Tuesday Tips: The Golden Skill Of Pattern Recognition

The one skill that often defines the ceiling of a player’s potential.

BFG's Kate Kingery at the 2018 Club Championships. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
BFG’s Kate Kingery at the 2018 Club Championships. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

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There are a few key capabilities that are common to all great team-sport athletes. Things like mental toughness, competitive drive, and athleticism come to mind. But, there is one skill that applies to team sports — the golden skill — that rises above the others and can often define the ceiling of a player’s potential: pattern recognition.

They don’t got it.

We’ve all seen and known players that don’t have the golden skill.

Ever met that super freak athlete you thought should be AMAZING at ultimate, but just couldn’t figure out the game? They didn’t have it.

We’ve also all met or known that player who works soooooo, so hard, wants it bad, puts in the time in the gym, and does all the throwing sessions. And they do get better, to a point, but then can’t get over the hump in terms of their impact as a player. They didn’t have it either.

They just have it.

On the other hand, we’ve also all been happily baffled by that ‘just athletic enough, but so darn good’ player, who somehow is able to rise through the ranks and play at an extremely high level, even though the initial eye test tells you they’re athletically outmatched. Here are some common remarks and praise thrown their way:

  • “They see the game so well.”
  • “They’re such a gamer.”
  • “They’re always in the right spot.”
  • “They always make the right decision.”

It’s like they defy the odds somehow, and we forget about their stature or athleticism because of how effective they are. They are often our favorite athletes to watch and our favorite players to play with.

In my personal career playing with, coaching, and studying ultimate players, these are also the types of athletes I’ve learned the most from. They have affected the way I see, play, and teach the game. They are the Sue Bird, Leo Messi, Steph Curry, and Rose Lavelle of our sport. In my playing career these teammates have been Mark Burton, Danny Karlinsky, Kate Kingery, Anna Maria Pape, and Tyler Kinley. For all of them, their most valuable attribute as an athlete was that golden skill, the ability to recognize patterns, to consistently read situations and react at exactly the right moment, and to consistently do exactly the right thing.

But how did they get good at it? How can we get good at it? Is it even trainable? If so, how do we train it? How do we practice it? How do we teach it and coach it?

I’d love to be able to say, “It’s simple! Just do this! Here’s the drill!” But it’s unfortunately not that easy. Getting good at pattern recognition can be boiled down to two key things:

  1. Play. A lot.
  2. Engage in a high volume of intentional, situational, read-and-react practice reps.

Playing. A lot.

If you’re a coach or captain, you’ve probably wondered this one before: How do I teach field sense?

In my experience as a coach and talking with other coaches, the most common — and correct — answer is you just have to play a lot. It’s true. There’s just a certain amount of time-on-task-doing-the-thing that you need in order to have a baseline understanding to build upon. Until you have a basic understanding of how ultimate works, how you as a player function within the game, and how to work with your teammates in all the common situations, it’s going to be an uphill battle to learn ‘field sense’ or ‘vision’ or ‘awareness’.

There’s just a certain amount of actually playing ultimate, aka experience, that’s necessary before you can really understand it and get good at reading and reacting. Practice helps, drills help, but playing the game is king — especially in the early stages of a player’s career.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be all about ultimate — there’s value to be gained from playing other team sports as well. To get good at ultimate, it’s obviously best if the foundational understanding comes from a ton of ultimate-time-on-task, but you can take a shortcut with experience from any similar field sport. With any team game where spacing, timing, passing, and field sense come into play, coaches have consistently observed that the ‘they just get it’ sense translates really, really well between sports. This is why ex-soccer and basketball players often transition very easily and quickly into ultimate — because the core of being good at these sports is your ability to read and react (aka pattern recognition) in the context of your teammates and opponents. It’s also why individual sport athletes often have a tougher time with the transition.

The takeaway, again, is that it’s all about time on task. Play a lot of ultimate. It doesn’t have to always be 7-on-7 — it’s just as good if it’s 5-on-5, beach, mini, goaltimate, or even cross-training with other sports.

If you’re a coach, provide your players with more opportunities to play. If you’re a player who wants to get better at the golden skill, go play. A lot.

Intentional Read-and-React Practice (aka Drills!)

First, we need to understand what a ‘read’ is. Let’s define a ‘read’ as any situation where you have multiple options on what you can do, and it’s up to you to choose. On offense, a ‘read’ is the opposite of a ‘scripted route’ — where you are not given a choice.

