On Pulling for Distance

Most of us try really hard to pull as far as we can to start a point. Is that really our best option? Of course, distance is a good thing. If we can throw it deep in their endzone, then all things being equal that’s better than putting it on their brick mark.

But all things are not equal. Throwing the disc as far as you can almost always means less hang time. And conversely, by giving the disc a little more height, you can generally make it stay out of reach for longer – but it will cost you distance. There’s an almost inevitable trade-off between height and distance – and it’s my contention that the majority of people over-value distance and under-value hang-time.¹

In the NFL, there’s something called ‘out-kicking the coverage’ ², meaning that you punt the ball so far downfield that your defence is not able to get there and put pressure on the receiver – who can instead take his time to look for weak spots in the advancing defence, organise his blockers, and plan his route back through. It’s often better to kick higher (and inevitably slightly shorter) so that your defenders are right on top of him as he catches it, rather than to give him a chance to get up to speed.

Does the same thing apply in Ultimate? I would say so. Firstly, there’s the very basic question of where the disc is when the D arrives. Commonly, even from a traditionally ‘good’ pull half way back in the endzone, the offence has made a pass or two and is well outside the endzone by the time you arrive. Is it really better to let them make an uncontested pass or two to that spot than to just pull, with more float, to a similar spot in the first place? Surely what matters is where they are when the defence arrives, not where your pull was at it’s furthest reach. Distance is useless unless it makes it harder for the opponent to score – and any distance that they quickly steal back on uncontested passes is clearly not hurting the offence.

So in terms of defining a good pull, ‘Where the disc is when the defence arrives,’ is a better metric than pure pulling distance. If giving the disc a bit more height means the offence are actually further back when the D arrives, then that should be a fairly easy decision.

But there’s also a more direct analogy to the NFL situation, such that it might be better to throw floatier pulls EVEN IF you don’t get your defence set any further downfield, or perhaps even if it costs you so much distance that they are nearer your endzone before you arrive. There are many advantages to catching the pull uncontested and making a free pass or two:

  • If the receiving team can make a centering pass, that obviously helps them. More often than not, it puts the disc in the hands of the best player, in the centre of the field, and allows downfield cutters a very clear timing cue to start whatever pull play they might have lined up.
  • As an alternative to simple centering, the offence can move it slightly to the high side of the field (if they can guess you’re running the same forehand force you’ve run for the last 6 points in a row…) or they can swing right across to the other side of the field just before the defence (the cup, even?) closes in, and that too can be an advantage over and above any yardage towards their scoring endzone.
  • If they can simply keep the disc moving, generating flow and making it hard for the cutter-defenders to predict which angles to defend and which cuts to take away, that can be an advantage.
  • Catching a pull without defensive pressure also gives the offence the psychological feeling of control, and relaxes them in the knowledge that they are dictating the situation. On the other hand, a floaty pull landing at a position the defence ‘chooses’ (even if it’s a position that isn’t actually that bad for offence) does not cede the psychological advantage. Catching a pull with the defence already on you is simply no fun, even if you’re near the brick mark.

From a long but uncontested pull, the offence can start to move the disc for tactical advantage even before the defence arrives, which is almost exactly like the NFL situation. And of course, if the offence is benefiting from choosing where and how to start playing, then surely the defence would benefit from preventing that happening – potentially even if it costs some vertical yards overall.

And yet, even in elite play, a large majority of pulls are fielded and centered before the defence gets anywhere near, which seems mad when you have such strong arms throwing them.

Look at this fantastic pull from Revolution’s Elizabeth Mosquera (thanks Mike Lawler, I stole your clip). It’s beautiful, but the disc is centered to near the front of the endzone and the offence can get comfortable. If this was thrown a little higher and shorter, they’d be starting on the sideline under pressure with no opportunity to run any preferred plays.

And check this one out:


(Dunno how to make wordpress embed Streamable clips; thanks to Dan Young on Twitter, who I stole this one from.)

This is a shocker – a low, flat pull, that the offence easily moves around the advancing cup defence. After 2 uncontested passes, the disc is near the brick mark with two defenders behind the play; after 3 still uncontested passes the offence is nearly at halfway and their are FOUR defenders behind the play, achieving nothing at all. This is as strong an example as you’re likely to see of what can go wrong when you let offence dictate the start of the point. The fact that the offence eventually make a mess of the upwind huck doesn’t detract from what a terrible position the defence find themselves in.

In this instance, the thrower would have been vastly better off bricking the pull and setting the cup than allowing the offence a couple of uncontested passes that puts them ahead of more than half the defenders…

I’d happily have the offence start 5, 10, even 15 yards further forward if I could leave them struggling to time a pull play, away from the centre of the field, and with the secondary handler holding the disc.

More often than not, you should float your pulls more, even if you lose a little distance³.

All that said, there is still another advantage to the lower, longer pull – it’s often easier to get it in-bounds. Inevitably the high, floaty pull has more chance of catching a gust of wind and has a higher risk of being bricked. There are times when you might decide it’s most important just to get it in the field, and that’s sensible – as long as you’ve made that decision for the right reasons, and not just because you’re obsessed with distance.

I’m not here to be dogmatic and say that the higher pull is ALWAYS better. But it’s better more often than most people think.

