Felix will be flying to Macedonia on 3rd-12th May 2016, to run a few workshops with teachers / students, and several sessions in high schools in Skopje, under a program put together between 10milliondiscs.org and the US Embassy in Macedonia. The Ultimate scene is just beginning over there, so Felix will be bringing over some discs and talking to players, coaches and organisers about how to play, how to coach, and how to set up sustainable systems for Ultimate clubs, leagues, and tournaments in the country. He’ll also be discussing his experiences in the UK University scene, and what can be used from these to build a scene in Macedonia!
Videos from Mixed Tour 2 2016 are up, including the FINAL between JR and Brighton Breezy – follow ‘Videos -> FelixUltimate YouTube’ through the menus.
Also available in French / en Français
Last updated: 8th July 2021
Flex vs Vertical Stack
If the opponents create a tight vertical stack, you should surround the stack.
The 5 players guarding the stack are basically playing a 5v5 surrounding game. When an offensive player cuts out of the stack, a defender marks them tightly, and the other defenders communicate and reposition to account for the fact it’s now a 4v4 situation. This transition happens as soon as there is space between the offensive players, and the sandwiching/surrounding players in the 4v4 should continue to be ready to switch with the defender in the 1v1 – for example if the offensive player cuts deep for a few steps and then comes under, a defender towards the front of the stack should be prepared to switch onto the isolated cutter if appropriate.
At the front of the stack, the defender on the break side should be marking tight to the front, whereas the defender on the open side can take a few steps off. This prevents the quick pass to the break side, and puts the open side defender in a good position to mark whichever player cuts open side first.
The faster the defence can reposition after each cut, the less chance the offence has to exploit holes in the setup. Avoid having two defensive players mark one cutting player, as this creates an unbalanced sandwiching situation (e.g. 3v4), which is a weakness for the defence.
The players marking the stack can choose to split duties, for example from a 5v5 sandwich, into two sandwiches – 2v2 and 3v3. They might choose to do this in the case of a pre-existing imbalance, such as the offence having a few ‘superstar’ players, or when playing mixed gender ultimate.
As players clear out and rejoin the stack, the 1-to-1 defenders should rejoin the surrounding setup. As the number of players in the stack reduces, the surrounding defenders should tighten up – when there are only 2 players in the stack, the defenders should only be a couple of steps away from them, but when there are 5 players in the stack, the defenders can be five steps away.
Flex vs Horizontal Stack
Horizontal stack from the centre of the field has fairly good spacing, so an initial surrounding setup is not appropriate. Trying to have a deep & under poach when the disc is in the middle of the field leaves the offence with too much space, which they can use to split defenders and create separation. Defenders should start tight to their marks, and look for switches after the first cuts are made. The typical peppermill or diamond cutting patterns from horizontal stack have a weakness which can be exploited through proactive switching – more details on how to train players to spot these opportunities is in an $8 Training Tier video – the Conical Switching Drill.
If the disc is being brought into play from the sideline, the two deepest offensive players on the far side are so disconnected from the play that it is possible to bracket them effectively.
Flex vs Side Stack
Similar to marking vert stack, but use the sideline as your friend as the offence can’t cut in that direction. Advanced: nominate a deep poach who is looking to help out when an isolated cutter goes deep. The fact that the defenders have to cover 50% fewer angles from the stack means that the defence can afford to have one defender leaving the stack to stifle the space deep. This is not strictly part of Flex defence, but a specific poaching tactic which can be used effectively against side stacks. Communication and awareness of all the defenders on the field will have extra challenges when a deep poach is added, as when the stack breaks down the poaching defender needs to find their mark, and the defenders marking the stack are outnumbered.
Flex vs Stack in the endzone
When the opponents work the disc up the field against Flex and approach the end zone, often they will transition into a vertical stack to try to open up the space. Flexing defenders should automatically surround this stack as they would against a typical vertical stack offence, overloading the front slightly more than usual, stifling the space, and generating confusion & chaos.
