Tuesday Tips: Be Fluent In Body Language, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Knowing how to read an opponents' hips and eyes can give you an advantage -- whether on offense or defense.

Washgnton's Khalif El Salaam at the 2016 DI College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Washgnton’s Khalif El Salaam at the 2016 DI College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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

Understanding where to go on the field and when to go there is the foundation of individual offensive technique. Similarly, anticipating where the offense wants to go and understanding how to prevent them from going there is the basis of one-on-one defense. But these decisions are not as simple as just memorizing a playbook. Making the right cut or stopping the next pass is about recognizing the situation and reading the clues your opponent is giving you. Many of those clues are conveyed through body language and positioning.

Savvier players can take advantage of not just where their mark1 is on the field, but also how their body is positioned in order to create high-value cuts on offense and attack opportunistically on defense.

Hips Don’t Lie

Any player, offense or defense, is fastest in the direction they are already facing. If you don’t believe this, try running a few 15-yard races against a teammate, but have one of you start facing the finish line and one of you facing the other direction — see who wins, every time.

As a cutter, being aware of where your mark’s hips are pointed tells you what direction they are prepared to cover you, and which direction where they won’t be quite as fast. The direction they aren’t fast in is a direction where you have an advantage.

A lot of defenders will set up or start the early part of their coverage in a way that telegraphs exactly where they will struggle to keep up with you — realizing this will turn seemingly-covered cuts into gimmies.

1. In the end zone

In a vertical-stack end-zone set, when you are in the back of the stack, your mark is likely getting told to protect the front cone, so she will usually set up on the open side, and a step or two towards the disc. But if she sets up with her hips facing you and her back to the front cone, that positioning isn’t going to do her much good. Unless she is massively quicker and faster than you (in which case, you have bigger problems than getting open on this one cut), you can blow by her by simply picking one of her shoulders, and cutting hard past it in a straight-line path to the cone.

A lot of cutters, not realizing that getting open to the cone is this easy, will waste time trying to juke, jab-step, stutter-step, and other actions that don’t get them to full speed, and don’t require their mark to get to full speed or commit to taking anything away. When you cut hard in one direction against a mark whose hips are facing you, your mark has to recognize, turn her hips all the way around, and accelerate from zero up to top speed. If you are at full speed the whole time your mark is trying to do all that, you’ll have more than enough of an advantage to win a 20 to 25-yard race to the cone.

2. Initiating out of the stack

In vertical, split, or side-stack sets, most cuts start with a set-up or initiating action before committing to cutting for the disc in a specific direction. The vert-stack cutter moves from the stack out into the open-side lane, does some faking, then cuts hard deep or underneath. The side-stack or split-stack cutter drives from the sideline to the middle third of the field before looking for the disc under or away.

Just like in the end zone, being aware of where your defenders hips are pointed can open your eyes to easy opportunities to get open, and make you a high-percentage cutter. Be aware of not just where your mark’s body is (between you and the goal? between you and the disc?), but also where his hips are pointed throughout your initiating action. Once it’s clear where your defender is going to be slowest, that’s the moment to commit to cutting that direction. This will give you separation in every cut.

A team of cutters that’s adept at assessing their defenders like this can run a very high-efficiency split- or side-stack offense that’s similar to a read-option in football. The read-option quarterback watches the path the defensive end takes as the play develops, and uses that to make his decision about whether to hand the ball off for the inside run or pull it back and run around the edge. Cutters can similarly drive from the sideline to the middle of the field, then decide once they get there whether the cut is going deep or underneath, based on how the defender is positioned. The result is a steady stream of cuts that create good separation, resulting in easier looks and yardage gained, and less energy spent on cuts that get looked off, resets, and other action that doesn’t advance the disc.

All Eyes On Me

Where a defender’s eyes are looking is a second critical piece of body language to be aware of. We touched on this above, but the first thing a defender has to do in order to shut down your cut is recognize where you’re cutting. If she can’t see it, she can’t diagnose it and definitely can’t take it away, so being aware of where your defender is looking will let you identify opportunities to get open easily.

