Freestyle Can Improve Your Ultimate Handling Skills

An exercise for general ultimate handling skills.

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“The early days of ultimate were a little different then playing today. Although there were many great athletes, good handlers were few. A team would be lucky if they had three players with a strong forehand and really lucky if there were players that could be trusted to hold hyzer upwind with any throw. Today, skills have improved, the articles on this site detail training for developing advanced throwing and catching skills. The same training used for overall power events and handling skills for other disc sports, can be used to learn and improve the required skills for ultimate.” 

Ken Westerfield

Ultimate Handling Exercise (can be done with two or more players).

To improve and maintain playing skills in any sport, it helps to include training activities that can isolate playing skills that are required for that sport. Top athletes in any sport will regularly choose similar sports and exercises for cross-training. All disc sports have specific disc skills that are related to ultimate and can be an excellent cross-trainer for disc athletes.

I don’t think this was common knowledge for players in the early days; we just played all of the disc sports. There were clear benefits: disc golf for hucking, pulling, and accuracy, freestyle and double-disc court (DDC) for all handling skills; and guts for one-hand catching and power throwing.

It may be half a century later, but the same benefits of cross-training should still apply. Ultimate is fast becoming the breakout disc sport of the future. Although I would never want to see freestyle moves included in the game of ultimate, ultimate players should consider the playing benefits that can come from freestyle as a handling exercise.

A Little History Lesson

Guts Frisbee was our first organized disc sport, but throw-and-catch freestyle was Frisbee’s first activity, eventually creating competitions; the touring freestyle performers in the 1970s showed people that the Frisbee was more than just recreation with a beach toy. Competitive disc sports like ultimate and disc golf are excellent flying disc sports that have grown in popularity, but as a skilled activity, there’s nothing more uniquely self-challenging to playing with a flying disc than freestyle in every form.

The earliest introduction of ultimate games were played as a backhand passing and mostly two-hand catching activity. Many of ultimate’s earliest players became excellent disc athletes and some became very accomplished freestylers in the early 70s. Throwing variety was early freestyle play, freestylers, as part of their sport, invented and developed all of the advanced throwing techniques that are now used in all of today’s disc sports, including ultimate. Freestylers were some of the sport’s first good handlers and early innovators, introducing the big throwing styles that make ultimate the fun passing game it is today.

“Freestyle can be a unique training exercise, not necessarily for turning ultimate players into freestylers, but simply as an excellent cross-trainer for improving an ultimate player’s skills for handling the disc.”

Fast-Freestyle (Throw and Catch) for Practicing Ultimate Handling Skills

Since there are elements of freestyle play in every disc sport, disc athletes, especially in ultimate, should consider a simple form of regular freestyle play as recreation and handler practice.

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 throw and catch fast-freestyle and handling exercise.

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 as recreation or warm-up. Having a specific exercise for practicing just your disc skills along with your ultimate play will help you to develop excellent handling skills.

Freestyle Throwing

I’ve seen videos that are being produced by a few of today’s elite ultimate players of their versions of uncommon throwing possibilities. Rowan McDonell’s is a shining example; although he demonstrates a few new variations, most are throws that we used in early freestyle. We lumped them together as “freestyle throws” and they were a big part of playing freestyle prior to 1975. This is the type of freestyle throwing that I recommend for a throw-and-catch freestyle handle exercise.

Even though you’re highly unlikely to use all of these throwing variations specifically in game situations, just adding these freestyle throwing variations in practice will improve your abilities, especially for beginning and intermediate players. They also prepare you for playing in adverse conditions like wind, rain, cold, or just against a great defense.

Becoming a cutting threat with a variety of throwing techniques that can attack with the disc before the defense has a chance to reset is highly effective, as McDonnell has demonstrated in his success. Adding basic freestyle catching to the freestyle throwing techniques being demonstrated by Rowan, in his video, is the training exercise this article is promoting. It will not only improve the variety of your throws, but also improve and quicken your ability to transition between your catch and throwing readiness.

Freestyle Catching

Ultimate players might wonder what freestyle catching has to do with two-hand rim and clap catching. There’s little to be gained in that area, but freestyle can give you the one-hand catching skill and confidence to not always have to rely on two-hand catching.

Some of the time when you’re running down the ultimate field under a disc about to make a catch, a two-handed rim or clap catch is not always possible or the best idea, especially if there is a defender on you. You sometimes have to rely on an obstructed one-hand catch, with your defender being the obstruction.

In fast-freestyle, one-hand catches are always obstructed by your own body, with many catches actually being blind (when you actually can’t 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?” Many would answer that they were afraid to drop it. Wrong answer. I’d instruct them on the physics involved in catching the spinning disc with either hand.

Freestyle catching is a one-hand catching practice for catching a spinning disc in any situation. Some basic freestyle catches are: behind-the-back, behind-the-head, under one or both legs, forwards or backwards. All of these catches can also be done while jumping, running, or spinning. When practicing, adding freestyle catching to the throws you already know is a great way to practice one-hand catching the disc on the correct side of the spin in many different positions. You can watch early freestyle champion Krae Van Sickle demonstrate a few of these techniques.

Adding freestyle throwing to catches like Krae is demonstrating will make an excellent ultimate handling training exercise.

Going Back to the Future

Exercise and training shouldn’t be work, to get maximum results, it needs to be fun. Freestyle isn’t a separate game or activity, it’s a skill-set that will up your throwing and catching game, especially with quick throwing variety and one-hand catching situations. For ultimate players that already have excellent handling skills, it could just be a challenging way to improve and maintain them. For the ultimate player just starting out, it could be an additional fun way to get them.

In the future, when ultimate teams are looking for every competitive edge, a throw and catch version of freestyle will be an integral part of ultimate players practice and recreation. Although playing many disc sports in the early days was not done for training, that is exactly what it offered. Sometimes, history can be a good teacher on a way forward.

Home page: Forehand and Backhand Power Throwing for Hucking and Pulling.

Players Organizations and resources: USA Ultimate | Ultimate Canada | PDGA | WFDF | Freestyle Players Association | FrisbeeGuru | Flying Disc Museum | Ultimate Rob

History articles:  History of Disc Sports | History of Ultimate Frisbee