The Importance of Defense in Player Development

Let’s be honest: in the world of player development and skills training, highlights are king. Flick through any feed and you’re bombarded with flashy crossovers, ankle-breakers, and nothing-but-net threes. But where’s the defense? Sure, there might be a few staged drills here and there, but real, game-like defensive work seems to be forgotten. Here’s the thing: defense is a critical, and often overlooked, piece of the player development puzzle. Let’s dive into why incorporating defense into your training regimen is a game-changer.

Changing the Perception of Work-Outs

The responsibility of defense falls on both skill trainers and player development coaches. It is crucial to reshape the perception of the skills industry by transitioning from individual sessions to small group training formats. These formats allow for various defensive scenarios like 1-on-1, 2-on-1, and 2-on-2, while also shifting the focus from offense to defense.

Skill development is not only about understanding the required task but also about the perceptions and decisions that drive the application of biomechanical techniques. Providing the right challenge for offense versus defense, or vice versa, is essential for optimal skill development.

A coach with a strong defensive background can offer this optimal challenge. However, many coaches and trainers may struggle to provide this level of challenge. While we can stimulate perceptions and decisions, the task may not be accurately represented if our defense or offense skills are not at a high level. To achieve optimal challenge, playing against other players in small group workouts is necessary.

Defensive Movement Techniques and the ‘Defensive Slide’

In a game, how often will a player need to defend the ball or execute a close-out? How does this compare to the frequency of utilizing more intricate dribble moves that are being taught? As a basketball coach, it is essential to cultivate all aspects of a player’s game, encompassing offense, defense, and their overall character.

Coaches must possess the essential skill of crafting impactful small-sided games (SSGs) that facilitate the development of individual defensive strategies. The crucial aspect lies in the proficiency to employ a diverse range of functional movement techniques to effectively defend against the ball, rather than relying solely on repetitive execution of a single method, such as the step slide. It is imperative to acknowledge that employing this antiquated approach will never enable a player to successfully guard the offensive player.

It is for this reason we recommend trying to refrain from using the word slide when describing defensive movement patterns, as the word itself would mean keeping one foot in constant contact with the floor. Having a foot in contact with the floor creates friction which leads to slower foot speed and inefficiency: the very thing we want to avoid when moving laterally. Instead, the word shuffle is more realistic of the side-to-side movement which players typically use to contain the ball.

The Crossover Step

While shuffling is the optimal way to guard the ball, in some instances a cross-over step needs to be utilized to stay in front of the offense when they use a sudden burst of speed or when they begin to get a shoulder to chest advantage. This is where the old adage of never crossing your feet on defense is a false fallacy, providing more proof for why coaching in absolutes is so dangerous. If the feet are not crossed the on-ball defender will simply never be able to recover and dominoes are triggered.

Crossing the feet is the most powerful movement technique and only way in some situations to still be able to contain the ball. Athletes in numerous other sports use this technique because it is the fastest way to move sideways (tennis, football, lacrosse, soccer etc.) but still some basketball coaches (and players!) find this hard to accept.

The Hip Turn

The last technique is the hip turn. This is used as an alternative to the drop step as a way of recovery. As with the step-slide, the drop step is simply something which never happens in games. It is too slow, an unnatural movement pattern, potentially extremely dangerous due to the twisting of the knee, and also concedes an easy straight line drive for the ball handler. The hip turn is a very quick movement used when the ball handler is starting to gain a bigger advantage, where both feet are raised a small height from the ground enabling the defender to land facing the direction in which they are attempting to complete their cut-off. A cut-off is simply picking a spot on the floor to cut the offensive player off and get back chest-to-chest.

Traditional Defensive Teaching

If a coach is attempting to focus more on developing on-ball defense the main problem to contend with is the traditional teaching of defense. This usually stems from how the coaches were probably taught as players. Many of the drills used such as sliding left to right continuously, the zig zag drill etc are completely useless as they so far apart from what happens in the game. These drills are as far right on the block practice continuum as block drills come!

The reality of many of these defensive techniques is that they are used in combination, with a whole array of different sequences based on the interacting constraints. For instance, the defender will start shuffling as the optimal way to maintain best positioning when guarding the ball, but then may use a cross-step when the offensive player changes speed. If the offense starts to gain a big advantage a hip turn will be used, followed by another cross-step and then potentially another lateral shuffle if contained. Many old school drills to do not take into account the randomness and complexity of what happens in the game. While doing this, the defender has to take into account other considerations. This includes locations of teammates and other offensive players, time and score, pattern the offense may run, base coverages to execute etc. Try replicating this in a zig-zag drill! 

 An interesting task is to focus on watching the feet of a good on-ball defender during a game. What you will see is that the techniques used are the opposite to how basketball coaches traditionally teach defense. 

Why Defense in Player Development is Important

It’s common for coaches to feel like defense isn’t their particular coaching strength. However, when defense is neglected from ages 12-16 it makes it nearly impossible to address this when players get to U18. If a player cannot reliably defend the ball it is very difficult for them to play at any level of senior basketball. If a coach does not address this they are doing their players a major disservice.

The main reason is that offense is limited in their ability to improve relative to how good defense is. If the defense is never emphasized the offense simply gets bad at beating bad defenders. When it comes to a game, the offense will rarely be in a position to use all the things they have learned offensively. The defensive pressure is far higher than what they have experienced in practice. The importance of good defense matters for the simple reason that playing well defensively takes offense to another level. 

How to Develop Defense in Player Development

Basketball Immersion firmly believes at the younger ages (U14 and under) developing offensive skills is the number one priority. If defense is addressed, it is pretty much limited to being able to contain and guard the ball. Complex things such as help rotations can wait till the players are older. There are many more important things to be working on!

Functional movement solutions are a critical part of playing effective defense. This is where tag games work well and they are also extremely fun for players. When it comes specifically to on-ball defensive movement the focus has to be on moving laterally. Tag games are great as they feature movement in several different movement planes. Specific games can also be created to provide more affordances for moving in the lateral plane. This is where using constraints to lead to tasks that require moving in lateral planes becomes critical.

One game we like to use for this is making a gate with pylons. The offensive player has to pass through this gate. A defensive player in the middle of the pylons then attempts to tag them as they pass. In addition, 1-on-1 in constrained spaces can develop some of the functional movement solutions described. This is especially true with an emphasis on defensive stops and scoring.

Things to Focus On

Here are things to consider emphasizing through well-designed SSG’s and appropriate task constraints. Just not all at once though!

  • Defensive footwork patterns based on what happens in the game
  • Being able to wall-up and get vertical without fouling
  • Chest stops
  • Support and gap positioning
  • Close-outs WITHOUT choppy steps 
  • Defending the post
  • Bumping cutters
  • Verbals (what are they, including cues to help or switch etc?)


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