The holy grail: hand block callahan!

A glorious event transpired last week in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A mark in the endzone extended his right arm high up into the heavens, blocked the handler’s cross-field high-release backhand, and then magically closed his fingers around the disc. Or maybe he is spiderman disguised as a Middle Tennessee State University MT Ultimate defender and it just stuck to his palm. Who knows how he did it, but it will probably never happen again. Let all bear witness: the holy grail of ultimate, the hand block callahan, has been filmed.

Hammers win games! (80 ultimate throws for the creative player)

As a youth coach, what should you say when an elementary or middle school player asks you to teach them the “hammer” throw? The normal response is to tell them they should first master the backhand and forehand throws. But I’m starting to wonder: if our goal is creative players, maybe kids should get a chance to choose what throws work best for them to accomplish a particular pass or play…

What goes on in the mind of a kid who finds themselves holding the disc?

Why not have 80+ throws from which to choose?!

Consider the enduring wisdom in the favorite cheer of my daughter’s coach, Denny: “Hammers win games!!”

Not long ago, I followed that dictum in one of my favorite moments as a club player for Che. I had never thrown a hammer in a league game before, but faced with an intense forehand force on the sideline, I suddenly saw an opportunity in the far corner of the end zone. (Thanks for being tall, Rebecca!) What an awesome feeling of satisfaction to watch that hammer drop down to my teammate… The receiver — that a moment before had seemed unreachable because of the tough mark that was shutting down my standard throws (forehand and backhand) — caught the throw and we won!

In the hope that more players — especially young ones — can feel that creative bliss, here are 80 different ultimate throws from Rowan McDonnell — 

And here’s a “table of contents” for Rowan’s video…

  1. Two-handed backhand (0:27)
  2. Forehand (0:34)
  3. Two hand forehand (0:37)
  4. Barbacue (0:40)
  5. Around backhand (0:43)
  6. Gym class hero (0:49)
  7. Thumber (0:53)
  8. Hammer (1:00)
  9. Scoober (1:07)
  10. Airbounce backhand (1:13)
  11. Bootstrap (1:17)
  12. Airbounce forehand (1:23)
  13. Airbounce thumber (1:29)
  14. HRFABB (1:34)
  15. Beckham (1:37)
  16. Rapinoe (1:46)
  17. Push pass (1:50)
  18. Sky hook (1:57)
  19. Two hand sky hook (2:05)
  20. Briefcase (2:09)
  21. Two hand push pass (2:15)
  22. Prayer (2:19)
  23. Mortal Kombat (2:24)
  24. Knuckleball (2:32)
  25. Behind the back push pass (2:37)
  26. Jump shot (2:43)
  27. Behind the back pizza (2:45)
  28. Pizza pie (2:52)
  29. Smukie (3:01)
  30. Scroogie (3:04)
  31. Chicken wing (3:11) [footage blacked out!]
  32. Two hand bootstrap (3:13)
  33. Twirler (3:17)
  34. Spinerama (3:24)
  35. Windmill windup (3:30)
  36. Bixler (3:42) [in game!]
  37. Seabiscuit (3:47)
  38. El primo (3:52) *
  39. Matador (4:00)
  40. Conquistador (4:10)
  41. Rebel (4:18)
  42. Corker (4:24)
  43. Haxi maxi (4:32)
  44. Shovel (4:37)
  45. Waffle fries (4:43) *
  46. Helicopter (4:48)
  47. Double backhand (4:58) *
  48. Backhand scoober (5:06)
  49. Dragon (5:12) *
  50. Elevator forehand (5:19)
  51. Elevator backhand (5:28)
  52. Slingshot (5:38)
  53. Slingshot blade (5:42)
  54. Slingshot scoober (5:47)
  55. Yuba (5:50)
  56. Maxi haxi (6:00)
  57. Palm springs (6:05)
  58. Bounce pass (6:20)
  59. Thumbixler (6:26)
  60. Spin cycle (6:33)
  61. Spin wheel (6:44)
  62. Home run (6:53) *
  63. Body roll (7:00)
  64. Stu (7:09)
  65. Dough boy (7:12)
  66. Chain lightning (7:19)
  67. The Timmy (7:27)
  68. Change up backhand (7:34)
  69. Change up forehand (7:40)
  70. Heel pass (7:47)
  71. Kick pass (7:51)
  72. Wheeler (7:56) *
  73. Shot put (8:00)
  74. Cricket (8:04) **
  75. Chicken head (8:09)
  76. Fireball (8:12)
  77. Toe flick (8:14) [in game!]
  78. Behind the back flick (8:19) [in game!]

