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Ultimate Essentials
by Coach Chris Van Holmes

Running is such a basic skill that we often take it for granted. We can all do it, some are good at it, but very few understand what they are doing. It's like walking only faster, you might think. But it's not!

Walking is taking it easy. One foot is always on the ground and as you move through your step, you roll off your foot heel to toe. Although your feet and legs are moving, you aren't exerting very much energy. Your upper body is relaxed and you're shoulders are over your hips. Running is hard work. Both feet are off the ground during each step and you are up on your toes. You are pushing hard with every step, your arms and shoulders are pumping and you're leaning forward.

In Ultimate, acceleration, and the speed or changes in direction it generates, is the most important factor in determining potential ability. (That is one reason football players are often measured by their 40 yd speed). When you run faster, your opponents can't keep up and can't get away. Running well, and fast, is a simple matter of applying a few basic principles to what you are doing. Think about these basics as you run and sprint and you'll find yourself faster, and more powerful, than ever.

What goes into running? Below are the factors that determine how

fast you can run, turn, and change speed.

Step rate - steps taken per unit time.
Stride length - distance from one footfall to the next.
Speed - how fast you are moving = step rate X Stride length
Force - energy applied per unit time. The strength and speed of your muscle contractions determines the force each step generates.
Power - work done per unit time. This comes from a combination of number of contractions (step rate) times the force of each.
Acceleration - rate of change in velocity. Power determines your ability to accelerate.
Lean angle - angle from vertical of your body's axis. This determines how much of your force is converted into lateral motion.

In order to go fast we should combine our fastest step rate  with our longest stride length. Unfortunately there is a trade-off between these two. The fastest step rates are by tap dancers. The longest stride lengths are by long and triple jumpers. Imagine if we could combine these two.

What this means is that we can take lots of very short steps or a few very long steps. This curve (missing) determines how we should run depending on our goals.

The most power, and acceleration, comes when you are running at a step rate faster than you would have at your maximum speed. With a high step rate, the muscles in your legs are contracting more often and generate more power. If you want to accelerate (stop, start, speed up,

slow down, or turn), take more steps.

The lean angle determines the percent of the leg force that gets converted into a horizontal direction. Some people are very effective at getting a good lean as they turn or reverse directions on a cut. They stop with only one or two steps and are off in another direction. They do this with a combination of strong legs and setting up a good angle for pushing off. Sprinters start by leaning way over, supported by their hands, so that all of their push becomes forward momentum. The more you lean, the more force you can exert in the horizontal plane. The trick is to not fall over - or have your feet slip out from under you (good cleats are crucial).

What can we do to improve our acceleration? Of course the answer is practice. First work on increasing your step rate. This means shortening your stride and speeding up your arm swing. The high knee plyometric accomplishes this. Try to step as quickly as possible with very little forward motion. The most effective practice I have found for improving step rate is descending stairs. With one hand hovering over the railing, (falls are possible) step quickly down each stair. As your step rate increases with practice, it will begin to feel more and more like skiing.

Arm swing is also very important in step rate. Your arms and legs work together as harmonious pendula. If you want a quicker step, bend your elbows more, (shorter pendula oscillate faster) and speed up your swing. You'll find that your legs happily follow. Your arms also come

into play on tight turns. Have you ever seen someone wildly rotating one arm as they turned to follow a cutter. This gives more stability (through gyroscopic forces) for better lean angles. Try running in a tight circle with normal arm swing. Then try it with the outside arm swinging in a big circle. You'll find you can go faster and/or run a tighter turn.

Your stride length is a more passive variable than step rate but you can work on it. Here, your reaching plyometric steps help you extend. Lunges give your muscles strength through their entire length. Of course, proper stretching helps a great deal.

Since lean angle depends on the strength of your legs it is a little more difficult to work on directly. Try stopping within one step. Plant one foot in front of you, turn to the side, and put your other foot next to the first. If you are leaning enough, you'll stop and be in a position to push off in the opposite direction.

