Tuesday Tips: 5 Drills To Improve Your Catching, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Working on a variety of different receiving scenarios, with examples from the best in the game.

Julia Snyder makes a grab at the Pro-Elite Challenge. Photo: Ken Forman -- UltiPhotos.com
Julia Snyder makes a grab at the Pro-Elite Challenge. Photo: Ken Forman — UltiPhotos.com

As an international observer, it was both impressive and frustrating to watch the US be so dominant at WUGC this summer. Across all divisions, the Americans just looked more confident and comfortable in almost every aspect of the game, from athleticism to fundamentals, strategy to decision-making.

But if I had to put my finger on the one thing that the US Women’s teams do better than any other country, I’d say catching. When your receiver can make a play to save an errant throw or routinely come down with a 50/50 ball in the endzone, your team keeps possessions alive and keeps putting points on the board, even when an opponent forces you into a difficult situation. Your whole offense can start to look untouchable. Right now, the American women do this more consistently than anyone else.

As a coach trying to help close that gap, it’s important to learn from the best. I’ve pulled out some clips from just one game — between Riot and Brute Squad from the Pro-Elite Challenge — to highlight some of the impressive catches that top-level US women make look easy. Note: these are just some of the catches from that game; there are plenty more, and plenty of other examples in other games. Either way, it’s clear that all of the players in this game have worked hard on their catching skill.

For new players — of either gender — proving you can consistently hang on to the disc is one of the biggest factors in earning more playing time or a bigger role on your team; safe hands are a key asset in ultimate. As a coach, I deal frequently with the question, “Why won’t they throw it to me?” Sometimes the answer is, unfortunately, gender bias; but sometimes it’s fear that you have a case of the dropsies. So, if you feel like catching is a weakness, then work on it!

Below I’ve broken the clips from the Brute vs Riot game into five broad catching situations, with a drill for improving each.

Jump Balls

It’s an ultimate classic. You’ve beaten your defender and found space free deep. The huck is thrown, but the disc hangs and by the time is comes back down to earth, your defender — or worse, an entire crowd — has caught up and is waiting underneath it to make a play.

That’s the situation in each of the clips below. But, in both cases, the offense is still able to come down with the disc. The receivers do a fantastic job on three key skills when faced with a jump ball situation: they accurately read the flight path of the throw, they keep their eyes trained on the disc, and then make some insane catches utilizing deft positioning and incredible body control in the air.

High catch under pressure

High floaty catch

Best Drill: 500

It’s a staple for newbies everywhere, a straight forward drill to learn how to read the flight path of a floating disc and get yourself in position to catch at the peak of your jump. While many will believe they have outgrown this “beginners” drill, why not give 500 more time during or after practice? If your team struggles to beat the percentages on jump balls, then this is the perfect way to spend 15 minutes after practice ends.

Simply split into two groups, stand a suitable hucking distance apart, and take it in turns to throw a floaty huck near the other group. Whoever catches, scores a point; drops can be penalized if you desire. Repeat until someone reaches three or five catches then have the highest scorer from one group switches with the lowest scorer in the other group, so you end up grouping teammates of similar ability to keep it competitive. Repeat until bored.

Variants: play without being able to call fouls in the air to teach how to catch even when there is heavy body contact, or play where jumping is not allowed to teach how to use your body positioning to box out.

Attacking High Discs Out In Front

Catching under pressure while chasing a deep throw is an even harder skill, and not something that a game of 500 really prepares you for.

This first example shows a throw a bit off target — perhaps due to execution, perhaps due to miscommunication — with the disc coming in straight over the receiver’s head as she runs toward the endzone. The receiver has to read the flight path as it comes out of the thrower’s hand, adjust her cut, box out her defender, and make a high catch while on the run. It’s a very difficult skill that is executed to result in a huge play.

Layout high catch

Even this second example, where the receiver only has to slow slightly to adjust for a throw that is slightly off, shows the importance of good boxing out. The receiver recognizes the throw won’t hit her exactly in stride, checks for the second defender coming in from behind, and puts her body in a position where only she is capable of making the big sky catch.

High catch under pressure

High disc, defender coming in, and you have to toe the line? This is as hard as catching gets.

Layout strip

Great focus from the receiver there; a strip call was upheld for a goal, by the way.

Best Drill: Space Invaders

Like 500, but while running. This time, line up even with three team mates, then run for the endzone. A thrower puts the disc up out in front of all three and it’s every person for themselves! Not only will you have to read the disc as you do in 500, you’ll also learn the most efficient paths to get to the right spot when running alongside an opponent.

For added difficulty (and fun!), get the thrower to give you reaction commands before each throw is released: left, right, down to the floor, jump up, etc… just like the arcade game. It will teach adjustments when you need to attack a disc from a disadvantageous position.

Adjusting On Under Cuts

While miscues on deep throws force an adjustment from a receiver, they often provide ample space to do so. Missed passes on under cuts require a receiver to make split-second decisions and adjustments since the space are smaller and you need to make a catch before the pass zips past you, out of reach.

One common under cut miscue comes when a throw pops over a cutter’s head. If the disc is coming towards you and it’s high, there’s only one course of action: jump! The mistake I see most often in this scenario is a receiver checking their cut, thinking they can’t reach it but might be able to make a play elsewhere. 99% of the time, you won’t. Also, people can jump higher on the run than they can from static standstill — it’s why the person who often comes down with a jump ball is someone who came into the play late from the side (as in the second example from the first section above) who still had a momentum advantage over the people camped underneath. So, just run, jump, and make a play, like this:

High catch on under cut

Another common under cut miscue is throwing into a poach. Catching when you lose sight of the disc — like when a defender darts in front of you at the last moment — is difficult and absolutely worth practicing. Much like the previous example, the key is to just go for it. Run hard, throw your hands out to attack the disc as early as possible, and see what you come up with. Sometimes you view of a disc is blocked by something, so the trick is to picture where you think the disc should be and get used to preparing to catching with incomplete information. In this example, you’d swear that the defender in white is going to block the disc… but instead the Brute Squad receiver maintains her focus and makes the catch to keep the possession alive.

