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Tuesday Tips: Limiting Your Opponent’s Superstar

To defend against a superstar, you need to play smarter, not harder.

Photo: Daniel Thai -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Daniel Thai — UltiPhotos.com

Sometimes you encounter a superstar on the other side of the field.

We’ve all played against that team; overall, they’re about the same skill level as your team, but they have that one standout individual who is doing everything and giving them the edge. It’s a bitter feeling indeed when you walk away with a loss, knowing it was really just one person that determined the matchup.

Turning that loss into a victory requires a precise focus on in-game strategy. You don’t necessarily need an all-star of your own to compete; instead, you can find ways to limit their best player on the field and let your team’s depth do the rest.

Let’s break down the various strategies, specifically looking at each type of superstar a team might face.

Deny the disc?

The first strategy is the most obvious: if they have a great player that is beating you on offense, simply put your best defender on that person, right? Not necessarily.

There are three scenarios that play out if your team chooses to have your number one defender mark up against the enemy’s superstar.

The first is that the defender does indeed stop or severely limit that all-star. If your top defensive stud is that good, then read no further, you’ve got your solution.

More often, however, this is tried and fails. Instead, the superstar ends up beating your best defender, not only crushing your squad’s morale, but making the player guarding him or her completely useless. If your top dog is getting beat, then you’ve got a real superstar on your hands, one not easily handled.

The third scenario isn’t much better. Maybe the matchup isn’t completely one-sided, but your side’s best defender is only having limited success. While your best defender isn’t getting beat badly, he or she also isn’t doing enough to change the game — and perhaps could be far more effective in another area. They could be shutting down the opponent’s second best player, maybe producing turns and really having an impact. Instead, they are likely still letting the important throws go off, still letting the opposing offense run through that superstar, and you’re still likely to lose.

So unless you have a single defender capable of winning the matchup with the opposing superstar, look beyond the simple one-versus-one matchup at some strategies that can really help you change the flow of the game.

Find what’s beating you

Most superstars are good at a lot of things (that’s why they’re called superstars, after all), and have a variety of talents in the ultimate world. Before you can counter the superstar, you need to be specific about how that player is impacting the game.

Perhaps the other player is an all-star thrower, but it’s her ability to get resets that is actually causing you pain. Or maybe the other team has a monster athlete, but it’s his speed, not his hops that are making the difference. Let’s take a specific look at each different role that a superstar might fill — and how to stop it.

For handlers:

Handlers can beat you in lots of ways; through resets, through give-and-go’s, through speedy agility, or through break throws or hucks. Try to pinpoint the number one way your squad is getting beat and then move on to one of the strategies below.

Zones

Zone defenses are often bad strategies to use against dominant handlers. Most of the time, zones allow for a variety of easy passes and space for resets. In effect, they are thrower-focused, hoping for turnovers originating from the point of origin. Great throwers relish this and break out the bag of tricks.

One zone that can be useful is a box-and-one. There are a number of ways to structure a box-and-one, but basically it involves one player not playing zone at all, but instead hyper-focusing on guarding one player, while the rest of the team sets a wall or a cup. This can definitely be annoying for a superstar thrower; as the only player being marked one-on-one, offenses are encouraged to look elsewhere. Often, it puts the best player out of his or her comfort zone and moves them into a position on the periphery, rather than driving the offense, achieving your goal of forcing other players to beat you.

However, as mentioned above, if you don’t have a defender capable of slowing down the superstar, a box-and-one sometimes just won’t work.

Hybrid Defenses

Hybrid zones or a series of poachers in the lanes in the middle of the field are additional options to limit the impact of a superstar handler. Run a straight up force in the middle of the field and have the off-handler defenders sag into the cutting lanes to cut down the throwing angles, leaving their own marks tantalizingly open for dumps or swings. Either your opponent forces something through these poaches or wall (usually a bad throw) or gives up the disc to another handler who can’t hurt you quite as much.

Watch out for throw-and-go’s here, and do your best to deny an immediate reset to the superstar when another handler has the disc but stepping into that throwing lane. Then, force the superstar up field away from the disc. Obviously, you don’t want to give this person the disc in power position, but most superstar throwers want to get the disc in their hands quickly. If you can push them out of the play for a few seconds, or make the reset throw very hard for that not-quite-as-good handler on the opposing side, you can clamp down the rest of your team defense and get a block or force a throwaway.

For under cutters or throw-and-go handlers:

We’ll split the cutters into two categories: those who hurt you under and those who hurt you deep. Under-cutting superstars tend to be very fast and provide a safety net of possession and disc advancement. Often, they’ll also have good throws and can create cutter-to-cutter combinations that leave your defense in the dust.

The defenses discussed below work well against both these types of cutters as well as give-and-go handlers. Again, focus on the most specific aspect of that superstar’s game that is beating you before you assign a strategy.

