When I was learning to play Ultimate, I didn’t have a coach, mentor, or Ultimate Rob videos. I had to teach myself the game and whenever my friends learned something new, we’d spread the knowledge with each other. I was one of the slower learners on the team and required as much assistance as possible, so putting me on the handler line wasn’t the best option. I was a cutter by default. When I came to college, my throws were naturally better than most because I had been playing for a while, and my team was brand new. So my journey began from moving from a cutter to a handler – yet again without a mentor. Teaching myself this aspect of the game was incredibly difficult. Here are 10 guidelines for rookie handlers that helped me learn to be a handler.
1. Don’t Blame the Cutters – If there’s one bad habit handlers get themselves into, it’s thinking that every throw they make is the perfect throw. Whenever a cutter drops a pass after laying out, reaching down, or reaching up, it’s not their fault. When we learn to catch, we learn to catch at our chest, that’s the natural way to catch a disc, ball, or a cold. As a handler, it’s our responsibility to put the disc at their chest to make it as simple as possible for them. I mean, our cutters do so much for us, why should we make it any more difficult for them? When cutters drop a bad throw, never blame them, just make a better throw.
2. Be Confident – There’s nothing I love more than marking a handler that doesn’t want the disc. Usually it’ll end up in the thrower panicking and forcing a rushed pass. And don’t forget, I also get to poach. All experienced (even semi-experienced) handlers know this feeling of being taken advantage of. But one thing I don’t enjoy is guarding a handler that seems so confident with the disc, like they have this aura and mindset that they can do whatever they want with the disc when I’m guarding them. The thing is, the handler doesn’t even have to be THAT talented, the confidence intimidates defenders and makes them respect you. Be confident in your abilities with the disc, even if you’re brand new. The worst thing that can happen is you turn it over and you give yourself the opportunity to get the D.
3. Value the Disc – This is the most important part of being a handler. If we don’t value the disc with all we have, then it quickly becomes just a piece of plastic we throw around. The disc has to be so precious to you that you cannot imagine another team holding it in their hands. That means throwing smart throws, minimize the turnovers, and maximizing the possession time your team has with the disc. When you throw silly hucks and dumb contested passes, the disc won’t want to be in your hands. Protect the disc.
One thing I’ve learned when teaching Ultimate is to explain it as one big game of keep away, while trying to move the disc to the opposing endzone. Keep away. Just keep the disc away from the defenders.
4. Move the Disc – One of the worst habits we can get into is having the mindset of, “I’ve got 10 seconds until I need to throw.” Unless you’re into losing, that mindsets gotta change. When I played on a club team in Portland, I had that mentality. Within the first seven stalls, I was beaten to death by everyone yelling, “MOVE THE DISC!” over and over. I quickly learned the importance of always having the disc in motion. If the disc is ever at a standstill, the defense gets a chance to catch their breath. The disc needs to be in constant motion, always moving up, down, left, right, and whatever other directions there are. Never get into the mentality of, “I’ve got 10 seconds”, because the reality is, you don’t. Move it at 4, 5, or 6. Move the dang disc.
5. Move your Legs – Even more importantly than moving the disc, you’ve gotta move your feet. When my teammates are tired, they tend to guard handlers. I guess people think that handlers don’t run as much as cutters. That could very well be true, but I think we all know how it feels to guard that one handler who gets open on command because of give-and-gos, quick feet, and smart positioning. It’s a nightmare guarding THAT guy. Well, it’s time for you to be THAT guy. It honestly shouldn’t matter how tired you are, you should move your feet after you throw, otherwise you begin to be complacent and your defender gets an extra breath they don’t deserve. After every throw, move your legs. Clear out, go get the disc, create space, whatever it is, never let your defender get the upper hand.
6. Don’t Crowd – One of the worst habits to get into as a handler is being a disc-hog. Throwing the disc and immediately moving your feet to go chase after it and get it right back. As a cutter, it can be pretty annoying and stressful having a handler breathe down your neck constantly saying, “Hey, I’m here if you need me.” Seriously, go away. When we throw the disc, crowding the receiver does nothing except bring another defender into their area and creates unnecessary pressure. Not only that, but it gives off an attitude that doesn’t seem like you trust your teammates with the disc. You’re fine with throwing to them, but you don’t want them throwing to anyone else. Don’t crowd the disc, it does NOTHING good.