Videos are available on the YouTube channel
Danny Karlinsky #23 has the disc for Sockeye against Revolver in the Final of USAU Nationals 2015;
In the short video below, we break down what exactly happens in the six seconds leading up to the throw (audio at the end):
You can watch “Crazy” Frank Huguenard and Felix Shardlow’s full analysis of the USAU Nationals 2015 Final here – also check out the discussion on reddit.
We’re all familiar with the following situation; our team has turned over, the player we’re marking is walking to the disc, we’re putting a force on, and our sideline helpfully advises “No breaks!”
Photo by Graham Shellswell from The ShowGame
At this moment in time, not being broken is pretty much your only aim. If there was one thing you were planning on avoiding for the next few seconds, it’d be being broken by the thrower. You know this is not an easy task, but you’re going to try your hardest. You’re remembering the release points of your mark, you’re glancing over your shoulder to visualise the potential threats, and you have an extra pair of eyes on the sideline to help you. What do they say? No breaks. Guess you’re to blame if you get broken then – the instructions couldn’t be clearer.
Another situation we’re all familiar with – the opponents break the force, and the shout of “No breaks!” rings out again – usually in a more whiney tone. The force has already been broken – all the shouter is doing is releasing their frustration in a commonly acceptable way. You wouldn’t shout “Don’t get scored on!” before or after the opponents score, would you? Everybody knows what you were trying to do, and that you didn’t succeed in doing it – no need to state the obvious.
The real fallacy of ‘No Breaks’ isn’t in how obvious, unhelpful, or useless it is as a hindsight, but in the near-impossibility of the request. When two players of comparable ability face up against each other, the thrower will be able to break the force. We’ve all been part of drills since we were beginners where breaking the force is a given. The three-man break-force drill doesn’t pose any real challenge to the throwers – without any restrictions on time and space, breaking the force is easy, and stopping all break throws is incredibly difficult.
Photo by Simon Crisp
The sideline have access to far more information. They can see space developing behind the force, and instruct the mark to move to prevent throws to this space. Conversely, they can also see where covered cuts or crowded areas are behind the force, and instruct the mark to force throws to go towards these areas. Sideline players can identify a free offence player cutting and provide very timely shouts to help the force prevent the ‘easy’ throws to them.
Photo by Christine Rushworth from The ShowGame
Most higher level teams have their own lexicon for communicating some of this information – ‘left hand / right hand‘, ‘around / inside’, ‘strike‘ and ‘spoil‘ / ‘no huck’ calls are quite common, and each are useful for encouraging the force to concentrate on taking out a particular throw at a particular time – infinitely more useful than a ‘no break’ shout. This allows the force to direct their efforts in the most effective way.
The sideline can also help the force by letting them know more general / less situation-specific information, so as what the thrower’s preferred throws are – if they’ve been using high releases to devastating effect, then communicating ‘high hands‘ can benefit the defence. If the thrower is going into the wind, then ‘low hands’ can force higher release points, therefore tougher upwind throws.
At the next opportunity when your team mate is stepping up to put a force on, trust that they know the basics of the task at hand, and communicate to them using the info they can’t see or hear for themselves. It’s time we heard the last of “No Breaks”.
In this article I will be seeing how a selection of common offences match up to a selection of common defences in Ultimate, and whether any conclusions can be drawn about the most effective offences / defences for teams to spend time learning in order to efficiently counter their opponents’. When planning what strategies your team should learn in any given season, it’s important to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they are most likely to be countered effectively by your opponents.
The strategies listed are by no means exhaustive – every strategy has several different ways of being played, several tweaks or modifications, several patterns or plays which can be employed – none of which are touched on here, for the sake of simplicity. Environmental factors are not considered, “match-strategy” is not considered (e.g. come out more aggressive at the start of a match; change your defence regularly), skill-sets of teams or individual players are not considered, and different teams will have experienced different levels of success with the strategies listed – these estimates and statements are generalisations, made in order to achieve some kind of tangible comparison between the offensive/defensive strategies based on their merits and drawbacks.
I’m working with four offences and four defences:
Vertical / side / split stack offence: Players line up in the centre or at the side of the field, and make hard ‘cuts’ to the space available, before ‘clearing’ back into a stack. One player stays behind the disc as a dump/reset.
