ADVANCED LACROSSE DEFENSE INSTRUCTION
D ‘EM UP!
Beyond knowing basic footwork and obeying rules, it is unnecessary for a youth player to learn defense until he has reached this intermediate stage. It is important for youth players to be able to catch, throw, scoop, and cradle with a short stick before they move up to using a long stick on defense.
Depending on the age, it is fine for a player to learn defense with a short stick. It is counterproductive to hand a young kid a long stick that he cannot even run around with. He will become frustrated and lose interest in the game. As defensive youth players get bigger and better with their stickwork, they can gradually increase the length of the stick that they use. There are many different skills and concepts that defenseman have to work on that are much different than those of attackmen and midfielders. Defense is also much more of a mental game than the other positions, so having good field sense is essential to being a good defender.
The single most important aspect of playing defense is footwork. This is also the hardest thing for coaches to teach because many youth athletes have underdeveloped balance and dexterity. Most youth players think that defense is all about checking the ball away and hitting the ball carrier with huge body checks. Rather, defense is about breaking down, staying with your man, and forcing the offense into making mistakes. Rarely, in this day and age of lacrosse, does a defender strip the ball away from the ball carrier. Sticks now are designed too tight and light, and pockets are too big for the ball to come out even if you get a good check. A defender’s job is simply to keep his man from getting a good shot off or being able to find an open man on the doorstep of the goal. To be able to run with the ball carrier, the defender must first have good footwork.
There are a number of agility drills that a coach can run his defense through. There are many books from the exercise industry that list countless activities to increase footwork. The following is a number of drills that are sport-specific to playing defense in lacrosse. A footwork drill that defensemen should work at is shuffling. They should first bend their knees with their legs about shoulder width apart and get their butts low to the ground. This is much like the stance that a linebacker gets in as the ball is about to be snapped. This stance is how a defender in lacrosse should line up against his man when he has the ball. Out of this stance, the defenders should work on shuffling side to side while keeping their shoulders square. Their feet should be pointed directly forward. They should not let their feet click together or cross over as they shuffle and they should never turn their bodies in the direction they are shuffling. Many times, whether on ball (covering the man who has the ball) or off ball (covering a man who does not have a ball) defensemen are going to have to shuffle.
Another agility drill to practice is karaoke. This is the agility drill where the athlete moves horizontally by crossing his feet over and behind each other in succession. This type of running is not necessarily used in game situations, but it does increase the athlete’s agility and balance. Another footwork drill is backpedaling. There are many times when a defenseman needs to back pedal with the man he is covering. A final drill that is necessary for an intermediate level defenseman to learn is backward zigzagging. This is basically shuffling and backpedaling combined. You can set up cones in a Z formation and the player shuffles back and forth to each cone. This form of agility training is probably the most important one for a youth defenseman to learn because this is how he will run with the ball carrier as he tries to go to the goal.
These are just a few different types of footwork that are most important for defensemen to learn. Many other agility drills can help a player become a better athlete. There are an infinite amount of drills that coaches can make up on their own using cones and making different courses for the player run through changing up the type of agility throughout. For example, coaches can set up a square of cones and have the defender backpedal one side, shuffle another side, sprint forward the third side, and karaoke the last side. Finally, agility drills are good for the whole team to go through as they make youth players better athletes. Agilities are simply most important for defensemen.
ON BALL PLAY
As discussed before, on-ball play is when a defender is covering the man with the ball. Playing one-on-one for a defender is much like playing one-on-one for a midfielder. The main goal is to keep the ball carrier from getting to the top side, or to the middle of the field.
The difference for defenders is that they are covering their men from behind the goal and from the wings. When the ball is behind the goal the defensemen want to pick up the attackmen about five to seven yards in from the end line. To pick up their man, they want to be in their “linebacker” stance, with their knees bent, their feet about shoulder with apart, and their rear end low to the ground. They should have their sticks pointing out towards the ball carrier with their hands about two feet apart.
