An Observer’s Perspective

Feature photo by Brandon Wu –

It has always seemed to me that the number of teams with unstoppable offenses was far less than the number of teams with defenders who fouled a lot while talking about unstoppable offenses. Anyway, that’s a bit of a side-point — inspired by, but not contradicting, Daniel’s comments. 

I think Surge’s use of “bullying” is fair, but I think “herding” might be a better word in terms of physicality. Mostly, you don’t see a herding dog physically pushing the flock around, but they are anticipating moves, blocking paths, and occasionally having contact. It is intimidating to deal with a defender that is one step ahead of you, and running into someone when you thought you were running into open space is definitely disruptive.

Specifics on the Rules

Relevant parts of the rule book: the non-contact sport definition, the responsibility to avoid contact in any way that’s reasonably possible, the blocking foul rules, general notions about line of sight and personal responsibility, and obligations to not violate the rules. I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the blocking foul rules specifically contemplate defenders positioning to block cutting lanes and interfere with the offense when the disc is not in the air.

There are two blocking fouls rules. One addresses when the disc is in the air, moving in a way solely to prevent the opponent from taking an unoccupied path to the disc. The other applies generally, and prohibits taking an unavoidable position at any time (jumping in front of people at the last second). But if you look at that pairing, it leaves open moving in a way solely to prevent an opponent from taking a certain cutting path, subject to the unavoidable position rule. And I think it is part of the game to try to occupy space where an opponent might like to cut. This has to be done in the context of making reasonable efforts to avoid contact, though. I still think “herding” is a good analogy. It’s about being agile as a defender, anticipating the opponent’s movement, and positioning to cause the opponent to go where you want. But while a herding dog might occasionally nip at a sheep’s heels, the dog is not creating chest-to-chest collisions or physically pushing the sheep around.

In terms of the responsibility to avoid contact, I think the following example is illustrative: If I’m positioned in front of you, running deep, it’s pretty well accepted that I might slow up and try to maintain my superior position to make a better play on the disc. It’s possible there could be contact, but I would generally try to do it in a way that did not create lots of contact — you would have fair warning of the space I was taking, our speeds, etc. So the expectation is that we both make reasonable efforts to avoid contact, but minor incidental contact (not affecting the play) is not uncommon. But if we were at a sprint (me in front by 1/2 step), and I slammed on the brakes and came to a complete stop, causing you to collide with me, that would be violating my responsibility to make reasonable efforts to avoid contact. In general, a trailing player colliding with a player in front is a foul on the trailing player (trailing player initiates contact, leading player is entitled to his position), but that does not relieve the leading player of making reasonable efforts to avoid contact. At minimum, you’re not taking active steps to create significant contact.

On the idea of establishing norms

I think teams that play each other a lot tend to develop a rapport, and we see fewer calls, disputes or imbalances in those games, and a more balanced level of physicality. And teams from different regions tend to have different styles, not only with respect to physicality, but also with respect to travel calls and other things. And I would say, for a team that has a more physical style (beyond the rules) to try to impose it on a less-physical team is simply cheating — it’s outside of the rules, and there is no rule (written or unwritten) that permits a team to unilaterally decide to foul.

There is no unspoken rule. Qualifying for Nationals and attending does not mean you agree to constant fouling by defenders. There are common understandings up to a point, but that’s to be established with a given opponent. And if there’s a disagreement, an early chat between captains can go a long way in setting a positive tone for the rest of the game.  But the fallback is simply reading what the rules say and abiding by them. I do occasionally see individual matchups feeling out the physicality. In some cases, it is a mutually respectful establishing of a rapport, including actually discussing a disagreement (“hey, a hand out is okay, but don’t push me”). In other cases, it is simply escalation that pushes both players further outside of the rules and outside of the limits of acceptable conduct (sometimes culminating with a blatant foul.)

Common Misconceptions:

  • Whatever I personally choose to do is the common and accepted practice.
  • I know what the common and accepted practice is. No, I have not conducted any research on the topic, but I have played at Nationals a couple of times.
  • Whatever the teams in my region do is the common and accepted practice, and teams in other regions are either wusses or thugs.
  • The “top teams” have unstoppable offenses, and that means that I am justified in playing my style of defense against every team and every player in every circumstance. I am doing a public service in rebalancing the offense/defense advantages.
  • Once contact happens, I am allowed to add more force to my side, to make sure I win the interaction. (This notion also applies to marking fouls).
  • “Non-contact sport” can’t possibly mean zero contact ever, so that means my preferred level of contact is what the rules dictate.
  • By playing competitive ultimate, you agree that the level of physicality of the most-physical top-20 teams is legal and accepted.
  • “Avoid contact in every way possible” is ridiculous language — every way possible would mean I can’t even stop on the field because that might lead to contact. Therefore, I don’t have to make any reasonable efforts to avoid contact.
  • I beat you to the spot, so that means what I did was legal.

Note: This article only reflects the views of Colin McIntyre, and not the views of the Rules Committee, the Observer program or USA Ultimate.

Issue No. 1 | Defensive Positioning

July 20, 2013