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The Checkdown: Using Predetermined Options To Become A Better Handler

by in Analysis with 15 Comments
Doublewide's Kurt Gibson hits an under cut in the finals of the 2012 Club Championips.

Photo by Christina Schmidt for UltiPhotos.

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.

  1. The “checkdown” in American football more accurately denotes the last pass in a quarterback’s progression, the “checkdown pass,” whereas I have used the term to refer to the entire progression. []

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About Glenn Poole

Glenn Poole is an Ultiworld analyst. A long-time ultimate player, he played in college with Rutgers, went to Nationals in 2009 with Pike, and competed at 2012 Worlds with the German open team as a defensive co-captain.

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  • Joseph Marmerstein

    Does using this kind of strategy make a handler too predictable though? In football, the offense has the advantage since they know what plays they are running and what the options are. However, in ultimate, if you are running through the same ‘checkdown list’ each time you catch the disc, could a smart (or well-prepared, with all of the ultimate footage available out there) defender effectively shut down your options? Just a thought.

    • Justin

      Well each check takes less than a second. Most people know your first shot is deep, doesn’t mean there’s much to do to stop it besides good honest defense. And if they shade deep then a good handler and cutter will see the under open for instance. Or if the mark jumps to shut something off, then that handler will take advantage and find the break cut. So it’d be a high risk-high reward gamble.

      • Joseph Marmerstein

        Teams (especially at the higher level) often shade straight-up for a second or two to stop that deep look. And you may be right, but I would think that a decent mark could jump over for just long enough to stop (or bother) a huck, and then jump back to cut off the around before the thrower has actually gone to make that throw. Basically, I think being too predictable and then just trying to adjust to the defense may not always work. Rather, I believe that elite handlers read the defense and the offense and adjust their options from there, as opposed to having a check list that they go through. Then again, I’m not an elite handler so I guess I don’t really know for sure.

        Edit: As an additional note, I don’t think that ultimate is quite at the level where this type of predictive defense would really be a potential threat or problem. However, if the sport (and its coverage), continues to grow, it may become a reality. If you look at the way football is broken down and analyzed by players and coaches, they have a specific gameplan and strategy for each team and each player. Is there a reason a defender couldn’t do the same in ultimate?

        • Martin

          In response to your last point. A defender can, should, and many do already pay attention to these things. While I agree with Glenn’s point that many teams don’t analyze tape before a game, as a long-time coach that is something that I try to do for my teams. The most successful teams I have coached/played on have paid attention to what our opponents have done and made adjustments (both pre and during the game) to counter that. I would like to think that other successful teams do this as well. If not they will be soon.

          Good article Glenn.

    • http://twitter.com/gapoole Glenn Poole

      I hope we get to the point where teams study game tape before each matchup, but right now there are very few coaches/teams doing that. Part of the problem is a lack of quality footage, and we might see that improve with one of the new leagues (AUDL, MLU, NexGen?). But football teams already do this and coaches still find a way to stay one step ahead of the D. Preparation is important, but execution and adaptation are also factors.

      • manzell

        Idaho told me once that he spent at least an hour every night watching game tape of his opponents.

    • manzell

      Good defenders already do this, “intuitively”, and all throwers have their internal checkdown list. I know that Glenn likes the i/o mini-break just barely on the weakside over the 10 yard in cut on the open side to an inferior thrower. Every thrower has their favorites.

      I think unpredictably is overrated – I can’t count the number of times I’ve known my guy was going to cut near corner, then to the back corner for a hammer, and then to the front cone on the opposite side for the 3rd-throw-break, and still been unable to stop it.

      • Joseph Marmerstein

        Maybe at the level it’s at now. However, unpredictability is a huge asset at the highest levels of competitive athletics. Part of it is being able to execute, I agree, but even perfect execution is not always enough.

  • Dick Cheese

    “…throwers have to be more dynamic than football quarterbacks.” how can you make this statement? Throwers are stationary with the exception of a pivot whereas quarterbacks have to throw on the run. Not only that, they have to know the protection schemes of their O-line as well as make pre-snap reads and be able to check in and out of plays. Defenses can also disguise coverages compared to known defenses of ultimate (man zone cup etc.) and there is also a blindside for a quarterback that a thrower does not have. Not to mention quarterbacks have the constant pressure of someone trying to tackle them.

    • http://twitter.com/gapoole Glenn Poole

      There are some junk defenses that blur the line between zone and man (see: Japan open), but it’s true that quarterbacks don’t (can’t) stay in one place. On the other hand, the protection schemes and coverage reads are all analyzed and planned out ahead of time. My point is that the structure of football means the offense can take a mini-timeout after each play to reorganize. Even in the no-huddle, the QB gets to call a play and knows more or less what to expect after the snap. Quarterbacks may face more pressure, but I’d still say there’s an unpredictability in Ultimate that sets it apart.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tenk283 Daniel Clenton

    I find a “read” of the defense takes approximately 1/3 of a second… That is using the above “checkdown” system (i’ve been calling it “making reads of the defense” since i started doing it). At the height of their powers a handler should be able to read the entire field inside of one stall.

    Generally my progression is Deep -> Break -> Under -> Dump

  • Hugo Florez

    JOOOOOOOOSE!!!

  • Juan Camilo García

    It’s true that a defender could try and read what is the handler going to do next and stop it. But a good handler can and should be prepared for this. That’s why fakes exist, so the defence tries to make a D that isn’t going to happen to open a space. The checkdown list should be made also thinking of the possibility of the defense to try and stop a pass. An elite handler with an elite cutter will always take advantage of mistakes of the defense…

    From the defense POV, it should always try to read how the handler throws, what is his last resort. And there’s the opportunity. But to do this you have to either study with video or other games before hand, or always, during the game, defend the same person. At first you wont know how. But after several throws you’ll get the way the handler is making that last resort throw, or get at what height is he throwing, if he makes a gesture when he throws and a different one when he fakes, etc, and eventually you’ll be able to get the D.

  • Dark

    Good Article Glenn.

    I think each player, no matter if on offense or on defense does exactly what you described. they are prioritizing tasks every second and reevaluate the decision whenever something happens on the field.

    having a plan, where to go and how to get the disc there will definitely help you as a team to make similar decision. whether it is as a cutter or as a handler. talking about that plan in advance and being able to adjust to different circumstances will help your team to reach a higher level – and make you look like a better play ; )

    cheers

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