Weight training can improve the force you generate with each step. Remember to work the muscle groups through their full range to maintain the speed of contraction. All the plyometrics put together help coordinate your muscle groups. Your acceleration is especially improved when you combine the knee raises with the butt kick. When the parts of your legs are working together, your step rate, stride length, and leg push are all increased.

Simple tricks to help your Ultimate acceleration:

  • On defense, take shorter (more) steps than your opponent. This will give
    you more power for acceleration.
  • Downshift (shorter steps) to speed up.
  • Shifting your arm swing will shift your step rate and stride length.
  • Stay low when anticipating a cut to get a better lean angle.


Once you've become comfortable with the techniques of running and accelerating you can apply them to your actions on the field. There is a chant about what it takes to win in Ultimate: "No great throws. No great catches. just great cuts!" It is obvious catching and throwing are much easier if the receiver is wide open. From the receiver's point of view Ultimate is all about getting open and catching the pass. This requires two things:

  1. Establishing separation between receiver and defender.
  2. Approaching a throwing area where a pass can be delivered.

The first is a contest between you and your defender with the simple concepts outlined in the preceding chapter determining the victor. The second may require you to take into account the thrower, the marker, other cutters and other defenders. A good offensive strategy will reduce the complexity of this task.

When the thrower is facing the mark there should be three potential areas for a reception: backhand, forehand, and deep. If these areas are not open, the cutter's job becomes much more difficult. Directly behind the marker is a triangular "dead zone" with the apex

far from the marker. This is because a throw to a spot directly behind the marker is very difficult while one further away becomes easier. It is important to remember the dead zone is fluid. It can be anywhere on the field, move over time, and have almost any orientation depending on the marker.

As a receiver, your goal is to approach a throwing area with your defender behind you and not in the throwing lane while the thrower is ready to deliver the pass. Both the positioning and timing are crucial. Planned cuts and acceleration at what I call break points establish position. Communication, eye contact and deliberate fakes synchronize the thrower and cutter.

I will assume the defender is smart and fast. Your advantage is in them reacting to you. There are a quite a few ways to get position and establish separation from the defender. Each one can stand alone but they are more effective when strung together.

The most direct way of getting open is to take a position between your defender and the throwing area before you even cut. Let the thrower know where you are going with subtle communication. Be sure you go where you said you would. Against good defenders this opportunity is rare and is usually a cut into, or through, the dead zone. A cut to the upside-down throw can be very effective at breaking the mark.

A more reliable method is to out-accelerate your opponent. The key here is to start faster and turn sharper as they attempt to catch up to your first moves. Changes in direction work best when

they are done at break points. These are places to turn based on your position relative to the dead zone or based on your defenders speed relative to yours. When you are passing through the dead zone you have two cutting options that are opposites. In this area defenders are especially alert. As you exit the dead zone, the defender begins to expect only 1 pass, is striving to catch up, and often glances at the thrower to see the release. This is a break point. You should plant hard to get a good lean angle, increase your step rate for more power, and cut back to the other side. In general, break points occur as you move across the boundary of the dead zone. As you can imagine, cuts that alternate between throwing areas will give you the most advantage.

Break points can also occur anywhere on the field if the defender is accelerating to catch up. As your defender speeds up, their momentum exceeds yours. This gives you an opportunity to turn a tighter corner or reverse direction more quickly. The best break points come just as the accelerating defender reaches you. Since the defender is often out of sight, it can be difficult to determine the best time to turn. If you turn early, the defender has a chance to cut the corner and run a shorter distance than you. If you turn late the defender has already matched your speed has the same ability to turn. The ideal break point comes when the defender is as close as possible and still speeding up. A cut at this point will use their acceleration and reaction time against them to create the greatest separation.


Another break point occurs whenever the defender looks away from you. The defender often turns to see the release as you approach a throwing area. It is a perfect opportunity to go the other way. When you are positioning yourself on the field or in the end-zone the defender will often glance to check the field. Although your cutting opportunities may be limited at that moment, a quick move will force the defender to play catch-up. This will allow you to set them up as your opportunities expand.

