The Ultimate Frisbee Cup – Zone Defense
The Cup is one of the most utilized defensive strategies in Ultimate. It is extremely important to be familiar with the cup because a single weak link could cause the entire play to crash and burn. With the cup being such a detrimental part of Ultimate Frisbee, we will try to explain it as if you are a beginner to the sport. First will be an overview of the cup, then a breakdown of each position, and lastly tips to make the cup as efficient as possible. Let’s get started.
There are 7 specialized positions in the cup play, each working together to block off as much as the field as possible. The word “cup” refers to the three closest defenders to the disc that literally forms a cup around the thrower.
The picture to the right shows a basic cup formation. The red circle is the opponent with the disc and the blue circles are in cup formation forcing home (the circles with lines represent outstretched arms). The cup is a zone play meaning that your team will not be individually guarding a specific player like in Man Defense, instead they will be guarding a portion of the field. When throwing a backhand or forehand, a disc is typically released about mid-torso hight. Upon release the disc either remains at that height or gradually ascends upward. The goal of the 3 closest blue circles is to block any pass thrown near them which essentially eliminates the entire field behind them. It is important for these 3 players to have out-stretched/moving arms because, like defending against a bear in the woods, you appear bigger. This makes the thrower less likely to try to squeeze the disc by you.
The picture to the left shows all 14 players on the field. If the other team is smart they will be using the Ho Stack since it works best against the cup. To clarify, red has three handlers at the bottom of the diagram (8, 9, 10) and four cutters in-field (11, 12, 13, 14). The red circle in the center (9) currently has the disc. It is important for #1 who is marking to Force home and not allow any Breaks. The job of #2 is to stand ten feet away (the distance you can legally stand to avoid a double-team call) from #9 and to block off the portion of the field that #1 cannot reach. Remember how I said a disc is usually thrown around torso height? Well if #2 is 10 feet away there is a really good chance they can block any backhand/forehand throws in their direction. It takes more than ten feet for a disc to ascend higher than the swinging arms of a player. Even if they cannot block it, the fact that they are standing there is usually enough to make the thrower not throw in that direction. The same goes for player #3. They would stand parallel and 10-15 feet away from #2 (about twelve feet from #9).
The job of #4 is to block off the space between #2 and #3. Because of #4, it is extremely hard for the thrower to successfully pass to anyone in the middle of the field which is left wide open. #4’s job is to outstretch their arms and to block any pass thrown near them. In addition, since they are further from the thrower and have more time to react they can help stop a lofty hammer throw from reaching that open space mid-field.
The numbers that I have mentioned so far (1, 2, 3, 4) act as a single unit. Wherever the disc goes they move as one and never break formation. When the disc is thrown to any opponent they must sprint to the new mark and reset as fast as possible. I can’t stress this importance enough, because if it takes too long to reset they will throw it to another open player, then another, and so on. The cup becomes tired and the formation falls apart. With that being said, make sure the four players you choose for the cup are quick, athletic, and have good endurance.
Numbers 5, 6, and 7 act as another unit. I am going to start with #7 as he/she will be in charge of this unit. #7 is most often called deep-deep because they are always the furthest player back at all times. Their job is to mark an opponent closest to the end zone and to always be behind them. They are their to stop any deep throws that may make it past the cup. Remember, we are not marking a specific player anymore. So if #7 is marking an opponent furthest back and another opponent becomes the furthest back then #7 will have to switch marks. #7 must be extremely vocal with his/her teammates. Also, because #7 is so far away from the thrower they have a lot of reaction time if a deep pass is made. So it is okay for #7 to guard 15-20 feet from an enemy player as long as they are confident they can get to the disc for a block quick enough.
#5 is one of the “wings.” If the opponent is running a Ho Stack then #11 and #12 should be cutting back and forth. So it is #5’s job to guard the player that is In-Cutting. #5 should be on this player as hard as they can because, since the force is home, the in-cutter is one of the best options for the thrower. The Out-Cutter becomes #7’s responsibility. Again, it is very important for 5, 6, and 7 to be very vocal on who they are guarding.
The same goes for #6. They are to guard the in-cutter. In theory, if #7 is an experienced player then he/she could guard two out-cutters from 20 feet away each due to the time it would take a disc to reach that far down-field. Another note, #7 should guard a little closer to the out-cutter on #5’s side because the thrower has a better chance of completing a pass to the home side due to the force.
The main goal of the cup is make the thrower make a bad pass. Most of the time a pass will be blocked by a teammate, thrown to no one, or even end in a stall-out. If a successful pass is made then the cup will simply reform on the new thrower and try again.
Since each position is specialized, here is what I recommend when assigning position:
#1 – The Mark: This player must have very good endurance. The mark will do the most running out of everyone. They must also know the essentials of forcing and the importance of not getting broken.
#2 – Big Man: This player should also be athletic due to all of the running. It is also key for them to know exactly how far ten feet is to maximize the affects of the cup. Another small thing, it is best if this person has a wide reach since they have a lot of space to cover.
#3 – Outside: This player should also be athletic.
#4 – Mid-Mid: It really helps if this player is agile. Unlike 2 and 3, this player must cover a slightly wider area. I always like to assign the player that loves to dive, bid, and do crazy things to mid-mid.