7. Throw Fakes – Throwing fakes is an art, really. Fakes are important to beat the mark because it opens up the breakside a lot more than you would think. If you don’t possess the athleticism to do the splits on a backhand around to break the mark, or don’t have the ability to throw an inside-out flick to the breakside, throwing fakes will give you the confidence to start breaking the mark. I’m not talking about the “fakes” where you act like you’re going fly-fishing with the disc, I’m talking about actually throwing fakes with the disc, shoulders, arms, and eyes. Mario O’Brien, ex-Rhino captain and current Sockeye player, does a shimmy-style fake which infuriates opposing teams. It’s simple really. Holster the disc as if you’re throwing a backhand. If you want to fake the marker into going to the right, move your shoulders and the disc just a tiny bit to the right, then quickly back to the left; and vice versa for the other side. Before you know it, you’ll be able to build up confidence and the skills to break the marks without completely relying on fakes – but fakes should still be used, even at the elite level.
8. Play Unpredictably – I understand we all want to have our signature move. We all want that Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fade away, or the Hakeem Olajuwan Dream Shake. Some of us have that go-to move that never fails. But after a while, defenses will catch on. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve got a good high-release flick that I use to break cups all the time. I’ve been playing against a guy from another school for these past four-years, as well as in club season. I know every time his team throws a cup on my team, he’s telling his cup to anticipate my high-release flick and that’s the only throw I look for. I play very predictable to him and he’s got my playbook in his head. As a handler, we’ve got to have an arsenal of tricks up our sleeves (or lack thereof if you’re wearing a tank jersey), to keep the defenders guessing throughout the years. Throw fakes, throw low-releases, high-releases, short throws, long throws, whatever it is to keep the defender guessing and not knowing what you’re gonna do before you actually do it.
9. Throw in the Wind – As a rookie handler, having a cup on you is one of the most intimidating things ever. Remember the fear you had as a kid when you heard the garage door opening and you forgot to empty the dishwasher before your mom came home? Yeah, multiply that by about 10 and you’ve got how I felt when I first saw a cup. No dumps, no upfield, nothing through the cup, I had no idea what to do except throw over the top and have it be eaten up by the wind. My inexperience was glowing. That’s why I advise throwing in the wind as much as possible. Whenever it’s windy, go outside and throw. Throw hammers, throw quick backhands, quick flicks, hucks, pulls, whatever it is, just go get used to throwing in the wind. Mother Nature seems to hate Ultimate and makes every Ultimate tournament windy, so make sure you’re preparing for a cup.
10. Practice, practice, practice – Finally, make sure you’re practicing all of the time. To be a great handler, you need to have a lot of practice. Since throwing a disc relies more on form, rather than how strong your bench max is, getting that form down by repetition is a must. Get used to the motion of a flick and a backhand (hucks and short throws). Do high releases and low releases. Get used to the disc being in your hands. One thing I tell my college team is to bring a disc with you to class. Hold the disc in your hands and get used to having it in your hands. When you’re watching TV, toss a disc a foot in the air and catch it different ways (one-handed or two-handed). Practice different things. Go stand in front of a mirror and throw fakes to your reflection. You might feel like an idiot, but the only person who’s watching is your roommate. If he asks what you’re doing, recruit him to the team. Boom. If you practice these techniques and tips, your inexperience will fade quickly and you’ll be the guy most defenses fear with the disc.
11. Watch film – Obviously the title said 10 guidelines for a rookie handler, but I couldn’t conclude without suggesting you watch game tape. Not all of the teams can invest into a video camera, so don’t stress about that. Instead, go on youtube and watch some big-time games – but don’t watch the games for the sake of watching the games; watch them for the sake of learning something new. Pay attention to the vert stack Revolver runs, watch Dylan Freechild’s give-and-gos, learn the endzone set of a specific team, or watch how handlers beat different cups. If you’re a visual learner like me, it will help a lot to watch some upper-level athletes play the game we all love.