“Let’s have myself and Dom handling, and we’ll go Sam one to Michele two.”
I’m not sure when I started to really enjoy hearing those words (and not just because of the two other bros mentioned). It definitely took a while before I felt confident as a first cut on offence, but it’s definitely my ultimate comfort zone now (#puns). I’ve ran a couple of practices and shared thoughts with some people on primary cutting, and I did promise Chris an SB blog article back in November 2014, so consider this my brain dump on the art of the first cut. I’m not suggesting I’m an expert, but it’s probably one of the few things I’m somewhat qualified to write about, so here goes…
You, silly. Being called as a first cut (i.e. the initial primary option for the offence once a handler has the disc in his/her hands) puts you centre-stage. This is both a blessing and a curse, but I’ll argue it’s mainly the former. Yes, there’s a bit of added pressure now to get the offence moving, but not necessarily to get the disc. A great first cut, particularly from open play (i.e. not a bricked pull), may never see you get the disc in your hands but instead drag more than your fair share of defenders with you in the (possibly mistaken) belief that you’re a dangerous threat. This can then provide easy space for others to use. In 99% of cases however, you’re still cutting with the intent to receive.
I’d argue that being a first cut is one of the easiest jobs in most offensive systems. Rarely will you find yourself in a position where everyone on your team gives you the maximum available space and time to work with, and where your defender is often starting from a poor defensive position. Many argue that ultimate is heavily biased towards the offence – even if the opposition know exactly the string you’ve called, it doesn’t necessarily help them much – and the first cut can be one clear illustration of this. As a first cut, you’ll often have a huge advantage before you’ve done anything; embrace this advantage.
The first cut is there to provide a kick start for the offence – you’re the first gear. There’s no easier way to ensure the offence gets going than maximising the available space for one isolated cutter to receive the disc. This requires devoting at least a few seconds to one specific player as the primary look. It turns out cutting is a lot easier without your scumbag teammates getting in your way. It also makes the first throw a lot easier for the handler – they know right from the beginning who they’re looking to move the disc to, and when to expect the development of your cut.
First of all, the general rules of cutting apply. Where possible, ensure deep movement is more parallel to the pitch, and all under movement comes at an angle which provides enough time and lane space for the thrower to deliver the pass. I’d recommend this article from Benji for a lesson in effective cutting shapes. Most of what I talk about assumes you’re working out of a vertical stack or a system which looks to isolate, as opposed to a more fluid horizontal offence where multiple options open and close quite quickly.
Threaten both the deep and under space, using what you are given by the defence to your advantage. This might depend on the distance and timing of the pull, as well as how quickly the defence chases it down. Often, a first cut will look to set up a solid ‘fake’ deep cut to earn the respect of the defence, before using the created space underneath to make good yards up the field. However, the deep cut should ideally be a legitimate option. If the opposition runs down the pull like David Dickinson chasing a hard bargain, and your fellow teammates have provided a nice shallow stack to cut alongside, feel free to take the deep shot on right away.
Watch how easily Will Driscoll does this against Oregon below.
And now it’s Jimmy Mickle’s turn.
Where you cut is often dependent on the setup of the disc and the stack. If you’re running a side stack for example, you’re afforded a lot of lateral space, allowing you to throw some wider shapes than you might otherwise be able to. The clip below shows Max Thorne coming out of a side stack for Pitt and using the width of the pitch to great effect, before unleashing a dime to Trent Dillon. (Be sure to watch it a second, third and umpteenth time to see the Georgia defender get absolutely #rekt by that second cut from Dillon).
If your handler is being trapped sideline from a dead disc, lateral space is suddenly at a premium. Therefore, sharper turns and using the depth of the pitch become more crucial components to your cut. You could even start very shallow (i.e. close to the handler) and threaten the instant lead pass down the line. If the disc is in the middle of the pitch with the defence set, you could choose to battle your defender to the open side. Alternatively, you could attack the break side early from a position near the back of the stack, especially if you know the handler is a Dathan or Wong type who will be happy to take that shot on.
