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Coaching and Teaching Changing Basketball Defenses

History Stance Running Backward Using Hands, Arms, Eyes and Feet
Guarding Player with Ball Guarding a Player without the Ball Conditioning & Training

In the past twenty years, basketball has become more organized, ranging from “biddy ball” to the professional ranks. As a result, basketball players at all levels operate at higher skill levels than earlier players. Yet, many are still playing against defenses that haven’t changed much. Perhaps this is why scores are much higher.

There is a constant battle between offense and defense in all sports and basketball isn’t any different. Since the days of Dr. Naismith, in 1892, in order to score a bucket the offense tries to trigger a mistake by the defense. As offensive skills and basketball coaching improved, coaches have been forced new ways to defend and stop those offenses.

History of Offense vs. Defense 1928 to Present

Older coaches tell us, “Since the lay-up and other short-range shots were the only good percentage shots in those days, defense dominated the sport until the middle of the 1920s. A good man-to-man defense hanging around the lane made it difficult to penetrate. The result, combined with limited skills in shooting, passing and dribbling, scores were quite low compared to today’s standards. A man-to-man defense in the 1920s was strictly one-on-one. Each defensive player was responsible for his man, alone, and got little help, if any, from his teammates.

During this time, basketball coaches began to better organize team offenses by using screens and set plays. “Since outside shooting and dribbling were discouraged, passing the ball was the way to get a layup. Passing was considered the most important basketball skill in these early days. The rules committee even considered outlawing the dribble.” Quite frankly, we still consider the dribble a poor substitute for the pass.

The pass did become less important as players improved on their skills of shooting and dribbling the basketball. In fact, since then, passing the ball has almost been relegated to a lost art and dribbling and shooting have improved greatly our lifetime (87 years).

The type of defenses played, today, has a lot to do with that deficit. This weakness in today’s players is partly instrumental in the development of the Manual for Coaching Basketball’s Alternating and Multiple Flex defenses.

Our own personal playing days began in 1933 and, believe it, or not, we used a “Motion” offense. We called it “Free-lance” back then. Truth be known, they ran this stuff back in the 1920s, too. We screened away, ran give-and-goes, and pick-and-rolled until the cows came home. We did this for the same reason teams run them, today. It was to get the high percentage shot against tough man-to-man defenses. In the 1920s that was a lay-up shot and in our own case, a shot within eleven to twelve feet of the rim; but, today, it’s the three-pointer. The “Pick-and-pop” is the only new play we see added to offenses. Of course, this gets a lot of open looks for a three-point attempt.

The motion offense still seems to be the ideal offense for this period in history and shooters are getting better as time goes by, but still somewhat rare. Even the better college teams only have one good three-point shooter. The team with two long-distance shooters is rare.

Those coaches, who think they have more, usually live and die with the three. The coach, with only one player allowed to shoot beyond fifteen feet, usually passed or dribbled the ball until the clock runs out looking for the high percentage shot or an open look for the star. We think the various zone defenses force teams out of this type of offense.

In our opinion, the skilled players, today, all shoot the jump shot with great accuracy from about twenty-one feet and dribble the ball in ways we only dreamed; however, few have great passing skills. When pressure is applied on the ball by using full, three-quarter, or half court presses, many players can be forced into throwing errant passes. Even after the offense has been able to set up on their end of the floor, pressuring the ball may produce that same poorly executed pass.

Because of the great shooting talent today, creating a turnover is the best productive play the defense can make. As mentioned earlier, passing the basketball is the weakest link in the modern basketball player’s offensive fundamentals. The weakness of this fundamental is the basic premise of the Flexing zone defense. The Flexing zone defense, by applying pressure on the ball in all its varied defensive alignments, attempts to create those turnovers.

In one way or other, many teams use multiple defenses. Coaches have found this to be one way to slow down the improving offensive systems used, today. As the zone defense was the answer to slowing up the free-lance (motion) offensive systems of the 1930s, multiple defenses was the answer in the 1980s. Today’s motion offenses produce the twelve to twenty foot jump shot that players shoot so well. A zone defense can force teams out of this offense, but is vulnerable to the open three-point shot. Today, we are seeing more good screening and penetrating type offenses that can render a zone defense helpless.