1. Turning your deep cut into an in-cut

Picture this: you’re the active cutter. You initiate, take a few steps, plant hard, and commit to making a deep cut. You’ve got a step on your defender, and are checking back in with the disc to see if it goes up. A lot of the time it won’t go up (maybe the timing was a little off and the thrower wasn’t ready for it, or they’ve hit another under cut, or had already committed to the reset), but because you got separation on your defender, he’s terrified that it’s going to go up and make him look silly.

For that defender, there’s a strong temptation to look back over the shoulder to see if the disc goes up. A lot of players can’t or don’t resist this temptation. If you’re looking back for the disc as well to check in, you should be able to see this head-turn. Choosing that moment to break off your cut and attack underneath can earn you a tremendous amount of separation. Since you’re decelerating and changing direction while your defender is still bombing downfield at full speed, you’re getting a huge head start in the race back to the disc before he’s even realized that the finish line has changed.

Once you know that your deep cut isn’t getting thrown to, being aware of your defender’s sightline (instead of just having your head down and breaking your cut off blindly) lets you pick the perfect moment to attack underneath, resulting in a wide-open under.

2. In the end zone

An effective red zone defender is able to see both the disc and their mark, and have their hips pointed towards the area they are trying to deny, all at the same time, for the entire possession. This is very hard and very few defenders can do this consistently. Reading your defenders hips and eyes will ensure that you’re ready to punish them when they inevitably slip up.

If — and this is a big if — your team’s endzone set allows for opportunistic cutting, be aware of where your defender is looking, and let that dictate when and where you go. As the possession develops, be aware of what areas are available for you to cut into; when your mark turns their head to see if the disc has moved, take off behind their back or over their shoulder for an easy open-side look (or some extra separation and a bigger target window on the break side). When she takes half a second to reposition her hips, or swivel around to the other side of you as the disc moves, chose that moment to cut, and cut in the direction she’s now facing away from.

“Jumping The Route” On The Mark

The situations and examples above are all about recognizing what is most difficult for your mark to do, based on their current body positioning, and then attacking that area of weakness.

While this is mostly relevant for offensive players exploiting their defender’s weaknesses, there’s one body-positioning opportunity that you can exploit on defense when you are marking the thrower. The vast majority of players can pivot much more quickly from their forehand side to their backhand side than vice-versa. A big pivot to a stepped-out throwing position on the backhand side represents a much more significant physical commitment from the thrower — it’s harder (and slower) to get back to that forehand side.

This means that when you’re applying a forehand force, you can start by shading your mark towards taking away the inside forehand break. If the thrower pivots over for the step-around backhand, you can allow yourself a stronger movement to that side to take it away (jump the route), because it will take longer for the thrower to get back to the forehand side, giving you more time to recover.

This applies slightly less in the reverse scenario — against a backhand force, because the around forehand is a little quicker to release — but in general the same is true: if the thrower steps hard to throw the inside backhand break, you can commit more to taking it away because the move that the thrower has to punish you (stepping back over to the forehand) is going to be slower.

Smarts Are The Same As Speed

Winning your matchup can be hard. Winning it repeatedly over the course of a game is even harder. But no opponent can be in position to dictate everything all the time. Being aware of what your opponent is currently positioned to do effectively and what they will struggle to do gives you a blueprint for how to attack them. If you can consistently attack where your opponent is weakest, you’ll get open easier, apply more defensive pressure, and tip the balance in your favor.

Being aware of their body position allows you to choose to start a lot of races where you will have a head start. Getting to the finish line of that race first by being smarter is the same as getting there first by being faster.


  1. In this piece we will use the word “mark” interchangeably to mean both the player covering you when you are on offense as well as the player you are assigned to cover when you are on defense. 

  1. Dave Lipson
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    Dave Lipson is a former player and captain for the Harvard Red Line and Boston's Sons of Liberty club. He is a current co-coach of the Harvard BRed Line. He resides with his wife in Cambridge, MA.

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