Whether you’re a coach or a player, a fun and useful exercise is to make a list of the most common ultimate situations where players make reads. Knowing which situations you’ll encounter on the field is the first step in preparing for them. Here’s a quick list of examples to get you started:

  • That moment as a cutter when you ask yourself, “when do I start my deep cut?”
  • That moment as a handler when your defender leaves you to go poach and you have to figure out what to do and where to go.
  • That moment as a defender when you can see a play developing elsewhere and you think you might be able to sneak in and get a block.
  • That moment as a defender when you realize you and a teammate can work together to take away multiple cutting angles and spaces by working together.

As a coach, you can usually recognize that a ‘read’ is needed when players ask questions where your answer is, “Well, it depends.” The reason it depends is that first you have to make the read, and then you have to choose how to react. Here are some examples of those questions:

  • Cutter Question: How do I get open on my defender when they’re defending me like _______?
  • Defender Question: When I’m playing defense, how close to my mark should I set up?

Good coaches will respond to the Cutter Question and say something like:

“Good question! It actually depends. If your defender is doing _____, then you could do ______, because then your advantage is ______. But if you’re defender is doing ______, then you could do ______, because ______. In the end, it’s up to you to make the read on where you’ll gain the greatest advantage.”

The GREAT coaches might even respond like this:

“Good question. What do you think you should do? [Wait for a response.] Nice, why is that what you would do? Can you tell everyone what you were looking for or seeing or reading that led you to that conclusion? [Let them explain.] Great, so what you were doing was reading the situation and since you saw your defender _____, you decided to _____ in order to help us ______. Sweet!”

As for the defender question, I bet you can come up with similar responses that invite players to think about why they are making one choice vs another and what advantage they are trying to get by doing so.

Designing Drills to Teach Pattern Recognition

Once you have your list of situations where ultimate players make reads, go through each one with an intentional mindset of thinking about what happens by choosing each different option, and then deciding which is the most advantageous for you and your team.

Really great coaches can come up with drills that teach players how to make common reads and practice their decision-tree.

Ben Video

What you might have noticed is that in Ben’s examples — a 2-on-2 cutting drill or a 3-on-2 endzone — he doesn’t script exactly what the offensive or defensive players do, he just presents them with a situation they need to solve. That’s what your task is when building a dynamic pattern recognition drill — to identify a common read situation, and then give players lots of reps trying to solve it.

It can help to watch video of elite players and study what decisions they make in those ‘read and react’ situations. When you’re watching film, don’t just watch the disc, watch movement elsewhere on the field to see how the read changes based on the conditions, the positions of players on the field, or the spot on the field where the offense is working.

It can also help to talk to your ‘crafty’ and ‘sneaky good’ teammates about what they look for in those situations. In some cases, they might not even realize that they’re making a read, because they’re “just seeing it and doing it.” In other situations, they’ll be able to say things like, “Well if I see _____, then I _____, and if I see them ______, then I just _______.” That’s a read.

Hot tip: be careful talking to your fastest or most athletic teammates to get insight about reads, because they often just solve on-field problems with their athleticism, meaning their ways of solivng situations might not translate well to the more common athlete.

Go Play. Go Practice. Go Play Some More.

In the end, your ability to develp the golden skill will be a product of how much you play and how much time you spend intentionally getting good at making reads.

A common mistake with learning the golden skill is that people sometimes think, “you either have it or you don’t.” That’s wrong. It’s a skill, skills are learned behaviors, it this skill can be learned and improved.

Of course it’s true that not everyone can be Sue Bird or Messi, Mark Burton, Kate Kingery, Claire Chastain, or Jimmy Mickle. But you’re not trying to be them, you’re just trying to be the best version of you, and most importantly, you’re trying to help your team be better. That is very, very possible.

So go practice with intention. And go play. A lot.

  1. Mario O'Brien
    Mario O'Brien

    Mario O'Brien is an ambassador of excellence in ultimate leadership and education, and the creative director and head coach of RISE UP Ultimate. He is an ultimate renaissance man, but at heart, a lifelong learner, teacher and leader. He currently plays as a handler with Seattle BFG and formerly played for Seattle Sockeye and Portland Rhino. He has coached and captained at every level of ultimate from elementary school to elite club. His recent leadership and playing accomplishments include gold at USAU Masters Nationals, gold at WUCC 2018, gold at WCBU 2017, silver in the 2016 AUDL Championships, silver at the 2015 USAU Club Championships, and gold at WCBU 2015. His professional background, experience, and education as a teacher and his desire to give back to the ultimate community inspired RISE UP, the world's only professional ultimate instructional video company.

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