Tuesday Tips: 3 Opportunities To Transition Defenses, Presented By Spin Ultimate

How to build up to making your transition defense a strategic weapon instead of a desperate scramble.

When the disc moves beyond the first row of defenders can be a good time to transition from zone to person defense. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — 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!

Conceptually, transition defense is pretty self-explanatory: as a team, you’re changing from one defensive strategy to another within the course of a single point. Your team has multiple defensive looks ready to go, so you should be able to change from one to the other pretty seamlessly, right? In practice, this can become surprisingly difficult to pull off.

Transitioning between defenses can ensure that you’re playing the most effective form of defense given your opponent’s’ position on the field, serve as an effective way to keep the offense on their toes, or simply allow you to resort to a fallback strategy when your first look is getting beaten too easily. Effective defensive transitions are an essential part of any successful team’s repertoire.

But transitioning from one defensive strategy to another involves a lot of split-second decision making that can’t be fully governed by a set of hard and fast rules. However, there are some guidelines you can use to develop working strategies for smooth defensive transitions in a variety of situations.

The Key Principle: Communication

Before jumping too deep into the when and how of transitioning between defenses, let’s talk about communication. Because a defensive transition involves changing strategies across the entire team, communication is the single most important contributor to its success. Phenomenal defensive athletes that don’t know who or what they’re supposed to be defending are simply ineffective.

Information must spread quickly and clearly across the entire field for your team to successfully change strategies as a unit. Keep the following components of transition communication in mind when you prepare to play transition defense:

1. Know your transition call.

Your team must have shared language that you use to communicate transitions. Decide on a single short word that indicates you’re moving from the first defense to the second. Common transition calls include “fire,” “crumble,” or “D2,” but as long as your team is on the same page, any short call will work.1

2. Know who initiates the transition.

Determine who is responsible for deciding that the team is changing defenses. Transition calls often come from someone who has a clear view of the whole field, giving them perspective to know when it’s a good idea to transition. This means transition calls frequently come from either a designated individual on the sideline — like a coach or captain — or the person on the field playing the deepest position in your zone. Regardless, make sure you designate whose role it is. Even though there are situations where everyone should know that it’s a good idea to transition, it’s best if the whole team consistently knows where the responsibility for that decision lies.

As soon as you hear the transition call, echo it. You may not have the responsibility of deciding when it starts, but it’s everyone’s job to make sure the whole team, from the field to the sideline, knows as quickly as possible that your strategy is changing.

3. Communicate the transition on the field.

Regardless of the particular strategies your team is using, it’s not always clear exactly where each individual player should end up after transitioning. Verbalize which opponent you’re matching up on and point to them. If you end up with multiple opponents in your vicinity, let your teammates know. The same is true for moments when you can’t find anyone nearby to match up on and need help identifying your new mark.

Make sure you quickly verbalize what’s happening in the initial moments of the transition to make it as smooth as possible.

4. Communicate from the sideline.

If you’re on the sideline, don’t leave all the work to the players on the field — use your perspective from off the field to provide quick, focused information. Sideline communication is immensely important in general, but it’s especially useful when transitioning between defenses. Echo the transition call, locate dangerous unguarded opponents, and help your teammates transition into person defense matchups.

5. Prioritize cohesion over surprise.

You might be concerned that all this communication is basically just shouting all your defensive secrets directly to your opponents. While it’s great to be able to confuse the offense with a smooth transition between strategies, your number one priority is to make sure your teammates have all the information they need. Even if your opponent figures out exactly what your defensive strategy is over the course of your transition, so be it — you still get to play hard D and dictate what their available options are. Give your teammates the clear information they need to transition effectively.

When Should You Transition?

With those communication fundamentals in mind, let’s consider a couple distinct times at which it’s beneficial to transition.

Transitions typically involve going from a more complex defensive strategy — like zones, sponges, poaches, or force middle — to traditional person defense with a single force. This isn’t necessarily always the case, but it’s certainly the most common way of doing things, so for simplicity’s sake that’s what I’ll be addressing here.2 When should you initiate a transition?

  1. Your first defensive strategy has failed. Your cup, wall, or poach has been so thoroughly beaten that it’s more efficient to pick up individual players and try to stop the disc from advancing quickly down the field.
  2. Your first defensive strategy is losing effectiveness. The disc is getting uncomfortably close to the end zone; the handlers are figuring out how to throw through your cup; the marks in your zone are too tired to stay in position. Your defensive strategy is starting to crack, so it can be a good idea to transition before it’s fully beaten.
  3. Your defense can gain an advantage by changing strategies. Before your initial defense shows any signs of getting beaten, you can transition proactively to give your team the upper hand.

As a team, approach mastering transitions incrementally. Every team that runs a non-person defense should be prepared to transition to person defense when their first strategy fails. Teams that have mastered this will benefit immensely from recognizing when their first strategy is losing effectiveness and transitioning before it falls apart. Finally, teams proficient at these transitions can take their defensive creativity up a notch by working on changing strategies intentionally to gain an advantage.

#1: Transitioning when your defense fails.

