Using video of the best to learn an important skill.
October 11, 2016 by Guest Author in Opinion with 7 comments
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This article was written by guest author Will Sun.
Your favorite thrower gets the disc and you immediately streak deep down the field. You hear your defender’s footsteps trailing you — she stumbled a bit, surprised by your sudden acceleration, but she’s still there. You look back to the thrower and as expected, the huck is thrown. The disc goes high, but it’s floating, hanging, and you’re not going to be able to catch the disc perfectly in stride. Your defender has a chance to catch up and make a play on the disc. So is this purely a jump ball — whoever jumps the highest wins? Or is there some way to turn a 50/50 disc into a 100% disc for you?
As someone who is 5’5″, I pretty quickly grew tired of constantly getting roofed on imperfect hucks. I needed to find a way to turn the odds more in my favor.1 Out of desperation, I bought a “Winning Discs In The Air [with Colin Camp]” video from Rise Up, which was wonderful and really laid the foundation for how I approach this skill.2 The episode allowed me to watch how some of the NexGen stars handle this type of situation, showing what it takes to box out and win discs in the air — and showing what happens when you don’t (opening a line to the disc for your defender to make a block). In the video, Camp lists three keys to winning 50/50 balls.
- Read the disc.
- Gain and maintain body position (keeping yourself between the disc and your defender — boxing out).
- Go up with your outside hand.
In the clips below, we’ll take a look at the different ways some of the best in the game today execute each of these skills.
Boxing Out On Offense
In this clip, Jesse Cohen streaks deep, reads the disc coming in over his left shoulder, adjusts his path, then slows down before making the catch. Note how the defender coming from the backside is prevented from making a play because Cohen gains body position and then slows down. Furthermore, Cohen goes up with his outside hand. The disc comes in from his left, so he reaches out with his right hand, putting the entire length of his body between the disc and the defender. No chance for the defense to make a play through his body, or it’s a foul.
Similarly, Riot’s Shira Stern wins this huck against Fury’s Anna Nazarov in the 2016 Club Championships semis. Nazarov perhaps never had a chance at making a play on the disc, given the amount of separation when the throw went up, but the concepts that Stern practices here are worth noting. Like the clip above, Stern puts her entire body between the disc and the defender, then slows down and goes up with her outside hand. Even if Nazarov had been closer, a block would still have been difficult due to Stern’s body positioning and angle of attack.
Here, Greg Cohen uses his body to keep himself between the disc and star defender Milardovich. He slows down to meet the disc, then reaches with his inside (right) hand out of necessity, using his outside shoulder to keep out Milardovich.
This is perhaps my favorite clip of all time. 5’6” Keenan Plew reads Brodie’s sweet flick well, and as the disc flies right over his head, he slows down — sealing out his defender — then goes up at his highest point to grab the disc from the tail end. No play for the defender.
It’s noteworthy that Plew goes up one-handed for the disc and catches at the highest point of his jump — he doesn’t let the disc sink lower so he can then catch without jumping, preventing the defender from reaching over his head to attempt the block. While the latter approach may seem safer, the former — while harder — is the best option. Especially if you’re a shorter player, it’s important to practice jumping up and catching with either hand (or both) enough to be confident in it, so that in a game you don’t shy away from the tougher but necessary choice of one-handed catches.
On the other end of the spectrum from Plew, the same pattern occurs in the two above clips, one from Jonathan Nethercutt and one from Goose Helton. Both players hardly go up, instead using good body position to put themselves between where the disc will be and the defender, then reaching with the outside hand to catch the disc. Nethercutt does this in a savvy way: using his forearm to maintain his own space (which will be mentioned later on). Goose Helton uses his butt and his abundance of body strength.3
Here, Carter Thallon slows down to maintain body position, boxing out Freechild to not let him go through his body without fouling.
Boxing Out For A Pancake Catch
This crafty move can really only be done by the player who has a step advantage and, thus, the opportunity to establish early body positioning. What the cutters do in the clips below to receive a leading huck is slow down early, almost to a stop, boxing out the defender and stopping his/her momentum, creating a cushion of space to sprint onto the disc for a 100% pancake.
Speedy Olivia Bartruff of Oregon Fugue — who catches many hucks simply by running past her opponents — demonstrates how to box out for a pancake in an instance where a huck isn’t just thrown out in front of her.
A similar play in this clip from WUCC 2014 was called for a foul and eventually went back, after some self-officiation discussion between Beau Kittredge (the defender) and Hylke Sneider. What do the USAU rules say?4 In short, this play by Hylke Sneider is not a foul, because Sneider maintains his body positioning en route to the disc — instead of taking up a new position that simply cuts off the opposing player. You can adjust and take a slightly new path to the disc that obstructs the opposing player, but only if you attempt to make a play on the disc. Technically, because it’s the job of the trailing player to keep in sight the player ahead of him so that he doesn’t cause contact, there is a foul by Beau.