So… since he skipped 76 (accidentally) maybe that’s 78 throws? Except he’s sneaky and counted the “flick” with which he started the video (at 0:25), so 79! Maybe *you* should make up #80, or teach Rowan one that he didn’t include?!

Finally, below is a list of all of Rowan’s throws, plus an ever-growing list of a bunch more. For many throws there are also links to tutorials so you can break each down and learn it. Feel free to add your own throws via the comments, and we’ll incorporate them into the big list.

Harvard thesis says no to vertical stack in endzone!

In April, 2015, Harvard undergrad David Zhang presented a thesis on ultimate analytics to the Department of Applied Mathematics (archived PDF version). The thesis has some nice diagrams of basic concepts that may be useful to youth players and coaches.

Black circles are offense; black lines are defense. The white circle is the disc. The mark is trying to “force” the handler to throw a (right-handed) flick to the open side, thereby allowing the other defenders to be a few steps ahead of the offensive player they are guarding.

He also offers this elegant synopsis of the two basic forms of offense in ultimate: the vertical and horizontal stacks —

The basic two formations for any offense are the vertical stack and the horizontal stack. Any other offense is a variation of one of these two formations or a hybrid of the two. The vertical offense employs two handlers in the backfield and five cutters spread vertically downfield, creating a perpendicular L shape. Usually, the vertical stack lines up centered with the disc so that there are two lanes to throw into: both the open side and break side (see figure above). The horizontal stack uses three handlers in the backfield with four cutters spread horizontally downfield of the handlers, creating a parallel set of two lines. The same principles in a vertical stack hold true in a horizontal stack. In either stack formation, the cutters have one of two options to cut: either “deep” (away from the handler) or “under” (toward the handler). The horizontal stack is the most popular form of offense right now at most levels of ultimate. However, most elite teams default into a vertical stack in the “red zone.” Generally, the exact type of offense is less important than the overall idea of maintaining space on offense and throwing to favorable matchups.

Zhang’s thesis also proposes two alternative offensive strategies for the “red zone” — the area within ~10-20 meters of the front of the endzone where you’re trying to score. The conventional strategy is to form a vertical stack, but Zhang argues that fewer players in a limited space give the offense an advantage. So he suggests isolating two offensive players (and their defenders) either in the back corners of the endzone, or as dump opportunities for the initial handlers. Finally, he suggests thinking of the remaining 5 players as two triangular groups working to score in the increased open space within the endzone.

Both end zone offenses are motivated by two principles: maximizing space while maintaining the ability to change the point of attack (allowing the disc to swing laterally). These offenses are created by taking two of the seven offensive players out of play and allowing just five players to run the offense. (Fewer players gives an advantage to the offense. Imagine the opposite, extreme scenario where teams play 100 players on offense and 100 players on defense. The disc would never be able to advance downfield.)

In the first end zone set, the two players stand in the back of the end zone, where they are threats to score, albeit, minimally. In the second end zone set, the two players sit wide behind the handlers on “rails” acting as dumps. These two placements—the back of the end zone and the rail dumps—are not distinct to either end zone set; we could
have easily switched them around. The five other offensive players are the intriguing part of the end zone offense: Both sets rest on the principle of three players working the disc. The first end zone set sees two handlers and one cutter, and the second set sees one handler and two cutters. Depending on the strengths of the offensive team and the individual match ups on defense, teams should adapt one of these two end zone sets in order to maximize their chance of scoring.

Just before each game, my team of 40-70 year olds (Che‘s motto is “Old, but slow.”) traditionally runs an “endzone drill” in which we form a central vertical stack spanning the endzone and practice cutting from the back of the stack to the front corners of the endzone (with handlers cycling from the front of the stack through the “red zone”). These new ideas from Zhang suggest we may need to create some new drills — with some folks practicing staying out of the way while others learn to throw and cut in equilateral triangles!

United Ultimate League: professional mixed play could accelerate U.S. youth development & gender equity

In early 2018, a new professional ultimate league was proposed that would advance gender equity in the sport with great symbolism for youth players. If you’re a coach, parent, or player that would like to explore how professional mixed ultimate could inspire and accelerate youth development, then you should back the United Ultimate League (UUL) Kickstarter — a community fundraiser that is now in its final stages (end of February, 2018).

If you can’t contribute financially (and even if the Kickstarter fails) it’s worth understanding the suite of proposed ideas — many of which have implications for the development of youth ultimate in the United States. This blog post is my attempt to pull together salient details about the proposed league. I hope it will promote discussion of gender equity and professional ultimate, particularly in Seattle where the UUL campaign and ideas seem to have received little attention, possibly because the league proposal has been led by Todd Curran, the CEO of the Savage ultimate apparel company which is based on the East coast.

