Handling in a zone can be intimidating, especially if you’re an inexperienced handler. The best way to get more comfortable handling in a zone is to get experience playing against a zone – which comes with playing tournaments. There are some other things to keep in mind which can help a handler – both new & experienced – so I hope you find some use for them:
1. Patience + Urgency: To be a good zone handler, you must have patience to wait until you have a high percentage throw but at the same time, you need a sense of urgency so you don’t end up forcing a throw on a high stall count, so the zone doesn’t keep working you backwards on the field and so you can break the zone when you have the right throw. Patience comes from being able to recognize quickly which throws are high percentage and which ones aren’t. Your other handlers and receivers can help you by making good cuts, moving to open space, and recognizing when the disc is moving so they can position themselves to be a threat for the next throw. The sense of urgency also comes from your other players being in the right position but it also comes from a desire on your part (and the other handlers) to move the disc upfield to break the zone and ultimately score.
2. The “new” way to play zone: Many players are taught to dump + swing the disc as handlers in the zone – which is what the zone wants you to do. Don’t play into their trap – instead work on moving the disc upfield. This comes from the handler with the disc being supported by the other handlers and the handlers crashing the cup. By moving the disc quickly and effectively upfield, the other team will start to avoid throwing a zone since you’ll be constantly breaking the zone. If you can’t visualize this movement, think about a give + go between the handlers which is done to move the disc through the cup/wall.
3. Move the disc: Too many handlers get stuck holding onto the disc for too long, looking upfield, faking a throw and generally waiting for something to happen instead of making something happen. A big part of moving the disc is having the other handlers move towards the disc and help you move the disc up field. This is something you will want to practice a lot. For example, if I throw to a handler a few yards from me upfield, then I should be there immediately for the next throw from them which will move it more upfield, and so on. However, be careful of getting ahead of yourself and continuing to move the disc upfield even when the throw isn’t there – this will be a turnover.
4. Field awareness: Those of us who coach or teach ultimate talk a lot about field awareness and as a handler in a zone, it’s especially important. Make sure that once you have the disc on the move to be aware of the defenders and to not throw it into them. What I mean by this is that too many times, I’ve seen 2 handlers run a give + go for one too many passes and have a defender pick the throw off. This happened when they were only looking at + facing each other. A good way to avoid this is to try and square your body to the throw you’re making. This way, you will have a full line (or 180 degrees) of vision on both sides of the throw, instead of turning as you throw in which case you’ll only effectively have 90 degrees of vision.
5. Practice throwing: So much of ultimate comes back to this but I will stress the importance of throwing again. In a zone, the success of your offense will greatly depend on the ability of the handlers (and eventually the other offensive players) to have consistent throws. The only way to do this is to get out and throw. As a handler, you don’t need to be able to throw cross field hammers, over the cup scoobers or 5 yard push passes. Sure they’re nice to have, but if you have an amazing forehand + backhand, you won’t need the other throws. I would say 90% of players or more don’t get out and throw on their own, outside of team practice/scrimmage/games. It’s imperative that you do. Go out a few days per week and throw for 1-2 hours. If you’re short on time, throw for an hour and do fitness for an hour. I’ve met a lot of players who focus too much on fitness and their disc skills are weak – this will hurt your team a lot more than poor fitness.
Those are 5 great tips for handling in a zone. What has helped you become a better zone handler?