Basketball Coaching: Teaching Individual Defense, Part I

by Coach Ronn Wyckoff, Author/Producer

Basketball On A Triangle

(This issue begins a 2-part article on teaching individual defense. Because of it's length, the rest of the article will appear next month.)

Teaching Individual Defense

“More than anything else, playing inspired defense is a matter of will.”

Phil Jackson

We have to get the ball in order to play with the ball!

Defense gets the ball! Period!

If both teams are equal, and every player handles the ball equally, how much time will each player have with the ball? In this example, defense is fifty per cent of the game. Well, then that means half of the game is spent without the ball, trying to stop the other team from scoring and getting the ball so your team can score.

Defense is too important to just hope that players will get it. The coaches must teach it.

Not too far into my coaching career, I became acutely aware of the importance of teaching defense. Early on, I had been just setting up defenses and walking players through their positions and assignments. I realized that just telling the players to play defense wasn’t getting the job done. I learned ‘what’ and ‘how’ and then I began to teach every component, from the placement of the feet and the stance, how to react, how to play on the ball and off the ball, against cutters, in the post, etc., etc. We were rewarded with better play and I became a fully dedicated advocate of teaching defense.

Defense is so integral to the overall success of a program it cannot be afforded a cursory inspection, like I was doing in the first few years. Once we teaching-coaches know the ‘how’, it can then be taught easily enough, then drilled to perfection the same way we develop offenses—over and over and over, until it becomes UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE!

In my more than forty years of coaching, I have come to the following realizations about defense:

1. There is often a lot of generalization rather than specific teaching being done;
2. Many coaches believe zone defense is easier to teach than man defense;
3. Defensive skills are easier to teach than offensive skills. Creating a good defensive player is infinitely easier than creating a good offensive player;
4. A team can play good defense and win even when the offense is having an off game;
5. Defense has always created most of my offense.

Throughout my career, at all levels of coaching, from the playgrounds in the beginning, to national teams, we won nearly three out of every four games we played. I had some high scoring teams, and on only few occasions was I blessed to have any superior offensive players. My highest scoring teams were my best defensive teams.

I believe in teaching by building blocks. We teach defense from the ground up, starting with the placement of the feet. With the first stage, we show the foot placement and stance. We need good balance and to be able to move quickly while maintaining good balance.

Defense begins with the individual. Team defense is only as good as its weakest player, so I look for players who have the will and desire to become defensive specialists. I want players who will take pride in their defensive play because they are confident in their skills.

Coaches, do not expect your team to play good team zone defense if the individual players cannot execute good, basic man principles. In man defense we live by an individual’s ability to play on his or her offensive player, whether with or without the ball.

Don’t send your kids out to play five-on-five and expect them to be successful if they haven’t got the individual skills to stop the flash, fight over a screen, front a cutter or be able to play “help” defense.

The successful application of teaching good defense begins with a stance that gets the player low, on balance, under control, and able to move quickly and efficiently.

To start, have your players assume a stance with the right foot forward, feet placed wider than the shoulders and hips. The toes of the back (left) foot should be about even with the heel of the front foot. Bend the knees and get the hips down, keeping the back nearly straight. Get as low as possible, with the feet as wide as possible but still enabling quick, balanced movement. Balance should be centered evenly between both feet. Extend the right arm forward to the outside of the right knee, with the hand as if it’s touching the offensive player. Extend the left arm out to the left side, with the palm facing the offensive player. This is the primary stance I teach for playing on the ball with a dribbler going to the defender’s left.

Change feet and hands and assume the same stance as if the dribbler is going to the defender’s right. Left foot forward; right foot back and even with the heel of the front foot; left arm extended out toward the dribbler; right arm extended out in the direction of the dribble. The arms are forming the letter “L”.

This won’t be an altogether comfortable position for the players in the beginning. Emphasize staying low to improve reaction time and balance. Continually check the foot placement, hips low, back straight, balance between the feet, arm and hand positions. This position is where the defensive game is played. The muscles must be trained to accept this position. (Tell the brain that the body will be spending a lot of time like this, so adjust, baby!)

With the players stationary, do a little drill to have the group jump on your command from a right foot forward stance to a left foot forward stance. With the coach standing in front of the group, the coach raises either the left hand or the right hand and points in the direction the dribble is going. Players should automatically assume a correct stance with the foot back in the direction of the dribble. The players’ bodies should not jump up in the air when changing directions. Only the feet and arms are changing directions. If you were to draw a line across the top of the head, when changing directions, the head would not move above that line. The feet are barely gliding over the floor during the exchange.

Now, we’re ready to slide. The slide is done with a reaching slide-step in the direction of the dribble, pushing off the front foot and reaching with the back foot. This is: Push; Reach; Fill. Pushing off the foot away from the direction you’re sliding, reach and step in the direction of the dribble and fill the vacated back foot spot with the front foot.

A very important point of emphasis here is, the defender should never lift up (line over the head!) during the slide, change the center of gravity or allow the feet to come together. The same distance between the feet is maintained during the slide.

This last point is important. When teaching a dribbler to attack a defender, the dribbler will look for defensive weakness. The dribbler should always be aware of what their defender is doing with their feet and what happens to their body balance during the faking moves. If the defender places weight on one foot, the dribbler can attack and drive to that side because the defender is off balance and can’t react. The same thing happens if a defender straightens up, the reaction time is slowed, or the defender’s body may now be too close to the dribbler’s body, allowing the defender to be beaten.

Review the teaching points with the players: Foot placement, hips down low, back straight, balance between the feet, arm and hand extension, slide and reach with the back foot, push off the front foot, don’t go up and down during the slide (like a carousel horse).

With the coach in front of the group again, have the coach point out dribble directions, as in the last drill, and have the players slide, changing feet when the coach changes directions. When the coach points out a direction, players should take 3-4 slides in that direction to get used to continuation defense. When changing directions, a player will jump-switch the feet (without raising up); that is, stop the rear foot slide and push off it while bringing the front foot back to become the sliding foot. While pushing off the rear foot, reach with the other in the direction of the dribble. Do the slides slowly at first in order to get the whole process controlled and precise. Make whatever corrections are necessary here and re-emphasize whatever points need to be re-covered.

Repeat this drill several times. When they have it well enough, the coach can add a ball.

(Look for next month's issue to finish this article.)

Until next month, Yours in Sport & Spirit,
Coach Ronn

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