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Finding Space:  Coaching Defense

Teaching Youth Players the Secret of the Game

 
You have now succeeded in teaching your youth players the fundamentals and basic skills of lacrosse. You can only marvel at your players’ ability to switch hands, roll dodge and pass and catch with both hands with proficiency. Thanks to Gary Gait, some of your players can now pass behind their backs, and with Casey Powell as inspiration, some of your players can toss a stick in the air and catch it without losing the ball.
 
Now, it is time to scrimmage. Much to your dismay, as the game progresses you continually witness seven to eight players struggling to pick up a ball in what looks more like a rugby scrum than the game you dreamed that these advanced stick skills might enable your players to enjoy. Even more sadly, when your player finally gets the ball on offense, his most difficult obstacle in getting to the goal may fact that his own players cut off his route to the goal or stand and watch as he tries to beat his defender. Tragically, when you insist that your players move the ball on, you may be permanently damaging their chances of scoring as there seems to be no one to pass to or worse yet, the only pass they can make is the one that moves your team further from the goal.
 
In this nightmarish apparition of the game you love, your frustration leads you to yell out coaching clichés that are contained in your own lacrosse memory bank. These stored memories are the words that you remember your own frustrated coaches screaming in desperate situations. Frantically, you exhort your kids to move without the ball, find a lane, or cut to the goal. These commands do not remedy the mess that the game has become The players not only do not understand what you want them to do, but they have not been trained to do any of these very sophisticated techniques.
 
The problem is that you are speaking a language your players do not understand. You may as well be speaking Greek. The sophisticated individual stick and dodging skills that the players possess are not really able to be unleashed as their understanding of the larger team game trails far behind these advanced individual skills.
 
This article is an attempt to remedy that situation. You cannot expect your players to develop an understanding that you have not taught. Even more powerfully stated, you cannot expect your players to execute concepts that you have not instilled by drilling. Drilling so many times until they can be executed without thinking. The skill that you have not instilled is a skill that is referred to as finding space. Without this skill, it is not only difficult to run an offense; it is almost impossible to play the game. However with this skill any size  player, can destroy an opponent.
 
B.J. Prager may have been one of the smallest players on the field for Princeton, but his ability to find space often made him the most dangerous player on the field. If you translate that to a team, the ability to find space may enable a team that is smaller and less talented physically to completely dismantle a physically superior team. This holds true for lacrosse at any level.
 
Teaching Players to Find Space
Coaches, begin to use the term “find space”. Understand that unless you drill it to the point that it is instinctive the words will mean nothing. Once the understanding is in place, players will know exactly what you mean and move in ways that will always increase your team’s effectiveness. If players can find space, your offense will work. If they can’t find space, the best pattern or plays in the world will not help you.
 
The way that you must teach youth players, and for that matter all players, is in a progression. The progression must;
  1. teach the skill in isolation without pressure
  2. move to a situation with pressure that approaches game like intensity
  3. and finally, the skill must be practiced with full intensity in a drill that totally simulates the game situation.
The progression that you use to teach finding space must be practiced at every practice with the same effort that you practice individual skills with the ball. The good news for you is that this progression is often more fun and engages more players than your traditional one-on-one ball drills.

Progression One: Three-on-Two Drill

This first drill is the pivotal part of the progression that will teach your players to find space. Begin by lining three players up on three of four cones arranged in a square. The players are lined up in an “L”, three of the four cones or corners of the square, and must keep aligned in the “L”. They must always be adjacent. As player 1 passes to player 2, player 3 must run to keep the L and be adjacent to the ball. The game begins without defense and players learning to move adjacent and keep the L.
 
In youth lacrosse, you must always be covering multiple concepts. As you are teaching players to move adjacent to the ball, you are also reviewing the basic fundamentals of throwing and catching. Insist that the younger players catch with a tight stick (top hand on the plastic, bottom hand in the middle of the stick—lacrosse’s equivalent of choking up on a bat). When they throw, insist that they point their fist at the player they are throwing to and that they hold the stick with their top hand above their ear and that they pull on the bottom hand as they throw. They must understand that the stick is a lever and their top hand is the fulcrum.
 
Quickly add two players on defense. One player on the ball starts the drill by screaming “BALL” or “I GOT BALL”. The second player who is stacked behind the first player must call “BACK” or “I GOT BACK” before the pass is made. Once the pass is made the back player screams “BALL” and he moves to pass, as the ball player moves to the back position and screams “BACK”. In this drill, you are teaching players to move to the right offensive places in a rote way, but at the same time, you are teaching the basic defensive rotation, or slides,  that will drive your player’s entire careers.
 