Continually stress to your defensemen that it is important to always have their sticks out as it gives them about a six-foot cushion to work with. As the ball carrier starts running at them, the defenseman wants to start back pedaling or shuffling, depending on where the ball carrier is going. The defenseman wants to keep his stick right on the ball carrier’s gloves so that he cannot make a good feed. As the ball carrier starts to drive to goal line extended (this is an imaginary line that would go from sideline to sideline if the goal line went all the way across the field), the defenseman wants to pick a spot on the field and beat the ball carrier to it. This means that the defenseman should actually visualize an X on the field about one or two yards higher than goal line extended. As the attackman is driving up field, the defender should try to beat him to this imaginary X. Once the defenseman gets to the X, he should square his hips to the goal line and engage with the attackman.
The objective for the defenseman at this point is to not let the attackman get any higher on the field and making him inside roll. If the attackman gets above the defenseman and gets to the middle of the field, then he will have a great angle for a shot or he will be able to see the whole field for a pass. If the defenseman makes the attackman inside roll, then the attackman will have very little angle for a shot and will have few options for a good feed. Also, the crease defenseman can slide to the attackman just as he inside rolls and the attackman will never see him coming. This should set up an opportunity to take the ball away from the attackman. If the attackman runs up field wide of the goal, anywhere outside eight to ten yards to the side of the net, then the defenseman should not engage with him. This gives the attackman too much room to work with after he inside rolls.
When the defenseman engages with the attackman, he has to be squatted down low for leverage. His hands should be about one to two feet apart and he should use a crosscheck to hold his defenseman. This crosscheck will not be called by the referee as long as the defenseman keeps constant pressure on the ball carrier and a narrow grip on his shaft. If he pushes and keeps crushing the attackman with crosschecks, then a penalty will be called. It is important for the defenseman to keep the crosscheck low. If the defenseman tries to crosscheck the ball carrier in the shoulders, then he loses leverage and the attackman slides underneath.
To recap, the defenseman’s main job when covering the ball carrier from behind is to keep him from getting too high on the field when carrying the ball or to an attackman’s most dangerous spot at five and five. Defensemen also want to keep their man from getting to the top side of the field or getting to the middle. They want to beat their man to goal line extended, square their hips to the end line, and make him inside roll. Once the attackman inside rolls, the defenseman should get his stick straight up in the air, right against the ball carrier’s back. This allows the defenseman to throw a trail check once the attackman brings his stick up to take a shot or throw a pass. This trail check takes some patience on the defenseman’s part, as he has to wait for the attackman to bring his stick back. The defenseman ends up behind the attackman once he inside rolls and has to learn to stay on the attackman’s back. If he tries to get back around the attackman and check the ball away, then the attackman simply rolls back and beats him to the top side. This is one example of how great defense requires extreme discipline. While all these concepts seem simple to understand and do, they take years of practice to master. If a coach can get his defense to never get beat to the top side, he has a great defense team. Many people think that Princeton University runs a million different defenses to hold opponents to few goals. The reality is that Princeton runs a few defenses to perfection and all of them require a group of efficient athletes communicating and acting as a cohesive unit.
The concept is the same when defenders cover their man on the wing. When a defender starts off on the wing, he wants to make the ball carrier go underneath and not allow him to get to the top side. To do this, the defender wants to start coverage by having his hips pointed towards the corner of the field behind the goal. This gives the ball carrier an alley to go underneath. As discussed before, the defender wants to get beat; he just wants to get beat to a designated area. In this case, he wants to get beat underneath towards goal line extended so that he can slowly funnel the ball carrier to behind the goal. If the attackman is dodging underneath with the stick in his left hand, then the defenseman wants to apply pressure with a crosscheck on the ball carrier’s right shoulder.
Many young defensemen want to step in front of the ball carrier and try to check the ball away. This allows the ball carrier to roll back to the top side and should be highly discouraged. All the defenseman has to do is run with the ball carrier and push him towards goal line extended. If the ball carrier beats the defenseman by a couple steps, all the defenseman has to do is get his stick straight up in the air and keep it right on the ball carrier’s back, just as he does when attackmen inside roll against him. As soon as the ball carrier brings his stick back, then the defenseman can come down on his hands with a check.
