What I learned this week

Week two: The Paradox Zone

Week two seems to have been dominated by learning and teaching zone defence. Our first two open squad trainings were spent talking about our junk and FSU, then Sunday indoors the women’s team were practicing zone and we play against a zone almost every Monday night in Hove.

Now take a second to imagine trying to explain any particular zone defence.

When I was asked to explain our indoor ‘house’ zone I realised something strange. The default, when we’re talking about zones, is to go through each position in turn, saying what they are responsible for. I’ve a couple of problems with this – but the most important is that it misses out the central element of any defensive strategy – the team objective, and this is an element which I think we should be putting at the top of our agenda when it comes to defensive strategy. Allow me to explain.

Ultimate has an offensive bias. The structure and rules of the game place the impetus with the team in possession – they know where they’re going to run from and to and when. The way we compensate for this is using defensive tactics – ideally forcing the offence to make the most difficult throws, cuts, have the smallest margin for error or use an option they’d rather not. In doing this we are tacitly accepting that we can’t stop everything and settling to instead limit their options and try to dictate what the offence does. So there is a paradox here: Even though ultimate has an offensive bias it is the defence that dictates the play – let’s call this Shimmy’s First Paradox.

Shimmy’s First Paradox leads to a second paradox in that the defence can simultaneously succeed and fail. Consider the simple example of a one-way force, which aims to push the play towards a sideline. If the offence scores by using passes up the open side, getting nearer and nearer to the sideline and never getting off it then the defensive strategy has succeeded despite having failed to prevent the score. We will call this Shimmy’s Second Paradox.

This doesn’t sound right. It sounds like defence lacks a killer instinct when clearly the point of defence is to get a block. The problem is that because unlike playing offence, where you can predetermine the movement of the disc, on defence you can’t plan where you’re going to get your blocks (you might have an idea about where it’s likely to happen though). A block is achieved by an individual making it happen. And this leads to Shimmy’s Third Paradox: The individual goals of any defensive strategy are not the same as the team objective of the defensive strategy. An example to demonstrate: In a one-way force one of your individual aims is to not get beaten to the open side. So when this happens you’ve failed, but as we discussed before, if a team plays and scores up the open side then one team goal – restricting the offensive play to one side of the pitch – has been achieved.

If you’re worried that I don’t believe that D-teams should aim to get blocks that’s not what I’m saying at all. Of course they should. What I’m saying is that “get a block” can’t be called a defensive strategy.

Back to zone. So we can probably all describe what each individual position does in, say, our outdoor junk zone, without thinking too much. But how about a team objective for this defence? I’m willing to bet that if we asked 100 Mohawks our survey would say there’s a notable difference in individual interpretations of team objectives in zone defence.

A defence is strongest when the whole team is working towards the same aim (if you need proof then remember the last time when someone on your team got the force wrong and how it undermined the whole defensive effort). So by neglecting to understand what your team is aiming to do within a particular defensive strategy you are reducing your efficacy as a defender. So from now on, when you are learning or inventing a new defensive strategy, consider asking yourself or your team mates the question “What is the team objective of this strategy?” Making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of team objectives turns a line of individual defenders into a far more formidable defensive unit.

Okay. This has ended up a quite long blog post. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and it’s made you think a little differently about defence. I think there’s a lot of interesting thoughts which come out of this line of thinking, so please post your discussion points, abuse, arguments etc. below.


  • jasmine

    Brilliant. Really enjoyed reading that and looking forward to many more mind-blowing paradoxical moments!

  • Benjy

    An excellent read, I found it really interesting, and it does pick out some flaws in defensive strategy; so many teams seems to focus on a smooth, flowing offence, so any real team cohesion on defence as advocated here could work wonders.

  • dude

    This will get boring quite quickly I guess but here goes: Great post Shim!

    So now, my two cents.

