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Freestyle the “Ultimate” Edge

(A fast-freestyle playing exercise/guide for learning and practicing disc handling skills used in ultimate)

In the early days of Frisbee before disc sports, the original attraction was just to watch the Frisbee fly. At first, this was enough; the sheer joy in watching the Frisbee fly, not at all like a ball. Then, learn more because it’s in our nature to compete, came the Frisbee games. If you enjoy playing one disc game, chances are you’ll enjoy all the disc games, because they all have that one common attraction: unlike the ball, the disc actually flies. Each game demands unique skills but also shares common skills used in other games. If you become skilled in one disc game, you’ll quickly excel and most likely enjoy participating in other disc games.

Disc freestyle is an excellent non-competitive, unique athletic disc activity.

Having grown up in the fifties and sixties playing and competing in a variety of traditional sports, what attracted me most to playing with the Frisbee was that it didn’t have to be competitive to be athletically challenging. Disc freestyle play is an endless variety of throwing and catching possibilities with skills that can be displayed. Freestyle accomplishments can be as challenging and satisfying as a win/lose competitive “keeping score” game. Accomplishments and rewards are based on nothing more than your ability to improve, gratifications come from accomplishing the goals you set for yourself.

Play Catch—Invent Games. To Fly, Flip Away Backhanded. Flat Flip Flies Straight, Tilted Flip Curves—Experiment.

(instructions printed on the bottom of every Frisbee since the 1950s, promoting disc games and freestyle play).

My first disc sport was freestyle in the 1960s. As new disc sports like disc golf, ultimate, double disc court and over-all events were introduced to the Frisbee scene in the early 1970s. I quickly adapted and did well in these new sports because many of the disc skills needed were skills that transfered from playing freestyle. The throwing and catching skills used in today’s ultimate are not so different from the throwing and catching skills we used in yesterdays fast-freestyle. The fast throwing variety, lay-out and sky-ed catching, makes ultimate one of today’s most exciting sports. Without the use of nail-delay aids (plastic nails and silicone spray), freestyle, like ultimate, becomes a similar game of fast throwing and catching. I think ultimate players would not only like this type of fast-freestyle, but also benefit from it.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, freestyle before the invention of the nail-delay and the use of delay aids, catching possibilities would depend on the throw you were given, it was always spontaneous, unpredictable and very fast. Play of this type of fast-freestyle was performed with two players standing 30-40 yards apart. The throws were fast and varied and except for the occasional kick or slap-up, the catches were right off the throw with rarely a pause in between the catch and the throw back.  At advanced levels, it wasn’t about what you did as much as it was about how you did it. The throws and catches would become a flow that was created once you mastered the basics. The flow and style would then become your play. It was fast and fluid, similar to martial arts and dance.

Adding a throw and catch (no nail-delay) fast-freestyle to your ultimate training can be a fun way to add variety.

Freestyle play in professional sports is common. Before baseball practices, players sometimes play a game called pepper, basketball practice can look like a Harlem Globe Trotters exhibition and now have freestyle dunking contest. Soccer even has freestyle competitions now, that began as their own version of freestyle play during their practices. Downhill freestyle skiing and snowboarding are very popular. Than there are the well known but mostly secretive instances where figure skating coaches are brought in to teach figure skating techniques to professional hockey players.  Most sports have a fun freestyle component, evolving from a competitors natural tendency to challenge their own abilities. No sport is more accepting of a freestyle activity than that of throwing and catching a flying disc. In the early days of ultimate, some of the best players were also some of the best freestylers. A coincidence? I don’t think so. Many athletes add weight/strength training, martial arts and many other activities to improve their physical abilities for their sport. Freestyle is a great way to add a different but complimentary exercise to your sport.

Disc fast-freestyle play will increase your over-all confidence.

