Principles & Mechanics Of The Fast Break

It's one of the easiest ways to catch an opponent off-guard, so what and how should you practice to become an effective fast-break team?

Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

Last fall, a coaching friend of mine and I got into a discussion about his team’s strong reluctance to fast break. After turnovers, no matter the situation, his team would walk to the disc and set up the stack. In his words, it “appeared their goal wasn’t to score but to strive to the platonic ideal of vertical stack offense.” The team we were talking about was a high school JV team, one that was frequently physically overmatched. By walking to the disc in every situation, the offense was playing into the defense’s strengths.

Fast breaking is one of the staples in the playbook for underdogs, but it goes far beyond that. Every successful team should be able to recognize favorable transitional situations and take advantage of them. Perhaps underdogs should push the bounds of the transition further, but fast breaking is something every team should do under some conditions. Of course, for your team to do it, you’ll need to practice it to recognize when fast breaking is appropriate, understand the principles, and learn how they apply in different situations. Along with that, creating language around fast breaking can help with developing your fast-break mechanics and communication.

The challenge for many teams is that they spend much more time practicing their stopped disc offense and therefore naturally default in games to setting their offense and walking to the disc. Here are some ideas on how to break your team out of your stopped-disc offense.

Principles

Fast breaks are naturally free of many of the rules of your offense. It’s dynamic, and quick decisions are necessary. Almost all great fast breaking follows these clear principles:

1. Always assume you are fast breaking

Until the disc is actually picked up, no official decision has been made as to whether or not you are fast breaking. In order for fast breaking to be successful, on the turnover every player should immediately behave as if it’s a fast break: heads should be up and you should be sprinting to whatever spot you are going. This team-wide assumption of fast breaks assures that you utilize your fast-break opportunities and can create more of them by putting pressure on the defense. If the defense doesn’t quickly react after a turnover, pick the disc up and put it in play. If they do react, you can choose to slow down and set up your stopped disc play.

2. Anyone can pick the disc up to initiate the fast break

Fast breaks are predicated on putting the disc into play as quickly as possible. The longer it sits on the ground, the more time the defense has to react to the transition and position themselves to their benefit. The best fast-breaking teams give themselves more fast-break opportunities by giving permission to every player to put the disc in play.

3. Move the disc immediately (and it doesn’t have to be for a huck)

Picking the disc up and throwing it to a covered receiver obviously isn’t optimal, and picking it up and holding it for several seconds is worse than just playing from a stopped disc. If you don’t have a big yardage-gaining opportunity immediately, quickly moving the disc laterally, even a few yards, extends the transition and maintains the offensive advantage.

4. (Optional) The player picking up the disc should be coming from the backfield (behind the disc).

Some teams implement this fourth fast break principle to insure greater judiciousness in their fast breaking. A player that is in the backfield will have visibility of what is happening downfield as they move toward picking up the disc. Visibility will allow them to decide if it’s a good fast-break opportunity or not, and it will allow them to know where the receivers are immediately if they decide to pick the disc up.

The Mechanics of the Fast Break

There’s a wide range of situations where it is appropriate to fast break. And the tolerance for fast breaking can be vastly different from some teams to others. I like to group the situations into two big categories:

1. Front Line Fast Breaks

Front line fast breaks are the most widely recognized and utilized fast breaks. They are acceptable for the vast majority of teams and are simple to execute. Front line fast breaks occur when the turnover happens near the opponent’s line of scrimmage. This could be from an erant backfield reset or swing, a point block, or another incomplete throw that doesn’t advance much downfield.

These fast breaks are easy because the downfield for the new offense is wide open with no potential defensive deep help. In some cases, particularly when your defense was just playing a zone or an offensive player bid to try to prevent the turnover, you’ve also got a big numbers advantage. In these scenarios, the process is easy: look for a quick strike to an open receiver; if it’s not there, move the disc to another open player. The next player goes through the same sequence until you’ve either scored or the defense has recovered and you move into your standard offensive set.

2. Back Line Fast Breaks

More difficult is fast breaking when the turnover occurs far downfield of your opponent’s line of scrimmage. In these scenarios, your potential cutters are already downfield of the disc and your opponent has defenders down there as well. To successfully fast break in these situations requires greater coordination. For that, I’ll take a page from Oregon Fugue’s playbook:

  • Bump: Pick up the disc and move it immediately laterally. While that’s happening, the player furthest downfield should be cutting hard deep while every other player is moving wide to the sidelines.  The bump gives time for your offense to clear space to run your fast break.
  • Set: If the player cutting deep is open, hit them. Otherwise, they should plant and come under hard for big yards in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the furthest downfield cutter on the sideline should begin setting up a cut toward the deep space.
  • Spike: The player that came under for big yards should turn and find the streaking receiver, hit them for the goal and they should, you guessed it, spike!

Practicing the Fast Break

Just like your set plays, you should practice your fast breaks. Most of this should be done in very game-like set-ups. A few ideas for ways to do it:

  • Make-it, Take-it: MITI scrimmages do a decent job of simulating a fast break. While it doesn’t create the defense-to-offense transition, it does simulate the 180 reversal in the space being attacked.
  • Whistle for turnovers: When a coach or captain on the sideline blows a whistle, the offense must drop the pass1. This allows you to simulate the fast-break situation you want (e.g., front line vs back line).
  • Incentivized scrimmages: Give bonus points (or bonus endzone reps) for fast break attempts and/or scores off of a fast break. Make sure to emphasize communication in the fast break and whatever language you want players to use, hold them to it (i.e., they lose the bonus points if they aren’t adequately communicating about the fast break as it happens).

My favorite way to practice fast breaks is to find low-stakes games (early season, unsanctioned, against an obviously weaker/stronger opponent) and require that they fast break every single turnover. Turnover 15 yards deep in the endzone? Still have to fast break it. Pushing way past the limits of acceptable fast breaks helps you better recognize advantageous situations for fast breaking.

And, counterintuitively, you can prohibit fast breaks even in the most obvious scenarios. Doing this will make your team eager to fast break when the restriction is lifted.

Practicing your fast break can help your team sharpen another weapon in your belt.  Not only does it give your team another way to attack, the looseness and flexibility of the fast break gives a productive learning environment to players, forcing them to think beyond rules and structures which can pay dividends throughout their play.


  1. Note to coaches: try and blow the whistle with the disc in the air 

  1. Kyle Weisbrod
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    Kyle Weisbrod has coached several teams including U of Washington women’s team, Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls national team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA. You can reach him by e-mail (kyle.weisbrod@gmail.com) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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