We’ve all been there. A huck goes up to a cutter that has your deep deep beat, or maybe the handlers swing the disc quickly around your trap cup and continue it all the way up the undefended sideline. It’s a bit of a judgment call to decide when a defense really ‘fails,’ but look for situations where the disc has advanced past the entire front layer of your defense and the offense is in a good position to quickly continue the disc down the field with little opposition.

Your first priority as a team in this situation is to take away the most dangerous continuation option. Generally, everyone’s first move should be to move away from where the disc is and towards your opponent’s end zone to pick up opponents that are in a position to gain big yards or score. This means you aren’t always picking up the player closest to you — look for dangerous options where you can help contain before tightening down into an individual matchup.

Keep those communication fundamentals in mind! On the field, call out who you have and help direct traffic as necessary. From the sideline, tell your teammates on the field where the dangerous options are to help smooth the transition.

As you transition, make both the physical and mental shifts necessary to play to your new strategy. Keep your defensive fundamentals in mind and fight to get into a good defensive position for person D.

#2: Transitioning when your defense loses effectiveness.

As your team becomes confident with transitioning after you’re beat, work on learning to transition when your defense first shows signs of losing effectiveness. Instead of scrambling to make up ground you’ve already lost, recognize when your current defensive strategy isn’t the best option and call it off before things get out of hand. Again, it’s a judgment call, but there are a number of situations in which you should consider transitioning to person defense:

  • Your opponent has worked the disc ½ to ¾ of the way down the field. Many non-person defensive strategies are great at taking away deep threats and clogging up downfield lanes, but allowing small yardage gains becomes much more threatening closer to the end zone.
  • Your opponent is learning how to work through your defense. Your strategy hasn’t failed yet, but it’s close to it. Your opponent’s handlers are working through the cup faster and faster, or their cutters are finding space to get open through your downfield poaches. Once those cracks start to form, it’s a good idea to consider switching to person D.
  • Your defenders are having trouble keeping up. Certain positions in non-person defenses are taxed with more running than others, so after a few minutes it might be physically difficult for these players to maintain their responsibilities or positioning. If unintentional holes start appearing in your defense, it might be time to transition.

Once your team decides to transition, the same principles mentioned above apply: cover the most dangerous options first, communicate, and fight to get in position to play fundamentally good person D. Just make sure you know whose responsibility it is to decide when to transition.

These are also good situations to consider when thinking about which defense to play right after your offense turns it over during a multiple-possession point. While there is still value in being prepared to set your non-person defense if the disc is turned over far enough away from the end zone you’re defending, if any of the above situations apply, or if your opponent gets the disc moving right away, it might be a good idea to simply play person defense rather than return to the called defense that was beginning to crack. As always, actively communicate then plan so your entire team is on the same page.

#3: Transitioning to gain an advantage.

If your team is comfortable flowing from one defensive strategy to the next at the earliest sign of trouble, you’re ready to start transitioning proactively to gain a defensive advantage. Don’t wait for cracks to form in your defense; instead of changing strategies because the first one isn’t working, change strategies to stay ahead of the offense.

This type of transition must be quick, intentional, and strategic. Don’t abandon an effective defense for no reason; change strategies with purpose. You might start with a poachy junk zone to stop a pull play and transition after the first couple throws. Maybe you know your opponent can patiently work through a zone when given the chance, so you only want to stay in your preferred zone for five throws to see if you can catch them off-guard before they have time to adjust. Your opponent might start to get into a rhythm playing against your force middle after a minute or two, giving you an opportunity to clamp down into a single force and make them adjust their cutting patterns. Whatever the reason, make sure it’s clear what you’re trying to accomplish with a strategy change.

This quick, aggressive transition works particularly well with some defensive strategies. Forcing middle, poaching off of handlers into cutting lanes, setting a loose sponge-y zone; less structured strategies like these all clog up space, fluster the offense, and allow for quick transitions to intense single-force person D. Unlike transitions that occur when your defense is getting beat or out of position, when you’re dictating the change, you don’t need to scramble to take away the most dangerous options in the same way. Instead, be strategic and seamless. Loose zone-type strategies typically divide positions between discrete spaces on the field: handlers and cutters, sideline and middle field, deep space and under space. When transitioning, match up on a player in the space you’re responsible for to keep your defense organized across the field.

I can’t say it enough: communication is essential. For these quick transitions in particular, make sure everyone’s clear on what the goal of the defense is and when the transition will happen before the point starts.


Remember, every defensive transition requires split-second decision making and team-wide coordination. Practice these transitions as a team to identify weaknesses and smooth out the rough spots. By focusing on effective transition communication and paying careful attention to the situations in which your transitions occur, you’ll be prepared to move seamlessly between strategies and keep your defensive edge.

  1. It sounds silly, but make sure your transition call doesn’t sound like any call that would halt play; anything sounding vaguely similar to “pick,” “foul,” “injury,” “time out,” etc. should be avoided. 

  2. As a caveat, I don’t have experience playing mixed. Unique challenges and strategies come up when dealing with gender match-ups, but I can’t speak to those; my ideas apply primarily to women’s and men’s. 

  1. Kayla Emrick

    Kayla Emrick is a graduate student in public health at Emory University. She started playing ultimate at Oberlin College in 2009 and later captained the team. She currently plays for Ozone in Atlanta and coaches Luna, the women's team at Emory.

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