Later on his blog, Beau explained the incident, why he called a foul, and also writes about a very valuable tool when boxing out — your braced forearm.
“A huck goes up to [Sneider]. We are both running, I catch up, getting ready to lean my lean frame against his Herculean body. I am staring back at the disc when all of sudden what I think is a forearm darts out and catches me in the side, and I go tumbling. I thought it was a foul, and he didn’t. The problem was I was looking back at the disc the entire time so I have no idea what actually happened. Hylke is a large boy, so his tree trunk forearm might have just been there as a shield that I ran into. Personally, I usually try to keep a defender from tripping on my feet by using my forearm, so it is quite possible he was doing the same.”
It is important to note here that a braced forearm once you have established position is legal, so long as you don’t then extend your arm to actively push off.
In this huck drill for the DC Breeze tryouts, Chuck Cantone boxes out with good body position, forces his defender towards the open side where the disc is curving away from, then runs the disc out on the break side for the pancake catch. Good braced forearm action, too.
Linnea Soo adjusts her line to box out her defender, then runs it out.
Here, Cole Sullivan performs the same move but gets thrown off balance, or misgauges the distance to where the disc will land. He’s forced to layout.
Boxing Out On Defense
In basketball, there’s a saying: Play the ball, see your man. Because it’s a team effort to stop the other team from scoring and your job isn’t just done when you shut down your man. “Help” defense is crucial. In ultimate, you could say the same thing. However, when you’re on defense, and you and your matchup are vying for a huck, you can most definitely employ the opposite strategy: Play your man, see the disc.
Here, Nethercutt reads the disc and boxes out the offensive player, knowing he doesn’t need to go up and get a block based on his postioning. Not attempting to make a play on the disc here may be illegal,5 but the play seems to be fair, as Nethercutt could have easily made a play on the disc if he wanted to.6
Here, the disc goes up to the Australians’ big man Tom Rogacki. Mac Taylor reads the disc better, fights for position to put himself between the defender and where the disc will land, boxes out with his butt, then goes up for the block.
Boxing Out Going Upline
On Rise Up, Ben Wiggins explain this skill as sealing out your defender when running out an upline cut. After you get a step ahead of your defender, you can keep him on your back by slowing down however necessary for the thrower to see you and deliver the upline pass. Most people make their upline cut at one speed — their top speed — at times missing the opportunity for the pass because they’re going too fast and the thrower can’t react in time.
In this clip, Minnesota’s Ryan Osgar gets open against his defender, then slows down slightly while sealing out his defender. He lets the thrower pass upline out to space in front of him, and Osgar can then reach out with his outside hand to keep the defender from making a play. In this case, the defender gets dangerously close to blocking the disc on a bid, demonstrating the risk if you don’t fully seal off the defender or the throw isn’t out in front enough.
There are some skills in ultimate that you pick up just by playing a lot, such as deep help defense — you get accustomed to reading the flow of the disc, when people are looking to strike deep, and when you can break to go help a teammate. However, to learn to win discs in the air without making them a jump ball, you’ll have to learn the skill of boxing out.
Boxing out is a skill that must be trained, like agility, and is not just a natural talent. You get more agile by doing some variations of agility drills and ladders, but agility is not something innate. Likewise, in order to get good and reliable at boxing out to win discs, you’ll have to challenge yourself. This may mean that in huck drills with your team, you forgo the safe and easy pancake catch in favor of the tougher but more useful one-handed outside-hand grab. Or in a one-on-one huck drill, try to matchup against a more athletic or skilled teammate, seeing if you can outbox him/her.
Yes, many mistakes will be made as you push yourself; you may even look bad at first. But you’ll grow, learning from those mistakes, and will soon have crafty ways of winning discs in deep space.
Which just goes to show that oftentimes it’s hard to make a big change unless things get bad enough. ↩
In reality, the rest of the episodes in this season were useful too; if you can afford it, Rise Up videos are very well done and a great investment for your ultimate education. ↩
Gym time definitely pays off here for Goose. ↩
As USAU rule XVI. H. c. 1. states, “The intent of the player’s movement can be partly motivated to prevent an opponent from taking an unoccupied path to the disc, so long as it is part of a general effort to make a play on the disc.” ↩
I suspect the rule in question here was written so that, say, when a huck floats up, another offensive teammate coming off the backside does not just football-block a defender from ever coming close to the disc. ↩