Horizontal stack: Players create a 3-4 formation (3 backfield, 4 downfield), with the downfield players either cutting towards or away from the disc.
Hexagon offence: Players form a hexagon made from equilateral triangles, often in a 2-3-2 formation, with movement creating space for passes in any direction. More info on Hex offence here.
Zone O: Varies from team to team, but usually 3 or 4 players in the backfield, who swing the disc from side to side, looking to pass downfield to ‘poppers’ attacking the space in front of the disc, and wings or deeps further downfield.
Strict person-D: Each defender marks an offensive player, staying very close to them for the duration of the offence. The side the defender tries to hold position on their mark is determined by the direction of the force put on the thrower.
“Help-defence”: A modification of person-D where the defenders are heads-up to switching marks and helping covering dangerous space when appropriate. More info on Help-defence here.
Flexagon: A hybrid defence, taking elements from person-D and Zone, to apply pressure to all players by using constant teamwork and communication. In theory a 2-3-2 setup, but actual positioning is entirely dependant upon where the offensive players are. More info on Flexagon D here.
Zone D: Defenders spread over the field to cover the space, usually overloading the area in front of the thrower to limit short downfield throwing options. There are many types of Zone D, this article does not distinguishing between them (for simplicity).
The table below compares each offence against each defence. The numbers are scoring likelihood / defence likelihood estimates, assuming two high-to-elite level teams are competing with well-practiced offences vs well-practiced defences. For example, assume the (very common) combination of Vertical stack vs strict person-D would see the offence scoring without turning over 85% of the time – use this as calibration for the other numbers, whether or not you agree with the figure! This is roughly the same for Horizontal stack vs person-D, and for Zone O vs Zone D – these combinations are generally considered comparable with each other in terms of effectiveness, as they are the most commonly played.
“Help-defence” is more variable than the others, as it depends a lot on how well it is played by the defence, and how well the offence adapts – so I’ve given the numbers a range.
Hexagon and Flexagon are quite new strategies, so the estimates are more likely to be inaccurate, however they are taken from 2-3 years of regularly teaching and playing the strategies – including with the GB U23 Mixed 2015 team.
All the numbers are rough estimates of likelihood, and the relative effectiveness of each strategy will certainly vary from team to team, and depending on how each is played!
vs Strict person-D, it’s best to get defenders clumping together (covering the least / most useless space), so a vertical or side stack is ideal, and horizontal creates a large deep space. Hex spreads the defenders out, meaning the D actually becomes more efficient.
vs “Help-defence”, defenders who are clumping together will be able to poach/switch to help each other, so vertical stack becomes less effective. Horizontal spreads the defenders well, making it hard for them to help each other effectively – especially when it comes to covering the immediate deep threat. Hex spreads the defenders further and punishes poaching more efficiently, but doesn’t offer the immediate deep threat of Horizontal.
vs Flexagon, vertical stack is negated, and Zone O doesn’t function well due to the tight marking against static players. Any set cutting patterns of plays are unlikely to work, so Horizontal stack and Hexagon must improvise in order to function. Improvisation is easiest done when the number of available options is maximised, so Hex is the ideal setup.
vs Zone D, stack offences are negated. Zone O and Hex have both been shown to be effective at breaking down area-based (zonal) defences, so should be played to counter Zone D.
vs Vertical / Side / Split stack offences, the offensive players are clumping, so strict person-D plays to their strength (clumping your defenders together and leaving large open spaces), whilst Zone or Flex will force them to transition into another offence. Help-defence punishes the clumping, which encourages the offence to improvise, and can generate turnovers when played well.
vs Horizontal stack, the offence is more spread, so help-defence is harder to implement. Strict person-D is moderately effective as usual (depending on your athleticism vs theirs), but Zone D or Flexagon will force the offence out of any pattern- or play-based movement.
vs Hexagon, simple person-D can cause issues, specifically if you are more athletic than your opponents. Help-defence is easier punished by Hex than other offences, but can force the offence to use all their options. Traditional zones don’t change the formation of the Hex, but can force a different play-style which the offence may not be used to. Flexagon applies pressure to the highest number of options, forcing the offence to improvise – meaning any set patterns or plays become unreliable, and players must identify space for cuts and passes as and when they appear.
vs Zone-O, the offensive players are looking for space to occupy, so person-D will force a transition. Zone D conserves the energy of most defenders, however Zone O will be well-practiced against Zone D. Flexagon is more person-focussed, which forces Zone O either to transition or to improvise – to play at a different pace/tempo than they are used to in Zone O.
