Talk to any coach and one of the deciding factors on playing time is a player's defensive abilities (or lack thereof). While most coaches will tell you that it's all about effort, the truth is, it's more than just effort that makes a good (or great) defensive player. It's about footwork, balance, strength, and believe it or not, discipline.
During my freshmen year in high school our most important player wasn't an all-star, our leading scorer, and didn't even go on to play college basketball. As a matter of fact, he was virtually a liability on offense because his shot was so bad.
What he was, though, was a dominant on-the-ball defender who at 5-foot-6 was so disruptive to other teams' offenses that they would often have weaker players handle the ball and initiate the offense just to avoid having him pressure the ball.
While most people would just credit his athleticism for his defensive abilities, it was much more than that. It was his intelligence in using his athletic ability (quickness, strength, balance, footwork) that allowed him to shine. He did three things very well:
Played With a 'Low-Ceiling' Mentality
One of the biggest mistakes that players make defensively is that they tend to "bob" up and down. It's easy to get lazy and instead of shuffling and staying low, to let your shoulders and head raise and lower with your shuffling.
It's important for players to understand the mentality of playing with a low ceiling. By imagining yourself playing defense in a gym with a ceiling just above your head height (when in a proper defensive stance) you are forced to stay low and thus more on balance.
Staying consistently low allows you to be on balance, stop quicker, accelerate faster, and have more reaction ability. I never saw this teammate lunge or get himself out of position. Because of his positioning and "low-ceiling" mentality, he was always in good on-the-ball position and rarely got beat because of a mistake.
Quick Feet, But Even Better Footwork
How many times have you heard a coach yell, "quick feet!"? What they are really trying to say is you need to get your feet in position quicker. I've seen hundreds of quick players who have 'quick feet' but aren't good at defense. Is it because they're just lazy? Maybe. But it's as important for them to worry about positioning their feet and having good defensive footwork as it is just quick feet alone.
Follow this progression to improve both ground contact time (quickness) and positioning (quick footwork):
- Jump ropes - great for improving ground contact time (quick foot contacts);
- Agility ladders - are the next step as they improve contact time and some positional elements to them;
- Low box drills - are the best way to improve your quick 'footwork.' Use the following exercises/drills to improve your defensive footwork.
Always on Balance
Most people equate balance with being able to stand on one foot. While that's great, balance can mean so many different skills/abilities that sometimes it's hard to define. Defensively balanced means that your torso is always both in control, and centered on top of the lower body. This is of utmost importance because your ability to stop and go is the difference between a weak defender and dominant defender.
A great deal of your balance comes from your hip strength and stability, as well as your trunk strength (a.k.a. the core). You can build strength in your hips by doing lateral band walks or X-band walks (as seen here).
Once you possess the hip strength, work into core stabilization exercises like prone planks and side planks. If you can hold your positioning for 60 seconds (3 x 20s), you're probably good to move into more advanced stabilization movements. This is where your ability to stabilize your trunk in various basketball-like positions come into play. I think lateral squats and single arm reverse lunges are two of the best lower body exercises along with single leg, single arm overhead presses for the upper body.
Improving your athletic ability, defensive positioning, and working hard will get you significantly closer to becoming the defensive player you want to be. Integrating the above three tips/skills into your game is going to help transform you into your teams number one defensive stopper.