Ultimate Frisbee Strategy

Here you'll find an introduction to the basics of offensive and defensive strategy for ultimate frisbee. There are many variations on these strategies and tactics but these are the ones that all intermediate players should know. We'll cover vertical stack, horizontal stack, split stack, and motion offense. On defense we'll cover person-to-person defense, clam, and zone defense. 

Once you understand the main formations, it'll be much easier to implement tactical variations on these themes.

Ultimate Frisbee Offensive Strategies

Here we'll discuss various types of offensive formations for ultimate frisbee. There are a few types of stacks - vertical, horizontal, and split. And motion offense.

All offensive formations are about creating space on the field for the disc and the players to move into as they advance the disc down the field.

Vertical Stack

This offense was first created in response to the idea of "setting a force." "The force" is when the person marking the disc attempts to force the thrower to throw to a particular side of the field.  

Creating Space with a Vertical Stack

The purpose of a vertical stack is to create two passing lanes - one on the "open" side of the field and one on the "break" side of the field. The "open" and "break" side of the field are defined by the force.

Vertical stack diagram showing offensive and defensicve positioning with a forehand force

Motion in the Vertical Stack

In general, cuts will come from either the front or the back of the stack. Cuts from the back of the stack to the open side and from the front of the stack to the break side are common ways to initiate motion from a stopped disc position.

However, if teams become to rigid about these guidelines, the offense will be too predictable and easy to counter.

A vertical stack can use either two or three handlers. Many teams like to have one handler in the reset space to help out if there are no open cuts downfield. Some teams have the second handler at the front of the stack instead looking for quick options to the break side or o come into the reset space if necessary. Some teams will have other options - one handler in the reset space and the other in the front of the stack.

A vertical stack of often one of the first offensive formations a player will learn. However, I have seen a LOT of problems when teams treat the "cut from the back" idea as a rule rather than as a general guideline. Being too rigid with this type of offense does not help players to develop the spatial awareness and game IQ they will need in order to thrive as players in a variety of situations.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Vertical Stack

The vertical stack can create a lot of space for cutters to work with. It can be a good strategy when your team has a few dominant cutters.

The vertical stack can be used the whole way into the endzone (unlike some other formations) with no change in tactics during the point.

Some disadvantages of the vertical stack are that it can be easy to counter with a clam defense or poaches in the lane. If your opponent decides to play zone defense, you will need to change your offensive formation immediately during the point.

If you are using a vertical stack, you will want to have some handlers who can break the mark effectively or who can work together to get the disc to the break side by dumping and swinging the disc effectively. You will want cutters who can athletically match-up against their defenders and get open.

Horizontal Stack

This offense may be more intuitive for folks with a background in soccer or other field sports

Creating Space in a Horizontal Stack

A horizontal stack creates space in front of a row of cutters for short passes and give-and-go scenarios AND creates space behind the row of cutters for deep pass opportunities.

Horizontal stack diagram showing cutting spaces and defensive positioning

You can adjust the depth of the stack to modify the space that your offense wants to prioritize. If you want to prioritize deep passing opportunities for example, you will want your stack closer to the row of handlers to create a lot of deep space.

Motion in a Horizontal Stack

Initiating cuts tend to come from one of the two positions in the middle of the stack. Often one person will cut toward the person with the disc, and another will cut deep so that the thrower always has two options.

Players on the outside of the stack will often cut deep when the opportunity arises, or they will be continuation cutters for the cutter closest to them in the stack.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Horizontal Stack

Motion in a horizontal stack is more flexible than in a vertical stack. A bit more awareness of where your teammates are and there they are going will be needed to avoid getting in each other's way.

Horizontal stack can be used in almost any weather condition and against almost any type of defense. If your opponent uses zone defense, you will need to recognize the zone defense but won't need a large change in player positioning.

A main disadvantage of the horizontal stack is that it does not work as well once you get near the endzone and have less space to work with. Many teams transition from horizontal stack into vertical stack when they get close to the endzone

Zone Offense

This type of offense is done in response to a zone defense.

The goal in a zone offense is to get beyond the first line of defense. There are basically three ways to do this.

