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Tuesday Tips: How to Read Spacing to Play Better Defense

Sockeye's John Randolph defender Temper handler Jonah Wisch at the 2018 club National Championships.
Sockeye’s John Randolph defender and Temper handler Jonah Wisch at the 2018 club National Championships. Photo: Kristina Geddert–Ultiphotos.com

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Defense in ultimate is very hard.

Depending on the offensive set, a defender can be isolated one-on-one with a top-notch athlete and forced to make some tough decisions on positioning and protection. In fact, that’s the offense’s main goal: to force defenders into tough choices and then exploit what is given to them, since no person-to-person defense and no single defender — no matter how talented, fast, or well-practiced — can cover the entire field at once.

So, in the most basic sense, a defense must choose something to take away, and then hope to have something else it can limit or at least try to protect. A good defense is able to do this. Say they hold a force and commit to not getting beat deep. Ideally, most of the field is “shut down” with marks on throwers protecting the break side and the downfield defenders contesting most of the rest.

That is, if — and this is a big if — they’re able to perfectly hold these priorities. As any player knows, no marks or positioning commitments are unshakeable and one mistake (say someone getting broken) can domino into an easy score. Even if the defense is flawless in the above scenario, there are still options available to the offense; smart teams will simply take the lowest hanging fruit.

So in what ways can the defense counter any of these structural disadvantages? Is there any way at all that defense as a team can dictate instead of allowing the offense to largely force tough choices and control the action? One way to approach this problem is by focusing on field position and spacing.

Field Position and Spacing: Important Basics

Spacing based on field position is one of what I consider the four key components of defense. But, because there are so many other priorities in the head of a defender, it is hard to consistently focus on it.

Simply put, defense changes depending on where the offense is on the field. Not only can field position limit or remove offensive options, it can hamper offensive angles of attack. A proper understanding of field position and spacing can give a defense a critical advantage. For example, the old jokes about a strong hucking team suddenly feeling a disadvantage in the redzone aren’t wrong: the compressed amount of space can make a huge difference in how an offense is able to advance.

That said, many offenses are set up to minimize these impacts and it’s important for defenses to be aware of that.

  • Most offenses design their sets to stay in the middle of the field with good spacing and angles of attack.
  • When spacing becomes limited closer to the endzone, it is almost always in flow, forcing defenders to adjust flexibly in play.
  • Changing defensive position to take advantage of spacing can mean big disadvantages if the field position is flipped.

Starting Positioning

Defense should begin with a good starting position.

Take a look at some defensive precepts while assuming classic person-to-person, hold the force defense. In general, a defender wants to be positioned close enough to their mark to be able to use their body to block a specific offensive option, while far enough away to maintain time to react to a change in speed or cutting angle.

Likewise, a defender wants to set up at a good angle to be able to read both the disc and the movement of the player they are guarding.

Most of the time, a defender will set up on the force side with a focus on dictating a specific outcome, such as “try to push the offense out” or the opposite, “avoid getting beat deep.” By executing a single defensive strategy as a team, a defense can force an offense into acting predictably. Most of the time, a defender should maintain that focus and position his or her body accordingly.

Importantly, notice the opening of the last sentence: “most of the time.”

Non-Standard Positioning

There are times when it is not beneficial to you to be on the force side of your mark or to strictly follow the focus of your team defense to the letter of the law. It all depends on spacing and field position.

For example, let’s say the disc is trapped on the break sideline and you are playing downfield defense with someone in the far side of a horizontal stack. Most veteran players will realize that even if they’re aiming to prevent under cuts, they do not need to be positioned underneath their person. Nor, perhaps do they need to stay on the force side.

Instead, they could be playing deep rover, knowing that the angle of attack is almost impossible with the sideline and the stack in the way to get the disc to their player. The only option is some kind of over the top or huck (which, if you position yourself deep and with proper spacing, you will be able to prevent). You are safe by stepping to the break side (closer to the disc) and are able to provide more help to your team by staying deep.

In those two moves, you’ve not only made your mark much less dangerous, but you’ve also provided a bit of help to your team. A great team can communicate and practice this help defense so that every single player responds and adjusts positioning because of it, such as shifting other players to further protect underneath.

Now, the offense isn’t forcing you to make tough choices, but you’ve forced the offense to attack somewhere less ideal or to just stand around and be useless.

This is good defensive strategy in a fairly obvious situation. However, these same techniques can be applied in other more advanced situations. Before you can get to those, however, you have to be able to adjust positioning on the fly.