#5, #6 – Left/Right Wings: These players should be cutters. Since they are guarding an enemy cutter they should be be able to think, act, and run like one.
#7 – Deep-Deep: This player has the most important job. There is very little running involved. But this player NEEDS to be experienced. In other words, they must be able to properly Read a disc, jump, and successfully block a long-range throw. While doing the cup, it is fairly easy for the opponents to make a deep throw. So it is extremely important for the deep-deep to prove themselves on the first/second deep throw. If their first attempt is blocked then they will most likely not try it again. If it isn’t blocked, then they will keep throwing deep until it is. The entire cup falls apart if a deep pass is completed.
Trapping the Line in the Cup
What I failed to mention above is the overall purpose of the cup and why it works so well. As you can see in the image to the bottom left, #8 is left completely open. The reason why we force a certain direction is to force the other team to throw in that direction by leaving an open player, which in this case is #8.
After the throw has been made to #8 it is best to Trap The Line. This is another formation of the cup that is meant to trap the thrower on the sideline. It is important that after #8 catches the disc that the cup scrambles into formation as soon as possible before the thrower can make a pass.
You can compare the two images, the left image is the cup we have been using while the right image is trapping the line. In the image to the right you can see that the original Mark (#1) falls back to guard ten feet behind the thrower. This eliminates the opportunity for a Dump pass. #2 will now be marking the thrower while forcing the same direction, towards the line. It is crucial that this is a hard force because a break could mean starting the entire process over again.
#3 remains in formation and will stand just inside the sideline. This is to block any downfield throws. Remember, #3 can block the disc even if they are out of bounds. This eliminates an O/I that the thrower could bend around #3.
#4 will continue to block the gap between #2 and #3 and should also be ready if the thrower tries to throw a hammer over the cup.
#5’s job remains the same, block the cutters on the left sideline. #6’s job becomes slightly more difficult. Since the thrower is now completely trapped, and any forehand/backhand throw become virtually useless, they must be ready for a hammer throw. This is where the cup succeeds because we anticipate the hammer will be poorly thrown (due to the pressure) and the thrower will try to make it easy to catch for his/her teammates (because a drop would be terrible for them). In other words, the hammer should be easy to block/intercept for #6. If the pass is somehow completed, simply go back into regular cup formation and start again until you force them back to the sideline.
#7 has the same task as they did, guard for deep passes
If everyone fully commits to their assigned task you will get that turnover you need to win the game. Another cool fact, if #8 throws the disc out of bounds in hope that it will curve around #3 and back in bounds, and it doesn’t, then it will be a turnover and play will start from where the disc exited the field.
Tips, Strategy, and FAQ for a Better Cup
1) FORCING IS HUGE. I cannot stress this enough. If your marker (#1) keeps getting broken by the thrower then the entire cup fails. It will tire everyone out to keep running back and forth and eventually the cup becomes useless. Be sure the person you choose to mark knows what they are doing.
2) The cup is extremely tiring for the 4 players closest to the thrower. Make sure to have subs ready to go in for them every point or two. On a side note, the more efficient the cup is at cupping the less tiring it becomes. If you see the cup getting too tired don’t be afraid to call another defensive play mid-point to give them a break. Timeouts are nice too.
3) Use the wind! The cup is virtually unbeatable when the wind is blowing against your opponents. Even if the wind is coming in from the sideline you can force the same direction to make them swing the disc with the wind, so when they get to the side line you can trap the line and the thrower will have to throw against the wind. Take note that the cup does not work as well if the wind is against your team so another defensive play should be used.
4) The best way for your opponents to destroy the cup is to keep swinging the disc back and forth until the cup gets tired out. They will not try to progress upfield until the cup becomes so tired that it falls apart. Be aware of this tactic and maybe devise a plan to switch the wings with two people in the cup mid-play.
5) Be careful of poppers. A popper is an enemy cutter that crashes the cup when the stall count reaches 7 or higher. They run into the cup and catch the disc at point-blank which is meant only to reset the stall count. Make sure to call out POPPER when you see one running in. This is an opportunity for #2 or to temporarily leave their position to get between the popper and the thrower to stop the throw and increase the chance of a stall-out.
6) At the beginning of the season, assign your players to a specific position (or two) in the cup play. They should remain in the same position for the entire season. A huge problem is that one day your a mid-mid, the next your a mark, and next your a wing. This often causes confusion when each player doesn’t have the opportunity to master a single position. The cup will become more efficient if each player becomes comfortable in every spot.
What if the cup works and you get possession, then there is another turnover making them get possession again, but now my players are scattered around the field and it takes too long to reassemble?
This happens a lot. Before the point starts be sure to make a back up plan in case they get possession again. Man Defense is usually the best option on a turnover.
They keep throwing it right through our cup before we can react to block it.
This happens sometimes but shouldn’t be too frequent. I recommend telling your cup to squeeze a little bit closer than normal. It also helps if they get in a wide stance, stretch out the arms, and move back and forth similar to a soccer goalie. This helps the defenders react faster and also makes each defender cover a slightly wider area. The thrower may see it too risky to try and throw between the small gaps.
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