  1. Swinging the disc horizontally among the handler to get around the front wall or cup
  2. Get the disc through the cup by breaking the mark of the cup or getting it to a popper
  3. Going overtop with a hammer, a huck, or a blade. Often the defense is trying to force these types of throws, especially in a high wind situation so proceed with caution!

See diagrams and explanations of all of the positions in zone offense and zone defense.

Get a more in-depth explanation of zone offense.

Diagram of zone offense and defense showing offensive movement around a cup formation in ultimate frisbee

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Other Offensive Formations in Ultimate Frisbee

We've gone over the most common offensive formations. But there are many more options!

Motion Offense

This is more of an intention than a formation. The main idea is to keep the disc moving quickly. Players who are actively involved stay relatively close together.

Side Stack

This is a good way to isolate one of your most athletic cutters. You may have 2 or 3 handlers out of the stack. Everyone else is on one side of the field. Sometimes with the exception of one active cutter who is an "iso".

Diagram showing a side stack offensive formation in ultimate frisbee

Split Stack

This formation can have either 2 or 3 handlers out of stack like in a horizontal stack formation. The cutters can be split 2 on each side, or 3 one one side and 2 on the other.

 

Diagram of the split stack offensive formation in ultimate frisbee

German

This is an older style of offense. It uses 3 handlers, one player in the middle depth of the field, and three players deeper. This offense can be used when you have one dominant player. Most high level teams are not in this situation and so you won't likely see it at higher levels of play. Though it can also be a good formation from which to start a motion offense.

Diagram of the German Offensive formation in ultimate frisbee

Hex or Hexagon

Players are flexible but overall intend to keep a hexagonal shape among each other. The intension in this offense is to move the disc rapidly. The pivoting direction may be different than other strategies with players intending to throw it back to the player they receive the disc from as the first option rather than swing the disc or attack in some other way.

Diagram of the Hex Offense in ultimate frisbee

Ultimate Frisbee Plays

On offense, the disc is often in constant motion. So calling plays doesn't work well in those situations. But there are three situations where calling a play makes sense.

  1. Near the endone, there is less space to work with so it is helpful to have some pre-defined ideas of who is cutting where.
  2. When receiving the pull, a pull play can help get the disc moving and help gain yards before the defense is set up or you get the disc to the center of the field where you have more throwing options
  3. Off a stopped disc. This happens if there is a call that results in a change of possession, if the disc goes out of bounds, or after a time out. 

 

Endzone Plays

There are a million types of endzone plays. Here are three commonly used plays. And many variations can be built from these.

Cut from the back

This isn't so much a play as a general strategy. Regardless of what offensive formation your team is running, most teams will switch to a vertical stack in the endzone. 

Cuts come from the back of the stack to the front corner cone. This allows the most time to gain  separation and the cutter is going to the largest free space in the endzone.

If the initial cut is not successful, most teams will reset the disc, swing to the other side of the field, and the person who is now in the back of the stack is activated to cut.

The Banana Split

This works well when the disc is close to the endzone and near the center of the field.

The front of the stack "splits" maybe with one or two players going to each side. And the third, fourth or fifth player in the stack cuts straight forward to get the disc.

The Berkeley Option

This play is useful when the disc is closer to the sideline and there's five yards or less to the endzone.

The reset option sets up parallel with the thrower. The first option is to cut upline and get the disc in the endzone. 

If that option is covered, the second option is often a reset coming from the front of the vertical stack.

 

Pull Plays

Call a String

The most common way to do a pull play is to call a "string." A string of players is simply the intended order to receivers. This way you know in advance who is cutting for who. It can be something simple like "Rob to Sophi to Tarek to Kirsten in the endzone."

 Or it can be more directive like "Rob catch the pull, center to Sophi, Tarek under, and Kirsten deep"

Flood and Iso

Most of the stack goes to one side of the field, leaving one cutter isolated in the largest area of the field. This will be the first receiver.

They might throw deep to a designated cutter from the side stack. Or the team may transition to a different offensive formation after the pull play.

 

Quick Tips for Beginners on Offense

  • Look to the reset early! 10 seconds is a lot of time.
  • Stay relaxed when you have the disc if you can.
  • If you‚Äôre closest to the endzone, keep running!
  • Catch with 2 hands when possible.
  • Learn more about the basic positions.
  • When in doubt, just focus on trying to get the frisbee! But keep moving!

