When I was in high school, a teammate on my club team – a center back – was garnering a lot of Division I interest from college coaches around the country. He had all the obvious makings of a great defender: superior size, strength, and speed. As you can imagine, he was highly regarded by our coach, teammates, and others who might watch our games.
As a fellow defender who was the opposite of physically gifted, I found myself repeatedly frustrated playing alongside this teammate of mine. To make up for my lack of physical ability, I had to rely on preventing the opponent’s attack by being in the right place at the right time, as opposed to running down attackers and making last-minute tackles. In my teenage angst, I considered my teammate to be an average defender at best.
Looking back, I may have been a bit harsh in my assessment, as he was generally a good player who was even technically sound. However, as I reflect on this experience, I do in fact believe he was missing so much that would have otherwise allowed him to compete at the highest levels of the game.
The reason that this player was perceived to be overtly talented was because everything that made him stand out was obvious to the casual observer. However, his best moments were usually premised on an initial mistake or being in a poor position to begin with. He didn’t truly know his role as a center back. He knew the basics of the position, but he didn’t know the details. His speed and strength allowed him to recover, but rarely did he prevent a ball from being played through, and almost never did he beat an attacker to the ball before it was received.
Today, I see this on virtually every field at almost every level. We have players who are superior athletes and even technically sound, but their true understanding of how to defend is missing.
The best defenders can anticipate an attack at its onset. They can recognize visual cues to predict what is going to happen. At times, they know what an attacker is going to do before the attacker even realizes what she is going to do. For example, a well-crafted defender might recognize that a player in front (yet too far away to close down) has time and space, which is a clue that she will soon receive the ball. The defender might also recognize that she is marking someone and that there is space behind them. This will tell the defender that if/when the open attacker receives the ball, she will play the ball into space behind, allowing the defender to either beat the attacker to the ball, or drop back early and prevent the ball from ever being played to begin with, forcing the attacker to look in another direction.
In order to help more players merely recover from mistakes and begin to think ahead and prevent attacks, we have two responsibilities as coaches:
Teach our defenders to read the game better
Recognize when defenders prevent an attack rather than recover
Teaching Defenders to Read the Game
When it comes to defending, we must teach our players how to read and anticipate the constant movements of the game. We must teach our defenders how to recognize runs that attackers are making, and the spaces that they are creating. As coaches, we must be asking our players questions like:
“If an attacker makes a run, opening up space in the middle of the field, what will the surrounding attackers most likely to do next?”
“Can we close and cut off the open spaces?”
“Can we know or anticipate what play is going to come next based on the movement or situation of the attacker?”
We also need to be teaching our defenders about visual cues. What does it look like when an attacker is preparing to play a ball long? What does it look like when an attacker is about to play the ball short, or dribble? Being able to read an attacker’s visual cues and body language is vital when it comes to teaching effective, preventative defending. We need our defenders to respond to visual cues by thinking to themselves: “Do I drop? Do I step? Do I slide one way or another?”
If we can teach players this, they will become better defenders by preventing attacks, rather than simply recovering and reacting to attackers’ actions. Ultimately, this will allow our defenders to force attackers into less-dangerous situations and/or intercept passes to begin a counter-attack in better field position.
Recognizing When Defenders Prevent Attacks
Our second responsibility as coaches is to begin to recognize when defenders showcase this ability to anticipate and prevent attacks. Firstly, as coaches, if we praise these actions, it will encourage more players to do it more often, and it will teach them how to continue improving these skills. Furthermore, if we can train ourselves to better recognize these players, we will have a larger pool of effective defenders. Too many players who have great instincts to read the game are over-looked because they don’t do anything flashy or stand out as a behemoth in physical stature.
Can we, as coaches, look at more than the ball? Can we see the entire field and the movements and shapes of players? Are our defenders anticipating attacks and getting in the right positions to manipulate attackers? Can we recognize defenders who are taking preventative actions, such as closing space or changing body position to force an attacker to in another, less dangerous, direction?
As we go forth in our coaching, we need to challenge ourselves to open our view of defending to the bigger picture. Are our defenders preventing attacking plays before they happen, or are they merely recovering as a reaction to a play that has already occurred?