Photos clockwise from top left by Paul Rutherford for UltiPhotos, Steve Kotvis for f/go, Pete Guion, Kevin Leclaire, and Kristina Geddert for UltiPhotos.
Every player has their strengths and weaknesses—and while some element of these will be natural (as the saying goes, you can’t teach tall), most of a player’s skillset is honed through hours of focused practice, scrimmaging, and games. We asked a handful of top players what they considered the aspect of their game they were most confident in and how they developed it.
The aspect of my game I'm most confident in is breaking the mark. I also happen to think it's the most valuable part of any thrower's game. It wasn't until college that I realized how valuable it was and why it was worth practicing constantly. You can develop your break-marking ability in three ways: drilling, in-game, and what I'll call the "chess match."
The most explicit way to get better is drilling, and doing that by getting in front of great markers in a break-mark drill so they are marking you when you're up to throw. The toughest mark on PITT was always Julian Hausman (PITT, Sockeye) who is 6'3" with something that felt like a 9-foot wingspan. I loved trying to break his mark and especially trying to beat him by throwing around throws (or through his legs). I would get point-blocked or throw turns a lot but it was extremely valuable to find the edges of my throwing ability, and when I tried a fake or throw that worked I would repeat it as much as I could. Another thing I've done during practice is give the marker a disc in each hand to expand their wingspan by about a foot or so on each side, which made them much tougher to beat.
While break-mark is a great drill, there is nothing better than committing to breaking the mark in scrimmages. On PoNY, we have scrimmages where if you turn the disc trying to throw an around break continuation it is an "auto-foul," i.e. the disc comes back and the turnover doesn't count. This is a fantastic way to practice continuations and encourage people to break the mark to change the field. It's also a reward-based way to do it instead of thinking of some kind of punishment for not throwing that continuation, which I think is a nice mindset change. Positive reinforcement is a huge part of encouraging break throws, so also having a teammate on the sidelines celebrate you when you do little things like the break the mark in practice is a big help.
Finally, the chess match: great defenders know how the guy they are covering likes to throw. I've heard my brother Noah say "every good player has 2 or 3 moves and they repeat them constantly." With a few exceptions, he's right. That means as a thrower you also need to consider what throws and breaks you've gotten away with over the course of a game and try your best not to repeat that throw, because you will get blocked. I'll often throw a certain kind of break two or three times for a 5-10 yard gainer to soften up a mark and then go for the dagger (a big 40-yard break throw to an under off the back of the stack). That part of the game can only really come from experience, but if you can make those split decisions late in a game, after being guarded by the same person for 3 or more points, it can make all the difference. I can guarantee this: if you break a good defender's mark with one throw a couple of times, he is going to try his damnedest not to let you do it again. So don't! Play the chess match and try to surprise them.
I would say that I am most confident about reading the game. In particular, for efficiency but also for momentum influencers.
I think I have a natural instinct for reading the game for efficiency whether it's on O or D, but over time I have learned and continue to learn and refine strategies of how to best use my skills. This can often be simplified to efficiently through positioning and decision making. This combination I think of as Ultimate “craft” as opposed to Ultimate “skill” (throws, physical qualities).
When I first started, there were no women's leagues. I played mostly against men (and only against women at an international level). I played for Clapham Open team and GB Women/Bliss who always entered the Open tour in the lead up to internationals. When you play against potentially faster and taller players, you have to be smarter. You also have to keep turn rates low. I would test individual strategies on offense by focusing on cut shape, throw shape, release points and faking speed and angle. The improvements were almost solely through trial and error (coaching was a rarity). It was a quick learning strategy because any poor choices had obvious and immediate consequences. On defense, position was vital. You learn how much you can buffer on a cutter, how much you can bite before you’re burnt, and very importantly how as a team, a slight improvement in everyone’s position can increase your team D’s effectiveness. Like O when your opponents are predominately taller and faster, you have to be more accurate. Two important words for D craft: poaching and switching. These strategies are often seen as lazy D but done well they are stifling, tiring, and psychologically defeating for opponents, resulting in incredibly effective team D.
Playing against Open players was invaluable training and it meant I had to stay sharp and mentally strong, always adapting and trying different strategies. I think it's one of the reasons you see strong female players coming out of emerging ultimate communities with robust positioning and strong decision making.
