Boxing out: Why it works, and how to do it

[If you haven’t already, see previous posts on boxing out and the relevant rules]

IMG_5694-MYou’re on offence. You’re chasing a disc, with a defender behind you, but still some distance from where you’ll catch it. What can you do to keep your defender away from it and ensure you’re the only one who has a bid?

How do you catch more of these uncontested pancakes where your defender has already given up or has been forced to bid too early?

First, what makes it possible to box someone out? It turns out there is one major factor that enables you to control the path of your defender as you approach the disc.

When you run, your legs go quite a long way in front of you, and quite a long way behind you. Your defender’s legs will be doing the same, and almost certainly not synchronised with yours. This means it’s impossible for him to run close and directly behind you, or your legs will tangle. Obviously, in order to overtake, he has to run to one side of you –  but in fact, even when he’s still a couple of yards back, he must have already started to run to one side of you so that your legs won’t clash.

Consider the situation where he’s picked a side to run by you, and is now just behind your shoulder. You can have a good sense of where he is, even while you’re looking at the disc, which is nice. And crucially, if he decides to switch to running past your other shoulder, it’s going to cost him plenty of yards. He has to slow down so that he can cross behind you without all those legs entangling, and then he has to accelerate again, and he’s going to lose a lot of ground. From the previous post about the rules, we know that any contact he makes with your legs in that situation is going to be his foul, so he simply must lose that ground in order to try and swap sides.

So – once he’s trying to get around you, past one shoulder or the other, he has a very strong incentive to carry on going around you that same way. But of course, there’s nothing to stop you from drifting in the same direction, forcing him to go even wider to get past you. He can see you perfectly well, and is obliged by the rules to avoid contact with you if he can, so you can just keep veering across and causing him to slow down or run ever wider – right up to the point where you’re once again directly between him and the disc and you can just attack the last three steps and grab it. Or, maybe, right up to the point where he starts to think about an impossible early bid, gives up, and you just jog onto the disc.

That’s the basics of how to box out. First, make him choose one side of you to try and overtake; second, push him wider and wider until either he is forced to slow down to avoid you, or he’s forced to try and switch shoulders, or he takes so much the longer path to the disc that you win the race anyway.

There are a couple of implications. Firstly, you can’t box someone out if there’s a large difference in your current speed. The crucial point is that he needs to be able to avoid you when you impede him, and if you’re going at a similar speed that’s easy enough. He can slow down or veer sideways, and your continued forward movement will keep you ahead of any collision.

But if he’s travelling much faster than you and you suddenly get in his way,  he may still be travelling faster than you even when he slams on the brakes or tries to turnand he’ll run into your back. That would be your foul, since he couldn’t avoid you.

Secondly, you need him fairly close to you before you can start to impede him. If he’s still four yards back, and you start weaving, he’ll be able to swap sides without any problem and he has no need to decelerate to do it. If you slow down too much when you’re not in a position to impede him, he’ll just burst by you and you’ll be unable to block because of the speed difference. Instead, you need to draw him in close enough that he can’t switch sides without clashing legs. You need to make him pick a side. When he’s a couple of feet behind your shoulder – close enough that your legs would clash if he moved across that way – you’re all set.

Again, that means you have to be going only very slightly slower than him – not just to avoid fouls, but also because the time window for getting in his way would be extremely small if it only takes him half a second to burst past you. You might need to slow down a tiny fraction to draw him in and force him to pick a side*, but you can’t slow down too much too early. It takes practice to do this well.

[* You might not need to slow down. If the disc is too floaty, you would probably want to; but one of the other key reasons you’d want to box him out is just because he’s faster than you – e.g. you’re going all out to chase a well-thrown disc, which will be an easy waist-high pancake for you, but actually he’s quick enough that he could get there first. In that case, just keep running, and his slight speed advantage will bring him onto your shoulder – and then you can start to impede him.]

Once you’ve forced him to slow down, you can often slow him progressively more – what matters when it comes to him avoiding you is mainly the difference in speed between you, not the absolute speed. When you get good at this, you can slow him right down, or make him give up in frustration when you’re still yards from the disc. But you need to be very careful at first not to be too ambitious – if you’re expecting to be able to stop him in his tracks in one move, you’re wrong. What you can do is slow him a little, make him take a longer route, and keep your body between him and the place he’s trying to run to (remembering that his intended point-of-reception may not be the same as yours – see the latter half of this post). If you do that, you’ll catch a lot of discs.

It’s not that hard to set up simple drills to practice this – it can be as simple as trying to reach a cone as slowly as you can without letting your defender past you. The skill is in sensing his position without looking away from the disc (or cone…), and in knowing exactly how much you can impede him at any stage without him bursting past you. Once you understand what it is you’re trying to do when boxing out, it’s all and only practice.

A final recap – boxing out is indeed, just as you might think, about being between your defender and the disc. But it’s also slightly more than that. First you have to limit him to only one viable option – only one side of your body where he can overtake – and then you progressively take that option away.

Go learn – it’s quicker than waiting for your handlers to become perfect…

Blockstack Photography – Ultimate Frisbee Photos (Tom Styles and others) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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3 Responses to Boxing out: Why it works, and how to do it

  1. James B says:

    I posted this comment on the 2nd article in the series, but I’m not sure it was seen:

    Here’s my favourite situation for muddying these waters:
    Player A is on offense. Player B is on defense
    Player A cuts deep down the middle of the pitch to catch an OI backhand huck. Player B is to the right of player A (from a top-down view).
    The disc curves more OI than A anticipated and, looking up over their left shoulder they begin to drift right (whilst still moving forwards) so that they can catch the disc before it goes over their head.
    At this point Player B is effectively boxing out Player A. Player B doesn’t need to move right as they are in a good position to make the catch and ceding ground to Player A decreases the chances of them getting the block.
    Player B can see that Player A is about to initiate contact with them (they are looking left too) but Player A has no idea since they are effectively moving backwards. Usually the first thing Player A knows about the situation is they get what feels like a shove in the back – as they move into Player B.
    Player B is allowed to hold their ground I believe, but does the fact that they could avoid the contact count against them? I’ve seen quite a few messy calls around this situation…


    • This can be tricky. If B is directly to the right of A, then they’d be allowed to hold their line, running shoulder to shoulder (also if A was acting recklessly or moving in such a way that B couldn’t avoid them, then that’s going to be a foul by A). But if B is to the right and slightly BEHIND, such that A has ‘position’, I’d say A is entitled to get in their way. It’s not ‘reckless’ to not look behind you every time you move; B could definitely avoid contact; A was already in the better position and is entitled to use it. Unless B can get level with A, so that THEY have position on a disc that veers right, then A is entitled to move into them (providing they don’t cause unavoidable non-incidental contact). Of course, all this is only my opinion. And who has position at what time will depend a lot on the flight path of the disc. If A has misread it such that B now has position, then they lose any rights again.

      But in general, I’d say that a player who is winning the race has a right to run where they want and it’s the guy behind’s problem to avoid them if they can.

      You’re right though – most times this will get messy. It’s very unlikely that the two players will agree on who had position, and therefore they won’t be able to resolve this.


    • James B says:

      Perfect example at about the 1hr7min mark in the Nexgen/Ironside game


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