6400: Check First

November 9, 2020
By Grant Lindsley

When I was 16, I got lucky. I made the best men’s ultimate team in Atlanta, Georgia and found myself surrounded by players I idolized. They threw me on the offensive line. The other six guys, players like 2016 AUDL MVP Dylan Tunnell, all seemed twice my height, weight, and ability. I’d do anything they told me.

Early on, it became clear that our best player was a guy named AJ Tiarsmith, and everyone was to defer to him on the field. Once, during a game, I cut him off. In the moment, I didn’t think much of it – I’d caught the disc, thrown upfield, and sprinted off. No turnover; no big deal. Part of why I’d made the team in the first place was speed. By running constantly, I thought, I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do.

On the sideline after the point, AJ approached. I think all he said to me was, “That under you got there? Good stuff. Just check first.” 

Coming from him, that was enough. He didn’t need to be stern (me: starry-eyed, child, just happy to be there; him: best player, adult, really deep voice). I nodded and acted like I hadn’t died a little inside at the possibility of disappointing him.

There was wisdom in that brief piece of feedback that it took me a while to grasp. At the time, what I heard him say amounted to, don’t cut me off, and that was sufficient. This alone added a variable to offense. From then on, I’d not only monitor my position and that of the disc, as usual, but also look over my shoulder to make sure I never got in AJ’s way.

When, for example, a swing pass would go up in the air, instead of watching the disc myself, I began turning to watch AJ watch the disc. I got to see the way he set up his cuts with footwork and timing.

Soon, though, I noticed something. He was watching me as much as I was watching him. In fact, he was watching everyone. It dawned on me that his coaching to check the lane hadn’t been an extra responsibility reserved for me, the subordinate kid. In fact, he was trying to bring me up to speed by essentially saying, everyone else is doing this, and you need to do it, too. His feedback wasn’t about deference. It was about vision.

“Good stuff,” he had said, kindly leading with encouragement, “Just check first.” In other words, stay aggressive, but look where you’re going. Get open, but make sure you do it in open space.

13 years later, there’s a league called the AUDL and an app called Instagram, and it captures a 10-second illustration of AJ’s advice in action in the 2019 finals. Ben Jagt catches an under from Harper Garvey. Jack Williams and I are downfield. I happen to be closer to Jagt, but, before cutting, I turn away to check the deep space and make sure Jack isn’t cutting there already. He isn’t, so I take off. Jack, meanwhile, waits a beat, watching me as I watched for him, then gets wide open under.

I make sure I’m not cutting into Jack’s space, and Jack makes sure he isn’t cutting into mine. The result: Jagt has two looks because both cutters checked first.

3 vs 3 games are a good venue for developing vision. On offense, one player has the disc, so there’s only one other cutter to watch. With three general spaces (open side, break side, and deep), it’s like playing musical chairs with three seats and two people. If you’re paying attention, no one should ever sit in the same spot.

Vision translates to spacing. It’s easy for this skill to go unnoticed when executed well. I remember watching NBA basketball almost daily a couple years back, then tuning into March Madness. I hadn’t watched college ball all season, and I was immediately struck by how often the floor looked crowded. Even though college players were smaller on average, their spacing was worse, so the court looked smaller, even though it was the same size as the NBA’s. The pros saw what ultimate players must also see: formations of space that evolve according to the position of the ball and the other players. Seeing those patterns in ultimate reveals the importance of all movement, not just cutting for the disc. Clearing and managing a stack, for example, maximize the areas of attack.

Whether you’re playing small-sided games this winter or watching film in your pajamas and fantasizing about a virus-free spring, watch where you’re watching. See if you can see more.