Playing in extreme wind: Molly Brown v Phoenix by Brummie

Wind impacts strategy in ultimate, and the more extreme the wind, the more extreme the adjustments you'll need to make

While people will usually focus on the skills required to throw when it’s windy, wind also brings an interesting strategic element to ultimate. A steady breeze might make throws to certain areas of the field more or less easy to execute – which will have some impact on offensive & defensive tactics – but the really interesting situation is when the wind is far less predictable, as were the conditions during the Raleigh Phoenix vs Denver Molly Brown semi final at Pro Championships recently. There were an almost unbelievable 34 turnovers in the first half, which is probably more than those teams have in a usual tournament.

Extreme weather has infamously hit lots of big tournaments over the past two decades – usually in the form of rain, lightning or similar – but extreme wind does crop up too; one such example being the quarter finals day at WUGC 2012 which saw top seed Japan fall to 8th seed Sweden.

Having recently read Lou Burruss’ excellent “Win the Fields” in paperback, I’m leaning on a few nuggets of advice he gave in one of his blog articles”, one of which is to “Accept the wind as a friend, not an enemy”. As such, I want to look at what good strategic decisions both teams made, what worked and what didn’t, with a view to providing guidance for teams who suddenly encounter conditions they rarely see and may not have had much practice in.

How do you strategise for sudden, unpredictable gusts of wind that might loft a throw above a receiver’s head, turf an otherwise solid looking throw that just dies as the wind drops, or make a disc hover tantalisingly out of reach?

Exactly how windy? For context, here are some atypical turnovers from two of the best teams in the game:

A pass bounces in the wind and sails out of bounds

The disc pops up and down erratically, leading to a drop

A swing thrown downwind picks up speed and the receiver can't catch up

A short pass drops to the turf

Against that backdrop, and with the added difficulty of dealing with smart defenders who know how difficult the conditions are, there are few teams capable of playing possession ultimate. Remember, these are two of the best teams in the game. If they struggled, you will too.

Conventional wisdom states that, unless you are certain about hitting your downfield receiver, you should “be safe” and reset the disc. Lou Burruss wrote about “The Swing Fallacy”, i.e. that swings are not a zero risk option and therefore some of our strategies need to be adjusted when it’s very windy. I’m going to go into some detail and show examples.


  1. Even a 90% reset isn’t high enough percentage to allow a team to go the full length of the field reliably. With that in mind, the fewer throws, the better, so that means each throw needs to generate serious yards
  2. Remember: it’s not always gusty. That’s the point! There’s invariably a steady wind for most of the time, with occasional gusts. This is the source of the unreliability. It also means that for large portions of the game, you can probably get away with playing “normally”. The problem is, you never know when that gust of wind is going to stop you in your tracks.

    Everything looks so good... until that gust of wind causes a drop

  3. Expect more drops than usual. Partly this is because of the fact that receiver’s have more doubt about their ability to read the flight of the disc, and partly because throwers tend to throw the disc with less touch and more pace. Discs that fly faster are harder to catch, so expect more drops.
  4. You’ll see more wide open throws missed on quick release throws. This is because the thrower’s quick ‘catch & throw’ process is largely automatic and can often fail to take the weather into account. A slightly slower pace of play on offence can be therefore be more effective; again, something that isn’t generally advisable, and certainly not something that is generally seen in conjunction with offences that rely on small ball.
  5. Generally speaking, the bigger the space that a cutter is moving into, the easier it’s going to be for the thrower to connect

Huck More

Burruss also said that, in extreme wind, “hucking suddenly becomes a really, really, really good choice”. He even did the maths on it, showing that hucking becomes the best option as the percentage completion rate per pass drops.

The epic 12 min point for half in this game featured 3 drops, a hand block, 2 passes that bounced in the wind over the receiver, 3 missed wide open short range passes, 2 turfed short range passes, 3 over thrown hucks & 1 block on a huck. If there are going to be 16 turns in a point, then why not force your opponent to go the full field? They almost certainly can’t do it without turning over.

It might seem counter intuitive to take more risky throws under these circumstances; surely it’s better to reduce the range of your throws so you retain more control? However, I am a firm believer that the more unpredictable the weather, the more you should look to throw deep. Again, I’m not talking about a strong but steady wind here: good throwers can patiently work the field against those conditions. I’m talking about the type of wind that makes discs pop out of receiver’s hands and make every pass feel uncertain.

You should take any opportunity to huck downwind to an isolated cutter

...particularly if there's no mark, which will allow you to throw to any

One tip: set up the huck. Hucking from a completely static position with the defence set is really tough; it’s likely that there will be poaches narrowing the lanes, and a marker may well shift to be more straight up. Often, these two things combine to provide the offence with uncontested swings, and moving the disc laterally to someone without a marker is the perfect way to set up hucks. Its no coincidence that Phoenix almost always look laterally first when they picked up the disc

A handler goes deep in reaction to being fronted; note also how the huck is set up by swinging the disc first

Compare this with how difficult it is to huck from static

Hucking in wind is easier said than done though, perhaps. Let’s look at what happens if you show that you have the intention of throwing long:

  • Your cutters start spreading the field, reducing clutter around the disc
  • The opposing defence starts taking those cuts seriously, which often generates wide open under cuts which you can hit for serious yards
  • Handler defenders might start poaching to narrow hucking lanes, which you can use to set up free swings to the upwind side of the field
  • You might connect on some of the deep shots: high reward and relatively low risk (given how risky any throw is in these conditions)
  • If you turn over on those hucks, your opponent has to go the full field. The absolute worst thing to do in strong wind is give up a short field turn when you’re going downwind, so while this isn’t quite “huck and D”, its not far off

There’s a reason that the receiver in this next clip celebrates the option to throw long, despite turning over: it’s downwind, the cutter is isolated in tonnes of space and was open. The only thing wrong was the disc needed more edge on it to make it sit in the wind:

Despite being a turnover, this was a strategically smart play

One note from a defensive perspective: Molly Brown went on a huge run in the second half to draw within 1. Phoenix eventually got on the board with a 1 pass score, hucking downwind with no mark on the thrower. It’s absolutely vital that you have markers on those downwind throwers, and is one reason that poaching off the swing handlers is far less effective when the offence is going downwind than when going upwind.