Adjusting Positioning

Unfortunately for defenses, most of the time the offense starts the disc in the middle of the field, and they have both under and deep space available to them. But every time the disc moves, the available options change and a smart defender will immediately readjust to read the situation. Most of the time, this will have to be done in flow, which means defenders need to be prepared.

For example, as the disc moves closer to the redzone, you should reset yourself to step forward between your person and the disc, knowing the deep space has shrunk and is less of a threat. Likewise, with a sideline limiting an attack angle, you can clamp down on the most immediate threat knowing that any throw to the breakside will be pressured by the mark.

A good defender is flexible. What does that mean? Well, a good defender can adjust if either

  • a.) The defensive focus or force breaks down, or
  • b.) The offense moves to less desirable or more desirable field position.

For a.) it largely involves being close enough to your person (proximity) to be able to make a play or forsake good positioning to stop the bleeding.

For b.) this is a challenge of taking advantage of what the offense has presented you.

A good rule of thumb is as follows: React before the offense can by cutting off the space of their attack.

This is much easier said than done, and if you’re struggling with this concept, try this exercise: watch some footage of ultimate and pause the disc every ten seconds, keeping your eye on one specific offensive player. The moment you pause it, try to put yourself in the shoes of the offensive cutter and ask “What’s the best place to cut next?”

The defender therefore, should cut the angle and the space to try to get to that cutting lane first. That’s the job elite defenders do while playing defense live.

Is it hard? Yes. Does it make for damn good defense? Hell yes.

What Does This Look Like?

As the disc swings, advances, or retreats, good cutters are immediately setting up to take advantage. A defender must do the same.

Scenario 1: Playing defense in a horizontal stack, you see the disc swing to your sideline. Your cutter has already set up a deep fake to take advantage, but you prioritize shutting down the under space on that side of the field by blocking the space underneath with your body position.

Scenario 2: In the back of a vertical stack, you see a handler about to gain throw-and-go power position, you immediately take two steps deep, preparing for a huck in flow, knowing your cutter will be wanting to streak.

Scenario 3: The offense has hit two break throws in a row and has entered the redzone. You must overcommit to closing distance with your offensive player, to be right on top of them, if not on the breakside, to stop the next throw for an easy score.

The hard part about this is why maintaining positioning is so important: you really need to know where the disc is. If that fails and you are too busy looking at your person, you may be in trouble and need the help of your sideline to communicate where the disc is. It’s also why great ultimate teams will have players constantly yelling out this information, like whether the disc is on the far side, near side, middle, etc.

This is a constant boxing match, or an elaborate dance, with offensive moves and defensive responses. Anticipate the next move whenever you can.

Advanced and Final Thoughts

So, at its most basic, using spacing to play defense is about seeing how field position limits the offense, anticipating lines of attack, and adjusting your spacing quickly and accordingly.

However, there are ways to purposefully design defenses around actively changing the shape of spaces and angles of attack. They generally involve more complex team defensive strategies like clam defense or poach defense to work effectively. In other words, they force defenders to understand how to use space and also be extremely flexible.

One example would be purposefully giving easy access to the force side to eventually funnel the offense into undesirable situations, such as in Trapping. For example, a handler poach on a horizontal stack might encourage an open swing, or giving a deep threat an easy under might trap a cutter and force him or her into a throwing role. Often, trapping is language associated with a zone defense, but you can use the same principles in person-to-person. Force the defense into a sideline and then clamp down by shifting a mark and downfield position, locking nearly everything so that the offense is forced into a bad situation they hate. The trick is to then make sure the team adjusts quickly to have deep help on the far side, extremely tight under defense on the force side, and absolutely no around handler and mark sets.

Of course, there is risk-reward considerations that must take place. Giving any kind of free pass can be taken advantage of. Smart offenses will throw-and-go, or bounce the disc back, or simply bomb it to open looks as quickly as they can. This is why you need to be ready to adjust.

A second example would be something like Force Middle or Force Sideline, where the marks and defenses adjust every time the disc moves based on where it goes. This requires intense communication, but can really fuddle offenses and throw them off their usual attacking lanes. For example, if a disc swings to a far sideline in a force middle and the defense appropriately responds, the entire flow of the attacking offense (which was heading one way) is now stumped by the mark closing around it. When they try to go back the other way, they find defenders clogging their lanes or shutting down their marks. Force sideline can be even more deadly, but it is very difficult to pull off and risks big deep shots, so is best used in a with a last back option.

Any kind of help defense or poach defense, when played right, has the balance to help you adjust to space specifically. But the more you play to the space and the less to the person, the more chances a dagger can hurt you. It’s all about making choices.

The smart defense is the one that tries to push back against offense dictation and to adjust to the very best in spacing and field positioning situations.

  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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