Tuesday Tips: The Importance Of Following The Disc, Presented By Five Ultimate

All it costs is effort, and you have a chance to be the hero.

Danny Clark after catching a tipped disc to win the 2014 Club National semifinal. Photo: Christina Schmidt -- UltiPhotos.com
Danny Clark after catching a tipped disc to win the 2014 Club National semifinal. Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

The article is presented by Five Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Five Ultimate!

There are many skills that players are taught when first learning the game, but the importance of following the disc is often not one of them.

An undervalued skill that can provide everything from lightning fast disc movement to spectacular saving catches, following the disc is a fairly self-explanatory idea that is either forgotten, ignored, or simply not done out of pure laziness.

And make no mistake, it does take effort, but usually fitness and a lack of focus are all that stand in the way of providing this key piece of backup protection.

There are several situations where it is important to follow a throw, even if you are not the primary player involved as a receiver or thrower. Here are a few key ideas to keep in mind when doing so.

When Throwing (or Marking)

As a thrower, always take a hard first step in the direction that you have just moved the disc. This first step to follow the disc opens up the offense in a variety of ways.

First of all, by activating instead of hanging back and watching your throw, you are immediately forcing your defender to move and respond. Remember, as long as you are moving, the defense has to be on guard, unable to fix you in place for a static defense. This is always an advantage to you.

That first step can be extremely effective to set up a give-and-go or, at the very least, to provide an immediate, open reset and get the disc back in your hands.

Just because your first step is towards the disc does not always mean running straight at the disc. Sometimes following the disc movement means simply repositioning yourself. Know the situation and know that sometimes you have to step towards the disc and then drop back once again to stay out of the way of the flow. Nothing is worse than making a terrible strike cut or clear in front of the thrower when you started almost directly behind him or her, a nearly impossible throw that also blocks off all other lanes of offense.

If you’ve thrown a huck, don’t admire it. Start following immediately, assuming that it will be caught (but not for a goal). You’ll beat half of your teammates (and your defender) down the field to get that dump that leads to another short pass to the endzone.

As a defender, all of this still applies, but for inverse reasons. As a mark, your first step should be towards the disc to stop the immediate threat of a strike or give-and-go. When you follow the huck, you can sometimes pick up a man that a slower (or lazier) teammate missed in the process of transition.

When Cutting (Or Defending Upfield)

If you are not the person being thrown to, you want to generally assess the situation so that you can set up the next cut or continuation (or defend that continuation cut).

The important exception to this rule is when the huck goes up. Again, most people become spectators, standing and watching. Whether you are on offense or defense, if that huck goes up, you do not want to sit and admire.

Follow at your full speed. What does this cost you? Nothing but effort. On offense you can be a safety net or continuation, or even the star who makes the play. On defense, you are only providing much needed help. If you’re the closest receiver or defender, or fast enough and hard-working enough to be the first or second to the play, you can make an impact.

As you chase, ask yourself these three questions in this specific order:

Question 1: Can I make a play on the disc?

The trickiest to handle, but also the most important. Even if you weren’t the intended target, you have a good chance of getting involved. At the very least, assume the defender is thinking the same thing (and defenders should almost always do so): to make a spectacular help block.

Remember, discs float, especially on windy days, and strange plays can happen. We’ve all seen that disc that looks like it is going to sail a mile suddenly slow down, pop up, and hover for everyone to wolf pack.

If you truly think you can make a (clean) play on the disc as an offensive player, then you have no choice but to go for it. Your defender — assuming he or she also put in the effort to follow the play — is almost certainly going to do so, and just sitting by to watch and trust your fellow cutter is putting him or her in a two on one situation in the best case scenario.

The difficult part of the situation is the fact that you are involving yourself and immediately making the situation more complicated; often this isn’t your fault, but sometimes it is.

Now you have to judge whether you really think you have the best play on the disc. This means assessing a lot of things, including your location on the field and the players involved.

If you’re an athlete with a clear path to the disc and crazy good hops, then your approach is obvious. Go for it.

If, on the other hand, your fellow teammate is your tallest sky monster, you may want to take things differently.

Or, if you simply have no approach because of where you are on the field, or are blocked by others, don’t run in and create a foul (or a dangerous play).

If you are going, go all out, and don’t hesitate. Similar to leaving your man to go for the poach, if you are going to make the attempt, you usually are going to be expected to make the play and sometimes you’ll be blamed if you don’t.

But don’t doubt yourself: if confidence sparks up in you, your body is telling you, more often than not, that you will indeed make the grab. Sometimes the unlikely player comes out of nowhere for that top ten highlight.

Question 2: What do I do if you’re probably not going to get the disc on the first play?

