong joints, ligaments, and a threat-modulated nervous system (i.e. you don’t freak out).

Before you start seriously working on these progressions, I advise you to first make progress on the foundations for the olympic lift and address thoracic-spine and gleno-humeral (shoulder) mobility & symmetry. By that I mean start doing FTW squats (face-the-wall, see blog post & images), goblet squats with proud/iron-man/chest-out-like-ur-on-the-beach-with-hotties chest, and then PVC pipe overhead squats.

Aim for good-form PVC pipe overhead squats with pipe straight-overhead, drop down slightly-below-quads/femur-parallel, and come up. If you can start doing this with an empty barbell, nice, but for many, you will lack shoulder-extension / thoracic-spine extension / ankle dorsiflexion mobility, so just work on it (you could cheat with plates below your heels, but… ankle strength / ankle mobility are still good things.

You don’t need to bang out 15 reps of BW OHS–bodyweight overhead squats–right now, but just work on (a) proud chest (b) arms extended wayy up and slightly behind head even (c) core strength/stability at the top and bottom–deep squat in da hole.

Okay, so strength training aside (don’t get injured training! train to reduce injury risk PS FTW =), let’s get back to some progressions.

The Layout: an UltiTraining progression

Step 1: Get low, get ho any-safely-way you can.

Some people slip n’ slide, others have access to a gymnastics foam pit (yay!), some just have an elevated mattress. Just try to slowly and happily land on your anterior (upper) core, your chest-area if you can, and don’t freak out about it. Some have had success with a pool, others with bball/vball court sliding, you could also try rollin’ out on mud (Trouble in Vegas anyone?).

The idea here is two-fold, just to develop a low-level eccentric (absorbing force) strength, some joint & ligament development, but more importantly to modulate the threat of “falling” forward in a controlled fashion (hey that’s what they say about walking). Think of it like diving really, penguins have been doing it for eons on ice, so be like a Morgan Freeman narrated character and get ho on your local iceberg / mattress / court / pool / slippy thang.

You’ll note that much of strength training focuses on the concentric (generating force) although eccentric strength is at Least as important, and undertrained. For example, an Olympic lift is strongly concentric on the way up, same for a bumper-plate barbell deadlift that you drop at the top or above the knees. While this is a safe way for hypertrophy, in athletics quickness matters and having a good amount of eccentric strength and power (rate of force development eccentrically) while make you hot damn domination quicker on the field, since you’ll be able to absorb the de-celerating force of a 5-10 yd sprint and explode-cut to somewhere elses on the field.

But anyway points here are

(1) eccentric strength in muscles / joints / ligaments and
(2) nervous system threat modulation.

Point (2) is more important than you might think–many injuries happen because your bodymind freaks out and you spaz, injuring your own joints in the process. If you stay calm, you don’t spaz, and joints stay safe. A lot of layout progressions don’t honor the nervous system aspect, both the mental and the arousal curve / threat perception of laying out, since diving seems like that bad F word Fall, whereas many athletes have to start addressing the Fear of laying out whether it’s because they fear injury, falling, or re-injury.

Step 2: Add slow forward motion and develop good eccentric force absorption patterning after t-spine extension

What I mean here is you should start moving forward slowly, and then learn to absorb force after your body is in extension (arms up, chest out, hips in extension with knees behind you), with reasonable timing.

If you have a foam pit great, if just a slip n’ slide okay, otherwise I have been personally experimenting with (a) Swiss ball layout eccentrics and (b) futon fallin’. In (a) you start with hands on or near a Swiss/balance ball, in a split squat, and then do a sort of anterior-core rollout finally landing by bouncing your iron-man-circle-generator-emblem chest on the Swiss ball. Then learn to do so with hands not on the ball, and a disc in the air right near the ball.

You’ll note that many balls won’t withstand this pressure, bee-tee-dubs, so mind your surroundings and start slow. I like this progression since Swiss balls are ubiquitous, and you start developing a gentle forward motion with a less aggressive lean (body more ho than vert but not completely parallel to the ground), and finally the Swiss ball will absorb some shock for you. It can also be done easily outside or inside, and is kinda fun.

For (b) you do something similar but with some craigslist/IKEA futon/mattress elevated or on the ground. Just start diving and reducing the neural threat of getting ho-. A mild forward motion, body-in-extension, and force-absorption are key/important here.

Step 3: Lay it out

Okay, so there are only three steps–I’m still working on this progression myself, with moi and athletes on my team. Once you can lay it on balance balls & futoni (thanks for the mattress idea Sonoma State), you’ll be flying like Maggie Ruden in no time (okay maybe not, but try :).