One particularly rewarding method of obtaining separation is to trick the defender into creating a break point. Try cutting for the dump while calling for the disc. Then as the thrower fakes the dump, break hard up-field to the other throw. Obviously something must communicate to the thrower that you are faking the dump!

In general break points occur:

  • Where the defender's responsibility shifts
  • When a defender is very close and still accelerating to catch up.
  • When a defender looks away or loses concentration.

Approaching the Throwing area

The receiver must take into account the position of the throwing area when choosing the final direction of their cut. Cuts to the middle of the area allow the thrower the greatest space and time to deliver the pass. If the cut is toward the edge of a throwing lane the options are smaller and/or poachers are more likely. Throwers use visual cues to decide if the cutter is going to be open.

Pick an approach to the throwing area that allows the thrower to judge the separation and relative speeds of the receiver and defender.

Expand your options

As the cutter moves around the field, the defender must work to maintain a proper defensive position. When your cuts include all three throwing areas, the defender's positioning responsibility keeps on shifting. The defender also needs to check on the disc location. This will provide the receiver with numerous break points and cutting opportunities and the job of defense becomes impossible.

Be Aggressive

Occasional bumping and blocking is a part of Ultimate. The cutter must be aggressive and attack the defender to get open. If the defender is properly positioned, it may seem to be a waste of effort to cut into an open throwing area. This is an illusion. If you fail to make a cut just because the defender has established position they have already beaten you.

One solution is to draw the defender into covering another throwing area, then using a break point to get open in your primary destination. Use the defender's expectations against them. String break points together in order to get enough separation if the defense is tenacious. This is the effectiveness of the triple cut.

Another possibility is to out-power the defender by getting them on their heels. Accelerate toward the defender. Just before the collision, step around them and go past. As they turn, you will get some separation.



If the thrower and cutter are communicating it becomes a game of two-on-one. Use an elbow point, raised eyebrow, or field map to establish synchrony. Then you can plan your cuts with confidence of the results. The thrower can use better fakes to shift the marker and fool the defender. The cutter can set up strong break points without worrying about an early throw. Often it leads to an easy completion just when the defense feels it needs a stopper. This can take the heart out of the defending team.

Common Errors

  • Failure to use break points.
    Often cutters will attempt to use changes in speed or minor changes in direction to get open. These rarely work unless there is a mismatch or the defender is out of position. An example is a cutback that flares out into the flat.
  • No separation visible to thrower.
    Cuts straight at or away from the thrower provide no visual clues to how open the cutter is or whether the defender is gaining or losing ground.
  • Defender is drawn into the throwing lane.
    This is caused by using a breakpoint too deep within a throwing area. The throwing area is then blocked by the defender for several seconds.
  • Un-aggressive cutting. If you allow the defender to ditctate you cuts, they have won.
  • img_9969_5.jpg
    Not stringing cuts together. A single cut against a good defender is rarely successful. You will need to string together several cuts to accumulate separation.



One of the best ways to learn good ultimate is to watch the great players and figure out what it is they are doing. This is how the concept of power catching was developed. This is simply "go to the disc" taken to its limit. The most secure catch is the smothering of the disc in your center of gravity. It combines the security of the pancake catch, blocking with the body, and a firm grip on the rim. The premise of power catching is to position your body so this catch is always possible. This may entail sprinting faster or jumping higher than you might to just reach the disc with your outstretched hands. The end results of this approach are a) going to the disc, b) good positioning and c) secure, un-defendable receptions.

As in all power ultimate, planning and focus are the keys to success. The first step is to decide where the disc will first be catchable. This is reading the disc. Once you've decided where you will first be able to catch the disc, get there. Don't watch the disc. Don't run with an outstretched arm. These things will slow you down. Instead, put your head down and run to the spot you think the disc going to. When you get near, look again for the disc and fine tune your approach.

Plan your approach to the disc to establish position

and allow an aggressive surge to the disc. Don't get there early and wait for the disc to arrive. That will allow the defender a more aggressive position. If you have arrived early enough, slow your approach and then attack the flight of the disc by accelerating toward it, positioning your body to smother the disc. This is the power part.

