We all marvel at elite handlers. They’re able to break the mark at will, hit their receivers with pinpoint hucks, and bust a zone defense wide open with one well-placed hammer. These impressive abilities inspire us to put in painstaking hours of practice, throwing until we reach our own level of mastery. We flick thousands of forehands in pursuit of a perfect inside-out, but there’s another piece of the puzzle we might be forgetting: at any given moment, how do those great handlers know which throw to go with?
People talk about handlers having “great vision” like it’s some kind of supernatural sense, but it’s actually just a conditioned response. Things on the field usually happen too quickly for conscious decision-making, so we train ourselves to react unconsciously. Great handlers have learned to process throwing options very quickly. They see their teammates cutting, read the defense, and respond almost by instinct with the right throw.
In American football, quarterbacks have to do the same thing. One of the tools they use is the checkdown1, a specified order of options that gives structure to their decision process. Receivers run predetermined routes and the quarterback assesses each in a designated order, throwing to the first open option he finds. Football teams drill these plays over and over in order to establish precise timing, just so the quarterback can tell at a glance whether each receiver is open before moving on to the next option.
In Ultimate, however, teams don’t get to set up a new play after each completed pass. The offense has to reorganize itself on the fly every time the disc moves, and that means throwers have to be more dynamic than football quarterbacks. Even so, the checkdown is a useful tool for handlers facing downfield disorganization because it gives two important advantages to the offense. First, rather than seeing the offense as one big chaotic mess, handlers can prioritize certain cutting lanes and options to make more effective choices. Second, it helps the receivers work together with the thrower to keep the disc moving. They know which spaces to clear and what cuts to make in order to present clear options.
It’s no surprise that most teams already do this off a stopped disc, from the brick, and after timeouts or turnovers. Set plays are a good way to jump start the offense, but handlers can also use the checkdown in flow. When an experienced thrower catches an upline pass, they will usually look right away for a deep cut from the opposite side of the field. It’s the most rewarding option from what many teams see as a “power position.” If that option isn’t there, most throwers will look for an in-cut down the open lane, then maybe check for a break-side option before looking to the dump.
This is a typical progression and probably nothing new or revolutionary, but the idea behind it can be applied to a variety of offensive scenarios. The appropriate options and their order of priority will depend on a team’s strategic goals, the thrower’s personal skill set, the defensive pressure, and even the weather or field conditions. Regardless of the circumstances, though, a unified offense is more likely to succeed than one where players aren’t on the same page. Having a predetermined checkdown can also help to speed up the decision-making and throwing process, exploiting the offense’s inherent advantage: reaction time.
Say it’s late October in Sarasota, there’s a fierce crosswind blowing toward the backhand side and your opponents are matched up person-to-person. You’re in a vert, they’re forcing flick and daring you to air it out, expecting any hucks to float. That means downfield defenders are shading underneath and the mark is likely taking away the around—the quick inside-out flick is going to get pushed down and that makes break options less of a concern for the defense. They have locked down on all the easy options, so any opportunities you do get become that much more precious.
At this point, the offense’s priority should be to keep the disc away from that trap sideline. If you do manage to complete an inside-out break for some yards, maybe your first option in the checkdown isn’t to gain yards. Ordinarily you would press your advantage with defenders out of position, but in this case it might be worth swinging the disc wide and even losing some yards in favor of establishing an otherwise weak deep game. Outside-in backhand hucks are going to resist blowing over in the wind better than long forehands will, and a few deep strikes will help keep defenders honest and relieve pressure on the unders.
If you aren’t able to get a good deep shot, the swing back to the forehand side will be significantly easier: the defense is encouraging you to go that way, an around flick swing will bite into the wind better than an inside-out flick going the other direction, and if the mark doesn’t shift away from the around you’ll even have an IO-backhand option up the gut. Since it’s easier to gain the lateral yards back toward the force sideline, it’s less of a problem for the offense to stall on the break sideline.
So a cutter receiving the IO-flick on an in-cut will look to: 1. swing wide, 2. dump it off to a handler in the middle, 3. continue down the break lane, 4. find an option on the open side. A handler receiving that first swing to the backhand sideline would look: 1. deep down the break lane to a receiver coming out of a cut on the open side, 2. up the gut, 3. swing to the flat.
Not all situations will be so obviously complicated by the wind. But by thinking about the advantages of certain passes over others, in terms of completion risk and related continuation options, a strong thrower will be able to develop checkdown progressions for most scenarios. It may sound meticulous, but it makes a big difference for the timing and execution of a throw if the handler is prepared for an option instead of reacting to it.
It’s also how great handlers complete passes that less experienced players might not have even seen as options. Blades are often dismissed as unreliable throws, but the Buzz Bullets and many European teams use them effectively; what looks like a “creative” throw is actually part of their checkdown. If you start looking for the spaces and expecting opportunities to use one in practice, you may find yourself completing one in a game. Drill the progression enough and you may start delivering the pass by instinct.