Play in big spaces

Closely linked to the above: the bigger the space, the easier the throw, plus a far bigger reward per throw which all leads to higher percentage play. I was surprised how often both teams tried to work the disc exclusively through their handlers. As a thrower, I would prefer to get a cutter isolated and throw fewer longer throws than have to hit dozens and dozens of resets under fatigue. Throws don’t need to be as accurate if you’re throwing to someone isolated in a huge amount of space.

If you’ve demonstrated your willingness – and ability – to connect on deep throws in these conditions, its likely that your opponent will start to back the cutters; this then gives your cutters the ability to come under for big gains:

Notice how the defenders are mostly backing the cutters, which means they are open coming under for big gains

Isolating a single cutter in space gave Molly Brown a big gain

A well-planned pull play enables Molly Brown to score in two passes

A few big lanes cuts moves Phoenix to the red zone

Like a lot of offences, this requires good spacing (making sure that your other cutters stay out of the way and keep a large area of the field wide open).

Both teams struggled at times to adjust their usual small ball resets to the conditions

Still, throwing to a fast moving cutter with a defender in hot pursuit is still a challenge, and both teams had drops in those circumstances. It’s far easier to throw to throw to options left wide open, such as when your opponent is playing a zone or poach set, and both teams found those defences quite ineffective as a result. Like Lou said, “Don’t assume that zone is the best choice in the wind. Often zones allow teams to throw passes they are comfortable with.”


If there’s one top tip from me when it comes to playing in the wind, it’s this: back each other up. None of these plays worked out as intended, and none were caught by the intended receiver, but all were completed:

In each case, the person who caught the disc played it like it was meant for them, making a judgement about where the disc might end up if their team mate read it wrong and getting in position to make a play.

Get bodies under the disc, and anticipate how the wind might impact throws. Each extra person who can catch your throw increases your chances of completing the pass, so why just aim for one person when you can aim for two?

Get off the sideline

A continuation of above: get off the sideline. The sideline drastically reduces the space you have to work with, and makes throws more challenging. This is particularly true of the downwind sideline.

So often in windy conditions, everything looks like its going well until there’s a sudden, unexpected turn. Take this next point, where Molly Brown work the disc down to the attacking end zone then suddenly what looks like a certain goal becomes a turnover. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the individual throws taken during this section of play – the receivers were all wide open – but it is telling that Molly Brown didn’t look to get the disc off the sideline at all. Perhaps they were unwilling to take on that upwind swing when they could choose to take yards downwind, but at some point, someone has to look to move the disc back to the upwind side.

Here are more examples of Molly Brown trying to work the disc down the sideline and turning the disc over. Aiming for small spaces means you have to be more accurate, but the thrower also has to put more spin on the disc than usual. Being accurate and powerful in your throws is more challenging than just one of those.

A short upline pass gets bounced in the wind

With a bit more width to work with, the receiver might have got this


A quick note on pulls. Strong and unpredictable wind makes it far more likely that you will struggle to control a pull, get distance, and get it to hang all at the same time, which is what we’re usually trying to do with pulls. Given this, the roller pull becomes a great option. See Pulling Strategy for more detail. Both teams did a great job of putting the offence in an undesirable position when going upwind, the only slight improvement would be to make sure the disc rolls out of the sideline too.

Unfieldable pulls should be your aim; give your defenders plenty of time to get set up, and force your opponent to start in a difficult position

A fast moving disc with an erratic flight path is not something anyone wants to catch!

Both teams could have used additional handlers to field these pulls so they could get the disc moving before the defence set up.


We will finish by looking in detail at a few sequences of play impacted by the wind:

This first clip shows the importance of maintaining focus as a receiver: Molly Brown defenders get three chances to get a block in three passes, but Phoenix score regardless. Note the reset uses a large upline cut, the early deep strike, and the intention to score quickly after catching a short huck while its still 1-on-1 in the end zone, thereby giving the maximum available space to the receiver:

A similar series of events but this time from Molly Brown: the initial reset pattern is run in a tight space and would almost certainly be a turnover without backup from another receiver. I also love how early the deep strike goes: before the disc is even caught, she knows there’s an opportunity to go long. The throw has edge which makes it easy to read and is caught in tonnes of space.

The final clip shows how to counter being backed: big away and under cuts which generate easy yards. Again, we see the importance of backing up receivers in the middle of this sequence, but also how important those big spaces are to a flowing offence:

In short, try to use the wind to your advantage:

  • Set up more deep cuts relentlessly, particularly downwind. Then look for big gains on under cuts if you don’t get it: the perfect way to clear space for a team mate to go deep again
  • Throw bigger throws in bigger spaces to increase the expected gain & reduce the overall risk required to score
  • Slow down the tempo of your offence: fewer throws is better
  • Get bodies under the disc, and back each other up

Hopefully you can use these adjustments to shift the odds in your favour.


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