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The Ultimate Beginner

The Ultimate Beginner

So, you’ve got a friend who’s been bugging you forever about joining his pals on Sunday morning to play a little Ultimate. You want to go, but you’re afraid of making a complete fool of yourself because you know nothing about the game. The game of Ultimate is not that complicated. However, to avoid looking like a complete dufus your first time out, read on. We’ve got you covered. Just don’t go around slinging the lingo on day 1. That’s a sure way to not get invited back.

As even the briefest exposure to the game demonstrates, running, throwing, and catching are the key physical skills that make a good Ultimate player. An understanding of strategy and positioning are the most important mental aspects of the game.

Both sides of the game can be learned easily with practice. The best way to gain those skills is through exposure to the game. Taking the opportunity to join pick-up games often means getting to play with some experienced players. Some cities will even offer skills clinics which is an invaluable way to receive top-notch coaching.


A disc is like a pair of scissors. You’re not supposed to run with either. There’s still a lot of running in Ultimate however. So, don’t blame anyone if you start feeling fitter and your clothes are getting baggy.

Offensive players are constantly on the look out for open areas to provide the thrower, known as the “handler”, with targets. This means sudden changes in direction, speed and angle – “cuts” – to break away from their check (i.e. the defensive player covering them). Defensive players are reacting to those cuts and anticipating the next move. When on offense try and think ahead and plan your cuts. If you find one that works against a particular check, don’t be afraid to exploit it a few times until they catch on. When on defense try to anticipate where your check might go so you can prevent, intercept, or block the throw.

Unlike other sports, particularly basketball, you cannot use any other player on the field to impede the progress of your check. This is called a “pick”. This rule is designed to prevent injuries. Even an unintentional pick can result in high-speed collisions between players. It’s of the utmost importance to make sure that everyone on your team knows how to spot and avoid picks.

One of the reasons there’s a lot of running in Ultimate is that “turnovers” occur. This means that during the course of uninterupted play you may switch from being on offense to defense a number of times. When a turnover occurs, yell “Turnover” or “TO” nice and loud so that the rest of your team can change from offense to defense quickly. If you are on offense when the turnover occurs and you are unsure where to go – just stick with whoever is checking you. Also make sure that there are at least as many players from your team as your opponents’ between you and your end zone. If not, fall back and check the unguarded player closest to the endzone. A simple way to remember this is with the following phrase: “always take the runner” (unguarded player).


There are more ways to throw a disc than you ever imagined. A general rule of thumb is: the sillier the name of the throw – the stranger the technique required. Most of the time, however, you will rely on three kinds: the forehand of “flick”, the backhand, and hammer. The backhand is the throw everybody used since day one to chuck a disc around on the beach. The hammer is an upside-down forehand. The forehand is the most improbably combination of physics and goofy body language ever invented. After about a million throws you’ll start to feel like you don’t look somewhat silly when you throw a forehand. Don’t get your hopes up.

However, long before then you’ll have developed a forehand throw that actually works. Remember that spin is the most important factor in a disc’s flight and try a lot of different, subtle variations. Everybody’s got their favourite tip or technique which they will be more than happy to share. Ask around and find out what works for you.


For most catches below your shoulder and above your knees the “pancake” catch is your best bet. Simply trap the disc between your palms when it approaches. For more extreme situations two or one-handed rim catches are required. Try to practice one-handed and wrong-handed catches when warming up or doing drills so that you are always improving your hand/eye coordination.

Remember to watch the disc all the way into your hands and make sure you have caught it before turning and looking for the next receiver. Another important pointer is to never give up on a disc. Catches that seem improbably are often quite catchable if they start to hand in the air due to wind or flight angle.

However, do not crash into other players in an attempt to perform a leaping catch. A rule called the “principle of verticality” stipulated that each player is entitled to the space above his body. Nor can you hipcheck another player or hold them down to prevent them from jumping up to catch the disc. Anything beyond the most incedental contact between players is a foul in Ultimate (unless there’s tickling involved).

What Happens During a Game?

Captains from each team flip a disc simultaneously. A captain or third player calls “Same” or “Different” before the discs hit the ground. If the player’s call is correct then his/her team has the choice to throw or receive the first “pull”, or to choose which end zone they would like to defend for the first point. Generally speaking, choosing to receive the pull is the most logical choice. The team which loses the flip takes the remaining option.

Each team lines up seven players on their respective goal line. The pulling team must stay on or behind their goal line until the pull occurs. The receiving team must stand on the goal line and maintain their positions relative to each other until the pull is thrown – to make it easier for each member of the pulling team to figure out who they will check. If you hear the call “Hold your line” it means that a receiving team is shifting positions on the line prior to the pull.

When the pulling team is ready to begin play, the puller holds the disc above his/her head. When a member of the receiving team holds their hand above their head to signal readiness, the pull can be thrown.

So, everybody is in position, smiling, and ready to go. The pull is thrown, the disc sails gracefully towards the other end zone – a shining miracle of aerodynamics – and the pulling team runs down the field to pick up their checks and another game of Ultimate is underway. Now the fun really begins.