Players will not love this drill. It is too staged for them. However, just as you must master the alphabet before you can enjoy reading, you must master these movements and defensive reactions before you can enjoy the game. As soon as they master the drill with cones, remove the cones. Now they must make the adjustment to finding space without a cone to guide them. You can guide them by yelling “FIND SPACE” and exhorting them to “STRETCH THE DEFENSE”. You can guide your players even more by bringing a super soaker to practice and soaking them a little if they do not find enough space. They will like this drill better as they master the concept and they will love it if they get soaked!
 
The great part of this drill is that as your season progresses you can toss a ball to five players and tell them to find space in a corner of the field. If you have 25 players toss a ball to the other four groups of five tell them to find space. In a matter of minutes, the field is taken up with your entire team moving in a way that instills passing and catching on the run, defensive reaction and talk and finding space. We were given only two minutes to warm up before a tournament game and rather than a line drill we tossed out three or four balls and said the words, “three on two drill”. Players came in after those two or three minutes, warm, sweating and, most of all, ready to play the game.

Progression Two: Good Guys, Bad Guys: Three on Two Groundballs

Although the first progression drill will not be loved, most players will love this drill as they master the concepts driving it. Players love the competition that drives this drill and never want to leave the drill. The drill begins with five players lined up for a traditional groundball drill. Never balance the lines but insist the players do this for themselves. Simply say the words, “five lines”. Do not begin the drill, until the lines are balanced. Balancing their own lines allows leaders to emerge and fosters the understanding that the players are a team and responsible for each other. They must all be on the same page. Players one, three and five raise their stick and are identified as the good guys. The players two and four are identified as the bad guys.
 
For some reason, players love the concept of good guys and bad guys as much as they love playing cops and robbers. To pump them up, simply ask them who is going to win, good guys or bad guys? Ask them a second time and hold your ears. The only rule is that if the good guys get the ball, to win the game, they must successfully pass the ball to each of their good guy teammates. Bad guys have an advantage in that they need only pass it to their one other bad guy teammate. What you must now bring to life is the three-on-two drill you taught in the first progression. Insist that the drill does just that, or stop the drill and demonstrate to players that they must find space and play ball-back defense just as they did a few minutes ago with the cones. Stress the offensive and defensive talk. It takes no athletic ability to say “here’s your help” or “I got ball”. It does take understanding of what is going to happen next! To have some fun, and to avoid the cheating or ball jumping that often seeps into the drill, try having the players lay on their back or bellies to start. They will love this craziness in ways that will make them really enjoy the drill.
 
When the drill first begins you will probably find all five players chasing the ball. Be patient. Don’t lose your super soaker, as you may have to sprinkle a few players to keep them from ball chasing. The most amazing part is when the lagging good guys realize that they would be better off finding space than they would creating a rugby scrum on the ball. This understanding is the lacrosse equivalent of seeing two moves ahead in chess. When your players can see the next pass before it happens, they have learned the secret of the game. In order for the drill to work, players must find space. Even fourth grade teams can master this concept quickly if you do these drills every practice. We all have watched lacrosse at much higher levels where players do not have these skills.
 
Progression Three: The Box Drill: Three-on-Two Fast break Drill
You are now ready to bring the skill to the game level. Probably the best drill for this concept is the Box Drill, because we want goalies and players to be conditioned to pass to the substitution box when they hear the word, box. This may be the best and most authentic fast break drill in the game. It is simple to teach, but a real test of endurance for players to execute.
 
First of all, in order to not confuse youth players, set up only two attackmen and two defensemen at each end of the field. Use two attackmen rather than three so that you build on the three-on-two drills that you have just conditioned in the first two stages of the progression. (As the kids get a bit more practiced at this, or for older players, you can do the four-on-three break.) At the midfield, line up three midfielders of a team on one side of the line and three midfielders of the other team on the other side of the line in opposite color pennies.
 
