6 Keys To Transitioning Defenses Mid-Point

WUCC 2014
WUCC 2014. Photo: Jolie Lang — UltiPhotos.com

In any given ultimate situation, the offense almost always has the advantage. A good defense, then, tries to limit the various options of offensive attack, force lower percentage throws, and give individual defenders better chances to make plays.

However, no matter how strong a defensive set might be, there will be times — many times, in fact — where it does not work.

In that situation, don’t be passive. Don’t wait for the next point. Instead, give yourself a higher chance at a break by transitioning to a new defense in the middle of the point.

Most often, this occurs most commonly with zone or junk sets, but a good team can do this with any type of defense, even man defense. However, doing it well, in the chaos of a middle of game-play, takes practice. Here are five keys to transitioning effectively.

Key 1: See the Field

To transition out of a defense that isn’t working into one that will requires excellent field vision. This isn’t a solo feat. One player can’t transition alone; every player on the field needs to be in a position that is optimal for transitioning.

Most often defenses change because they fail miserably — a trap gets broken, a zone gets shredded, a force is unable to hold — and so defenses call a switch or change in panic or at the moment when the defense fails (often the worst possible moment).

Instead, a good transition may need to let the defense stick, and often fail, for a few more throws, buying time for the optimal moment for a transition.

When is that switch moment? Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

1. No Immediate Score: Seeing the field for a transition means that no player would likely get beat for a score should the transition take place.

2. Quick Pickups: Most players are near a mark, especially if the transition is going to man, and there is at least one defender ready to stop the huck.

3. Offense In Bad Position: For the best results, the offense is in a position that requires them to regroup; they may be on a sideline, may be looking to dump or swing, or may have a double-cut limiting the downfield.

There’s also some tricks to making the most of your transition moments.

4. Have a Plan: Rather than relying on everyone seeing the field perfectly, let the entire team know exactly what the trigger is going to be for the switch. Will it be five passes to get out of a junk? Will it be two cuts? The first sidelined disc? Know the situation.

5. Be Aware:  Primarily, the person responsible for the transition decision (often a coach or captain) needs to see the field — but so does every defender playing — even if they aren’t going to make the call. If every player sees the field, they can anticipate the transition before it occurs and be ready for the switch.

Key 2: Communicate

Any good defense requires excellent communication.

The need for communication jumps ten-fold if a transition is about to take place. Most importantly, every player on the field and on the sideline needs to know instantly that the original plan is being scrapped, and which new plan is being enforced.

Nearly every player can relate to missing a “fire” call out of a zone or a sudden switch of the force. Nothing can make your defense crumble faster than one player (or more than one) not in on the game plan.

So, it starts with a decision. Who makes the call? Can it be any player? Does it have to be a captain or coach? Make a choice on who initiates and make it absolutely clear to your team, so that you don’t have a voice calling for transition when the players on the field aren’t ready for it.

Once a decision is made, it must be made clearly, and must be spread loudly by everyone on the sideline instantly.

Finally, communication is the last means of resort for help. Should a player fall through the cracks and the offense try to exploit the confusion, there is a good chance someone is going to be open. Players may need to scramble to adjust, or to switch, and they’ll only know to do so if they have someone talking to them.

Key 3: Downfield Defenders Take Two Steps Back

In transition, every player on the field needs to take two steps back both mentally and physically.

Physically, they are two steps towards and behind the nearest offensive threat. The reality is that the huck is always the most dangerous weapon for the offensive line, and by focusing on limiting the long-ball in the anarchy of the set switch, you’ve given your team a second chance.

Mentally, this means reassessing the field, reestablishing the defense, giving yourself time to prepare and contain. Most of all, it often means finding the threat behind you and claiming it as your responsibility (to allow another player to contain another threat).

By moving and coordinating as a team, especially towards the deeper attack, you encourage short, limiting passes and swings; above all else, the defense absolutely does not get beat deep.

Now, a really good defense, or a defense prepared for a transition, can do this quickly to the point where “two-steps back” simply means finding contact with your man and recognizing the threat.

Downfield defenders must limit yardage gain, reset their positions, and keep chances alive for the break.

Key 4: Handler Covers Move Forward 

While the downfield defenders are focused on contain, the handler defenders, in contrast, must become aggressive and tight.

Whether the switch is to zone or to man, or to a different form of junk, those closest to the disc have one job: make throwing extremely difficult.

In the best case scenario, as the cutter defenders retreat and reset to protect against hucks or big passes, the handler defenders clamp down to the point where a very short pass or a swing is the best option, and any huck or break that goes up is going to be risky.

Oftentimes, this may mean aggressive marking: going straight-up to avoid a huck, jumping the force side lane to avoid a huge under, or changing the mark to avoid a power-position throw and go.

Just as cutter defenders can retreat and then move into position in the transition, so the handler defenders attack, and then fall back in a shift; this usually knocks the offense off its rhythm.

Important to note: sometimes the threat that the up-front defenders need to stop is not stopping a swing. Sometimes it will mean flashing the lane; other times it will mean picking up a cutter in a switch or staying with a handler streaking deep.

Key 5: Find a Chance

The early transition period was one of contain, of backing downfield players, of creating harmless throws while the the new defense got set. The late transition period, when you’re sure the threat nearest you is minimized, is the moment to be confident and attack.

Now is not the time to be cautious, hoping that the offense will make a mistake. Chances are good they are past midfield and attacking the red zone. Even if your transition was a quick shift out of a junk, they have had a chance to regroup and find flow. In a few passes, they may score.

So the defensive line needs to find a chance. Transition is a great time to find a high-quality chance for a block. Here are some good ways to do that.

1. Bait a Huck: It happens to the even the smartest offensive players. The O-line feels good moving the disc, perhaps they get it through a zone, and they want to put it deep. If you’re a defensive last back, knowing you are ready for this attack and baiting it can be a great opportunity for a 50/50 chance.

2. Poach a Lane: On the other side of the field, handler defenders can be aggressive, flashing or jumping a pass. Be quick and then recover if the throw doesn’t go off…this is not the time to stand in the lane (contain), but to bait the throw and strike.

3. Mark Aggressively: Similarly, take a shot for that handblock. Be unpredictable for a few counts in transition and confuse the thrower into making a sloppy reset.

4. Be Physical and Layout: Self-explanatory.

Remember, these are supposed to be high-quality chances. Don’t layout if you have no shot, don’t poach off the handler only to get burned and give up power position. Definitely don’t bait a huck unless you feel confident it will be a shot you can defend.

Your teammates rely on you: only go for it if you feel like you have more chance of getting a shot at the disc than not. And if you don’t get that D, run like hell to get back into position.

Key 6: Practice the Transition

Practice, practice, practice, practice.

Make sure your team knows who makes the transition decision (or when it will occur) and make sure they all know how to communicate it. Then drill the transitions live: do a 5 or 10 pull of defensive shifts. Make sure every player is staying engaged both mentally and physically.


Use these 6 keys to effectively transition your defense, contain the offensive threat, and then take your best chance at that block.

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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