Tim Hordern

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Building Defense as a Skillset in Australian Ultimate Frisbee

I’ve written about how Australian ultimate frisbee players can improve their personal and team defensive skills before. It summarises what I believe what good defenders and good defensive lines do.

But what about Australian ultimate as a whole? What happens when we look at the state of defensive play across Australia? This is particularly important when we are trying to select players to represent Australia.

Even if we know what good defense looks like, we still struggle with:

  • that it’s hard to measure some of these defensive qualities. How do you measure innate abilities fairly (objectively without bias) across a large set of players?
  • the reality that team selectors in Ultimate, right now by and large, are prior players. Prior players don’t like the idea that the selection criteria that got them onto the team was, at best, a random process with little to no scientific process. The status quo reigns.

Unlearning the learnings

Like most things, learning the basics of ultimate frisbee is pretty simple. There are any numbers of ways to get involved (pickup, college/university games, social league, friends, etc), and they will teach you the basics: the rules, the force, the basic gameplay.

As you progress from beginning to a more experienced player, you acquire knowledge about the strategies, tactics and plays that teams and players use to succeed. There are more detailed and rigorous training programs, skills sessions, more scrimmages. You’ll learn about a whole number of different defensive and offensive plays, which will get tweaked and refined by each individual club and/or team captain to his/her liking, and have a whole laundry list of things you’ll have to remember everytime you play.

However, when you get to the elite level and you’re competing at an elite level against international teams, a lot of this no longer matters. It’s a given (or should be) that every single player is fit, understands a whole range of plays, and has superior catches and throws than 95% of the ultimate frisbee community. There is an implicit understanding that players at this level have seen enough frisbee that no play will be that hard to work out. Turning up to a World Championships expecting to suprise teams with your ‘new’ defensive structure and magically create turnovers is just silly. This might work for a low-level or inexperienced team but it won’t work against the depth of experience of the USA or Canada. In fact, it’s likely that those teams have already thought of your defensive structure, played it before, played against it before and learnt the strengths and weaknesses of it. They probably have their own very version of it.

What differentiates great ultimate players at the truly elite level is often a few things, some obvious, some not so much:

  • sheer physical ability (height, strength, vertical leap, speed, dexterity, reaction time)
  • the ability to execute the play correctly
  • the ability to read the play and make the correct split-second reaction
  • the ability to adapt to changing structures, plays, weather conditions, team composition
  • the ability to ignore the set play and go with your gut
  • your level of cohesiveness and bonding with fellow teammates
  • endurance (the ability to play explosively for 3-4 games a day over 4-5 days is unlike any other sport’s requirements)

Let me clear here: being a world-class team has less to do with your learnt abilities (plays, structures, etc), and lot more to do with innate ability.

The reality is:

Poor defensive teams let their opponents execute Plan A. Whatever play they worked out on the line (or previously) is easily executable.

Good defensive teams force their opponents to execute Plan B. The original play didn’t work, so the offensive team falls back to a dependable strategy they’ve used before.

World-class defensive teams force their opponents to dream up Plan D on the spot mid-way through a long point after trying to execute Plans A through C. It’s here where you create turns. Note the difference between getting turns and creating turns. Getting a turn may mean that your opponent’s Plan A didn’t quite come off (usually a symptom of poor execution), whereas creating a turn means that you forced your opponent into a position that they weren’t comfortable with, and maybe hadn’t drilled as well, and maybe had to take the 70% option in Plan D. They had to reach further past the mark to throw that huck, so it came out a little more bladey than they originally planned. The throw was a bit late because they saw the cut later than they needed. The cuts dried up because the cutters couldn’t understand what the handlers wanted. They couldn’t throw the easy IO break that always get them open even in times of trouble.

Australians don’t know good defense

Whilst watching the World Ultimate and Guts Championships 2012, held 2 years ago in Sakai, Japan, I was struck by something about the Australian teams at WUGC2012 that marries up with what I’ve seen of US ultimate.