The final act of catching requires good hand eye coordination. This means looking the disc into your hands. The advice for hitting the baseball is "Keep your eye on the ball." A study done with professional baseball players showed they actually watch the baseball hit the bat when they were learning to hit a new pitcher. But when they became comfortable with the types of pitches thrown, they would look up at the last second. I think you will find that ultimate players also look away at the last second because are familiar with how a disc behaves. This leads to some drops when the disc, or the hand, isn't exactly where expected. A disc is considered caught when it stops spinning in your hand. At that instant the hotstamp becomes legible. If you want to catch every pass, read the hotstamp every time.

Now clearly you can't get perfect positioning for every catch. Some throws will be at the limit of your reach. Here are some tips to simplify the catch.

  • Be aggressive towards the disc.
  • Whenever possible, get two hands on the disc.
  • If
    you can't get in front of the disc, don't try a pancake catch. Grab the rim instead.
  • Try to get at least one hand on the rim, even when pancaking.
  • Always read the hotstamp.

There is a special technique for catching with two hands when you are running toward a high, oncoming disc. This can be a difficult catch with the disc scooting between your palms or blocked from behind by a defender. Instead of attempting to grab the disc with two hands on the rim, block the disc with an open-faced right hand while grabbing the rim with the left hand. At the same time, palm the disc with your right hand. The open right hand performs several functions: blocks a strong throw so the disc can't push past your open palm, provides a larger area for contact if the wind shifts the disc unexpectedly, makes the left handed grab easier by killing momentum and reducing spin, blocks the defender from the disc, and allows you to palm the disc with your right hand. Even when you fail to catch the pass it will fall straight down and give you another opportunity for a reception.

Whenever you are practicing your throws, practice your catches. Position yourself properly for each catch. Look the disc into your hands. Read the hotstamp. This will give you increased confidence and ability for those tough catches in a tricky wind or with a defender on your back.


Marking is the action of defending the thrower. The marker has

two conflicting goals: prevent a throw to a particular area of the field, and harass the thrower into making a mistake. The first goal is predicated on team coordination to accomplish a turnover. This is called establishing a force. The thrower is 'forced' by the marker to deliver a pass to a particular area of the field while downfield defenders attempt to deny receivers that area. The second goal relies on individual effort by the marker to get a point block or stall. Both can be highly effective techniques.

The key to strong marking is in the stance. The proper stance affords power and balance that you can use to respond to, or even anticipate, thrower's actions. Spread your feet to about twice your shoulder width. Bend at the knees, so the weight is on the balls of your feet and your upper body is upright. Do not bend at the waist. This gives you a center of gravity above the midpoint between your feet and the leverage to move quickly in any direction. You want to be able to hop left or right along with the thrower without having to change your stance. Your arms should be out to your sides with the elbows tucked in, hands low, and your fingers splayed.

This position uses your strongest, fastest muscle groups when you move to attempt a block. You can quickly dart your hands to an unknown point of release or shift your position to block a throwing lane. Extended arms are harder to shift to the point of release and more easily anticipated by the thrower. Most throws go underneath the marker's arms. Until a thrower

has beaten you with a high throw, keep your weight, and arms, low.

Once you have developed the proper stance, you need to practice moving with the thrower. This involves maintaining your stance while hopping to block the throwers potential release. Do not lunge, bend over, or lift your feet into the air. All these actions ruin your balance and limit your mobility. Use them only when the thrower is actually releasing the disc and you are attempting a point block.

The next step is learning the proper reactions to a throwers movements. There are only four basic moves: shift left, right, back, or forward. If the thrower is attempting to throw into the dead zone, the defender must step back . This helps the marker defend by giving more time to react to a pivot by or a released disc. It also prevents the thrower from obtaining a free release behind the defender. The marker must still remain active, shifting with the thrower as they attempt their throws into the dead zone. As throwing skills increase, this job becomes more difficult and the size of the dead zone shrinks. When the thrower turns to the side, away, the marker must step up to reduce the size of the throwing area and be in position to make a block. As the thrower attempts throws to either side, the marker must shift right or left to block the lanes.