Zones

Most superstars of this type aren’t necessarily scoring a ton of goals or distributing assists, but instead are serving as the lynch pin in an offensive flow. As a result, zones are great to throw against these types of players. Any kind of under poach, cup, or wall is perfect for forcing an opponent out of their typical cutting rhythm. In a zone, there are less obvious throwing lanes for handlers to distribute the disc straight up field to the superstar, and if they do, there isn’t necessarily a next clear option for the superstar to attack.

Try to keep your zone upfield of the disc (don’t let the superstar get the disc with the wall or cup behind him or her, or it’ll be a fast break) and encourage throws to the sidelines or long, risky, over-the-top break throws.

Man defense

Staying underneath and closer to the disc than the superstar seems a simple and important rule, but too much cushion can burn you. It’s very easy for a great player to go deep if they are given ten to fifteen yards of breathing room. They won’t need to make an athletic play in the air if they can clap catch a decent throw.

Don’t just sag under and dare them to go deep, but instead try to play physical underneath defense by using your body to position yourself in their cutting lane. Back-pedaling or keeping a step of cushion, you’ll either force them to go through you or around you. Either way, the player is slowed down, throwing off their timing and forcing them to change direction away from where they most want to get the disc.

Switches can also be extremely helpful for this type of superstar. A well-timed switch can pull a defender or poacher into the lane beneath the oncoming cutter, snagging a block or forcing them closer to the sideline which will limit their next options. If they do catch the disc, flash a flat mark for a count or two to encourage backwards disc movement and stifle upfield flow.

For deep threats:

Deep threats are the hardest superstars to stop of all. Usually, they’re tall athletes and in a floaty disc situation, all the strategy in the world can’t help you out-jump them. Alternatively, some great deep threats use their body positioning or speed instead of their height or hops. Regardless of the superstar’s strength, simply backing that player in hopes of preventing a huck score is usually worthless. You’ll either give up half the field or more on an under cut1 or the opponent will put up a huck anyway and you’ll find yourself in a one-on-one matchup for a jump ball with the odds stacked against you. Instead, you need to try something to change your odds.

Zone

The strength of the zone against a big deep threat is that it applies pressure on the throwers to find a way to get the disc to the superstar downfield. Forcing worse huck looks at the point of release is the easiest way to limit their effectiveness.

With a good deep defender who can read the field and position themselves accordingly, a zone can be a triumph against a superstar; a well-placed defender camped in the deep space can either deter the deep throw in the first place or improve the odds to make the play once the disc goes up.

If even this fails, play a two-deep zone that provides additional cover. A 2-3-2 can have some speedy rabbits2 forcing middle, letting off only small throws, while a three person wall takes care of any under cutters. This will encourage the handlers to work amongst themselves — removing the superstar from the offensive equation — or toss off Hail Marys where you’ll have twice as much coverage in back to protect.

Man defense

Man defense can be very tough when a true deep athlete is on the other team. Switching can help, but if the hucks are high there isn’t a lot you can do regardless. Instead, you need to make the huck look appear foolhardy.

In a man-defense setup, play with a last back — a defender at the back of the stack charged with giving a big deep cushion and ready to take off to help when any huck goes up. Hopefully having a defender planted deep will force the offense to take easier options.

In this case, you are often giving up a lot of field space for a big under cut. Remember, you are intentionally choosing this option to prevent what you’ve adjudged to be the most dangerous option  — the deep look — but it means your team defense will have to change to prevent offensive flow from repeatedly eating up the field.

If you’ve successfully forced the superstar deep back toward the disc on an under cut, chase the under hard and set a fierce mark. Have the rest of your team ready by having them cushioning hard beneath all the other players (a very big no-under defense) and by forcing the handlers upfield, really grinding down against any dump or reset. This can be a tough strategy to execute well, but very frustrating to the offense if run well. Hopefully, you’ll have trapped the other team into an high-stress situation: a cutter with the disc, no easy unders from other cutters available, and handlers who are forced to go upline or upfield, or who are tightly guarded on resets.

This trap isn’t necessarily the best situation, and you’ll need to make the most of your chances to force turnovers. If the other team breaks this set up, they’ll have a lot of options to advance. Still, it’s one way to make sure the team you’re going up against does not focus on the huck and can create a high-pressure moment that increases your odds of a block.

Limit the damage is the name of the game

Remember, the opposing player is a superstar for a reason: that person is really, really good. They are likely able to hurt you at multiple aspects of the game, so you’ll have to pick your poison. Focus on limiting the enemy’s strength by taking away their greatest weapon. Don’t let that person beat you with their first option, but instead force them into “weaker” areas or into giving the disc to other players on the team. Find the shallow part of the seven who are playing and tighten the screws on those players to generate Ds.

If the superstar you’re playing against is best at defense, then discretion is the better part of valor. Don’t ask the person who is being defended by the stud to run the show; keep them out of the main part of the play, ready to strike when the moment is perfectly open.

Play smarter, not harder, to limit and beat the talent of a superstar.


  1. After all, even the tallest ogre can usually catch an under pass and dump it. 

  2. Essentially points in a cup with no top 

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    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, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. 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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