Defensive Habits

Defense is important, but at the youth level I feel building a defensive mindset is more important than technique or tactics. The reason is because effective defensive combines individual defensive effort with collective group responsibility. The collective responsibility relates to whatever defensive system a coach decides to use.

Since at the youth level coaches should be more focused on individual player development, over team development, I feel that most of this mindset building relates to the effort. If you can get players to individually play harder on defense than you have achieved something important as a coach. The next level of effort is to get players to play together. Communication and collective responsibility for getting a stop, or getting scored on, are the two key factors I would focus on beyond individual effort. All three of these defensive concepts and building blocks for future defensive systems a coach might use.

Saying all this I would spend less than 10% of my practices at the youth level on defensive specific drills, skills and tactics. This does not mean you are ignoring defense. Remember defensive habits can be emphasized in every offense vs. defense drill or small-sided game you use. It means that the offense is far more complex, in both skill and tactical development, so I would focus 90% of my practices on building a player’s ability to play offense. 

Truth be told, despite what you often hear and read, most coaches would take a player who is effective on offense over one that can just defend. I know I would, and the debate is not even close. Confidence comes from skill, so developing offensive skills does more for building a youth player’s confidence in playing basketball than anything else they could excel at on defense.

So how do you build defensive habits?

The most important thing in building defensive habits, namely playing hard and playing together, is to define both terms for your players. Coaches too often use statements like, “We have got to play harder” without ever defining to a player what that means.

Playing Hard on Defense:

  • A defender’s head is below the head of their check.
  • A defender is constantly moving their feet (pulsing is what we call it), and never in a standing or stationary stance.
  • A defender is sprinting their first step in the reaction. This could be an on the ball, or off the ball, reaction that leads to a crossover and sprint (rather than a slide step).
  • An off the ball defender is maintaining a chest to chest relationship with the basketball (defensive advantage).
  • An off the ball defender is maintaining a ball, you, check positioning (Stay between your check and the ball).

Playing Together On Defense:

  • A defender is saying verbal commands three times for their teammates (One time might not be heard, say it three times and there is no excuse for your teammates not to have heard).
  • A defender is constantly pulsing and adjusting their positioning relative to their teammates and the movement of the ball.
  • A defender must know their check and their responsibility. A player’s check is who they are guarding, or what we call their closeout (if the ball was passed to this player they would be responsible for guarding them). A player’s responsibility is their help coverage relative to the ball.

What things would I teach youth players on defense?

  1. Stance
    • Chest to chest positioning relative to the player with the ball is a defender’s advantage. We teach a Read and Gap concept in reaction to an offensive players first step.
    • Here is how we teach the Reach and Gap Concept.
    • Emphasize this concept in all of your offense vs. defense drills including Three Pass 1-on-1 and 3-on-3 Closeouts First Catch.
  2. Opposites
    • Basically whatever the offensive advantage is, the defensive advantage is the opposite. This is an easy way to explain both to youth players. If the offense wants to create space, the defense wants to take away space. If the offense wants a shoulder to chest advantage, the defense wants a chest to chest advantage.
    • This blog outlines advantage and disadvantage situations and how to counter them. How to Teach Players to Read Advantage and Disadvantage
  3. Rotation
    • One common problem with youth players playing defense is that they often are afraid to leave their check to help – they’ve been told to guard a player, and they intend to stick with that player. Players need to be able to react to what is happening elsewhere on the court if they are going to contribute to the overall team defense. This is what we call rotation. Rotation involves individual and team coordinated movements to help stop the ball, and recovering out of a help situation to be able to balance back to 1-on-1 coverage at every position on the floor.
    • Use 3-on-3 Closeouts to develop the concept of rotation. It works on improving players’ ability to pick up offensive players who have beaten their check. It is a good drill to teach defensive play as a team, to get players to view defense not as one-on-one responsibilities but as a team responsibility. It is also a great offensive drill so the opportunity to talk about opposite advantages is available.
  4. Defensive Transition
    • The foundation of all half-court defense is recovery from the offensive end of the floor to the defensive end of the floor.
    • Learn more about Defensive Transition: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About
    • Use a drill like the 5-on-5 Chase Drill (outlined in the Handling Pressure section) to build your player’s defensive transition habits. This is the value of a games approach to coaching basketball. This one drill can be used to develop many concepts. You do not need 100 drills. You need a few drills that work on many of the concepts we have outlined that are important in developing youth players.

Although I have outlined how to coach youth defensive habits, I want you to focus more on offense than defense. Defense is a late development skill as it mostly relates to the team defensive system a coach uses. At the youth level, with limited practice time and so much for a player to learn, I would focus almost exclusively on offense.