On a leadership level, I have a strong innate sense of momentum influencers. I often feel in tune with the current psychological state of both teams and so I have a decent sense of how that will relate to their actions in 3 points time. I think this was also developed in my early years of play. Playing as a women’s team in open tournaments there were noticeable team swings in confidence which directly related to outcomes in results and also changes in opponents mood and their related outcomes.
Vancouver Furious George
The aspect of my game that I’m the most confident in is my cutting. No matter what match-up I’ve drawn for a game, I know in my heart that I’ll be able to get the disc under, deep, or in a bail position because I’ve spent hours obsessing over the offensive portion of our game.
I could tell you that I work out 6 times per week to work on my explosiveness and speed; however, I’d be lying. I grew up playing hockey and lacrosse (I’m a true Canadian boy) and I’ve been lucky that those abilities have transferred to ultimate. What I can tell you is that I’ve watched almost every ultimate game on YouTube and that’s how I developed my skill as a cutter.
There’s a difference between watching an ultimate game to enjoy it and watching an ultimate game to learn from it, and that difference is actively and purposefully watching. If you’re a cutter, choose one player per point and don’t take your eyes off them. Notice the intricacies of how they are watching the play, setting up their cut, clearing space, accelerating through the disc, etc. It’s easy to get stuck watching the disc when you’re watching, but that’s not where the action is. If you see someone catch a 40-yard huck completely unguarded, rewind the video and watch how they did it. Notice someone get a huge poach block? It wasn’t a fluke; rewind the tape and watch what they did. Take notes, visualize, and I promise you’ll improve.
Our generation of ultimate players are the luckiest yet: there are hundreds of hours of game footage for us to learn from, and to not would be a waste of an amazing resource. So next time you’re too tired for the gym, invest an hour of your time to analyze some game footage–it might just help you get that edge you need to win your next game.
My favorite on-field move is the throw-and-go. Flick side, backhand side, it doesn't matter. I learned how to play in a pretty unstructured environment, without a lot of attention to systems, so having a quick first step to get the disc back was a huge asset.
On the flip side, I've discovered more recently that my readiness to "go" after the throw sometimes leads to sloppy body positioning and poor execution on the throw. So, over the past few seasons, I've spent more time outside of practice drilling that move with a focus on setting my feet more firmly before following the throw.
I'm not sure there's an on-field skill I'm more comfortable with than throwing a 20-yard flick. Whether they're on the force or the break side, if someone is open under and a flick is a viable throw, I feel pretty good about getting them the disc.
And while I'd love to say the same about 70-yard bombs, getting to this point with open, "easy" flicks was a pretty deliberate choice because, to draw on basketball for a metaphor, I don't want to miss any layups. I'm not sure I have to make any other throw as frequently, so I've always thought a straightforward flick should be automatic.
I've primarily reached this point through plain old practice. I've thrown and thrown and thrown, going back to when I first picked up the game in high school. There's not really a substitute for hours invested. But to be more specific, it's been a lot of focused practice and actively seeking out ways to adjust and get better.
I'm a big proponent of grabbing a stack of discs and throwing at a sweatshirt tied to a fence because I think it's easier to set up a dummy mark (e.g., an upside-down bike, or even just a pole), visualize real game situations that way, and get a ton of deliberate reps that way as opposed to throwing with a friend (which usually goes the route of just tossing...).
I've adjusted my grip a few times in my career based on tips from other players and things I've noticed about how much snap I'm putting on the disc. I've talked to great throwers and asked them for advice (if you're ever around Bob Liu, go up and ask him for his throwing lesson).
Overall, I look at my throws as a continuing practice rather than something that's set in stone, and right now I feel like my run-of-the-mill flick-- a throw I'd hate to overlook-- is where that has paid off the most.
On that last note, I try not to see any element of my game as complete. I think it's important to practice my go-tos often, and if I don't, they lose their polish pretty quickly. I'm coming off a year where I really didn't play much ultimate, and I've already thrown a few errant short flicks as a result of not consistently repping them. Ben Wiggins wrote at some point that in the years when Sockeye was winning titles, he went something like 7 total days without throwing each year. Sounds about right.
But it's also important to remember that for getting your reps in, there's something to be said for just a handful of good ones if that's all you have time for-- you don't have to go to a full practice, or even spend half an hour. In that same blog post, Ben noted how sometimes, all he did was throw in the street with his partner for 5 minutes and then call it a day. I know I talked about focused throwing above, but frequency is huge too. For me, if I'm not throwing regularly, my flick won't be at its peak no matter how good it used to be.