How do we make decisions? In many real-life examples we create a list of choices and features, maybe take some data, rate how each option stacks up in each feature, and coolly select the optimum choice. In ultimate you don’t have the time to go through this whole process. You have to rely on your trained inner self to figure out what to do based on internalized guidelines.
Since I like lists of rules here are some for making sense of what is happening on the field and figuring out what to do about it:
Take input from around you. Look, listen, and learn to identify what is important. Communicate — with eye contact, code words, or plain English if you need to.
Use your experience. A lot of field sense is really just knowing the tendencies of your teammates and opponents. Learn the signs that a defender has committed to a particular move so you can counteract. Become familiar with your offense’s “power positions” from which a thrower can deliver an uncontested huck.
Know your preferences and strengths (hopefully they are the same). If you’re fast enough, all you need is for your defender to lean the wrong way and you can go. Don’t bother looking for the forehand huck if you can’t hit it reliably.
Know your requirements. Be aware of where you are on the field and what your team needs from you at that point. Are others likely to be in good position to provide help or is there just one option?
Have something to go to if all else fails. We all know to clear if we’ve been shut down on a cut, but throwers should know what their final option is too — whether to punt it, look across the field for a long swing, or throw a leading pass to the closest dump. On defense, know what you can concede if you have to and what you absolutely cannot concede.
And here’s how you go about getting better at it:
Engage in deliberate practice. 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 drills that focus on dump passes or first cuts or hucks can get you lots of reps in situations where all the unimportant inputs have been removed.
Compile an extensive experience bank. Quite frankly, you’re going to have to make a lot of mistakes in order to get better. Play, and pay attention. Play summer league or rec tournaments, play goaltimate, play mini. While these can also lead to bad habits, they will give you lots of reps and put you in more situations where you have to make the play or you will lose.
Obtain feedback that is accurate, diagnostic, and timely. In practice ask your opponent why you got beat or why you couldn’t get open.
Review prior experiences. On the sideline between points or between games go over your play in your head. Think about not just your failures and obvious glories, but review the close calls. What could you have done better with that pass so the defender couldn’t even have a bid on it? How could you have set up the defender better so that the thrower didn’t have to make a perfect pass?
To learn, you need to think about what you will be doing and what you just did, so that when it comes time to DO, you don’t need to think.
Note: this article was adapted from the presentation “Real Time Decision Making in Ultimate” at the Ultimate Players and Coaches Conference in Newton, MA, in Jan 2007