Field Space Bullying

Featured Photo by Brandon Wu –

I don’t think you have to be a physical defender in order to be successful at Nationals, but you do have to be comfortable in a physical match-up. Physicality in the women’s division is increasing, and it isn’t likely that you’ll go through Nationals without getting pushed around a bit. If that bothers you, it’ll be a long four days.

I think of physical play as essentially bullying cutters out of spaces – this doesn’t necessarily mean touching them, but it does mean making my presence felt. Personally, I touch people a fair amount, but that’s because I think that close D plays to my relative strengths as a defender. My goal is to increase the amount of footwork folks have to do in order to get where they want to go. This both slows them down physically and puts their mind on me rather than the disc or their teammates. Doing this is basically an exercise in thinking like an offender: I identify where I would want to go and beat them there.

“Hip fluidity” is something you hear about a lot in good cornerbacks, which are defenders who cover wide receivers in football. I think that this applies pretty directly to Ultimate. In my mind, there are three phases of defensive footwork: the first is backpedaling/ drop-stepping where your body is essentially a mirror image of the offense; the second is when you’ve committed your hips to the cut but your upper body is on the cutter/field; the third is when you’ve committed your whole body to the cutter’s position and line.

The best defenders stay in phases 1-2 more often. As soon as you commit your hips and shoulders to sprinting in one line, you won’t win a turn because you have to do a complete change of both speed and direction. In phases 1-2, your footwork is set up for a faster, more natural change of direction. I work these hip/shoulder transitions into my training, trying to increase my fluidity and make them quicker and more efficient.

Some people approach defense with a one-track mind and imagine that physicality directly correlates to defense. Great defenders are smarter and more flexible than that. For example, one defensive principal that a lot of players already think about is the idea that you should take away one option with your body and challenge the other. In doing this, players have to – or should— decide what the cutter’s strengths are, what their own strengths are, and where their relative advantage lies: If the player is an exceptional thrower, maybe you want to force her downfield away from the disc; if she is better in the air than you, maybe you want to force her underneath toward the disc, etc.

Players should make these same considerations with regard to defensive style. Just as in directional decisions, players should be thinking about relative advantage with how tight to or loose from a defender they want to be: If she has a quicker first step than you, maybe you want to give her a little cushion so that you have more time to react; if she has a faster top speed than you, maybe you want to body-up more and prevent her from being able to hit that top speed.

On a footwork note, I think that the “pre-step” is under utilized. This tends to help with the problem of getting run around or blown-by because it enables better balance. I often see folks play or teach body-D where the initial position has both feet in the same line. Instead, I like to see defenders drop one foot slightly behind the other to start with. This way, no matter which direction the D goes, you’re poised to explode immediately. If you start with your feet parallel, you have to take a step before you can make an explosive move in any direction, and if you’re doing this and tight to a cutter, you’ll get beat.

For the mental side of things, I approach defense just like anything else in sports: with a focus on myself. If players are getting freaked out about physical D it’s because they’re focusing too much on their opponent and not enough on what else they can control, know, or anticipate. When I play defense, I hardly think about the cutter at all. Instead, I’m thinking about the position of the disc relative to me, my cutter, other players, the sideline, and the end zones. I’m thinking about the relative positions of the other 13 people on the field. I’m thinking about where the most dangerous offensive spaces on the field are. If you play defense through the lens of offense, you’ll not only be a better individual defender, but a better team defender.

Issue No. 1 | Defensive Positioning

July 14, 2013

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