Getting “The Break” – Part 1: Understanding the Concept

One of the fundamental concepts when it comes to strategy in Ultimate is the idea of “the break”. This isn’t the same thing as making a break-force throw, instead what we’re talking about here is getting “the break” in the back-and-forth process of trading points with a team.

Ultimate is a game of possession

In order to score points, your team needs to be in possession of the disc. In theory, two teams of equal ability will trade points back and forth. The team first receiving the pull to start off the game will be in possession of the disc to start, and then score a point. They then pull the disc to the opposing team, that team is then in possession of the disc and then they score a point – and so it goes back and forth. I have the disc, I score, I pull to you. You now have the disc, you score, you now pull to me. If this pattern continues, the team that received the disc to start off will always have an advantage by scoring first and then always being ahead.

Scoresheet When We’re “Trading Points”

You score I score You score I score You score I score You score
You 1 1 2 2 3 3 4
Me 0 1 1 2 2 3 3

As you can see, we’re just “trading points”. You score, I score, you score, I score and so on and so forth. If this pattern holds, you will always stay one point ahead of me, and in the end you’ll win!

Turnovers Happen

Now of course, things are never this simple. Over the course of a point, there are turnovers – the disc is intercepted by the defensive team, or the offensive team turns it over through an unforced error (like a throwaway or drop) – and so within any given point, possession of the disc can swing back and forth. It’s here in this changing of disc possession back and forth where games are won and lost.

If you’re familiar with tennis, it’s a similar concept. In tennis, the player starting off with the serve literally has the ball in their court. The idea is that it is an advantage to be starting off with the ball, because from the moment the ball is served, the serving player is in control and the player on the other side of the net has to react to what the serving player does. As it goes in tennis, the player holding serve is expected to win that game. When the serving player loses a game, they call it a “break” because the other player broke service – or to think of it another way, the player broke the back-and-forth pattern.

In Ultimate, the team receiving the disc, i.e. the team on offense, is in control – the ball is in their court, the disc is in their hands. As long as the offense maintains possession of the disc, they will score a point. Here, “the break” is when the team that is starting on defense is able to force the turnover, and then score the point instead. When the defense is able to do this, their team is now in a position to stay ahead in the point race because they have broken the back-and-forth pattern of trading points.

Scoresheet When You Get The Break:

You score I score You score You score I score You score You score
You 1 1 2 3 3 4 5
Me 0 1 1 1 2 2 2

So looking at that scoresheet, you can see the first break now gives you a 2-point lead instead of just one. And then the second break extends that point lead to 3. From this point on, we could keep trading points back and forth, and in the end you would win the game by maintaining that 3 point lead. The only way I will ever be able to close that gap is to get break points of my own.

And that’s how a game is won or lost. The team that scores more often with its defense, is the team that will win the game.

That’s the underlying concept of “the break”. If you can imagine, at the very top levels of play, there have been championship games where there was only 1 break total – all game! – that means the offense from both teams scored every single time it was on the field, and in the end, it was that one break made by one team’s defensive line that made the difference in crowning a champion.

Understanding “the break” is a fundamental concept of ultimate. In subsequent posts, we’ll look at the next steps: figuring out how you’re going to get the break, and on the flip side, what you can do to stop the break and avoid getting broken.


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  2. Mar 16, 2009: Ultimatehandbook » Blog Archive » Getting “The Break” - Part 2: How to Get It!
  3. Mar 26, 2009: Ultimatehandbook » Blog Archive » Getting “The Break” - Part 3: How to Prevent Getting Broken

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