If you have no shot at getting the disc before another player, or if you are not confident that you can take the disc from a teammate (remember that skymonster scenario), then you want to set up and be ready for something crazy to happen.

This is the part of following the disc that is probably the most undervalued, and it is an art that can likely (without exaggerating), over the course of the season, save 3-4 possessions (or D’s). Sometimes (especially because they are hucks) these translate directly into points — points that someone is usually frustrated about.

To be the trash collector, the safety net, or the backup player isn’t always the most glorious job, but your team is usually pretty happy with you when you lay out for the game winning point in the endzone after two other guys tipped or completely missed it.

When trailing to be this backup, keep your eyes up and find a good position to get situated based on the flight of the disc. Most veterans or coaches will tell you always to head behind where the big offensive sky or receiver’s point of contact will take place. In other words, read the disc and run towards where you think the disc would likely land if no one else touches it.

Seven times out of ten, this is the right place to be. Often (even at the higher levels, but especially in college), players will misread the disc, jump too early, or be so aggressive in playing their opponent that they misjudge the disc. At other points, the wind will catch it and either bounce it up or send it past the original receivers.

You are then in a likely position to run down the disc and make the play. Be aware of your own matchup in this battle and know where he or she is. A lot of times you’ll be left alone because the other person has either not run to follow the disc with you, or has joined in the main point of attack.

Once you get to your set up place, watch the disc and be ready for anything. Sometimes the wind will send the disc somewhere no one expects, or a tipped disc will fly off in a weird angle.

The exception to the positioning rule (of going behind the attackers) is if you’re fairly certain that the disc is not going over the heads of the main players. Maybe the huck is low, or coming in fast, or you know that one of the tall players in front of you is at least going to get a piece. In these instances, playing even with the attackers, or slightly upfield, but in front of them, is the best way to go.

These are tougher plays to make (and less likely to come your way), but you can be ready to get that disc that bounces off the offense’s fingers, or comes from a heavy swat from the defender that has inside position.

An important note: only play the backup if you are really certain you aren’t going to have a chance at catching the disc. Too often, players, especially on bad hucks or on closely contested air matchups, will drop back to hope for the misread or the tip and will take themselves completely out of the real play. It is always better to go up and catch the disc at its highest point if you can. Don’t be afraid to do this and make that awesome play.

Question 3: Where do I need to be if someone else catches the disc outside the endzone?

Questions 1 and 2 assume you are trying to catch the disc; question 3 is about playing the role of support teammate.

While it may seem unlikely that you’ll catch a disc when following as not the primary player involved, this particular role (of continuation) is extremely likely to occur and happens often. In other words, people catch hucks outside the endzone all the time. And they always need someone to throw it to afterwards.

Oftentimes, you can still set yourself up in a decent position for a misread or tip, but be ready and have a plan for what happens next.

On offense, setting up behind the player going up for a disc gives you options. You can head downfield for a continuation pass. If you make this move, make the question mark cut on the fast-break. Do not run directly past the disc for an away shot; these are, again, extremely hard to complete. Instead, head upfield and then turn sharply for a corner.

The other option on offense, and sometimes the better one, is to drop back and get an immediate reset.

Defenders rarely expect a player that just caught a huck to be taking off anytime soon. As they are settling down for a mark or dropping off to find new coverage, you can get a dump and then usually hit a wide open person (especially good if your skymonster isn’t much of a thrower).

As a defender, you have to assess whether it is better to stick your man or fall off. General rule of thumb says that if you are the last back safety, you need to pick up the deepest cutter, the person in the endzone, and leave the disc alone. Hopefully, your other defenders will have also been following the huck and you’ll have help quickly.

The Effort

In the end, it comes down to focus and effort.

Focus is usually the easy part: don’t stand and watch. If you’re on the field, you have to play. Be dangerous on offense and defense and keep your head on, focusing on the fact that you need to get involved.

Effort is the hard part. Some people might argue that a huck is a perfect time to rest, assuming you’ll have to play offense or defense in a few seconds, so catch your breath, especially if you’re the thrower.

That is soft talk. Unless you’re on the edge of exhaustion (and there are those rare, marathon points where this happens), you want to be the player that gives the extra effort and runs down the disc. You can always rest — off the field — later. You may feel slightly better for standing around, but no one is going to remember you for it.

On the other hand, maybe you do run down that huck that was thrown on a pick (and the main receiver stopped running) to be the hero and save the possession. Maybe you can get a layout D on that tipped pass, saving an easy clap-catch point. Maybe you can realize that you have a good angle to jump over two other guys for the game-winner. Be the hero.

Fortune favors the bold. Follow the disc.

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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