    You make and outstanding point that I have never thought about. Specially with beginners (I include myself in this category), the hardest thing to grasp is the point that every score doesn’t mean a defensive failure as you have pointed out. Here’s my view on defence which I still can’t get myself to accept on the field:

    Everyone has to acknowledge that against a good offence, even with no mistakes on D, O will score at least %50 percent of the time because of the reasons Shimmy has pointed out. One has to accept this before going to the line.

    So then what’s the point of doing D? The point is generally more psychological than physical. There’s a difference in scoring in 3 passes and 30 passes. One points to a shitty defence (or good deep play) where the other points to a strong defence. This puts the offence off balance, every time they’re throwing a disc they will be on their toes, every time they’re making a cut they will be looking over their shoulders. This puts stress on the O specially after a few points.

    This is why some teams, even though they know they will fail, just put a different D strategy for just a point and then return to their normal strongest D, just to put the offence off balance for a point or two, mentally tiring them and moving on.

    Defence is psychological as physical, that is why it’s so fuckin’ hard.

    That’s what I think about D in general. I had never thought about this “team goals” and “personal goals” but I’m loving it. But actually what I’m describing above is a team goal, so guess I have thought about it before hehe.

    Kudos Shim, great post.

  • Donal Murray

    Nice writeup. While it’s always good to mix up the defence, this has to be balanced with not making things too complicated for the defence and to prevent teammates falling into the statics of confusion trap. Especially considering the range of experience at university Ultimate.

    I’d offer another viewpoint on the ” “get a block” can’t be called a defensive strategy”! Sometimes I encourage the full team to just go crazy and try to get a handblock. Especially at uni ultimate level, or mid uni ultimate level. Reason being that many of these offences will consist of a few weaker throwers, and some weaker cutters who rely on knowing where the open side is at all times. By allowing the mark to just go crazy and put on the “get a block” force, everyone on the defence knows what’s going on and doesn’t have to remember much tactics, admittedly downfield defenders have to do more work and this tactic reduces positional advantage they can get. Also, the offence will struggle to identify the defence or the openside.

    1. Therapist

      I think that there is an option to say “get a block!” to your team, sure, however it must not be at the detriment being broken. Sometimes when marks go crazy it is easy to make them jump over to the open side, whilst they look for a hand block, and break them. Then, if your team is switched on, you can run them ragged down the break side. So long as you’re sensible whilst *just* trying to get a handblock then go nuts!

    2. Donal Murray

      Hello Theraprist, just to clarify something about this defence. There is no openside or breakside. So getting broken would not hurt downfield defenders as much as you think, as they know that the only help they have from the mark is that hopefully every throw will be under pressure but that’s it. Downfield defenders just have to stay tight and try and put as much pressure as they can on all cuts. This does require quite an athletic bunch of defenders though.

      Against a very experienced team who have decent fakes and pivot fakes, and in which everyone on the team trusts that the thrower can break the mark and therefore actively attack the breakside in normal play, this wouldn’t be as successful. But if you want to teach these offensive qualities to your teammates, I’d try it out in training.

  • ShimmyJohn

    Hi Donal! Thanks for posting.

    Yeah I take your point – there are teams where simply encouraging pressure on the mark is enough, but I wrote this assuming a high standard of opposition. Mostly though I just wanted to explore the idea that in a defensive strategy you have to concede something to the offence, in exchange for defending some (more preferable) option. And that knowing the details of this choice makes you a better team player.

    I’d say in your “GAB” (get a block!) strategy you are sacrificing control over which direction the offence can throw in, in exchange for a chance at getting a point block. From that point of view it sounds like strategy, but it’s all-or-nothing. It doesn’t actually dictate the offensive play at all since a good offence will play around it whichever way they want. Which means that when they score the only conclusion is that your D didn’t work and so you have to change it up. Contrast to the case where a team scores working up the sideline that you ‘want’ them to, this suggests you can keep that strategy but turn the screw by stepping more on the open side upfield and worrying less about the break since they appear not to have that throw.

    Could go on forever. Won’t.

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