Youth benefits

From my perspective as a youth coach (elementary and middle school) and a father of both a female and male player, the idea of regular, local, high-level mixed ultimate games in major U.S. cities is most attractive for one key reason: the youngest kids learn to play co-ed (in elementary school) and it would be more meaningful if there were both women and men on the field when these youth first watch a professional game. We liked and supported the MLU Rainmakers and we love and support the AUDL Cascades — especially their impressive ramp up of youth-fostering activities over the last couple years. Live-streamed mixed games from USAU club championships are great, too.

But only a mixed professional team could inspire all of our youngest players equally, and rid us of the dissonance we feel when they earnestly ask upon first viewing the professional field “Wait, where are the girls?”

The UUL Kickstarter site makes two good points about additional benefits the new league could offer to youth ultimate:

Why 6v6 and not 8v8?
We chose the 6v6 style and slightly smaller Ultimate field to follow with our core values: gender equity and youth development. Having a smaller field means it’s harder to reach top speed. Also with fewer players on the field, it makes “looking off passes” less advantageous. On the youth side, the smaller field allows for two fields to fit on one soccer field. This increases playing opportunities and keeps costs low.

Equal-gender 6-versus-6 format

The UUL proposes 6-person teams (instead of the adult standard of 7) with equal number of players who identify as men or women. (How genderqueer players would/could play hasn’t been specified, as far as I’ve seen.)  The Kickstarter site points out that if this format became accepted and popular, youth teams could also convert to 6v6.

In Seattle the elementary league has transitioned to 5v5 over the past two springs, in part because the format generally means more touches per player and less complexity on the field (making it easier to learn to create and take space, and safer by decreasing the odds of a collision). Perhaps middle school leagues could start playing coed 6v6 which would not only match the UUL format, but also provide a transition to learning 7v7 in high school.

Or maybe we would optimize development by staying with 5v5 through middle school and transitioning to 6v6 in high school? As males catch up developmentally with girls in middle and high school, youth players might also benefit from the UUL’s concept of promoting gender equity by using the smaller field dimensions to lower the likelihood of players hitting their top speeds (thereby decreasing the risk of more-injurious collisions and de-emphasizing the speed differentials between genders).

Smaller field

In Seattle, where field access is an on-going and increasing problem, it would be strategic to shift the game to a smaller field (with dimensions that fit twice within a soccer or football footprint). This is part of the reason elementary teams shifted to 5v5. If both middle and high school leagues switched to 6v6, we could effectively double their supply of fields instantly.

The field size is 70×40 yards overall with 20 yard endzones, dimensions which have been tested successfully in flatball, another ultimate variant that has been sponsored by Savage Ultimate. Since the standard soccer field width is 70 yards, a soccer or football pitch could accommodate two of these new ultimate fields, with a generous 10-20 yards for a safe sideline between fields.

Other aspects of the UUL: good, bad, and not yet defined…

The positive implications for youth ultimate I’ve outlined above should be enough to inspire most ultimate community members to back the UUL Kickstarter. There are, however, lots of other interesting ideas that the proposed league has offered for our consideration. And there are some areas of ambiguity where the community has asked for and/or could provide innovative solutions.

Since the sources of information and discussion about the league are pretty spread out, below I’ve distilled the ones I found most helpful in answering questions I had after reading through the Kickstarter site.

Resources, interviews, discussions

Deep Look: United Ultimate League, U24 Worlds


More links to explore:

United Ultimate League Prepares for 2019 Launch | Introducing Ultimate’s First Professional Mixed League
byu/UnitedUltimateLeague inultimate



The first ultimate league in Seattle

A quote from the 2017 Fall Bid fundraiser for DiscNW, aka “The Northwest Ultimate Association” —

“The first unofficial Seattle ultimate “league” started in 1984 at Magnuson Park with an estimated five teams and fifty people. The demand for ultimate grew and DiscNW now has year-round leagues that serve over 8000 people.”

This is consistent with the slightly more elaborate history of Disc Northwest on Wikipedia (as of Nov 2017):

“DiscNW was founded by Joey Gray, Tom George, Mary Lowry, Jordan Dey, Maria Langlais, Mark Friedland, Bill Penrose and Lisa Thomas in 1995 as a nonprofit repository for funds generated by the growing Potlatch tournament. Soon, DiscNW became an umbrella for the spring ultimate league founded by Mark Friedland and others in 1984 and the fall league founded by Mike King. The first independent Juniors ultimate league was started in 1993 by Mary LowryJoe BisignanoJeff Jorgenson and others. In 2014, the DiscNW Middle School Spring League had over 1000 players on 79 mixed teams.”