Catch through a poach

A third under cut adjustment is having to toe the sideline. A rookie mistake is to focus too much on the line and neglect the catch. Here’s a nice example of it done right.1

Toeing the line

Notice how the receiver’s eyes are on the disc all the way, right through the catch; only then does she look down for the line. Perfect technique.

Best Drill: Cut underneath — with dodgy throwing!

Simple one-on-one cutting drill to attack the disc and make adjustments based on various pressures. Either have defense right on the cutter’s shoulder (instructing the D not to actually touch the disc, just distract the receiver) or have throwers intentionally missing the ideal strike zone, aiming high (just jump and see if you can get it!) or throwing close to the sideline (get someone else to call in or out). All of these variants on a simple in-cut drill help to distract the receiver, so it’s important that the receiver maintains focus throughout. For catching high discs, the trick is to jump slightly earlier than you normally would on a high pass for an away cut. Hopefully, you’ll catch some you didn’t think you could get to!

Bonus drill: To practice catching with minimal information about where the disc is going — to mimic what it’s like to have a defender cross in front of you or glint of sun momentarily blind you — try the strobe catching drill in the Zen Throwing workout.

Layout Grabs

Layout catches are a staple of ultimate. Who doesn’t want to look cool while laying out? Even if the grab doesn’t require the super hero look of a full extension, getting comfortable with catching while hitting the ground is a huge step toward helping your team maintain possession.

Check out this grab from Brute Squad’s Cassie Wong. This isn’t the most spectacular looking layout you’ll ever see,2 it’s more of a run-of-the-mill, slightly awkward (because it’s too close to catch with full extension, but too far to not lay out for) catch that elite teams make as standard, but where weaker teams turn over.

Layout grab

For those of us who haven’t mastered this skill, it’s time to practice laying out. Let me start by saying I don’t really like to teach proper layout form. Why? Well, firstly, I’m not a natural. And the more I think about laying out, the worse I do it. For me, desire to get the disc is what leads to the layout, and it’s not a conscious thought. Since I like to demonstrate when I coach, it’s an area I try to avoid. I also think it’s something best learned over time, and when the ground is soft and muddy. So, I’ll hand over to the experts for this one; you can start by reading this article.

Best Drill: Baby Layouts

Start on your knees, have someone throw a disc out in front of you, then catch while falling forward. Focus on catching and landing flat on your chest. It’s vital that you don’t put your arms straight down, otherwise you might pop your shoulder (ouch) or let the disc take too much of the pressure from the fall, increasing the chances it’ll pop out of your hands. Once comfortable completing this skill from your knees, progress to a similar drill from a standing position and taking one step forwards. As you get comfortable with this intermediate step, increase the length and speed of your layout form to understand your full range. Remember, it’s momentum that reduces the impact of the layout, so the faster you go, the easier this skill gets — despite what you might think. I’ve practiced on crash mats and even a slip & slide, but there’s nothing to beat mud!

Brodie Smith has a good video for learning how to layout which displays each step of this drill; it’s worth watching.

Quick Reactions

As we’ve discussed above, during a game, not every throw goes exactly to plan. The disc that goes slightly off to one side if it slips off a thrower’s finger or the thrower and receiver aren’t quite on the same page and all of the sudden it’s a possession-killing turnover. Unless, of course, you’re able to react quickly as a receiver.

I love this example. It shows a lot of commitment and skill to make this catch; when you realize that she’s completely unable to move her body once on the ground, it’s that much more impressive.

Reaction catch

In this next example, the cutter has stopped, following a pick call, but the throw goes up anyway. Because she’d already stopped, when she realizes that the throw is live, it takes a quick reaction and commitment to the cause to maintain possession. It makes for an awkward and unusual catch, even though it normally would have been a fine throw on target had the receiver continued her cut.

Reaction to pick call

While these reaction catches maintained possession for the offense, the same principle applies on defense of course; if you’re able to react quickly, then you’re more likely to be able to get that disc that’s slightly off target or manufacture a block in a zone.

Best Drill: Buzz Reaction

Stand just a few yards from your partner, then turn so you’re facing away from them. Their job is to throw the disc and call “Up!”, then you turn and catch. You should have a very limited amount of time to find the disc and make a grab. This drill is great for improving your ability to quickly adjust your feet too, so once you’re both comfortable with catches up to arm’s length from where you’re standing, start to increase the distance and get each other moving after the turn. Vary the speed, height, hang, angles, etc. on the throws — the key is to keep the receiver guessing! This is potentially also a good drill for improving your layouts; you can get people starting from their knees (facing each other!) and throw far enough away that you force them to commit to hitting the deck! You can even start lying down if you want to recreate the first grab in the section.

***

In general, when players are looking at improving their skills, there’s a lot of focus on increasing speed and athleticism or adding to their throwing arsenal. But catching is a fundamental skill in this game, and one that can have just as much variety as throwing. Being prepared to consistently come down with the wide variety of potential catches requires lots of work. Incorporating some of these drills into your regular practices can help to improve your catching for when it counts the most.


  1. Incidentally, the observer called this catch OB, but it’s clear that the receiver’s left foot is down first and in bounds 

  2. That may well have been this other Cassie Wong grab. Wow. Just… wow. 

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone
    Avatar

    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email (sionscone@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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