Tuesday Tips: Breaking Down The Basics Of Defense, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Focus on individual components of person-defense to improve your overall ability to shut down your mark and generate blocks.

Drag'n Thrust gets a block at the Pro Flight Finale. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Drag’n Thrust gets a block at the Pro Flight Finale. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

Playing solid one-on-one defense means constantly addressing a daunting series of mental decisions, calculating trade-offs, and executing athletic skills and maneuvers. Not only is trying to completely shut down a player a complex individual challenge, it also requires that you play within the principles and tenets of your team’s defensive strategy. So, answering the question, “How does one get better at person defense?” can be a complicated matter.

Breaking down defense into component parts can help make it easier to understand, teach, and learn. I think of person defense in terms of four elements: Proximity, Spacing and Force, Fitness, and Mental Readiness.

Each of these elements can be adjusted or taught differently based on a team’s style or defensive strategy, but considering them separately can be beneficial for both beginning and advanced players. Practicing and eventually owning one of these areas can really help a player improve and contribute to their team’s defense. Indeed, some players specialize in just one aspect, committing their entire focus to making it a strength. Improving in multiple categories makes a defensive player more well-rounded, and elite players develop from both specialization and a comprehensive approach.

Look at each in turn, and practice improving these individual phases to make the complex matter of person-to-person defense much simpler.

Proximity

At the most basic level, person-to-person defense is about staying close enough to an offensive player that you can make a play on the disc if it is thrown to him or her. Covering an opponent simply by staying close to the person sounds easy, but as we all know, it is much more difficult in practice. Still, focusing on just this one concept can be essential to taking complicated person defense and reducing it into something that is much easier to practice and play.

A good strategy for beginning players is to try to stay within ten feet of your opponent — the distance at which you need to be to call a pick — at all times. Intermediate players should try to shrink this distance down to being within five feet; ideally, you’d eventually like to work up to the ability to stay close enough to touch your mark at all times. While staying on the force side and positioning yourself on the correct shoulder of a cutter are also important (more on those later), generally, if you’re close enough to touch the person you are guarding, that person is effectively covered.

On a large ultimate field, the offense has all the advantages. The cutter or handler gets to decide where and when to move and can see and communicate with the whole field. Most often a receiver gets open on a defender by moving when a defender isn’t looking, or making a first initial juke, then attacking when the defender has his or her hips turned.

For a defender struggling with staying close, simply locking your eyes on an offensive player the entire time can be extremely helpful. Face-guarding certainly has some major disadvantages — like losing track of the disc as it moves and being vulnerable to short shots to space. Still, doing shadow-drills during practice or face-guarding a player in a scrimmage or game can help improve at this one important aspect of person defense.

Eventually, a good player should be able to stay close and focused largely on their mark, while still being able to both see the disc and hold a force.

Spacing and Force

Similar to proximity, this element of defense can be broken down and isolated for those who are learning. Picking one part of the field and denying that to the offensive player is an essential skill.

When teaching defense in ultimate, the force is usually the first thing explained. Staying in between an offensive player and the disc and holding a downfield force can be tricky tasks, especially with a team that moves the disc quickly. It can be even more complicated if your defense adds a wrinkle like shading, hoping to force a player deep, under, or to the sideline.

For example, imagine a defender is told not to let her mark go deep at all costs. Simply standing well behind an offensive player on the force side allows a defender to see the field and it completely eliminates one cutting option for an opponent. However, if this defense is not coupled with close proximity, sitting behind a player gives them easier under cuts and probably destroys any chance you have at getting a block. But at least you’ve accomplished priority one.

To advance on this skill, continue to deny a specific space by staying on the correct side of your mark, but try to shrink the amount of cushion you provide an offensive player. As you grow more comfortable with a smaller cushion, also learn how to position your body such that the offensive player can’t go where you are trying to deny them without going through you so that you can remain close enough when they change directions. When you can both take away a specific space and stay close to our mark, you will be able to deny one option and still contest others. You’ve succeeded with defense and your player likely won’t get the disc much — or at least not in dangerous places. The hard part is consistently adjusting your positioning to hold the force as the opponent fakes and moves.