The drill begins with a midfielder breaking back to the goalie yelling, “BOX”. Insist that the player yell loud enough for the goalie to hear. The goalie throws the outlet and the midfielder is off on a break to the other end of the field employing the same three on two fastbreak concepts you have conditioned when you began with the cones drill. As soon as that break concludes, whether it be with a save, a goal or a turnover, the next midfielder in the other color going to the other end breaks onto the field and yells, “BOX”. The goalie throws the outlet to this midfielder and he is off to the races for another a three on two break at the other end. A variation of this drill that makes it game-authentic, messy and a real conditioner is having the first midfielder who started the drill chase back on defense. Each subsequent midfielder who joins the drill stays in the drill throughout the entire drill and must continue to chase back to the defense as the drill progresses. Stop the drill when you have 6 vs. 6 and start over. The midfielder who started the drill has run the field six times. Make sure to rotate the midfielders so that they share the drill and conditioning this drill provides. What happens is that your players learn to run the field, look up as they run, find space in the three-on-two at each end, not to mention stop the break and play in messy unsettled situations.
Just so that players on the attack and defense do not miss out on the fun, be sure to run the drill with positions switched. Attackmen will now learn firsthand what it means to a midfielder when they throw a thoughtless or hurried pass that requires the midfielders to run back on defense. As a coach, you will never need to run sprints at the end of a practice if your players run this drill with heart. More importantly, the skill of finding space will now become an integral part of how your team plays the game.
 
To condition these instincts for younger players will take the whole year. Don’t worry about teaching elaborate patterns or plays on offense, let them find space on their own. You can further condition them by having them run basketball weaves sideline-to-sideline instead of line drills. These drills too will teach space and discipline. However, if you have older players you will need to integrate these same concepts to your formal offense. There is no better tool for accomplishing that than the motion offense, the concepts of which will be presented in a follow-up piece.
 
Three Rules of Defense
First Rule of Defense: Always stay between your man and the goal.   
This is the basic tenet of defense whenever the other team has the ball. So many times our players play adjacent to, or in front of the man they are covering. Other times they are just plain our of position. The most basic fundamental of defense is that they should be positioned between the man they are covering and their own goal. Drill this into their head! I know it seems simple and obvious, but new players don’t always know, and even if they do many have not developed a “field sense” yet and lose track of where they are on the field.
 
If we can get them to remember the First Rule of Defense, it will help them know where they need to be on the field. I think this rule is especially helpful in riding situations (so it is important that attackmen know it, too). How many times do you see a player positioned in front of his man on the ride, and while he is watching the ball, the opposing player he is “covering” quietly moves farther behind him into open space, takes a pass, and starts a fastbreak. If our players stay between their man and their goal, this will not happen.
 
Second Rule of Defense: Feet first, stick second.
Those guys just can’t wait to swing that stick at the other player. But that only leads to bad defense and costly penalties. Defense is played effectively by moving your feet. We must teach young players to play defense with their feet, and prevent them from relying on their stick. Do this in practice by doing one-on-one dodges to the goal—but take the defenders’ sticks away from them. Emphasize the ready position (knees bent, on your toes, squared up to your opponent, good balance, low center of gravity—just the same way you would defend the dribbler in basketball) and the drop step (take one step back as you move left or right mirroring the offensive player, allowing you to keep your body between your man and the goal and preventing him from blowing by you; the defender gradually gives up ground, but always stays between his man and the goal, again similar to guarding a driving player in basketball).
 
A nice bonus of this drill is that it gives young offensive players a chance to practice their dodging and carrying techniques more successfully when the defenders don’t have a stick in their face. Emphasize to the offensive players keeping the stick tucked away and protected as they dodge, and having their hands positioned on the stick so that they can pass or shoot quickly. Once you are satisfied with your players’ ability to defend by moving their feet, then you can give them their stick back (they really want to get those sticks back, so this is a good motivator in getting them to work hard at using their feet!)
 
When we give the sticks back, we must instruct the players how to use them wisely as defensive tools. A lacrosse stick is not a baseball bat and should not be used as one! A slash is defined as “swinging a crosse at an opponent’s crosse or body with viciousness or reckless abandon... or striking an opponent in an attempt to dislodge the ball from his crosse, unless the player uses some part of his body...to ward off the thrust of the defensive player’s crosse.” Any time a player hits another with his stick and it was not legitimately directed at the stick, it should be whistled by the referee as a slash. My own opinion is that referees at all levels—from youth and high school right up to Division I NCAA—allow defenders to get away with far too many reckless stick checks these days. I voice my opinion whenever possible, but in the meantime I instruct my players to play the games as the rules state.
 