A baseball player will warm up by swinging two or three bats together before going up to bat, mentally it makes the batter feel stronger and therefore more confident when swinging one bat. Similarly, playing and progressing in your freestyle practice will give you that same additional confidence in your disc skills when playing ultimate. What’s welcoming for new players in the sport of ultimate is that you don’t have to have great disc handling skills to be an effective player. As a beginner, vertical leap, speed, and being willing to lay-out, will find you a place on any ultimate team. If you decide that you want to make ultimate your sport, than you’ll want to have the best disc skills you can get.  To play championship level ultimate, you must have confidence in all of your playing abilities. If you have any disc related weaknesses, it will be noted and exploited by an experienced opponent.

Fast-freestyle/ultimate handling exercise

Having a specific exercise for practicing just your disc skills along with your ultimate play will help you to develop excellent handling skills. Freestyle doesn’t have to be a strict practice, although it can be. It could also just be more of an experimental (freestyle) attitude whenever you feel like playing with the disc. There are a number of YouTube videos showing freestyle but most focus on air-bounce throws and nail-delay moves. This isn’t the type of freestyle you are looking for. The non-use of delay-aids (plastic nails and silicone sprays) will put you on the right path for a fast-freestyle/handling exercise.

Freestyle throwing

Being a deep threat with multiple throwing techniques and able to pass the disc before the defense has had a chance to re-set, is always optimal. Fast-freestyle throwing experience can improve your throwing and quicken your ability to transition between your catch and throwing readiness. The throws you know today as ultimate throws: backhand, sidearm (flick, forehand or whatever you call it these days), hammer, scoober, before ultimate, are what we use to call freestyle throws. Trying freestyle variations of these common ultimate throws, like under-the-leg or behind-the-back flicks, forehand and backhand high arching curves and skip shots will expand the range of your throwing ability and increase your throwing possibilities on the ultimate field. Even though you wouldn’t use all of these throwing techniques specifically, just adding these freestyle throwing variations in practice will improve your throwing strength, especially for playing in adverse conditions (wind, rain, cold or against a great defense).

Illustrations of freestyle throwing and catching techniques. Freestyle Players Association, Learn the Basics Page. (disregard the section on equipment, nail-delay and the air-bounce throw).

(Rob McLeod showing freestyle throws in a facebook posting called Uncommon Throws in Ultimate Frisbee)

Freestyle catching

When you’re running down the ultimate field under a disc, about to make an offensive catch against a defender, most of the time a two-handed or pancake catch is not possible. It’s usually an obstructed one-handed catch; your opponent being the obstruction. In fast-freestyle, one-hand catches are always obstructed by your own body, with many catches actually being blind (when you can’t actually see the disc go into your hand).  When I played ultimate, my question to my team would always be:  ” Why do you use two hands to catch?”. If the answer was that they were afraid they would drop it, that would be the wrong answer. I would than give instruction on the physics involved in catching the spinning disc with either hand. I’ve seen ultimate players at the highest levels sometimes have trouble reading the spinning disc and on occasion try to catch it on the wrong side of the spin. Some basic freestyle catches are: behind-the-back, behind-the-head, under one or both legs  front or backwards. All of these catches can also be done while jumping, running or spinning. Freestyle catching is a great way to practice one-hand catching the disc on the correct side of the spin in many different positions.

Early Wham-O Super Pro commercial (early 1970s) showing a few fast-freestyle throwing and catching techniques

If you want to keep your disc skills, you have to use your disc skills.

Back in the day, freestylers had a saying:

“If I miss one day of practice, I will notice it, miss two days of practice and my freestyle partner will notice it, miss three days of practice and everyone watching will notice it.”

During and off-season, indoors in colder climates and when you have limited space, occasional fast-freestyle play will keep your disc skills sharp until your next ultimate game or season.

So practice your offensive and defensive strategies, your give and goes, your weaves and conditioning laps, but add a little basic throw-and-catch fast-freestyle practice, and it will definitely make you a more disc-skilled  player, as well as give you an important edge when playing ultimate.

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