New players should try these baby steps of specialization and try to identify a no-go area for their opponent on every point. Limiting a cutter’s available options on the field can greatly increase your confidence and chances at getting a block.

Fitness

Even if you start in the correct position and know where your player is going all the time, if you do not have adequate fitness, you will struggle to keep the correct spacing and proximity over the course of long points, games, and tournaments. While “fitness” can be broken down into perhaps half a dozen elements and physical traits, the two that I want to focus on are speed and jumping ability.

Many players succeed at defense not because they are especially good at holding a force, blocking one side of the field, or staying close to their man, but because they’re just really, really fast. It’s not that speed allows you to completely ignore the other elements of defense — after all, it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re twenty feet away from an opponent — but it can once again greatly increase specialization.

Improving speed allows a player to drift a bit further away from their mark without compromising their ability to contest throws via proximity and spacing. Speed alone can make up for faults in these areas, or even other elements of fitness, such as agility, footwork, or explosiveness.

Like speed, the ability to contest discs high in the air can go a long way toward making up for deficiencies in other parts of your defense. You can’t learn height, but you can certainly learn how to neutralize it a little in person defense. If you know you have an advantage in the vertical space, you can let an opponent drift a little further away to bait a throw, knowing you’ll have a play on any huck. Again, improving on this element can give you some wiggle room for proximity and positioning.

Fitness needs to be worked on primarily off the ultimate field, but should be specifically and purposefully incorporated on the field when in gameplay. While not always easy to practice, it is imperative that you test your limits in terms of speed, hops, and other physical traits so you understand how much leeway you have with the other elements of defense.

Younger players should be encouraged to identify their physical strengths and weaknesses so they can exploit them or protect themselves while playing person defense. It is surprising how many good players in the air don’t take better advantage in their positioning and proximity to utilize their skills, or vice-versa.

Mental Readiness

The opposite of fitness is brains. We’ve all seen those players who don’t seem to be able to run or jump very well at all, but somehow still manage to be effective defenders. How can that be?

Well, a veteran or smart player has developed the ability to anticipate exactly where a player is going, can see the disc move to know what is coming, and can come out of nowhere to stop or block the offense when it’s most important.

This is another difficult element to practice. Beginning players should be encouraged to try to imagine where the player they are guarding is going to head. Find a position you’re defending and then find the opposite position that most obviously presents itself for an open option. If the disc is in the center of the field and the defender is shading deep, then the most obvious route is under on the open side. While your positioning can dictate what throws you may have a chance at, being aware of the situation and anticipating what a cutter will do can increase those chances.

Things get complicated as a chess match of fakes and clears are thrown in, and the disc moving adds another dimension as well. But again, seeing the disc move and anticipating this can give you an edge over an offensive player. If the only option open is the sideline, then a good, intelligent player can see this and move to block at the same moment as her target or even before. Poaching and baiting can develop from this idea as well, as players see lanes or avenues of attack and try to fly into them to disrupt the offense and throw it into chaos.

On the other hand, not being prepared for these options opens you up to getting your hips turned in the wrong direction, giving the player you are guarding an edge, or can leave you completely out of position allowing the person to score.

Watching ultimate, studying it, and reading about it can help increase mental anticipation, but on the field it is something that has to be actively construed and used. Don’t react, predict. The advantages are clear; when you anticipate correctly, you really diminish your need to rely on proximity, spacing, or even fitness because you can be in the right place at the right time to block.

Putting It All Together

You’ve got to crawl before you walk. To improve your defense, examine these four elements and find your own strengths and weaknesses. Work to increase those strengths by practicing specialization of these, perhaps in practice scrimmage or even in a game. Work on your weaknesses even more.

If you’re bad at staying close to your cutter, face-guard for a bit until you get comfortable seeing both your mark and the disc. If you’re very fast but don’t do well with anticipation, actively take a few chances guessing on where your opponent will go. Conversely, if the game is on the line, pick the element of defense that is your strength and hone it to win.

Start small and then expand to other phases. Work to find different drills and practice scrimmages that can best break down and specialize each of these areas, and you’ll begin to see gains on the field. Actively focus in on one element and you’ll begin to find that it’ll start to become second nature. As you play more and more, your entire defensive game will improve.

  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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