Personally I like KB Turkish-get-ups for shoulder static strength and mobility in multiple dimensions, the RKC armbar for extra mobility, Z-Health R-phase camshafts (explain that another day/elsewhere) / t-spine anterior&posterior glides, overhead squatting, and finally anterior core work, but at some point you’ll have to lay it out, and here it’s often in your head / wanting it enough / activating the appropriate neural chemistry slash drive. Competitive Fire anyone? But more practically for the inner game, pre-game and pre-game-night visualization can help tons.

As for other wacky ideas I haven’t tried yet, I’ve thought about having kids jump into vertically standing mattresses, first on a wall and then freestanding vert, since you want to be able to run into a solid surface & shock absorb force, and have also considered the vert to ho progression but practically this is difficult unless you live in an especially grassy / hilly area. There’s always carpet valslides but one idea you can play with is anterior core barbell rollouts (concentric and/or eccentric? who knows), inside or out. Personally I think it’d be sick to see someone anterior core barbell rollout greater-than-bodyweight with high rate-of-force (RFD) development/power on a grassy field but maybe that’s taking things too far (or not).

Either way, there we have it, a simple (but not easy, as Mark Reifkind might say) progression to the Ultimate layout. Have fun, train safe, and sick bidding all the way to Nationals, Worlds, and beyond =)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 7:17 pm

    One thing I’ve found in my captaining/coaching experience is that poor layout form is nearly always a byproduct of the fear of laying out. A player gets nervous about hitting their ribs and so they tuck an arm underneath them on impact. Or the player is afraid of faceplanting, so they tend to roll with their bids and land dangerously on their side/shoulder. Or they get hesitant about launching themselves at full speed, so they end up dragging their knees rather than exploding fully.

    So when we teach new players about laying out, we take a bit of an accelerated approach. We always begin by talking about technique, having a vet with good form demonstrate, and if necessary doing a quick “practice” drill where the players make a straight, low, hands-forward bid off a forward jog. But right after that we try to get the guys laying out for discs. A good starting drill is usually to have the player cut out and make a shallow cut for a disc thrown intentionally far and low by a veteran thrower. Once the thrower is warmed up (admittedly, one of the hardest parts of this drill), players should be getting quality reps, practice catching from both sides (towards the left hand and towards the right hand), and an opportunity to watch their teammates’ form and hear the coach’s critiques (don’t tuck your knees, don’t roll, make sure you’re making the bid in stride rather than stop and dive).

    From there, we like to do a drill called circle of death. Teammates form a circle about ten yards in diameter with one thrower on the circle and the “victim” at the center. The thrower throws hard-to-catch discs inside the circle, in rapid succession so that the receiver barely has enough time to reset before he has to lay out for another. Teammates in the circle toss uncaught discs back to the thrower. Once the receiver makes ten layout catches (they must be layouts), they swap out for the next victim. It’s a challenging drill and some guys will hate it. It doesn’t teach great running-and-laying form, but what it does do is help the player overcome fear and hesitance. They’ve got to bid and hit the ground if they want the drill to end, they’re surrounded by their teammates yelling them on, and they’ve got minimal time to worry about getting hurt before they’ve got to react to the next disc. It’s definitely a mental drill rather than a form drill, but I’ve found it to be very effective, a great team bonding drill, and I’ve never seen anyone get hurt doing it.

    Of course, layout practices are best done right after or during a rainy day, in the muddiest and most central location of campus available.

    And, as you did a great job explaining in your article, encourage your players to work on shoulder strength, particularly through overhead weight work. The shoulder is at its most vulnerable when the arm is straight out overhead, so shoulder work is absolutely critical for injury prevention for the aggressive ultimate player.

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      January 18, 2011 10:16 am

      Nice @Jeremy! Yes, fear is the/a bodymind-killer. False Expectations Appearing Real. I can see how the practice (starting) drill you mention could work, I’ve actually been part of a similar drill but it took me a little longer to start defeating the Fear of Falling.. or is it Fear of Flying? =)

      As Dan John says, pick up heavy stuff from the ground. Put it overhead. Carry it for time & distance. All other training is supplemental!

  2. Jamie Wolf permalink
    January 18, 2011 4:13 am

    If you happen to live in a cold climate with snow, get bundled up and lay out in the fresh snow. 4-8 inches is great because you can still kind of run and there is enough padding so soften the impact. The many layers of clothing helps too.

    The problem with laying out into a pool is that in re-enforces the wrong form. Flat landings feel like a belly flop (but would be best for ultimate), while sharp angle dive like motion works great in the pool (but is bad news on the field).

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      January 18, 2011 10:18 am

      @Jamie I’ve heard reservations about pool layout so yes, good point. I was in NY over break for the 8 inch snowfall so I can see where you are coming from–haven’t played Ultimate in 6+ inch snow in years but perhaps you have a good point, snow >> beach? Who knows =)


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