Ultimate Frisbee Defensive Strategy

Here we'll discuss a few defensive strategies for ultimate frisbee. We will talk about the force, person to person defense, zone defense, and clam defense.

 

Person-to-Person Defense

In person-to-person defense each defensive player is defending one offensive player. The person guarding the person with the disc is often called "the mark." The mark puts on a force, that is, they position themselves in such a way as to try to force the person with the disc to throw to only one half of the field and they try to deny throws to another part of the field.

 

diagram of defensive positioning against a vertical stack in ultimate frisbee

Everyone else will be positioned to try to be roughly between their person and the space where their person might try to get the disc (usually on the open side of their player).  

Switching

Even in person-to-person defense you might occasionally switch who you are defending with another player. For example if one player goes deep, the deepest defender might leave their player and defend the player heading toward the endzone. The defender who was on the person going deep will now switch to the player that the other defense abandoned. Usually players will communicate verbally about switching, though you can communicate by eye contact and pointing as well.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Person Defense

Person-to-person defense is pretty easy for players to understand. It does not require much game IQ or field awareness so it can be a good defense for beginners. 

At higher levels, teams playing person defense are usually mixing in some tweaks like "help" defense, switches, or poaches. 

Person-to-person defense can be a very good choice for a highly athletic team and/or a team of less experienced players.

In situations where you can use the wind to help you play defense or you are outmatched athletically, zone defense can be a better choice.

Zone Defense for Ultimate Frisbee

Zone defense is often played in windy conditions. The idea of zone defense is that each player is covering a space on the field rather than an individual person. 

In zone defense there is usually one person (sometimes two people) covering the deep space.

There will be 2-3 people in the second line of defense.

And usually there are three people (sometimes four) creating a "cup" or "wall" near the person with the disc.

 

Diagram of zone defense in ultimate frisbee highlighting the cup positions

Advantages and Disadvantages of Zone Defense

Because the wind can make throwing deeper throws difficult, a zone in the wind allows you to put more players in the space closer to the person with the disc.

Against a team with excellent throwers, zone may not work as well. Once the offense gets the disc past the cup or wall, the defense is outnumbered and can have a hard time recovering.

As mentioned, Zone defense is a good choice in the wind. If can also be a good choice against a team that is throwing deep a lot because you will have one to tow players already deep and ready to challenge deep throws. A zone defense tends to force the offense to throw more throws and can slow the pace of a fast moving offense.

Clam Defense for Ultimate Frisbee

The idea behind a clam defense is that each defender is covering a certain type of cut. They are not defending a particular player or even a particular space. "Proactive switching" is another way to think about this type of defense. Here's an example of proactive switching defense. You can see that some players stay on the open side and let their player go when they move to the break side.

In clam defense you will have one defender covering the under cut on the open side. Another defender will cover the under cut on the break side. One person may cover the front of the stack for any short breakmark passes.

One person will cover the hammer space. One person will cover deep cuts on the open side.

Diagram showing the positions in a clam defense against a vertical stack in ultimate frisbee

 

Players who are defending handlers will usually stay with their person unless they go downfield. 

Each defender will cover an offensive player as they are cutting but then switch off of them when the offensive player is done with that type of cut. For example, is someone is cutting deep, they will be covered by the person covering deep cuts. If they then stop going deep and start cutting under, the person who is covering open side under cuts will pick them up. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Clam Defense

Clam defense works particularly well against a vertical stack. It can work very well to cover the first pass after an offensive timeout. Clam defense does not work as well versus a horizontal stack because the cutting lanes are less defined.

Clam defense can get confusing once the offense is in flow. Less experiences players may have trouble being effective in a clam defense because it requires anticipation, assertive communication, and quick decision making.

The Mark and the Force

Regardless of what defensive formation you're using, and important part of any defense is the "mark" on the thrower.

The mark helps to dictate what spaces are easier for the thrower to throw to and what spaces are more difficult.

The "force" is the term for how the mark is positioned or what spaces the team is collectively trying to force throws into.

In general, teams will force forehand or backhand (referring to right handed throwers).  

Or you might use the terminology "force home" or "force away" (where "home" is the side you dumped your bags, and "away" is the other sideline).

You can also use a force that changes as the disc moves, e.g. to always force to the nearest-sideline or force middle.