On the pull, the receiving team does not have to catch the disc to take possession. It can simply be allowed to land. However, whoever touches the disc first ( either by catching it or picking it up from the ground) must be the first handler. Usually a receiving team will designate a player to be the handler before the pull, to minimize confusion. If the disc hits the ground and begins rolling, any player on the receiving team can stop its progress without having to become the handler.

Because you can’t run with the disc once caught, players must establish a pivot foot when they are in possession of the disc. Usually, if you are right-handed it will be your left foot, and vice-versa for lefties. You can’t drag or lift your foot until you have thrown the disc. If you do so, it’s a “travelling” violating.

Unless you are very confident that you’re going to catch it, let the disc hit the ground. This is very, very important! If you try and catch the disc, and fail, bobbling the disc and dropping it, then a turnover occurs (usually just a few meters from your end zone). Which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that every person who saw the event will probably mock you mercilessly, your team will be a tad disappointed, and you’ll have to think up a lame excuse on short notice. You have been warned!

In the event that the disc flies out of bounds and is caught before touching the ground, the receiving team must begin on the sideline at the point where the disc went out of bounds.

If the disc flies out of bounds and last the most common choice is invoke the “Middle” rule. This means that before the disc hits the ground someone from the receiving team raises his arm and calls “Middle”. This allows the receiving team to begin play in the middle of the field at the point where the disc crossed the sideline.

If the disc lands in the end zone, then the receiving team can begin play immediately from within the end zone, or walk the disc to the goal line, touch it to the ground, and begin play from that point. You cannot decide to begin play from the goal line, and then change your mind and throw the disc prior to reaching the goal line.

If the disc remains airborne and flies out the back of the end zone, it is considered a “Brick” and play is initiated in the middle of the field, three meters forward of the goal line.

After the initial pull the receiving team becomes the offense. The offense will usually try to form “stack”. When you first begin playing, a stack will seem far too pre-meditated and the best option will seem like running willy-nilly around the field. The sooner your team can shake themselves of this misapprehension the better. Scrambly play may seem to work at the beginner level, but it will quickly prove ineffective against more experienced teams.

When forming a stack the offensive players should get to the stack as quickly as possible, form a straight line between the thrower and the opponents’ end zone, and take their rest in the stack rather than jogging to the stack. This reduces “clogging”. Clogging is a situation where potential receivers are stationary and occupying the “flat” (an open area where the thrower could complete a pass to them).

Generally, one side of the field will be open to receivers because the person checking the thrower, the “marker” is “forcing” (favoring one side of the thrower to force them to throw to one area of the field) as he/she calls out the “stall count”. As a rule, try to decide which side your team will force to (usually designated as “home” or “away”) for the duration of the point so that your players can anticipate where to mark if their player catches the disc, and what area to guard when their check is cutting for a pass.

The marker counts (at one second intervals) “Stall one, Stall two, … up to “Stall Ten”. If the marker reached Stall Ten (as soon as he/she begins to speak the word) before the thrower initiates the pass then a turnover occurs.

A fast count is not only against the rules, it’s very tacky. And who wants to be tacky? In the event of a fast count by the thrower, two seconds are deducted from the count and play is continued without interruption. A second fast count call results in a foul. The disc is checked and the count is reset to zero.

The key points for marking are: the marker must be closer than three meters (before initiating the stall count) but no less than one disc width from the thrower, they cannot straddle the thrower’s pivot foot, and they cannot prevent the thrower from pivoting. Only one person can mark the handler at any one time.

In a perfect world, the handler completes his pass, runs to take his position in the stack, and the process repeats as many times as necessary to get to the end zone and score. Usually, however, there will be a turnover before a point is scored and it’s time to switch from offense to defense, or vice-versa. Once a point is scored, the teams swap ends and the scoring team pulls to restart play.

How to Score

To gain points in an Ultimate game you have to have a member of your team catch the disc in the “end zone”. If you’re close to the end zone and you catch the disc… Stop! If your team-mates are yelling at you to “Check Feet!” you’re probably in the end-zone. The reason for their insistence if that if you pass the disc inside the end zone, and the receiver fails to catch the disc, no points are scored and a turnover occurs.

If you decide that you are outside the end zone, continue play. If your are in the end zone, stop play and prepare to smile graciously as everyone compliments you on your skill, luck, timing, good looks, or combination thereof. If you catch the disc, and your momentum carries you into the end zone, go back to the place where you caught the disc and resume play. You cannot intentionally tip or deflect the disc forward into the end zone (or any part of the field for that matter) and then catch it, although unintentional bobbling to control and catch the disc is allowed.

When a point is scored, it is the only time during the regular play that substitutions can occur, unless the substitution is to replace an injured player. You can’t change the line on the fly as in hockey or when a time-out is called.

So that’s Ultimate in a nutshell. It’s about fun, friends, and chasing a piece of flying molded plastic around the sky until your tongue is dragging on the field — just so that you can make up a song about the whole experience.

References (and big thanks to):

The Vancouver Ultimate League :


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