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The Principles of Basic Defense

This defensive tutorial is useful to coaches and players. This does not cover checks and fancy stick work. This tutorial covers communication, positioning, and teamwork. Defense in lacrosse is perhaps the most under-taught aspect of the game-- everything from holds and checks to team concepts. Part of this is due to the lack of defensive coaches, or defensive minded coaches. It is my sincere belief that the game of lacrosse has not evolved enough yet-- that’s right, sport can evolve-- for sophisticated defense to become commonplace.

After playing and coaching on Long Island, good defense is prevalent here because of the high caliber of coaches. After playing in Division I, most top-notch teams use some kind of defensive scheme, rather than just organized chaos. However, there are many teams in college lacrosse, even in Division I, which are alarmingly lost or under-coached on defense. I am a bit partial because I am a defenseman; but I played offense for 11 years before that, so I know this to be the truth: defense wins championships. There are a few simple but basic rules you need to subscribe to:

  1. The best defense is keeping the ball with your offense.

  2. Patience on defense will force an offense to make a mistake, no matter how effective they are at scoring.

  3. Defense is a team sport, played not with 3, 4, or 5 players, but 7. Short stick middies are where most teams hide weaknesses, which are so elaborately exploited these days.

  4. Timing, brains, and positioning can make up for a lack of speed or physical strength.

  5. I believe that within every good defense is a great goalie.

  6. Communication. Communication. Communication.

  7. Starting with ball possession, these principles are all self-explanatory. By keeping the ball on the offensive end of the field, the other team cannot score. It’s that simple. Slow the ball on offense. If the opposition has the ball for 23 minutes of the game, and your team for 37, you will have more scoring chances and they will have less.

  8. Plus, when you slow the ball on offense, the other defense gets tired and frustrated and will break down, and your defense will rest.

  9. It is no secret that offense is generally based around isolating the short sticks on defense. That is why teams try so hard at getting the long pole on the field, to prevent isolations of short sticks. I would suggest getting your most athletic players on short stick, or take two long poles and make them into short stick defensive middies. My coach’s policy (and it’s a good one) was that if you were going to play offense for him, you had to know defense. This prevents a team from having weak defensive links because the offensive middies who run back to defense are not with the program. These are the short sticks that get scored on. It might be true at some levels you can run your middies off and get defensive middies on, but I don’t urge you to try this at the higher levels. It causes fast breaks. Learn it the right way.

  10. Positioning is paramount. As a coach, you should force this upon your players. This is where repetition comes into play. A good defenseman will be fast; a great defenseman will be fast and smart. You can position your feet, hips, stick and shoulders so that should you even get beat by one step, you can recover easily. Details on that discussion are for another time.

  11. The Goalie. (You will notice that I capitalize the ‘G’ out of respect for these rare athletes) A defensive scheme is built around the strengths and weaknesses of goalies. I can elaborate on this as well for hours, but basically, here is an example: a defense can play sluffed in (which allows outside shots) if a goalie is good at saving outside shots.

  12. Communication. You will be astonished at the amount of goals you can prevent by talking. Watch a game between two defensive juggernauts, say Princeton and Hopkins, and you will hear the chatter from the television. Coaches punish for lack of talk during practice, as did mine. Communication all starts with the goalie too.

Does one have to follow these principles to have an effective defense? No, certainly not. This is what the top teams subscribe to, though. The least you can do is try it. I understand that some of this tutorial requires further clarification. If anyone has questions, comments, or just learned something from this, please email ben@alllacrosseamerica.com or dan@alllacrosseamerica.com and I will respond. I love to hear that people have learned from me, because I enjoyed learning it from my coaches.