After mastering of rapid shifts in position, you need to anticipate the throwers intentions. There are many resources to draw on here. First, be ready to respond to teammates requests. Second, use your peripheral vision

and ears. Third, recognize the throwers patterns. Fourth, get inside the throwers head.

One advantage the marker has is always knowing where the thrower will be. Their pivot foot determines their location. The marker, however, can be anywhere. If given free reign to harass the thrower, move quickly and unexpectedly to different throwing lanes. Occasionally don't respond to the throwers movements. If the thrower is expecting a reaction this can throw him off stride.

When the marker is in a force defense, the primary responsibility is to prevent a pass into the dead zone. The marker should remain in the throwing lane to the weak side and still be very active. When the thrower attempts to break the mark, back up into the throwing lane. This gives you more time to respond to the throw and prevents the thrower from releasing the disc past the markers body.

Another thing to help your marking is to learn individual thrower's habits, such as noticing a penchant for the high backhand. We all have our rivals that we play frequently, so notice the types of throws and fakes the players you cover use. If they regularly throw over the marker, be ready to take a step back to make this more difficult. If they often step into the marker, be aware of that. If they always throw the low inside out forehand, be ready for that. There is no one perfect position to set up in. On some people you should set up as tightly as you are allowed, on others, you want to back up a little.

You can also make adjustments for the weather.

If it is windy, be sure to stay low and force higher releases. This will expose the disc to more wind and occasionally force unstable release angles.

Throwing While Marked.

The most difficult skill in ultimate is throwing a complete pass while covered by a marker. You have about 8 seconds (the average stall count) to choose a receiver, fake the marker, and deliver the disc. To do all this you must remain calm and get control of the situation.

As a general strategy, your goals as a thrower should change as the stall count increases. Between "stall" and "six", you should look to gain yardage or continue the flow of the offense. Above "six", you should be looking for a sure pass close by that will reset the count. Between nine and ten, you need to be delivering the sure pass that you focused on for the past several seconds or be throwing a pass downfield to an area where a teammate has a chance to catch it. Always be aware of the count and DO NOT GET STALLED.

When delivering a pass, look for three things: an open throwing area, an accelerating receiver, and non-closing separation between the defender and cutter. One reason 'come-back' cuts are often defended is because the thrower has a hard time determining the separation and relative speed of O and D players. As the pass enters the throwing area, it should be at a catchable height and speed, as well as providing the receiver a choice of locations to catch it. A bullet

pass that intersects the receivers cut at a right angle has only one point in time and space where it could be caught. As such it is rarely a good pass.

When you recognize a throw you want to deliver, first decide if the marker is hindering you. If not, deliver the pass. But if the marker is in position and hampering your delivery you must first FACE THE MARKER. This gives you a minimum of three throwing options: forehand, backhand, and hammer. This is important because you need to force the marker to respond to fakes to get him out of position.

The same kind of concept used in cutting, breakpoints, are involved with your fakes. The object is to get the marker moving in one
direction while you are setting up to move the other way. Once the marker falls behind, you control the situation. In order for fakes to be effective, your pivots need to be clean, fast, and powerful. To accomplish this you need to keep your steps short and be able to switch grips quickly. As you pivot into a fake, your arm should be moving in a natural throwing motion. When you push back the other way with your just planted foot, the throwing motion should continue to completion. This will hold the marker even as you move back in the other direction. Allow the disc to roll into the other grip at the end of your 'arm fake' and you are ready to throw to the other side in the blink of an eye. You should only extend past the marker on a pivot when they are out of position and you plan to deliver the pass. This step toward, and
past, the marker will seal them from the throw.

