The Underappreciated Art In Ultimate: Let’s Talk Defense

In Ultimate, offense seems to get all the love. Even on Excel Ultimate, our premium library is full of throwing tutorials, cutting tips, and offensive strategies. Yet defensive is half the game and the beauty of Ultimate is that everyone has to play defense at some point or another. Even the best offense will turn it and have to fight to get it back. 

With that said, I’m happy to turn some attention towards the defense and outline five powerful mindset shifts that helped me improve my defense over the years. 

Information: The Great Balancing Act

One of the perceived disadvantages on defense is that you do not have as much information as the player you are guarding. And while you cannot read their mind to know where they are going you can put clues together to help you anticipate. The difficult part about gathering information is that with so much going on you can fall into a trap of over thinking, which leads to freezing up and poor performance. Now the balancing act is put to the test and we need to figure out what is important to read and process.

The first major test on defense when it comes to information new players have is the mark. They have to read the mark, process what that means, and continue to stay on the open side of their matchup. As players become more advanced they start to process more important information such as where the disc is, where the disc is going and what that means for their positioning. At the top level, players also can gather more detailed information such as the throwing ability of the player with the disc, the tendencies of the player they are matched up against, and what the wind means for their positioning. However, if a new player tried to process all that information, they would just be lost.

One tip that you can do right away to start to gather more information is to just scan the field. Literally take your neck and eyes and move them around when your matchup is clearing, resting in the stack, or other opportune times.

The good news about reading and processing the field is that you get a lot better with experience. They are both skills just like throwing or catching and with focused practice you can improve in this area. Check out episode one of our ‘Reading the Field’ course for free here.

The Mark: Not Time To Rest

Odds are when you think about the most important job for a mark the expression ‘no breaks’ comes to mind. And that is for good reason. Six of your teammates are depending on you to funnel the disc to the side of the field they are focusing on protecting. Therefore it is paramount to do everything you can to hold the force. There are two common mistakes I see many players make on the mark. First, the effort and intensity goes down. The mark does give most defenders a rare reprieve from constant running and movement, but now is not the time to rest. Stay active, focused and intense, just because you have stopped running around does not mean you stop working. The second mistake is poor fundamentals. Marks tend to stand too tall and lean when they reach allowing for an easy break the other side. Large lunging steps create over commitment issues. The list goes on. If you want to see our ‘Fundamentals of Marking’ video you can check out Excel Premium and our free trial!

Proactive: Not Reactive 

 If you are playing defense you are going to have a lot of problems ifs you simply run around and chase your matchup. They can accelerate, change direction and gain separation while you process what they are doing and where they are going. It’s simply a game you can’t win. However, good defenders can actually control their matchup by playing proactively and not reactively.

There are three ways you can start being proactive immediately. Start by keeping an eye where the disc is moving. That has a huge impact on where the player you are guarding can and will go. If the disc gets dumped backwards odds are low that your player streak deeps. If you are guarding a player in a vertical stack and the disc gets swung to the break side, perhaps you should proactively guard the break side. While the break side usually is not your responsibility, odds are the offense is looking for the break to continue.

The second clue to help you play proactively is to use your body to stop your matchup from going to a place on the field they want to attack. You can either play the angle and stand out in space or even get close to use your body as a shield. Since there is no contact in ultimate, the offensive player will have to swerve around you and miss out on proper timing.

Lastly, a third advanced tip is to understand and anticipate your players tendencies. If they are a pure handler, you might want to proactively push them deep. On the other hand, you can use positioning to push great deep cutters back toward the disc.

Own It: If You Have Good Position, Keep It!

We spoke above at the importance of proactively using your body to stop the offensive player from getting to the spot they want to. Aside from simply not being in the correct spot, another glaring mistake many players make is they are in the perfect spot but give it up!

The upline handler strike is a prime example of how this phenomenon plays out. Let’s put the disc on the sideline with a trap mark. The primary reset is even with the disc, eight or nine meters away. The defender is positioned a couple of steps in the upline lane protecting the strike. What happens next is the reset engages the defender by going up line a couple steps and then faking like they are changing direction for the backfield swing. At this point too many defenders lunge or commit to the swing, giving up there position and the reset uses a double move to strike. And all of the sudden the tables have turned and the defender who once had good position is now trailing the up line cut.

Losing good position often happens with poor footwork, big lunging steps, or falling for small fakes the offense throws at the defender to get them out of the way. The two best ways to help maintain good position is body position and balance. Keep in mind that there is no contact in Ultimate, so if you are in a great position and the offense runs at you to get you on your heels or off balance, hold your ground. When it comes to balance, stay balanced with your feet under your hips during the offense players cuts. Generally, if you can stay balanced until they commit their hips, you can follow them tightly. The problem arises when you commit to early and it is in the wrong direction. The direction where the cutter or handler was faking. Be patient, balanced, and hold that good position!

Report Card: Measuring Defense Success 

Spoiler alert, you are not going to get a block every time someone throws to the player you are guarding. And odds are pretty good that you are not going to stop your matchup from getting open every time they cut. Mistakes will be made on defense and it is true that offense does have an advantage when it comes to separation. Therefore, if we grade success or failure on defense in terms of ‘did the offense score the point’ we miss a lot of individual opportunities to get small wins on defense.

If you actively force the other team’s best thrower to go deep and they score on a floaty huck you almost block than you should score that as a win. On the flip side, if you are guarding the other teams best handler in the stack and you stay 5 steps behind them and they get a free under then that is a failure. Sure you did not get beat deep so that looks better to everyone, but giving up an uncontested under to a great thrower is poor defense.

Since there are so many nuanced examples like the two above, we can break down success into three categories. Let us say that offense primarily has two different options to cut: deep or under, open or break, upline or swing. Poor defenders don’t stop either of those options and their matchup does not have to work for either. Good defenders stop one of the options but don’t challenge the other. Great defenders will stop their matchups first option and still make them work for the other. As a rule of thumb, nothing should be easy for the offense. Make them work to get the disc and you have done your job!


This article was written by Rowan McDonnell. Check out our blog archives for more Ultimate tips!

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