From an offence point of view: The most common defence is strict person-D, and the most common offence – vertical stack – does well to exploit strict person-D’s weaknesses. If the defence start switching and poaching (“Help-defence”), then the offence must start to improvise, and would ideally be able to counter with a practiced Horizontal stack or Hexagon offence. If facing Flexagon, offensive improvisation from a Horizontal / Hex / Zone O setup is necessary. If the defence play Zone, then the offence must respond with a practiced Zone O or Hexagon offence.
From a defence point of view: The most common offence is vertical stack, which plays to the weaknesses of strict person-D. Playing Flexagon or a Zone D will force the offence to transition – and you will see if they have a practiced alternative. Zone O can be countered effectively with person-D or Flexagon, which forces the offence to either completely improvise, or to play Horizontal stack or Hexagon offence. Flexagon still functions well against these offences, as does person-D – providing there is no athletic disadvantage.
From an offence point of view: Time spent perfecting a vertical stack offence can be made to be ineffective if a defence plays anything other than strict person-D. Training an offence which works against Zone (i.e. Zone O or Hexagon offence) is essential. If your opponents have good “Help-defence” or Flexagon D, then you must either be able to improvise, or transition to Horizontal / Hexagon in order to keep your scoring percentages up. Horizontal must transition when facing Zone, but Hexagon can be played effectively against any defence you face – even though it may not necessarily be the most effective against any defence individually. Your team can function against any defence if they know both Horizontal (with improvisation) and Zone O, or if they simply know Hexagon offence. To be the most effective, a team should also learn an offence which punishes strict person-D more efficiently – vertical- or side-stack.
From a defence point of view: Strict person defence is simple to learn and functions against any offence, but its success is determined by the athletic edge you have over the opponent, and limited by the lack of teamwork involved. If you have an athletic edge over almost every opponent then strict person-D can get enough turns to win games, but only until you reach an athletically superior team playing a well-practiced offence, or until your own offence is countered. Learning a more challenging defence, particularly one which counters the most common offence – vertical stack – is essential, unless you are fully relying on your athleticism or your offence.
“Help-defence” is hard to learn and implement due to its lack of structure and principles, and it is most useful against vertical stack – less so against Horizontal or Hex. Zone D completely counters vertical and other stack offences, however most teams have a well practiced Zone O which will counter it well. Although Flexagon is also hard to learn, it is flexible enough to be played effectively against any offence you face, countering the most common vertical stack and Zone offences effectively.
- Aim for perfection – both hands touch the center of the disc at the same time, fingers splayed, watch disc into hands
- Use legs to move body / jump / go to ground to get the centre of your chest behind the disc
- Angle of the disc determines which hand goes on top
- When catching at chest, body acts as a backboard in case the catch is slightly missed
- When catching out to the side, your palm/wrist should act as the backboard
Most people have a preferred way of clap catching – practice the other way until you are comfortable with both
- Makes the disc easier to catch
- Means you can lead receivers more by throwing to space
- Inaccuracy is less likely to result in a turnover
- Opens up many more throwing options
Practice adding touch by pulling your arm back as you release your throws
- The Secret to Belgium’s Team Chemistry – Non-verbal Communication September 16, 2023
- New Hive discs available September 11, 2023
- Charmaine’s Drill (Flow version) August 31, 2023
- Germany Defeat USA! – Every Turnover – World Games 2022 Analysis August 15, 2023
- Reflections on Teaching Hex to Middle School Students July 31, 2023
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