One of the best tools for beating the marker is to communicate with the receiver. If you are starting with a dead disc, simple, disguised hand signals are the best way to communicate. My favorite is the 'elbow point' because everyone puts their hands on their hips anyway. It is never noticed as a signal at all! A simple field map will let you call out a player to a location. This will alert other players to clear that space for a throwing area. A critical, non-verbal, way is to use your fakes in conjunction with a receivers cut. If the receiver is breaking into a throwing area while covered, fake to him while maintaining eye-contact. Both the marker and the defender will react. A good receiver will use your fake as a breakpoint and cut directly to an alternate throwing area. Your fake on the marker will be effective for two reasons: first, you know it is a fake and are already pushing off to the other side, and second, markers are often aware of the activity behind them through peripheral vision or hearing and will make an extra effort if they detect the cutter.

Focus, fatigue, and skill are the three biggest factors in throwing errors. Careful attention to your technique will allow you to complete passes in difficult situations. This is crucial when fatigued. Remember that if you are tired, so is your opponent. The one that is able to remain focused on fundamentals will prevail. Casual throws that don't have a history of practice are often turnovers. Don't
use a throw that you can't complete consistently (98+%) uncovered. One way to measure your skill is to throw the same pass 20 or 30 times in a row. What is your completion percentage? Probably not as high as you think!

One skill that is becoming more important is the ability to deliver a pass to the dead zone (break mark). This ability takes away the strengths of force defenses where the marker has one assignment. and downfield defenders another. This is where strong pivoting, stepping past the marker and high releases come into play. Strong pivoting forces the marker to react until he's out of position and the previous dead-zone lays exposed to a free throw. Stepping past the marker gets your release point beyond his body and provides a free throw to anywhere on the field. High releases use the fact that the disc is past the marker before he can react.

Types of Throws

There are three basic types of throws in ultimate. The clockwise spin, the counterclockwise spin and the upside down throw. Being able to execute all three is crucial to being a successful thrower. Each throw has a gradation of release angles that determine the direction and shape of the flight. It is key to be able to throw with many different release angles. Try to remember that any throw is better with more spin.

Practicing throws
This is the first step to acquiring the throws you need. The most successful methods of practice include careful repetition combined

with slight variation over time.

There are two basic grips for each throw which can generally be categorized as power grips and control grips. Power grips squeeze the disc tightly and are best for speed, distance and maximizing spin. Control grips are best for achieving quick releases and difficult release angles.

Throwing while marked
The keys to throwing while covered by a marker are to plan, pivot and fake. Ideally you will know the throw you want, especially if you have prior communication with the cutter. You can then plan a series of fakes and pivots (3 is a good number, remember the triple cut?) to get off the throw you want. Short pivots and quick fakes can be combined to give the illusion of a serious throw attempt. These can then be whipped into another throw while the marker is still shifting to cover your fake. Pivoting should be done with bent knees to maintain balance and power. Avoid large steps and leaning as they limit your potential for changing direction. One key to getting the throw you want is to step past the marker on your last pivot. This cuts the maker off from your release so you have a free throw

Making calls
The thrower has several calls to defend against an overly aggressive marker. These include "Straddle", "fast count", “double team”, "foul", and "strip". Know the rules governing these calls. Some common mistakes are:

  • Not checking the disc after a stall
  • Marker not going back 2 seconds on 1st Fast count or Double team call.
  • Not calling fast count when the marker doesn’t start with “Stalling”.
  • Throwing after making a call. Any throw made after a call is in jeopardy. If it is a turnover it will generally stay a turnover.

Always be aware of the stall count. Be sure to call the contact fouls that affect your pivots and releases. One tactic of an aggressive mark is to foul early to prevent throws and get a high stall count. However, a close mark is the most beatable mark. A good fake and a step past a close mark puts the release point behind the marker and is unstoppable. So if  you feel you’re in control of the marker’s movements, don’t be quick to call fouls.

Once a call is made, the thrower should stop play. Determine the resolution of the call quickly and agree with the marker as to the stall count. Use the down time to establish communication with a cutter. Eye contact and elbow points work great here. When the marker is checking in the disc, be sure to face them squarely so you present all the throwing options and force the defenders to be prepared for all cuts and throws.