Tim Hordern

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Ultimate Frisbee Defensive Skills

In the lead-up to Regionals here in Australia, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve come to notice in Australian Ultimate: that we could be a lot better at man defense. I recently played the Kaimana Klassik, a fantastic open and womens ultimate tournament in Hawaii. If you haven’t been before, you totally should. It’s a fantastic blend of elite ultimate and chilled partying.

My club team Chilly managed to come 10th at the tournament, which was attended by the full depth of teams from elite teams (the final was a substantial proportion of Sockeye vs Revolver) through to pickup teams. What was really interesting to me was not the quality of the offensive play (at the top level, it was incredibly fast and so well drilled it was unspectacular) but how badly us Australians misjudged what good defense was, and how teams from the rest of the world do it better.

As a team, most Australian players believe that effective guarding was standing about 3 metres from your man and hunting for a block (the ‘I personally have got to get the D’ view not the ‘my team will get the D if we work together’ view). The US and international teams played defense on the simple rules of running really hard and not poaching unless you’re guaranteed a block.

How did I actually get turns and layout blocks then? Applying a bit of each. Tighten up the mark, guard your man within 1 metre at all times and run like a crazy bastard. Always learn what the guy you’re marking just did. Whether it’s a shoulder shimmy or an IO break backhand that they prefer, you just learnt something - stop him doing it next time. And when you’re chasing within a 1 metre distance, then you’re able to lay out for the D. If you think you can get a block elsewhere on the field, go and get it. Fully commit to getting that block.

What does good defense look like?

For me, good defense can be broken down into two major categories:

Part 1: Good individual defense

  • Always be within 0.5-1.5 metres of your player. This must be your rule in your head at all times. The majority of Australian players mark their players by standing about 2 metres or more away from their player. World-class offensive teams like Revolver will throw to a player who is open by more than a metre because they’ve worked out that the disc moves faster than your reaction time and your closing speed.
  • Guard the man, not the disc. Too many players think that the way to play defense is to get the disc off the other team. It’s not. Good defense is just about denying the other team the disc. If you guard the man, you make it harder for him to get the disc. Sure, you’ll have some frustrating moments where they sneak a throw past you (and you could have just bid on it), but that’s better than the more likely situation of misreading the disc or having the wind push it past you, and you just get chumped easily.
  • Stop players going where they want to go. This can be always backing your player (if they are only a downfield receiver), or always pushing them out (if they’re a handler or only ever cut under). It could just be being on the force side of your man all the time. You can subtly adjust how a player you’re defending moves with slight body positioning corrections (a slight turn inside their cutting lane just for a microsecond just subconciously put them off), or you can just get your body in the way (certain unspirited US teams will go for full body checks).
  • Learn when to bid and where to bid. I prefer to bid breakside, so if you miss the layout D, you’re able to scrable up on the mark immediately. If you bid open-side, you better get that D because you just gave your man a completely open huck. If you’re following the rule of being within 1 metre of your man, your layout will put you actually about 0.5m in front of your man, as your horizontal leap + velocity is translated to faster lateral movement. Add some decreased ground resistance, and et voila, layout D. It’s the same principle of why dolphins leap out of the water, if they played defense that is.
  • Put on a hard, consistent mark. Don’t let up anywhere in the stall count. The US handlers at Kaimana held onto the disc until stall 7-8 because they were hunting that big huck. Don’t let them get that, and don’t let them have the easy inside-out break. Get your sideline to remind you of these things: the sideline yelling “no foul” or “no IO” keeps you on your toes.
  • Pre-empt the handler’s options. Get your feet and hands moving to the spot before the handler fakes there. You know what it’s like handling, so think like a handler and let them know that you’ve got their options worked out.
  • Be ready to keep guarding even after your guy threw it. The give-and-go is a punishing offensive cut for a good reason.
  • Know when to foul and when not to foul. I’m not advocating fouling (and there are handlers who draw fouls really badly), but there are times when a foul is really bad for a team. In a high stall count, fouling plays to the handler’s game - it gives them a chance to chill out, reset things and work out a new plan. Don’t give it to them. Back off for the last few seconds, but that doesn’t mean letting up the pressure. It just means no fouls.
  • Don’t give up the easy fouls. Easy fouls are a way for the handler just to get a easy reset. If you’re marking a handler and they step through you (either to draw a foul because they’re a bad handler, or because the only way they can throw forward is through the defender), step back to avoid the foul (especially in a really high count) or just hold your ground (don’t forget to call the offensive foul if it’s really bad). The handler can’t just beat you up because his team and his play isn’t working.
  • Remember the basic defensive play and make sure the sideline is looking out for you: know the force, know the junk, know the transition. It can be confusing after a really long point of running hard to know what’s going on. Two things will save you here: endurance (so that you don’t feel so wrecked during points), and a good sideline. Someone who’s looking out for you on the sideline can absolutely help you out. Do you have someone who’s voice you trust or who cuts through the noise? Get them to yell at you. Ben Wiggins once said that some of the defenders on Sockeye had got to the point that Ben could just say “bid right” and they’d get a block. Develop that trust.
  • Read the conditions. Know how the wind is going to affect the disc and how the conditions are going to affect both you & the man that you are guarding.
  • Get the right mental edge. Know when you’re right and stick to your guns. A strong mental edge and a clear head for defense means you know that you can get that block, and that you can stop this guy from doing anything effective on the field.

Part 2: Knowing how to defend as a team

  • React to what the offense is doing. Recognise what isn’t working and change it. This can be something that the coach will identify, but on the field the coach can’t do much about it. So take away options that the offense want and look out for your teammates.
  • Vary the defense at different times. Don’t let the offense get comfortable playing against a certain defense.
  • Clamp down pressure at the right times. Know when the offense has run into trouble and ratchet up the pressure.
  • Constant, continuous communication. Check in on your teammates and constantly talk.
  • Don’t think as an individual. Not everyone will get a block every point. But if you stopped your man from touching the disc, you have improved the overall defense of the team. And if everyone does that, then the handler has no options to throw to, and you get a turnover.

As a team, you then take all of these factors to a game, and hope that when you get that smallest window of an opportunity for a defensive turn, you have worked enough that you can take it. At Worlds (and to a certain extent, Nationals), you should expect that you may only get one or possibly two opportunities for a defensive break. Really, when it boils down to it, good defenders try to work the percentages to widen the margin just a little bit more for their team.