Cutting – Getting Separation

How do you create sufficient separation from your defender to receive a pass?

First off, your defender has a reaction time of about .2 of a second, give or take. No matter what you do, it’ll take him that long to notice and react – this is a fundamental fact of the human senses. We want to make the most of this .2 seconds, so clearly we want to give nothing away in our posture about our intentions, and then we want to accelerate as hard as we can in our chosen direction. You might not be far away after .2 of a second, but the benefits of being slightly more accelerated than your defender are cumulative – if it takes 1 second to get up close to full speed, then for 1.2 seconds you’ll be consistently going faster than your defender. This might translate to 1 or 2 metres’ advantage if you do it right.

A lot of beginners tend to be tentative on the first few steps, looking at the thrower to see if they’ve made the kind of run that the thrower wants – this is a complete waste of your advantage over your defender. At all times, at all costs, go hard for the first 3 yards and then think about whether or not it worked. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be looking at the thrower whenever possible – you should – but you shouldn’t be looking at them expecting cues until you’ve made that initial burst. Then you can assess whether they’re likely to throw it.

But there is also a way to get more than that .2 of a second advantage, and that comes from turning sharply. When you’re running, you spend a significant amount of time with both feet off the ground, and even when your feet are down they’re behind you – you can’t use them to slow down until the next step.

20130501_154407And you’re very unlikely to be running absolutely in sync with your defender. So when you suddenly stop and turn, there’s a good chance he’s in mid-air when he notices and has to take one more step, throwing one of his feet forward, before he can decelerate.

How many times per second do your feet hit the floor when running hard? Data from the Olympic 100 metres says a little over 4 times per second. Hard to imagine that many ultimate players have a vastly higher cadence than these guys…

So you can gain up to about .25 of a second by turning properly, on top of the .2 reaction time.

What that means is that if you can get your defender up to full running speed, and then turn properly, you can get up to double the advantage as when you just sprint from a standstill. And that’s a fact of physics and physiology, and nothing to do with your skills. You can make the most of it by using good technique in the turn and the acceleration, but it’s unavoidable that cutting after another cut is generally somewhere towards twice as effective as cutting from a standstill. Again, beginners have a tendency to stop and think, or to jog to a halt, at the end of a cut; a terrible idea. It doesn’t matter where you go to next – as long as you go there hard, after a sharp turn, you’ll be more free than you were. You need to play within your team’s offensive plan, of course, but if your sole aim is to get separation, just turn and run somewhere

There are a couple of caveats:

– your first cut has to be viable (to a place where the defender can believe you’ll receive the disc) otherwise they won’t ‘bite’ and you don’t gain anything. If they’re just jogging casually after you as you run to somewhere pointless, you’re not going to beat them when you turn. (Of course, if they don’t bite on a viable cut, just keep going and get the disc – don’t fake for the sake of faking!) So your starting position is important – you must have a number of viable options for your first cut so as to give your defender a problem stopping them all.

– your first cut cannot be so long that it is no longer viable; e.g. once you’re too far from the disc for a viable throw, the defender will slow down, anticipating that you’ll have to come back under, and you lose any advantage.

But the overall message is: Don’t ever waste an unsuccessful cut by jogging to a stop. An unsuccessful cut is an excellent basis for a successful one! Nothing is more effective for getting free than being nearly free in the other direction – being close enough to being free that the defender is at 100% effort to make sure you don’t gain another inch. That’s a situation you cannot afford to waste.

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8 Responses to Cutting – Getting Separation

  1. arcaxel says:

    Nice article, good job! is it possible to do a little piece on correct footwork when you cut? I get a lot of different conflicting advice on the subject and I’m sure others do too…. Good job with these articles, really appreciated.


    • I certainly have opinions on correct technique, and I’ve looked into it a little in order to coach people. But I’m not sure I could set myself up as an expert on it. Someone with an NFL wide-receiver background is probably a good deal ahead of anything I could say. But maybe I’ll put some thoughts down at some point in the future – with a big disclaimer at the beginning!


  2. Eric says:

    Great step-by-step analysis!

    For all the players learning this skill out there, I would add a balance/weight/momentum component to the analysis. As you rightfully suggest, you need your defender to “bite”, and once he does shift his weight towards the place you’re running, you can be sure he thinks you’re a viable threat.

    How do you know he’s shifted his weight? Watch his hips. If he’s turned his hips and opened up his stance to react to one of your moves, you’re half-way there, and consistent separation, as the writer of this fine article suggests, is only a sharp turn and a hard sprint away!


    • Good point. There’s a whole separate article that could be written about how and when you /know/ that you’ve beaten your defender. Jim Parinella’s book is pretty good on that stuff, with some nice pictures to demonstrate… This article doesn’t really address the question of when or whether you should turn /again/ to get free. Maybe later!


  3. Nice article! Can you do a similar article but from a defensive player’s point of view? As in how to effectively cut down on an offensive player’s separation, possible scenarios of knowing when ‘not to bite’ and picking up little signs or body languages of offensive players that helps defensive players identify when he/she is juking, faking or actually going to cut?


    • I’ll add it to the list! By far the most important thing though is to play defence with focus. There aren’t more than a few clear cues you can rely on, and the ability to gauge someone’s intentions from the smallest postural clues is more a matter of unconscious pattern-recognition than a conscious list of things to look for. So give your subconscious the most opportunities to really study the offensive player and learn from what they do.

      If you want to to defend better, push yourself harder in drills/scrimmages than you would in a match. Instead of over-covering the short or open-side cut, try and get incredibly tight and take away /every/ cut when you’re working on your defence. Give it 100% focus. You’ll get it wrong sometimes and over-commit somewhere, but that’s OK. Mistakes in focussed practice are good. You’ll learn much quicker by getting beaten badly than by playing more ‘correct’ defence.

      But remember it would be selfish to play that way in ‘rehearsal’ – if your team says no unders, then no unders it has to be!


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