As discussed before, on-ball play is when a defender is covering the man with the ball. Playing one-on-one for a defender is much like playing one-on-one for a midfielder. The main goal is to prevent the ball carrier from getting to the top side, or to the middle of the field.
The difference for defenders is that they are covering their men from behind the goal and from the wings. When the ball is behind the goal, the defensemen want to pick up the attackmen about five to seven yards in from the end line. To pick up their man, they want to be in their “linebacker” stance, with their knees bent, their feet about shoulder with apart, and their rear end low to the ground. They should have their sticks pointing out towards the ball carrier with their hands about two feet apart.
Continually stress to your defensemen the importance to always have their sticks out, as this gives them about a six-foot cushion to work with. As the ball carrier starts running at them, the defenseman wants to start back pedaling or shuffling, depending on where the ball carrier is going. The defenseman wants to keep his stick right on the ball carrier’s gloves so that he cannot make a good feed. As the ball carrier starts to drive to goal line extended (GLE - this is an imaginary line that would go from sideline to sideline if the goal line went all the way across the field), the defenseman wants to pick a spot on the field and beat the ball carrier to it. This means that the defenseman should actually visualize an X on the field about one or two yards higher than goal line extended. As the attackman is driving up field, the defender should try to beat him to this imaginary X. Once the defenseman gets to the X, he should square his hips to the goal line and engage with the attackman.
The objective for the defenseman at this point is to not let the attackman get any higher on the field and making him inside roll. If the attackman gets above the defenseman and gets to the middle of the field, then he will have a great angle for a shot and he will be able to see the whole field for a pass. If the defenseman makes the attackman inside roll, then the attackman will have very little angle for a shot and will have few options for a good feed. Also, the crease defenseman can slide to the attackman just as he inside rolls and the attackman will never see him coming. This should set up an opportunity to take the ball away from the attackman. If the attackman runs up field wide of the goal, anywhere outside eight to ten yards to the side of the net, then the defenseman should not engage with him. This gives the attackman too much room to work with after he inside rolls.
When the defenseman engages the attackman, he has to be squatted down low for leverage. His hands should be about one to two feet apart and he should use a crosscheck to hold his attackman. This crosscheck will not be called by the referee as long as the defenseman keeps constant pressure on the ball carrier and a narrow grip on his shaft. If he pushes and keeps crushing the attackman in the back with crosschecks, then a penalty will be called. It is important for the defenseman to keep the crosscheck low. If the defenseman tries to crosscheck the ball carrier in the shoulders, then he loses leverage and the attackman slips/slides underneath.
To recap, the defenseman’s main job when covering the ball carrier from behind is to keep him from getting too high on the field when carrying the ball or to an attackman’s most dangerous spot at five and five. Defensemen also want to keep their man from getting to the top side of the field or getting to the middle. They want to beat their man to goal line extended, square their hips to the end line, and make him inside roll. Once the attackman inside rolls, the defenseman should get his stick straight up in the air, right against the ball carrier’s back. This allows the defenseman to throw a trail check once the attackman brings his stick up to take a shot or throw a pass. This trail check takes some patience on the defenseman’s part, as he has to wait for the attackman to bring his stick back. The defenseman ends up behind the attackman once he inside rolls and has to learn to stay on the attackman’s back. If he tries to get back around the attackman and check the ball away, then the attackman simply rolls back and beats him to the top side. This is one example of how great defense requires extreme discipline.
While all these concepts seem simple to understand and do, they take years of practice to master. If a coach can get his defense to never get beat to the top side, he has a great defense team. Many people think that Syracuse University runs a million different defenses to hold opponents to a few goals. The reality is that Princeton runs a few defenses to perfection and all of them require a group of efficient athletes communicating and acting as a cohesive unit.
The concept is the same when defenders cover their man on the wing. When a defender starts off on the wing, he wants to make the ball carrier go underneath and not allow him to get to the top side. To do this, the defender wants to start coverage by having his hips pointed towards the corner of the field behind the goal. This gives the ball carrier an alley to go underneath. As discussed before, the defender wants to get beat; he just wants to get beat to a designated area. In this case, he wants to get beat underneath towards goal line extended so that he can slowly funnel the ball carrier to behind the goal. If the attackman is dodging underneath with the stick in his left hand, then the defenseman wants to apply pressure with a crosscheck on the ball carrier’s right shoulder.
Many young defensemen want to step in front of the ball carrier and try to check the ball away. This allows the ball carrier to roll back to the top side and should be highly discouraged. All the defenseman has to do is run with the ball carrier and push him towards goal line extended. If the ball carrier beats the defenseman by a couple steps, all the defenseman has to do is get his stick straight up in the air and keep it right on the ball carrier’s back, just as he does when attackmen inside roll against him. As soon as the ball carrier brings his stick back, then the defenseman can come down on his hands with a check.
It is also important to teach defensemen to play defense from up top like the midfielders. Defensemen need to be able to play defense all over the field. They need to understand that their defensive rules stay the same wherever they are on the field.
Never Get Beat Top Side
The first rule is never get beat top side. This rule cannot be stressed enough. The second rule for defenseman is to be patient and not lunge at the ball carrier trying to take the ball away. This will lead to them breaking the first rule, which is getting beat to the top side. The third rule for a defenseman is to always make the ball carrier go where the defense wants him to go. If this rule is broken, then once again, the defenseman will get beat and there will be no help.
Two of the most common reasons for these rules to be broken occur when a defender either attempts to strip the ball away from the offensive player, or lunges at him for a body check. First, defenders only need to know two checks; a poke check and a slap check and both should be directed at the offensive player’s bottom hand. The poke is simply the act of extending the stick forward at the offensive player. And a slap check is self-explanatory. Bad defenders will attempt these and more complicated checks and lose track of their men. Good defenders never lunge, use checks sparingly and effectively, and focus on their footwork first. Remember that almost every problem in covering the ball defensively stems back to getting beat to the top side. Harp on it every day and your defense will be great.