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Drills to improve defensive footwork

By Jill Prudden

Defensive footwork needs to be drilled just as much as offensive footwork. Defensive positioning and the amount of distance a defensive player takes from the player she’s defending depend largely on the abilities and skills of the two players. A super quick and experienced defender might move in closer on an opponent than an inexperienced defender with moderate quickness should dare do. When it comes to footwork, much depends on quickness, but even more depends on positioning. If you know where and how to move your feet, you’ll have advantages over many opponents.

Proper defense and effective footwork begin with the stance. The defensive stance is neither natural nor comfortable, which is why many players struggle to defend in the correct stance. They are much more comfortable standing up than flexing their knees. In a defensive stance, a player’s feet are slightly staggered and about shoulder-width apart. In a staggered stance, one foot is placed on the floor higher than the other foot. For balance, body weight should be equally distributed on both feet. Weight should be on the balls of the feet, not on the heels. Knees should be bent and thighs at a 45-degree angle to the floor. This allows defensive players a low body position, which makes for greater quickness, strength, and explosiveness.

A defender’s upper body should be straight with the head up and centered directly over the shoulders. This posture helps maintain balance and provide court vision. Forearms should be flexed, and hands should be in front of the body, palms up. Active hands often bother a dribbler. But, in general, defenders shouldn’t attempt to reach in with their hands to steal the ball because this can cause unbalance, which a skilled offensive player will take advantage of. Defenders want to pressure the ball while containing the dribbler.

Slide Step To move laterally when defending, a defensive player uses a slide step. Some coaches refer to the slide as a “step-and-catch” movement. To move to her left, a defender wants to push off with her right foot, step left with her left foot, and slide her right foot halfway to her left foot. This procedure is repeated to defend laterally. It’s important that the defender not cross her feet or bring them too close together because these result in poor defensive balance.

Movement in a forward or backward direction is done in a similar sliding fashion. To move forward, the back foot pushes off, the front foot steps forward, and the rear foot slides up halfway to the front foot. To move backward, the front pushes off, the back foot takes a step, and the forward foot slides halfway to the back foot. Weight needs to be on the balls of the feet. These sliding steps are taken with quick, short movements, and feet stay as close to the floor as possible.

Defensive positioning on a ball handler depends on both the defensive player’s and the offensive player’s strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. For example, a defender might overplay a dribbler’s strong hand. If a player is right-handed, the defender might line up on the offensive player’s right hand. If the offensive player is a poor ball handler, the defender can crowd her defensively. In a crowded defensive position, the defense guards her offensive player much closer than in a normal on-the-ball stance.

Drop Step The drop step is a defensive move used to counter an offensive player’s change of direction. If an offensive player attacks a defender’s high or top foot, the defender needs to execute a drop step to counter this move. This move is a defensive recovery to help the defender avoid getting beat and giving up an easy score. The drop step is actually a reverse pivot. It is executed by pivoting on the back foot while performing a reverse pivot and swinging the opposite elbow and front foot in the direction taken by the offensive player. After the drop step is taken, the defensive player needs to regain proper defensive positioning.

Footwork Drills

Great defense starts with an attitude, a mindset that says, “Nobody scores on me or my team.” Next, the heart must be engaged. Take pride in individual and team defense. Finally, engage your body. Defense is hard work; short cuts don’t pay off. Nobody “scores” in footwork drills, but they transfer great footwork to the game, and literally nobody scores. Being in excellent condition can only improve individual and team defense. Great defense expends energy, and well-conditioned teams can play great defense much longer than teams with poor conditioning.

Slide Drill

Purpose: To reinforce proper body positioning and defensive footwork

Procedure: Players line up in several lines across the court facing the coach. On the whistle, players slap the floor, yell out “defense!” and assume a defensive stance with feet parallel. A coach points to the right or to the left, and players execute the proper sliding technique. Players continue the slide in the same direction until the coach changes direction with another gesture.

Direction Drill

Purpose: To reinforce proper body positioning and defensive footwork

Procedure: This drill is the same as the Slide Drill except the coach adds forward and backward directions to her cues. When sliding in a retreat manner from a lateral slide, players execute the drop step.

Lane Slides

Purpose: To reinforce proper defensive slide technique and a low body defensive position

Procedure: Players line up inside the free-throw lane area with their outside foot placed against the free-throw lane line. On a coach’s whistle, players slide from lane line to lane line. As each player’s foot touches the lane line, so does each outside hand. This helps players stay low. Players count how many lines they can touch in 30 seconds.

Free-Throw Lane Drill

Purpose: To work on quick changes of direction and reinforce proper footwork

Drill: Players line up at the bottom corner of the free-throw lane line. At the whistle, players sprint to the top corner of the lane (called the elbow). When they touch the corner they quickly assume a defensive stance and slide to the next elbow. After touching the next elbow, players backpedal to the bottom corner. After touching the bottom corner (baseline), players use defensive slides to return to their original starting position. The area covered in this drill is the free-throw lane. The footwork pattern is forward sprint, slide, backpedal, and slide. This drill runs 30 seconds.

This is an excerpt from Coaching Girls’ Basketball Successfully.

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