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Tuesday Tips: In Defense of the Banana Cut

Despite being widely preached to be ineffective, when used correctly banana cuts have the opportunity to take advantage of traditional defensive assumptions.

Boston Ironside's Tyler Chan. Photo: Paul Andris -- UltiPhotos.com
Boston Ironside’s Tyler Chan. Photo: Paul Andris — UltiPhotos.com

Sharp cuts! Sharp cuts! No bananas!

Chances are, if you play ultimate, you’ve heard this phrase shouted at countless practices. Perhaps you too have shouted it at some, pounding what is now a nearly ubiquitous doctrine into the minds of rookies and vets alike — and rightfully so. In most situations, quick and sharp directional changes allow the cutter to gain an extra step over her defender, laying down swift punishment if the defender commits to the initial cut. In most situations there is no doubt that sharp cuts are superior, and in most situations banana cuts are, well, mushy.

But lately I’ve been noticing a peculiar consequence of what is now such a widespread anti-banana doctrine. Like lateral cuts, banana cuts are widely preached to be ineffective, despite some evidence to the contrary.

Maybe you have seen it in some of the first practices of a fall college season. It usually begins like this: the field is full of eager rookies, slightly confused, but ready to learn from the more experienced vets. After the previous practice in which some rookies seemed to be running across half of the field just to make a simple out-in cut, the captains decided to devote the first half of practice to teaching the importance of chop-stopping and making sharp cuts. The rookies watch as an experienced player demonstrates an exaggerated chop-stop. She runs, chops, and comes to a full stop before exploding in the opposite direction. “Sharp cuts! No bananas!” the veterans echo for the rest of practice.

Chan sharp cut

Tyler Chan of Boston Ironside demonstrates an effective chop-stop, and sharp cut.

Most of the time the improvement is great. The new players begin to test the limits of how quickly they can decelerate, quickly pounding their feet like machine guns, then sprinting off in the other direction. But this is when strange things sometimes begin to happen. Now the rookies are challenged with a different cut, say an upline cut. One steps up for her turn, and begins running towards the disc. She reaches full stride, and as she approaches her handler, chops her feet to a full stop, then takes off again upline at roughly 30 degrees from her original direction; a perfectly sharp cut.

But in this situation, is a perfectly sharp cut perfect?

I have witnessed this scene countless times. Young players – and sometimes experienced ones – coming to a full stop before getting back up to a sprint again while headed in almost the exact same direction as before. Lately it has been leaving me wondering: are there times when banana cuts are actually better than full, chop-stop, sharp cuts? Why should you slow down so much just to take off again in nearly the same direction? For low-angle cuts, wouldn’t it be more efficient to forget about the chop stop and stay in full stride, even if the cut ends up being slightly “banana-y”?

To be honest, I’m not sure if we’ll ever get black-and-white answers to these questions. It seems that it just depends too much on the defensive positioning or other subtle circumstances. Putting all ambiguity aside, however, it also seems that in many cases such a strict anti-banana doctrine has gone much too far — especially for beginners — as some are left chop-stopping for every direction change that they make. Of course it’s necessary to teach beginners the importance of making fundamental sharp cuts. But it also seems to me that by stressing it so much, we limit the creativity which beginners need in order to experiment and learn.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, there are also some examples within elite ultimate that make the case for the effectiveness of banana cuts. Take a look at these cuts, again from Tyler Chan.

Chan S cut

Here, positioned with the disc a couple of yards outside the end zone, Tyler dishes to a teammate and immediately takes off, as if looking for a dump. His defender begins to follow him horizontally when Tyler starts curving upline. His defender then begins to chase him upline to the open side, but Tyler keeps curving all the way back to the break side, gaining yards of separation.

Chan deep cut

In this clip, Tyler is positioned in the middle of a horizontal stack off of the pull. He starts by cutting under and across to the force side. He curves out of his in-cut, as if he was clearing to the sideline, but continues curving deep, sending his defender promptly to the deck.

What strikes me most about these cuts is their deceptiveness. In most situations, as a defender, we have learned to be wary of getting beaten by sharp cuts and we position ourselves accordingly, taking away the most dangerous cutback option with our bodies. On handlers, we tend to repeat the mantra “don’t get beat upline.” On downfield defenders, we usually force under or force out, depending on the circumstances. In both situations, the assumption is that the offender will make sharp cuts – she will either go in or out, upline or dump — and if we can maintain our position on defense then we know that we can force the offender to cut where we want.

Another implied premise of typical defense is that after the offender makes their cut, they will likely clear back to the stack. A lot of the time, as an offender, this is also the best thing to do — sprint as hard as you can, making one or two fakes, then clear and let the next cutter take over.

Exploiting these two implicit assumptions on defense – assuming that the offender will make one-dimensional sharp cuts, and that they will clear soon after her first attempt to get open – is what make Tyler’s cuts so effective.

In the first clip, the defender’s thought process might have gone something like this: “stay in front of him! Keep position! Ok, he’s cutting in, now I can commit to following him.” Tyler is able to get open, but he has done nothing to fool his defender, and has cut exactly to where his defender forced him to.

In the second and third clips, however, instead of telegraphing his direction to his defender with a sharp cut, he is leaving his defender guessing the whole time. In the second clip, the defender might have been thinking, “Dump cut! No, he’s going upline! No, maybe he’s clearing! No, he’s going break!” In the third, “He’s going in! No, he’s clearing! Crap, he’s going deep!” Defenders are typically used to committing hard once, so by running a full 180 degrees in both clips, Chan forces his defender to commit to each possible cut, creating more and more separation as he keeps going.

The downside of Chan’s banana cut is that it requires a lot of space. It is clear why we tend to teach hard, short, and compact cuts; they simply keep the field more open. If everybody was making similar banana cuts, things would quickly spiral downhill into a chaotic and clogged mess.

Having said that though, it is also clear that banana cuts can be executed effectively. And what’s more, banana cuts seem to be the yang to the sharp cut yin, creating deception by playing off of the effective, yet straightforward sharp cutting doctrine.

So this leaves us at the real question: How can we teach effective banana cutting while still stressing the importance of making sharp cuts? To this, I have no answer, but perhaps it begins with giving young players more freedom to experiment with sharp and banana cuts alike.

  1. Joseph Ricci
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    Joe began playing with and ended up co-captaining the Rochester Little Piggies of the forgotten Metro Beast. He has since moved to Copenhagen where the relentless wind keeps him humble.

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