Side note: excellent live coverage was provided by NextGen Ultimate (albeit with rather unexcited commentary). Ulti.TV filmed games as well for later distribution. Being able to stream HD footage of ultimate games effectively live is pretty amazing, and a tribute to how far our sport has come in such a short time.

All of the Australian teams had excellent, strong offense … and pretty woeful defense. Sub-par to anything that other teams had. Australians spent most of their time chasing their players in circles, often shocked their player was always free, and suprised how easily their ‘new’ defensive structure was destroyed.

From seeing a number of games that the Australian teams played, there are two things to call out here and compare:

  1. The Australian teams generally trailed their players, both under and deep. They chased their players, rather making than a concious decision to defend. If you are chasing your player, you are really not defending. You might as well not follow them and just get off the pitch. At WUGC2012, a lot of players marked almost 3 metres away.
  2. There was no alteration of the opponent’s cuts or structure whatsoever. Offensive players were cutting where and when they would like to. They were directing the play around their desires, rather than being pressured into falling back to Plan B. If they wanted to cut deep, they went deep. If they wanted to go under, they went under. The handlers could go up the line, or backwards for an easy dump. The cutters could cut break or open if they want. It’s their choice.

The Australian teams did worse than they hoped (or maybe worse than they expected) not because of the strength of their offensive lines but because of their onfield defense. This is not a comment on the defensive line itself (although there are plenty of questions that have been asked about the selections of defenders, primarily around picking normally O-line players on the D-line).

Defense in Australian ultimate is a second-class citizen

I guess this may be a byproduct of the nature of the Australian ultimate scene: our limited depth in teams means that extremely strong offensive teams with not-so-strong defensive lines will generally still succeed through to finals. At this level, it’s actually more critical that your offensive team works than your defensive team.

An excellent defensive line at Australian Nationals will generate turnovers for your team, but if your offensive team cannot score 99% of the time, then it does not matter what the defensive team does.

So, how can Australia as a nation improve their defense?

Notice that very few of the points I listed above have anything to do with coming up with some shiny new defensive structure, or working on getting a ‘Japanese’ zone just right. In fact, I’m of the opinion that drilling new defensive structures or tactics, the typical tactic of the Australian national teams and clubs leading into a season, actually reduces defensive skills.

If we really want to build a proper group of defensive players to represent Australia, we should take our cues from other sports. Sports such as soccer, basketball, NFL and AFL all have individual and team level defenses and spend more time on individual defensive ability: footwork, reach, instinct, reaction are all tested, much more than any ability to play a zone. It should be assumed that you know the mechanics of a zone, or a junk, or a puppy fence. In fact, if players are being selected to represent Australia who don’t know how to play any position in any of the common defensive structures in Ultimate, there should be hard questions asked of the selectors.

This is equally a physical and intellectual problem: the best defenders are fast physically and mentally. They can read the play and have the capability of shutting down players. They can critically analyse a player and a new strategy to find what they need to cover, and what they need to stop.

So what can we do to fix this?

Well, first and foremost, we have to accept that we are going to suck at this for a while. Right now, Australian ultimate revolves around the offensive skill-set and it will likely do so for some time. It will take a concentrated development process, hand-in-hand with Ultimate Australia and clubs, to build strong defensive players. Much as basketball has development for point guards, we should develop defensive players and a defensive coaching structure for Australia that revolves around identifying and training individual defensive skills, and then selecting players based on those individual skillsets.

To be honest, a generational change may also have to take place. I have a sneaking suspicion that the current crop of Australian selectors and elite players subconciously believe that offense is the key, and that defense is merely a step in the path to success. How else can we explain the selection of strong, long-term offense players to the defense line? Merely through the belief that our opponents will turf the disc, hand us a turn and et voila we need excellent O players? Knowing when to switch to a zone and when to man defense is just one out of many skills required for excellent D.