Our first priority is to remind players to play with their feet first, stick second. It’s amazing the memory loss that occurs sometimes when they get that stick back in their hand. If this happens, take the stick away from them until they regain their good defensive footwork. Next, the stick should be out in front of the defender’s body, pointed towards the offensive player. Too many times the defender holds the stick close to his body with the head pointing towards the side. The only thing he can do with the stick in this position is earn a cross check penalty. Make sure they keep those sticks out front.
 
The proper hand positioning on the stick is important, too. If the offensive player is driving to his right (the defender’s left), the right hand should be higher on the stick closer to the head. If the offensive player is driving to his left (the defender’s right), the left hand should be higher on the stick. By positioning the hands this way you can drop step to stay between the man and the goal and still keep your stick in front on his hands. This also creates a V-hold (it is called a V-hold because the defenders forearm and the stick form a V angle in front of the offensive player) which gives the defender the optimum leverage to push the offensive player out. Ideally the defender will switch hands as the dodger switches directions, but this is difficult moving at full speed. It takes practice!
 
Finally, we teach our players to focus on their opponents’ hands. If they can harass their opponents by poke checking their hands, or lifting the hands and arms with their stick, the offensive player will be stymied. They cannot catch, pass, or shoot if a defender is keeping pressure on their hands. And by poking and lifting, we avoid the potential slashing penalties that could put us in a man-down situation. Don’t forget FEET FIRST, STICK SECOND. It is easy for a player to get so focused on poking and lifting that he gets off balance and lets the man get past him. Then we’re in trouble!
 
 
Third Rule of Defense: Always protect the hole.
The hole is the area on the field inside the restraining box roughly within an 8-10 yard radius in front of the goal. Probably over 80 percent of scoring in youth and high school games occur in that area. Players must understand this, and defend the hole intensely. In an unsettled situation, defenders must get back inside the restraining box, defend the hole, and play defense from inside out. In other words, get back into the hole as quickly as possible first, then “mark up” on defense by finding an uncovered opponent, calling out his number so your teammates know you have him covered, and employ Rules #1 and #2!
 
My philosophy is that once the ball crosses the midline, I want my midfielders to sprint back inside the restraining box to the hole. They will want to contest the ball, or cover their man out there in the middle of the field, but my feeling is that it’s better teaching them to get back and play solid fundamental defense rather than potentially having a fastbreak goal scored against us because our middies are caught out there behind the play. If the ball is down on the ground and my player is near it, certainly that player should go for the ball. But if the ball is down on the far side of the field, the player is better off getting to the hole and being ready to defend.
 
I don’t even really want my midfielders to throw a check out there, because most times the check is unsuccessful and the opponent is past my defender. I have seen so many goals scored this way while coaching at the high school level that I believe getting to the hole first and foremost is the best strategy.
 
It is worthwhile to practice this. Start out in a mock clear or face-off and roll the ball out in the midfield area. Call out loudly “To the hole!” (It’s good to have your goalie learn to recognize and call this, too.) Make sure your midfielders hightail it as fast as they can back inside the box to the hole, and then turn and mark up on the offensive players as they come down field entering the offensive zone.
 
Again, if a middie is near the ground ball he should go after it, but the others should sprint—not jog—back into the box. I also call out “to the hole” any time I have the players run sprints in practice. I want them to associate that sprint with getting back on defense, instead of just getting to the goal to try to score.
 
If your team has a fastbreak goal scored against them, you can use it as an opportunity to really illustrate the importance of Rule #3. Ask your defenders to think about where they were on the field when the goal was scored. If they were covering their man way outside of the box or away from the hole, it should be clear to them how they took themselves out of the play by being too far away. They need to follow Rule #1 and be between their man and the goal, but they also need to be in a position where they can help out if the hole area is assaulted.
 
I constantly ask my players “What’s the First Rule of Defense?!” “What’s the Third Rule of Defense?!” My expectation is that every player answer loudly in unison. I ask them over and over, five or six times over the course of practice, before games, during time outs. Sometimes even in one-on-one conversations about how their parents are, or how school is going, I’ll interject “What’s the Second Rule?!” They all roll their eyes and answer—sounding annoyed like only teenagers can! If they don’t say it loud enough, or they don’t all answer, I ask again until I get a 100 percent response. Making them say it out loud constantly really helps it to sink in. No matter how many games we win or lose this season, or how many goals our team scores, I know these guys will come away at the end of the season with perhaps the most valuable lesson of all ingrained in them—how to play sound, fundamental defense.