Indoor Zone: What’s the point?

In previous years, my thinking about indoor zone has gone a little like this. What’s the point? A good offence will always beat zone, because there are spaces, and often there is less pressure than an intense man defence. Pressure gets you blocks, so why give it up?

This statement is true apart from one specific point. That phrase doesn’t work with ‘a good offence’ – it only is true with ‘a perfect offence’. And in uni ultimate, and probably the rest of ultimate, there is no such thing as a perfect offence.

Equally, not practicing zone means that we don’t really get that much practice of playing against it, which means we struggle when we come up against it at big tournaments.

This year, I’ve come across several fantastic opportunities, where we really should have played zone but couldn’t, and some very clever uses of it by other teams. Put frankly, I still don’t like it as a defence, and it sure as heck makes games boring to watch, but as a club we need to be realistic: zone has its uses, and we need to be able to beat it.

Before going into the details of any particular zone (we’ll be teaching one or two this week), I just wanted to outline what I think the ‘point’ of zone is, especially indoors.

There are three main points of zone (indoors), as far as I see it – though I’m very open to other suggestions (comments below!). The first is to eat clock. The second is to get cheap blocks. The third is to just plain screw stuff up.

Clock Eating

This is a purpose which is almost entirely unique to indoors. Indoors, when the buzzer goes, it’s game over – meaning that once you get a lead, keeping it is enough to win the game. Being ahead when the buzzer goes wins you the game. Outdoors is different, because to win the game, you have to score the winning point (in Europe; the US have some crazy time cap stuff, which I have no experience of so won’t comment on).

A good man offence against a good man defence often scores relatively quickly, but a good zone offence against a good zone defence generally has to wait far longer to generate chances at the endzone, meaning that even a good team can take a while to score against a competent zone. Clock eating becomes really useful when you have a lead in a game, and you just want to slow down the other team, and make sure they don’t score too many points too quickly – Nottingham pulled this on our women’s team at indoor nationals this year, while up by about 3 points, and it was a great call, making a comeback almost impossible in the time window of an indoor game. It’s also useful if a team is mounting a bit of a comeback against your man defence, and you want to break up their flow.

A good example of a zone well-suited to this, for people who have experienced it, is the classic ‘force-middle’ or ‘force-poach’ Mohawks zone, which is also played by Sublime. There’s always a free pass – it’s just a boring one to the other handler. If you’re playing a patient team, this zone is a poor choice when you’re down – you’re letting them do the thing they want to do, which is play catch indefinitely until time is over. If you’re up, it’s a great call, regardless of how patient a team is – their patience will work against them, as time runs out and they end up taking too long to score each point to mount a convincing comeback.


Cheap Blocks

Another pretty handy purpose of zone is that it can get you cheap blocks. At university level, lots of teams will have several less experienced players on their team, and it takes experience to clock a zone as it comes down at you. Often throwing a zone can put a team off-balance, and cause them to turnover as they attempt to organise their offence and adapt to a new D.

An example of this is a zone we used at women’s in previous years – while the ‘force-poach’ zone above leaves relatively few holes upfield and gives up a lot of easy passes around the disc (which lets the handlers buy time while upfield clocks onto what is going on), this zone encourages the disc into a high-pressure area of the pitch (the line) and clamps down on easy short passes, looking relatively similar to man defence for the handlers. Upfield, there are more spaces, and looser defenders – but if upfield don’t realise early on that it is zone, the handler with the disc is pretty stuffed and has only a high risk pass to a cutter who may not even be looking at them. Mostly, we got our turnovers on the first pass of possessions with this zone – either the high-risk throw gets blocked or the handlers turnover between themselves.


Oh No, I Need to Think

Some indoor offences are very slick, and very difficult to defend against effectively in man. A good example of this is playing a team quicker than you, which runs a fast-moving handler weave (where two or three players work the disc quickly between them up to the endzone). However, this kind of slick offence comes from extensive, and often almost exclusive, drilling of this offence. Chances are this team has no Plan B – if they can’t run you into the ground, they’re not entirely sure what to do.

Playing zone can be an effective way to screw up highly planned and structured offences (like handler weave) – by forcing teams to think and adjust to your defence, you dictate the speed and flow of the game. Even for teams who don’t rely on one very structured offence, forcing them out of their offensive plan is a good move. Mixing up defences is often very effective, as forcing players to think and adapt can disrupt their ability to generate flow. At a recent one day indoor tournament in London, Mo 1 Mixed played zone for every first defensive point – not because we love zone, but because it disrupted and unsettled the other team’s offence. We didn’t always get blocks, and we didn’t always convert our blocks, but it was pretty effective at putting teams on the back foot from the start.

There isn’t a specific zone that is great for throwing spanners in the works of offences – really, any zone which surprises your opponent should do the trick. If you’ve been playing the same zone all weekend, for every point, anyone who does any scouting or talks to any team you’ve played will know to expect it: nobody in our region is shocked when a Kent team plays zone on them. But if you throw it randomly into a game, sometimes even swapping between zones, boy is that gonna freak out the offence.


So, hopefully that starts giving you some idea of why zone is actually, in spite of how boring it makes games, quite useful indoors, and are convinced that you should show up on Friday so we can teach you a couple…


Friday, 2-4pm, Sports Centre.


  • Benjamin Rees

    Related to the clock-eating segment; I've seen teams play zone in the past against teams who perhaps match up well against them man-to-man or who are a better team in order to keep games tight knowing that, although the zone may well be beaten, it will take time to do so, so the other team can never really get more than 1 or 2 points ahead, allowing them to capitalise on any mistakes towards the end of games.

    In any case, this is a great read and shows that, while playing zone may well encourage hecklers at fun tournaments, it should really be a weapon a team has in their arsenal if they want to seriously challenge for titles. I can't wait for Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *