The following thoughts were provided by a local graduate and Lax star in the Eighties at Army.
Some Ideas on Defense in Lacrosse
Lacrosse is a Team Sport
Defense is Team Concept. A team is only as good as its weakest defender, but a strong defensive team will cover 75% of their mistakes with team play.
Defense must be coached all year long, starting with a focus from the Head Coach. Here are some of the things I see as areas that need improvement:
1. Communications. Lacrosse players must communicate constantly. Attackman, Middies and Defenders must call out ball location, next slides, push slides, splitting two, cutters, open opponents, and the status of clears, passes, breaks, and fast breaks. The Goalie is the Commander of the Defense. He must talk constantly and guide is defenses. The defender (middie or defenseman) opposite the ball sees the field better than anyone else on the defensive end. He talks more than the goalie to help all defenders know the next defender to slide, see the cuts, and pushes second and third slides. All players must constantly have a head on a swivel (constantly look left, right, in front and behind) to see the ball, their man, the goal and the field. Players must constantly look everywhere. Those that see better must communicate to all. A smart lacrosse team will beat a team with better talent if they communicate effectively. Practice this and it will make the team smarter and better.
2. Ground balls. This is more attitude than aptitude. The attitude is to go get the ball, go through the ball, call “Man-Ball” (1st man to the ball goes for the opponent, 2nd for the ground ball). Men do NOT rake a lacrosse ball. That’s for kiddies who haven’t learned the game. High School and College lacrosse players should ALWAYS scoop through the ball. If a group of opponents surround the ball, run through the group and scoop toward the opponents goal. If in our defensive end, scoop away from our goal. Never, never rake.
Drill everyday on grounds balls. Give awards to those who get the most ground balls in a game. In district games it may not mean as much, but against Maryland teams it will be the difference between a win or a loss.
3. Fast Breaks. All defenders and middies must understand how to properly play fast breaks. Defensemen must sprint to the hole and form a triangle. The point defender starts no more than 10 yards from the goal. He meets the Fast Break man from 12-15 yards from the goal, depending on how good of a shot he has (yes, defenders must know who the good shooters are from the other team). When an opponent has a fast break, all middies run to the hole immediately. They leave who ever they were covering and go to the hole at full speed. They should pick-up and defend opponents from the inside out [the biggest threat first (guy in the crease or in shooting position), then work their way out ensuring all threats are covered]. Covering your man 30 yards from the goal does no good if someone is open on the crease.
If the Break Man wants to go to the goal, knock him down. Poke the center of mass of his body (that means poke him in the gut or bread basket), slide your stick to his strong hand (his stick side), square up and follow through with your body through his body. There is nothing worse than seeing a fast break with defenders swinging sticks wildly while a middie dodges unscathed through to the goal. A Defender plays the body. If someone is using a stick check to try and stop an opponent, he should be pulled from the game and spoken to by the coach. This is simple defense that must be practiced constantly.
Drill all year on handling fast breaks and unsettled situations. 90% of the goals against our team come from improperly handling unsettled situations. This takes tremendous discipline and practice to get right. It must be practiced all year long by all.
4. Body Position on Defense. Good defense is played with your feet, not with a stick. Much the same as basketball, defenders must learn to square up on opponents. Very good defensemen will always force an offensive player to his weak hand. There are only a handful of players in the high school and college level that go well both left and right. Always force an offensive player to go where you want, not where he wants to take you. When forcing a player away from the goal, use forearms whenever possible. The head of your stick should always be in front of the offensive player. If the offensive player is bigger and stronger, use your forearm and shoulder to push him out. Always keep your feet square to the goal and listen for the goalie. Know where you are on the field. Goalies must let defenders know when the offensive player has a shot.
5. Stick Checking. High school defenders throw too many stick checks. Smart attackman (there are one or two out there) will time this checks and eventually roll or cut into the check which will put the defender out of position (that means he is beaten). The number one check in lacrosse is the poke check. When an offensive player attempts to dodge, a stick check to the gut will always slow him down and allow the defender to see which way he wants to go. Chasing sticks and wrap checks are typically worthless on most offensive players. If a defender wants to take the ball away from the offensive player - it’s easy, it takes practice, but I’ll cover this in the future.
One correct poke check per possession with throw most offensive players into a tail spin. They can not handle it. A Defenseman should poke through the gut on every face dodge. Defensemen should poke the bottom hand on EVERY PASS or FEED attempt by the attackman. A defenseman should poke or slap down between the wrist and the glove on every shot (this is an unprotected soft spot that is one of the most painful things you can do to a lacrosse player – do it!). One well timed check will always hurt the attackman and make him think more about the defender than shooting or passing. This is what all of our players can do.
6. The Crease. For defenders, especially Midfielders, this is the most dangerous place on the lacrosse field. One half a step is the difference between a goal and a change of possession our way. The defenders stick must ALWAYS be in position to check an offensive player who is in scoring position on the crease. For middies, this means you MUST between the ball and the man cutting. This takes constant vigilance by the team and the coaches. When the ball is passed to the crease, everyone on the defense (especially the goalie) should yell CHECK. Everyone should knock the stick from their opponents hands. This should always be violent, yet under control. No one should be allowed to score from the crease.
7. Picks and Double teams. Defenders should always step up on picks. Two six foot sticks and two iron bodies should always give the advantage to the defense if the offense is silly enough to use a pick. If an attackman or middie comes close enough to a defender to use a pick, double team the man with the ball and never let up until you take the ball away. The pick man (or offensive player without the ball) should cut to the crease and be picked-up by the normal slide man on defense. If you have a chance to double team, NEVER STOP until you take the ball away. Play body and use controlled stick checks. When one man drops off a double team, typically both defenders are beat, and the pick man is open if a slide comes to the man with the ball. NEVER leave a double team. When sliding for a double team, NEVER, NEVER chase a stick. Slide with the body - check the opponent stick on stick, and follow through with the shoulder and body. An opponent should never beat a double team.
8. Getting Beat. It is very hard to get beaten one-on-one in lacrosse if you play good fundamental defense. If you are an average player, and a superstar happens to be significantly faster than you and gets around you, chase on the stick side and wait for the pass or shot. If the slide comes from the defense, be in position for when the offensive player turns back into you. Be patient and wait until he tries to pass or shoot. Even though you seem to be beaten, a Defenseman is never beaten unless someone can beat him by six feet, or the length of his stick. If a Defensemen has not learned how to play defense, gets excited or just loses his mind and reaches behind an attackman to chase his stick, he will be beaten at first. The good news is with six feet of titanium or aluminum he can casually follow this attackman and take the ball away 90% of the time if he is patient and waits for the check when the man is ready to pass or shoot.
9. Cat and Mouse. Good Attackmen and good Defensemen play cat and mouse with their opponent. An attackman will cradle and show something to the defender hoping he will chase it, then he will roll or cut on the check and beat the defender. A good Defenseman should force an Attackman to his weak hand, then time his check to disrupt a pass or a shot, or to take the ball away. A timed check will always work better against an attackmans weak hand – so force him that way. One well timed check will crush an Attackman and have him constantly worried about when that one check is coming. Constant checking is loved by attackmen. They can time the wild defensive checks, cradle to them, shoot and pass to them, set you up and use you by them. Think, be smart, out think your opponent. One check is all that is needed.
10. Taking the Ball Away. As a Defenseman, if you are a good athlete and you are lacrosse smart, taking the ball away from your opponent is fun, exciting, and gives your team the ability to dominate other teams. The most important thing about taking a ball away from your opponent is forcing him to do what you want, not what he wants. Recognize weaknesses in your opponent. Is he right handed, left handed or is he outstanding going both ways? Does he always shoot high or low? Does he always roll one way or the other? Does he dodge, dip than hang his stick? Does he wind up to shoot or does he shoot from his chest? Is he fast or slow? A great stick handler or a poor one? What happens when you fake a check (Defensemen should fake checks to see what their opponent does)? A single poke check or slap check will take the ball away from more attackmen than any other check. Wrap checks and over the head checks are great ways to get penalties. They can be effective if you have outstanding footwork and are under control, but they take lots and lots of practice. Footwork is key. If you are out of position after a check, it is not a good check. If you can wrap and recover and never lose position, that’s a good start. If you can go over the head under control, set the check up with a fake wrap check then quickly go over the head and recover. This takes lots of practice – do it before and after practice with teammates. Always practice against the best attackman on the team. Learn what he does to try and beat you, then learn to beat him. [Coaches should discourage over the head and wrap checks, unless a defenseman can consistently show they work. Over the head and wrap check drills are good for off-days as a fun 30-minute drill. However the danger is – if you teach it, all will want to do it in the game and many kids will get beaten because they are out of position or do not yet have the skills to make these checks work.]
11. Team Defenses. There are many defenses in lacrosse that all work if utilized against the right team under the right conditions. A strong man-to-man defense is the foundation on which team defense is built. When playing man-to-man, slides can come from adjacent or the crease, but the entire team must slide. Zone defenses are great against a stronger opponent initially, but it makes it very hard to come back if our team is behind in goals. Sliding from the crease is good, but the entire team must slide with the crease slide. Constant communications is needed to ensure the crease is never left open.
12. Man-down Defense. Too many defenses to cover right now. But simple rules: stay tight, communicate, always have your stick up and to the inside - cutting off passing lanes and helping on the crease. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If the ball is on the ground in front of the crease - clear the crease. This means knock down every opponent on the crease - from the front, side or back. Knock them down and then after the whistle, help them up. This will be a loose ball push and NOT a goal.
13. Sportsmanship. Defenders should be play hard, be aggressive and legally hurt their opponents with strong stick checks, body checks and aggressive play. While cuts and bruises are part of the game, a good Sportsman does not hurt people illegally or with malice. As in football or hockey, a good hit is a good hit, as long as it contributes to the teams effort and does no serious harm. Legal hits can do serious harm at times, and a good sportsman will help when possible, and act professional. There is no place in this sport for cheap shots. Don’t use them ever, period.
14. Penalties. Along with giving 110% to all they do on the field, they must be aggressive without getting penalties. A strong, athletic, aggressive Defenseman who gets lots of penalties is hurting the team. Be smarter than your opponent and be under control. Do not get needless penalties.
15. DEFENSE! Defense is a mind set that must be taught, practiced and embraced by the entire team. It must be aggressively violent, yet under control. Defense means fighting to the death for every ground ball. It means giving 110% on every defensive play and helping the team. One player never gets beat in lacrosse - a team is beaten fi they don’t play together.
- Head on a Swivel - Always!
- Poke check to the body
- Attack and Win EVERY ground ball - “MAN-BALL!”
- Slide and double team with your body
- One check, not ten or twenty
- Force your man to his weak side
- Sticks always up and to the inside - knock down passes and always help on the crease
- Ball down on the crease - clear the crease. No one left standing!
16. Basic Drills to be done every day:
Scooping Drills. Start with ground balls away then ground balls to every player. These are called Scooping Drills. Lacrosse players don’t do raking.
Body position drills (can do defense on attack or defense on defense - key if body position)
Ground Ball Drills. One on one and Man-Ball two on one drills every day.
Fast Break Drills. Triangle. Pick up no further than 12 yards from the goal. Sticks to the inside. Always drop step to the inside with your stick up in the passing lane.
Double Team Drills (at least two to three times a week). Learn to properly double. Play the body. Never let up. This can be combined with two on two drills going to the goal. Have the Attackmen try to score, but they must use one pick in the process. Attempt to use the pick and roll (man with ball dumps to the pick man when he is double teamed). When the defense recognized the pick, the pick defender should step up and double team. If he doubles, he never stops until they take the ball away. If the attackman with the ball does not use the pick, there is no double. This is a good offensive and defensive drill.