 

Diagram showing a forehand force in ultimate frisbee and highlights of the open side versus break side areas

Force Forehand

The marker sets up to make throws to the backhand side more difficult. 

Heads up, when marking a left handed thrower, you'll be forcing them backhand. The side of the thrower that you're set up on will be consistent with the rest of your teammates.

Advantages of forcing forehand

At the beginner level, many players will already know how to throw a backhand and a forehand will be more difficult. Forcing forehand can put pressure on newer throwers to throw a weaker type of throw.

At higher levels, forehand throws are usually more accurate. The advantage of forcing forehand is that most players can throw farther with their backhands than with their forehand throws.

 

the force in ultimate frisbee defense divides the field into

Force Backhand

The marker sets up to make throws to the (right handed) backhand side more difficult. 

Advantages of Forcing Backhand

There are many advantages to forcing backhand at intermediate and higher levels.

Forehand throws tend to be released more quickly and have more spin. Forehand throws can be more stable in the wind because of having more spin.

Because of the quickness of release and lack of a wind-up, it's often easer to break the mark with a forehand. The inside-out break with a backhand is much more difficult than the inside-out break with a forehand throw.

Another advantage of forcing backhand is that it enables downfield defenders to cover hammers more easily. 

 

A backhand force in ultimate frisbee defense

Forcing Home or Away

This terminology is more accurate and easier to understand for beginner players. "home and "away" refer to different sides of the field. "Home" is where your stuff it. "Away" is the other side. You can also use visual marker like "force trees" "force parking lot" "force mountains" to designate which side of the field you are forcing to.

Designating a side of the field also makes more sense when there is a cross wind. In these situations choosing a side is the same as choosing to force upwind or downwind.

Forcing to the upwind side

The advantage of forcing to the upwind side is that throwing upwind is more difficult. The disadvantage is that breaking the mark with downwind throws can be more easy.

Forcing to the downwind side

At intermediate and higher levels, forcing to the downwind side is more common. This is because the wind can help you to hold the force. Break throws are mor difficult. And ideally you can "trap" the disc on the downwind sideline which is a difficult position for the thrower to be in.

 

Types of Marks

In addition to choosing the force, your team may designate more specifically what the shape of the mark looks like.

Typically there are two choices, a flat mark of a diagonal mark.

In addition there may be situations in which you're asked to mark "no around" or "straight-up/no huck".

 

Diagonal Mark

This is usually the mark that players will learn first. It is easy to clearly see which way a player is forcing with a diagonal mark.

The idea of a diagonal mark is that you are taking away about half of the field and the downfield defense is taking care of the other half.

 

the diagonal mark in ultimate frisbee defense

Flat Mark

At intermediate and advanced levels of ultimate frisbee, the throws are a lot better and it's nearly impossible for the mark to hold a force that affects half of the field.

Placeholder Image

At these higher levels we can start to think more specifically about what throwing lanes are most important for the mark to defend. To keep it simple, we can think of about 4 lanes: two inside lanes and who around lanes.

Diagram of the inside break lane created by a diagonal mark in ultimate frisbee
A flat mark, forehand force in ultimate frisbee with the hips of the mark perpendicular to the sideline

A flat mark can still force forehand or backhand. But the priority is on covering the inside lanes and not worrying as much about the around lanes.

No Around

A "no around" mark is the opposite of a flat mark. A no around mark is usually used only in certain situations. It can be used higher in th stall count when the thrower is looking for reset options in the around space.  Or it can be used when near a sideline to try to keep the disc in a smaller space on the field. For example, you could use a no around mark when forcing to the downwind side of the field to make break throws to the upwind side very difficult.

 

diagram of the

Straight up/No Huck

This would usually be a temporary type of mark if there is a cutter streaking tdeep.

Or it could be the type of mark used on specific players who are known for their deep throws.

The goal of a straight up/no huck mark is to put pressure on deep throws whether they are forehand or backhand.

 

A Straight up or

Quick Tips for Beginners on Defense

  • Never give up on the disc! Keep going for it as long as it's in the air.
  • Catch your D‚Äôs if you can.
  • Always know where the disc is.
  • Keep yourself positioned between your person and the disc.
  • Maintain bodily and spacial awareness. "Going for the disc" is not an excuse for initiating contact with other players.

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