Tuesday Tips: 3 Tips for Handling Against Poaches

Put those pesky poachers in their place.

Wildfire's Lindsay Lang against Scandal at the 2018 Club Ultimate Championships.
Handlers have some counters to beat poaches in the lanes. Photo: Kristina Geddert — UltiPhotos.com

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When most of us learn about offense, we learn how to attack a set of individual defenders who are covering the offense 1-on-1. But ultimate doesn’t play out that way much of the time, and the metagame currently favors lots of defensive wrinkles beyond each defender containing one offender. One frequently utilized tool is poaching, where a defender or defenders opt to guard space rather than an individual offensive player, usually temporarily.

For Subscribers: Defensive Strategy & Tactics: Zones, Poaches, and Switches [Pt. 3]

Poaches are beatable if the driving forces of the offense know how to see them and respond. As the ones with the disc in their hands most frequently, handlers are the ones with the primary responsibility of dealing with these defensive threats. Here’s how they can.

Identify (and Dodge) the Threats

We all know the painful feeling of regret that comes when the disc is flying towards the receiver only for an unwelcome surprise poach from the defense to intercept the pass. Where’d they even come from? While the thrower was honed in, so was the defender, and there were ways to spot these traps before the offense steps on the fronds covering the spike pit.

The first indicator can simply be identifying trends. These are generally either personnel-based (PB), triggered by which players are involved, or context-based (CB), such as poaching when the offense is stuck on a downwind sideline or to stop pull plays by leaving some defenders in the lane for the early moments of a possession.

Especially at lower levels, PB poaches are going to be based on one outstanding individual, whether that be offensive or defense. If the offense has a dangerous deep thrower, there may be more poaches to take away early hucks. If the defense has one top-end defender, they may be more apt to try to anticipate a play and force a turnover. I remember distinctly coaching Emory Luna against Hannah Leathers and Georgia, and her knowledge and athleticism allowed her to prey on our inexperienced players by constantly coming off her assignment in the stack to disrupt the throwing lanes.

On the other hand, CB poaches are a bit tougher to spot, but once you see them, you can act on them. Some teams just poach a lot. Sometimes windy conditions encourage a lot more poaching when a team doesn’t want to commit to a zone defense. Use the sideline to help track how frequent these poaches are and when they are happening.

Once the offense has identified the poaches before they happen, adjustments can make them harder to execute. If an individual defender keeps crashing the lanes, try moving their cutter out of the primary playing space. Avoid the downwind sideline (which the offense should do anyway) to reduce how much of  an influence that poach has on the game.

Fake Them Out

One of the most valuable tools for handlers against poaches is throwing fakes. In fact, these are an excellent way to draw out and identify poachers in the first place. Before a defender ambushes a force side under, a hard fake to that side from the handler often will draw their attention. Throwers can watch for eyes locked in, a defender freezing to read the thrower, or even taking some steps towards the lane in case throw goes up.

The vast majority of poachers direct their attention to the thrower. Like when matching up with a cup as a zone offense, multiple defenders reacting to the thrower means some offensive player doesn’t have their defender’s full attention. When the thrower shows their imitation forehand and the defender freezes, that’s an excellent opportunity for the cutter they should be guarding to take advantage. Handlers can help generate these quality chances for their cutters by using their fakes to manipulate the defense.

For close poaches that have nearly their full focus on the thrower, there’s another trick that can turn the tables: fake a hard throw directly into the poach. Few defenders have the fortitude to see a massive wind-up into a would-be huck headed straight for them and not react. Maybe they’ll jump up to try and block it, maybe they’ll shield themselves, maybe they’ll jump out of the way, but odds are that they will do something. And that something will often give the thrower a chance to get around the poach.

Make Them Choose

The disc isn’t always in the thrower’s hands when a handler is dealing with a poach. Often it is another handler who is being poached off of to add some extra resources to defending the disc. One of the first things I tell handlers who are being poached off is to make the defense choose. The number one thing a handler — or cutter, really — wants to avoid is letting the defender guard both the lane and their assignment effectively. If the defender wants to give up a free reset by poaching the lane, move into a position to open that option up and take advantage. If the defender lets the handler get behind them, the handler might be able to gain some yards up the line or even get into the deep space unchallenged. Or maybe the defender is giving an express lane to the break side.

While making the defender choose is primarily the responsibility of the player being poached off of, the thrower does have some responsibility here. If there’s no realistic threat that the thrower will take that option, the defense won’t respect it. Take the advantages they offer rather than playing into the trap.

And you can even combine these strategies! Let’s take a common scenario: a poach off a reset on the open side into the open side throwing lane. That reset can move further backwards or to the break side. When the thrower is getting ready to hit that reset, and the defender goes to clamp down, the thrower can utilize a hard fake to keep the defender’s attention in the lane and then quickly drop off the reset to their open teammate.

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