One top tip: don’t be afraid to clearly set yourself up before you start your cutting shapes. Step outside of the stack if you need to and occupy the space you’d like to cut within. Put your balls sur la table and make yourself known: create the obvious isolation. The defence still has a difficult job and it helps to avoid picks and other players getting in your way. The example below shows Chris Kocher doing exactly this.
Okay, so you’ve figured out you’re first cut, why you’re doing it, and you’ve sussed out some options for where on the pitch you should be attacking. How do you actually do it? We’re now going from the macro to the micro.
I could spend a lot of time talking about specific mechanics or how cutting works more generally, but there are better places you can go for this. I’m not usually a massive fan, but Ultimate Rob’s ‘Mastering the art of cutting in ultimate’ is a pretty solid outline of general cutting principles in ultimate. Benji’s post on getting separation is also a good read.
I’m a big fan of attacking the defender. Watch in the clip below (and the one of Max Thorne above) to see a good example of being aggressive in forcing your defender to adjust. Tyler Degirolamo cuts right towards his man and uses his body to shield off the space he’s then going to cut into. Dictate with your steps and drag your defender to a position where they can less effectively defend your subsequent move. This is also a good example of primary cutting within a horizontal offence.
One big rule for me is always finish the cut. This is extremely important. If you find yourself coming up against a poach, battle through and complete the mission. Remember, being the first gear of the offence doesn’t necessarily mean getting the disc – if you disrupt the defence and create space for others to use or make a break swing to the middle easier, that’s an effective first cut. Don’t be the guy who’s always pulling out early (are we still doing phrasing?). Satisfy that thrower by continuing to threaten somewhere and move the defensive structure. If you don’t, you’ll confuse the handler and leave your offence with zero developing options on a now rapidly progressing stall count. Even if the defence comes down in a zone, you may well be able to produce an effective attacking movement with a ‘standard’ first cut option.
The majority of strong (first) cuts will usually involve one or two sharp changes of direction as opposed to multiple fakes. It’s really unnecessary to be dancing or juking around when you’ve been given so much space in the absence of other players. The footwork and mechanics of cutting technique are very well demonstrated by NFL receivers and explained by Tim Morrill. I’m a big fan of his videos outlining the jab step and the getaway step. Although aimed at junior coaches, Ben Wiggins provides an excellent tutorial in establishing foundations for good footwork in this video.
Have a look below at Tim Morrissey absolutely roasting Trent (a very good defender) with quick changes of direction: look to emulate these sharp turns in your own first cuts.
Being the first cut actually just about removes one of the main difficulties in being a better cutter: timing. Continuation cutting in flow is a very challenging aspect to get right. However, as a first cut operating from the pull in open play, or from a static start at the brick or after a turn, your life is a lot easier.
Generally speaking, I’d suggest aiming to achieve maximum separation from your defender (often occurring in the moments immediately following a change of direction) fairly soon after the thrower has turned to look upfield. A standard pull play will look for one handler pass before moving to the first cut, so there really aren’t too many variables involved in your decision making. If in flow, I’d argue that it’s better to arrive later than to arrive too early. It’s easy to move too much initially and close off a throwing lane before the thrower is looking for you. If cutting from static, a reasonable suggestion is to initiate your movement on stall -1, but this is quite context dependent.
In the example below, see how Mike Caldwell times his initial movement under well, only to realise an errant handler pass has thrown off the timing. However, he adjusts well and recovers to provide a solid offensive option, albeit one slightly shallower and closer to the sideline than originally desired.
- First cut might actually be the easiest gig you’ll ever get.
- A good first cut doesn’t necessarily mean always ending up with the disc in your hands.
- Threaten both the deep and under space, ensuring each movement is a legitimate option.
- Don’t be afraid to set yourself up and create an obvious isolation.
- Attack the defender, be aggressive and use your body to create space.
- Finish the cut: complete the mission.
- Stick with one or two sharp changes of direction: no dancing allowed.
- Arriving later than planned is better than arriving too early.
Hopefully this is useful for some of you. I’d love to hear your comments, and shout if you have any questions.