And here’s a thought: Why do you pull from the front of the endzone?

There’s nothing in the rules that prevents you from pulling from further back. And as soon as you’ve released the disc the other 6 players can start to sprint down, with a 10+ yard head-start on the disc. Yes, you lose a bit of distance, but you gain an awful lot more pressure on the receiver and the first pass. It’s broadly similar to the idea of throwing it higher and shorter, except we don’t have the additional risk of missing the pitch which the high, very floaty pull would give you.

There are some situations (puller with huge arm, or strong following wind) where it seems to me someone should be experimenting with this option. At the very least, it seems a no-brainer that if you’re throwing it out the back on a given day, you’re better off throwing it from further inside your endzone than just taking the pace off – 6 of your 7 defenders will be right down on it by the time it reaches the offence.

Look again at that pull from Mosquera above. She could throw the exact same throw from 10 yards further back in the endzone and, with no additional risk of missing the pitch, she could allow her fellow defenders to be right on top of the receiver. Has anyone tried this that you know of? And have you seen any success from it?

¹ Of course there are other pulling choices in certain situations – the 75-yard uncatchable blade is nice if you have a tailwind or a frankly enormous arm, and the roller out the sideline has many uses (and indeed is much underused in my opinion). There are probably other options too that don’t fit the main argument here. But in normal conditions, most of us face a trade-off between pure distance and allowing time for the defence to arrive.
² Googling the phrase for an example just brings up Urban Dictionary – not quite what I had in mind…
³ Robyn Wiseman published an excellent drill (or if you prefer, a rule adjustment for scrimmages) a while ago – make the defence pull again if they don’t put pressure on the first throw (the throw that centres the disc or otherwise chooses a position). It’s a really good drill for the kind of thing I’m talking about. Go give it a try.
(I’m not in love with that article as a whole, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with any of the drills in themselves, but to claim that it’s about ‘Making the defense more intense’ and then providing 3 out of 4 drills which emphasise fouling, is not how I would have titled the article. Call the story ‘Drills on how to cope with being fouled’ and I’m all over it, but we can’t go around giving the impression that intense D is equivalent to fouling!)


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6 Responses to On Pulling for Distance

  1. Robse says:

    Master Benji, Food for brain, especially the idea of not pulling from the front of the endzone when having tailwinds, so the defense arrives earlier. I like that idea and must admit that it never crossed my mind. In fact that might have been an option in your second example in these extreme windy conditions.

    In your first example however, I tend to disagree. In my opinion the Colombia Pull is perfect the way it is. The defence arrives and shuts down the thrower within the endzone. They do that by taking away the first option in the field and the second option on the dump. The result is a risky short pass on a cut from the front of the sideline stack, so clearly the third option. To me that is almost textbook defence! Almost? Yes. Maybe, instead of bidding the disc and landing on the ground, the defender could have let her have the disc and think about the bigger picture = STOP the motion close to the endzone! Of course she’s the hero and has a highlight reel if the get’s it, but the cost is high, because It is only after that failed attempt that the field opens dramatically for Denver. So stay on your feet as a defender as long as this is not your own endzone and a goal attempt. Therefore I don’t think Colombia would have been off any better with a shorter and slower pull. The disc on the sidline could still be centered to the back of the field to where the handler got it in this situation. The defence is not fast enough to shut down that pass. If they were, they could have stopped the first pass in the example.

    Very nice thoughts. Thanks!

    Cheers, Robse, Germany


  2. mkt42 says:

    When we played our cup zone, I always told our pullers that we needed hang time more than we needed distance, so that we could set up our zone before the O could make their first throw.

    But that’s the no-brainer situation. It’s not as obvious to me that a person-to-person D is as badly hurt by uncontested first passes. But your ideas are intriguing ones to think about, to try to reduce distance in favor of hang time, or to pull from the back of the end zone.


    • It’s perhaps a no brainer to you and I when running zone, but apparently not to everyone, including maybe Mixtape. 🙂

      And it’s certainly possible that against many opponents, when playing person D, preventing the first pass isn’t as valuable as the extra yards. Or at least, it isn’t worth very many yards, so in practice the ‘correct’ amount of extra hang time is small enough that you might as well just get distance. All the stuff about being nearer the sideline or having a different thrower or not being able to time a pull play is debatable in certain situations.

      Overall I’d agree that the advantage of hang time is a fair bit higher in cupping/trapping zones, but it usually still exists to some extent in person D.

      The bit that I’m utterly convinced of though is the first bit – ‘where is the disc when the D gets set up?’. If a little more hang time means they start further back (ignoring any uncontested passes) then that’s pretty much always going to be good news – and I think a significant proportion of pullers ignore even this sometimes.

      The only time i can imagine that pure distance is better (than having them further back when the defence arrives) is in the kind of conditions where even uncontested passes are difficult. But if it’s that windy, you’d be throwing rollers and blades etc anyway.


  3. Pingback: Pulling, Part 3 – Blades | Understanding Ultimate

  4. Pingback: Pulling, Part 4 – Rollers | Understanding Ultimate

  5. Pingback: Ultimate Frisbee Links – Rebecca Kestin's Projects

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