Ultimate: Beginner's Notes

Copyright © 1996 by Godwin Liu, All Rights Reserved.

Throughout this series, play will be shown in diagrams. In these diagrams, the field is outlined in white. Players on offense are shown in yellow. Running patterns are shown as purple arrows, and throwing patterns are shown in cyan arrows. The player with the disc is outlined with a cyan square.

Basic Strategy: The Stack


[Figure: The Stack]

Ultimate is a game of flow. A good offense is characterised by quick passes, one after the other, that quickly move up the field. One of the most tell-tale signs of a beginner team is the problem of 'clogging'. With fourteen players on the field at any given time, twelve of which are running in order to try and get open for the pass, things very quickly get chaotic, and disorganised. People begin to find that it is difficult to get open because someone is always in their way. Because picks are a violation in ultimate, you also find that occasionally you must stop so that you don't inadvertantly pick an opponent. The diagram at the right illustrates the most common strategy for reducing clogging. It is called 'stacking'.

The Stack

The idea behind the stack is simply to make room on the field. Essentially, the players line up down the field from the disc. The first player lines up about 15-20 yards away, and the other players line up behind, with a separation of about 5-10 yards. Because ultimate is most commonly played using a 'man-on-man' (in the genderless sense of course) defense, this draws the opposing team into a similar configuration. The field directly ahead of the disc is now opened up for pass reception. Generally, players at the head of the stack (closest to the disc) are called 'handlers', players in the middle are called 'mids', and players towards the end of the stack are 'longs'.

TEAM NOTES: It's a goal of our team to make sure that everyone gets a chance to play in any position that they would like to try. Also, I think it's important that everyone has an opportunity to play at the position of 'handler'.

[Figure: Stack Flow]

Flow of Play: The Theory

Players can now make running plays to try and get open for the pass. This is usually done in a cascade of 'cuts'. The player at the beginning of the stack runs towards the thrower, and then cuts sharply to the right or the left (those with knee injuries will want to moderate the severity of the cut to reduce joint stress). This sharp cut usually gets the player a step or two in front of the defense. It is important to get eye contact with the thrower just before the cut. This running pattern gives the offense good chances for leading passes (thrown in front of, not at, the running player).

If the thrower elects not to attempt a pass, the runner will circle back and re-enter the stack (preferably near where they began). By the time the runner begins to circle back, the second runner in the stack should already be making her cut. It takes some 'field sense' in order to determine the optimum time for making a cut, but you want the thrower to have a new pass option immediately after an old one evaporates--this ensures best usage of the 10 second stall count.

If the pass is received, someone further along in the stack should immediately begin to run. This way, when the receiver (now thrower) turns around, a pass option opens up right away. This kind of play is illustrated in the second figure, at the left. Player 'A' has just made a successful pass to Player 'B', and has begun to run up-field in order to re-enter the stack. Further up the stack, a mid has just started running (#1). By the time 'B' looks up-field, Cut #1 is already happening--there should be an opportunity for a quick successive pass. If #1 does not look good, another player in the stack should already be making Cut #2. By the time #1 or #2 receives the pass, Player 'A' may be ready to receive another pass, or else they can look downfield towards the stack which has now moved back a few yards.

[Figure: Stack Flow Continued]

Finally, as mid-field is reached, players continue to make cuts, but 'longs' can now begin to think about making a short cut inwards, and then attempting to make runs at the end-zone. This is done while the handlers and mids continue to attempt this steady cascading 'weave' up the field. This is illustrated in the final diagram. A player has just received the disc. They look down the field, and see that Cut #1 is already happening. It is a long, who immediately turns down field and breaks for the end-zone. If she is out-distancing her defender, it may be possible to throw a long bomb for a scoring attempt. If it doesn't look good, Cut #2 is already happening, and provides the opportunity for a short pass. Otherwise, the previous thrower may be getting into position across the field for a third option.

This cyclical type of play, with the cascade of cutting runners makes a very fast flowing offense possible because the running patterns do not cross each other chaotically. Instead, the offense attempts to set a tempo of short quick passes, with the opportunity of surprise long passes to get the disc up the field. When this is executed well, it is beautiful to watch.

Flow of Play: In Practice

There is no question that it takes a great deal of practice to make these kinds of plays smooth. And when you look at the diagrams that I have drawn, things look very complicated. When should you run, and how? In this section, I'll discuss briefly the tactics at an individual level that will make it possible for the stack to work for the team.

Guidelines for the Cutter

The key to the stack is order. By order, I mean a nice sequence of running. It requires a sense of timing which may take some time to develop. The idea is to always have someone cutting towards an open space so that the thrower has opportunities to move the disc forward. If you are the first cutter, begin running as soon as the disc is received. Make eye contact with the thrower, then quickly go one way or the other. If the thrower does not pass to you, get out of the way. By getting out of the way quickly, you draw your defender with you. This give the next cutter an open area to work with. If you are the second cutter, if you see that the disc is not going to be thrown to the first, then begin running immediately, make eye contact, and then a cut. Every run should be aimed at providing a new pass opportunity immediately after the last.

As the disc moves down the field, the stack should be slowly backstepping to follow the movement.

Guidelines for the Thrower

Once you've received your pass, turn around quickly and look upfield. If your stack is good, someone should already be cutting. This is your best chance to make a pass--before someone catches up to you and begins counting.

If your team is running well, there should be an abundance of passing opportunities. The most important thing in passing is to 'lead' the receiver by throwing the disc ahead of them, not at them. A throw directly at the receiver will cause them to try and immediately stop. If they cannot stop, the defender will be right there to intercept the late pass. If the defender is too close, you might consider waiting for the next cut. Try to meet the eyes of your receiver just before they make the cut. This will give you an indication of what's going to happen.

Finally, once you've released the disc, RUN. A common error is to stand and watch your own pass. Everyone does it. But people who run right after they've thrown the disc are very hard to cover--they usually end up ahead of their defender by a couple of steps. Unless you're sure that the toss you just made is a real stinker, just start running down the field. It might mean that you get the pass right back.


I have outlined the basic principles of the stack. It is a strategy of opening up the field and providing pass opportunities. Later in this series, I'll talk more about each of the positions ('handlers', 'mids', and 'longs'), but for now, we should all just try to 'stack up' as early and often as possible, and try to make smart cuts. Nothing will improve our game faster than order in the offense.