It is also important to teach defensemen to play defense from up top like the midfielders. Defensemen need to be able to play defense all over the field. They need to understand that their defensive rules stay the same wherever they are on the field.
The first rule is never get beat top side. This rule cannot be stressed enough. The second rule for defenseman is to be patient and not lunge at the ball carrier trying to take the ball away. This will lead to them breaking the first rule, which is getting beat to the top side. The third rule for a defenseman is to always make the ball carrier go where the defense wants him to go. If this rule is broken, then once again, the defenseman will get beat and there will be no help.
Two of the most common reasons for these rules to be broken occur when a defender either attempts to strip the ball away from the offensive player or lunges at him for a body check. First, defenders only need to know two checks; a poke check and a slap check and both should be directed at the offensive player’s bottom hand. The poke is simply the act of extending the stick forward at the offensive player. And a slap check is self-explanatory. Bad defenders will attempt these and more complicated checks and lose track of their men. Good defenders never lunge, use checks sparingly and effectively, and focus on their footwork first. Remember that almost every problem in covering the ball defensively stems back to getting beat to the top side. Harp on it everyday and your defense will be great.
OFF BALL DEFENSE
Off-ball defense or covering a man who does not have the ball is one of the least understood aspects in youth lacrosse. Youth defensemen either stay right on their man and pay no attention to team defense or they stare at the ball and pay no attention to the man that they are covering. They need to learn that playing off-ball defense is a combination of both. They have to learn the rule that is taught to youth basketball players: keep your big eye on your man and your little eye on the ball. This means that most of the time, the defenseman should know exactly where their man is, but they should keep their head on a swivel and listen to their goalie to know where the ball is.
At the youth level, defenses should always play “soft” man-to-man, which means they are packed in. If the defense is playing “hard”, then the defensemen would be pressuring their men off-ball. When playing soft, the defenseman sluffs towards the crease when their man does not have the ball. When they are covering a man who is adjacent to the ball carrier, they should be about five yards off their man and ready to pick him up. For example, if the ball carrier is top right, and defenseman A is covering the man who is top left, then defenseman A is adjacent to the ball. This means he wants to be five yards off his man and ready to pick him up if he gets the ball passed to him. If a defenseman is not adjacent to the ball then he wants to be sluffed in towards the crease. The farther off the player is from the ball, the farther the defender can be from his man.
For practice, coaches should make an extra crease right on top of the crease that surrounds the goal. If a defenseman is not on-ball or is not adjacent to the ball then he should be able to touch this crease with his stick or be in it. If a defenseman is off-ball and is in this imaginary crease then he should also be looking at his man or “looking away”. This is another one of Coach Tierney’s favorite things to yell during practice. Any time he catches one of his off-ball defensemen staring at the ball, he screams “look away!”. Looking away from the ball is very important for off-ball defenseman. If they stare at the ball, they are likely to lose track of the man they are covering and be prone to getting backdoor without knowing.
Playing soft and sluffed is a safe defense to run because it puts pressure on the offense to make good plays and lulls them into making mistakes. As a coach, you can teach your defense where to be on the field by having them scream their position. If they are on-ball, they call out “BALL!” and they should be right on their man with the ball. If they are adjacent to ball they call out either, “LEFT!” or “RIGHT!” and they should be five yards away from their man, ready to play him if he gets the ball. If they are covering the man on the crease, have them call out “CREASE!” or “CRASH!” and they are right on their man on the crease, not letting him get a feed. If they are in any other position on the field, they should call out “AWAY!” or “I’M IN!” and be sluffed in towards the imaginary crease that lies on top of the real crease. The “away” defensemen should be looking away from ball and keeping an eye on their man. This is something that coaches have to walk through first and then slowly make them understand in faster-paced game situations. Teaching intermediate defenseman these concepts puts them way ahead of the game when it comes to understanding team defense.