Footwork For Defense: Why, What, and How

by | April 28, 2016, 7:15am 5

I’ve been talking and writing a lot lately about goal-specific training for ultimate. In my new 10 Weeks to Awesomeness classes (and my work with pro leagues), my athletes break into smaller groups to tackle exercises designed to help them progress towards their individual objectives. Defensive quickness is one of the most often selected areas for growth, and it’s definitely important to work hard in the gym to develop the strength necessary to change directions and sky people. But if this is an area where you’d like to improve, you’ve also got to get your footwork up to snuff! (Tl;dr, here’s a handy footwork for defense video resource!) We see highlight layout blocks and grabs all the time – what we don’t often see is the moments before those blocks, the shutdown D that creates those opportunities. I’m sure you can think of someone on your team who makes life super hard for the offense, but check out this quick video example from Elliott Erickson’s 2015 Callahan video:

Notice how his hips stay towards his person even as he moves in several directions, but he’s ready to turn and go when needed? And notice how when he turns on the gas, there’s no wasted upper body or arm motion? Great defenders seem stuck to their person, so much so that it’s hard to figure out who’s initiating movement!

If you want to make the defensive plays you dream about (and make them without wearing your body down), you need to improve your comfort and power in a few key areas. I totally recommend plyometric work before agility work – it’s super helpful in developing all the qualities that will make your footwork stronger! Lateral Lunges/Bounds, Out and In Plyo Steps, and Big SL Hops are great exercises to add to your defensive track work whenever you can – just remember to minimize your ground contacts and stop jumping when you’re no longer able to repeat the motion quickly!

Okay, here are some ideas for defensive agility drills – the specific foot patterns are less important than the focus or intent with which you do them. Most of the new patterns were designed for ultimate defense, but many other familiar agility patterns can be worked on with a defensive focus as well. Think about what you’re trying to work on in each pattern, and get a few patterns in every day if you can!

Core Stiffness
Developing reactive core stability is very Important for fast transitions – it keeps your torso from waving around (which slows you down) and creates less stress on leg joints!
Cues: minimize ground contact, force into the ground, relax shoulders

Slalom
Angled Slalom
Quarter-Turn Hops
Lateral Ladder Hops
Sprinter’s Drill

Lateral Movement
Like the Erickson GIF shows, handler defense takes place almost completely in a frontal plane (side to side). Being able to put power into the ground at strong angles and putting your feet down wherever you need to requires great technique!
Cues: chop your knees, land on midfoot, arm action

2 In 2 Out
2 In 2 Out (lead leg)
1 In 2 Out

Also, check out all the transition-to-sprint movement in the last section, those are incredibly handy out of lateral patterns!

Multi-Planar Movement
You need to be comfortable moving in any direction (especially backwards, laterally and diagonally) so you can stay with your person and don’t lose steps on direction changes!
Cues: eyes up, chop your knees, stay low

Jab/Crossover
Slo-Mo Backwards Jab/Crossover
Backwards Jab/Crossover
Crossover Step
Twisty Crossover Step
3 Step
Extra Slanted Icky
Backwards Slanted Icky
Diagonal Slanted Icky

Transition to Sprint/Change of Direction
In order to make the highlight reel you have to not only stay with your person, but get that big block! To do that you need a quick acceleration out of fancy feet!
Cues: keep weight centered, maintain good posture, arm action

Backwards Defensive Icky with Sprint
Sprint Out of Ladder
Shuffle/Sprint Out of Ladder
Ladder into Reactive CoD
Reactive Ladder Sprint for Huck
Ladder into Reactive CoD (turn)
Reactive Sprint In Ladder
Ladder to Disc
You can transition to sprint from any pattern – get creative!

Going Beyond the Pattern
The same footwork feels very different when you’re on open grass instead of working with cones or a ladder, and especially when you add offensive and defensive dynamics! To help with the translation to great play, you need to take the pattern into a more game-like feel!
Cues: eyes up, don’t sweat ladder mistakes

Ladder Into Defense
Ladder Mirroring with Extension
Offense Picks Up Defense
Extra Slanted Icky with Extension

There are literally endless possibilities for innovation here.See what you can come up with!

Remember to keep practicing.. Just like throwing, the only way to get better at footwork is to do it! Don’t be afraid to try to get better even if you feel you’re not naturally coordinated. Those things that don’t come naturally come instead with hard work. And if you come up with a cool pattern that you think translates to better defense, please share it so we can all get better! :)

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  • Jon

    Thanks for this article – I’m working on improving my defensive game, and I think these drills will be really helpful. I have a couple follow up questions: In a session, how many of these drills would you try to incorporate, and for how long? Is it better to focus on one area at a time (core stiffness, lateral movement, etc.), or combine multiple movement types in a given session?

    • Ren Caldwell

      Great questions!! :) You’ll get a lot of benefit from working a few patterns a day, but if you’re really focusing on defense I would do a short gauntlet of these drills in the order presented. Each one of these builds on the foundation of the other (something I didn’t explain well enough in the article, I’m realizing) – the core stiffness you gain from doing the Slaloms translates into snappier 2-In-2-Outs, which preps you to put your feet down in the places you need to for the Jab/Crossover, which lowers your weight for a better transition to sprint/reactive drills. Twice through 2-3 patterns in each section is a strong piece of your track workout – do it before you run! :)

      • Jon

        Awesome thanks, I can’t wait to try it out.

  • Hannah Rudin

    Hey Ren! So here’s possibly a dumb thing: I did the three plyometric exercises you suggest at the beginning, followed by all of the drills in the core stiffness section (generally 4-5 reps each side). I did a couple of warm up laps and some dynamic stretches before starting. Then I went home and realized that my inner thigh about 4″ above my knee felt weird and today (one day later) I’m thinking that I must have stressed a tendon or ligament that runs through there because it hurts whenever I pick my knee up or twist my leg, and not in a muscle sort of way. So… Do you have any insights into what I might have done wrong, so that I can correct it for the future once I heal? I am a college player in good shape. I really enjoyed the drills and hope that I get to progress with them soon!

    • Ren Caldwell

      Hi Hannah, I’m sorry to hear about the issue!! :( It sounds like you might have stressed out either a groin ligament or one of your adductors – I’m guessing it was the Slaloms or another of the side-to-side plyos that you aren’t sued to. In general, you probably want to do about half of the volume you did – if your movement got at all sluggish (as it might with that many reps) you were probably putting too much stress on your connective tissue by spending a little too much time on the ground. Make sure you also recover fully in between sets! Good luck, and use a Voodoo X band on your leg for sure! :)