Coaches are finding that by combining half-court, three-quarter-court, and full court defense, and changing from man-to-man to zone and back again frequently during the course of a game can disrupt patterns, and reduce shooting accuracy. This is exactly what the Flexing Zone defense does.

Not long ago, high school coaches thought that college coaches could use multiple defenses because of the more advanced basketball players at hand. We have seen this theory blown out of the water many times. In our lifetime, many Indiana high school championship teams have mixed-up their defenses.

When it becomes to choosing between the use of the man-to-man, a zone, or a combination of the two, as a team’s defense, we think that the six ways of playing a man-to-man should be your team’s principal defense. We say this because a truly successful zone requires each player to possess the individual man-to-man skills.

The experience of the coach and physical qualities of the players, must govern the selection of defenses. Most coaches, today, we believe, use the man-to-man as their basic defense and agree a man-to-man as a pressing defense still works the best.

Use of the press as a basic defense will result in higher scoring for the pressing team, but for the opponent as well. If you use a half-court zone as a basic defense, you certainly will slow down the opponent’s attack and probably increase the scoring total of the team using the zone, if they used the fast break. Either way, the selection of the basic defense is an important part of a basketball coach’s job. We believe a coach should spend more time determining his defense and supporting measures than his offense and since the advent of the 3-point line and improved marksmanship, the old axiom, “the best defense is a good offense,” is no longer true. However, there must be a good balance between offense and defense to achieve the best results.

We understand that developing an offense is more fun, but the challenge in constructing a good defense, or defenses, is much more rewarding. The coach who prepares his team to meet all possible offenses goes into any game with a feeling of confidence. Even should his team have an off-shooting night against a stronger offensive opponent, he knows his team’s defensive abilities, can often “grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.”

 The home floor has its advantages. There is lighting, the floor, officials, and crown reaction that usually handicaps the offense; however, a strong defense is almost always as effective at home, or away. This fact allows a team time to adjust the offense to the surroundings.

In the old days, many teams earned defensive reputations by playing ball-control basketball. Today, most players are good shooters; therefore, are anxious to score. The old way is still as effective because players want the ball more than life itself. This poses a psychological advantage to a team who can control the natural urge to score, and who wait for a free and open shot at the basket. This type of team controls the score by keeping the ball out of the hands of the opponent.

Quite often, an inferior team who has mastered ball-control, will upset a superior team. All sharpshooters have bad nights and as our old coach used to tell us county boys, “couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bran sack.”  When this occurs, the high scoring team that has developed a strong defensive game has an important asset that might allow them to salvage a game that could have been lost.

Our job here will be a success if we can convince you that every team has an offensive saturation point beyond which they will seldom rise. Therefore, do not spend excessive time at offensive work when you can put far better use in developing a good solid defense.

The strategy of surprise, as a basketball coach, you most likely will encounter will be a surprise defense; however, surprise strategy can take many forms. It can be a change in offensive strategy through elimination of the fast break and adopting a ball-control offense. An opponent schooled to match a free-wheeling and high scoring team may be completely surprised by an opponent’s use of a stall offense. Before considering defense of any particular type, all successful basketball coaches teach individual defensive fundamentals to their players.

Please don’t be foolish and neglect this important phase of the game. Many coaches neglect this phase of the game and spend practically the entire time on offensive work. We believe that every coach must sell every player on his squad, the importance of good sound fundamentals and the willingness to pay the price of hard work to improve. Teach them to take pride in this phase of the game.

Even though a zone defense may be your intention, there will be times when both individual and team defenses will resort to man-to-man tactics. Individual guarding form and individual action in certain specific situations will vary according to the type of defense used. Zone and man-to-man defensive play may call for different actions in similar situations. Combinations of zone and man-to-man might call for different actions than would a straight man-to-man or zone.


Defensive Stance

The stance is the secret to good defensive play. This allows the player to have proper control of his body at all times and be able to move in any direction. Proper guarding form will vary somewhat to meet particular situations and will differ with the physical characteristics of each player. What is a good defensive stance for a tall player isn’t necessarily a good stance for a shorter player.

 We believe in spending a lot of early practice time perfecting both the boxer’s stride and parallel stance. Furthermore, much time should be spent on drills that develop good habits of guarding players with and without the ball. 

The stance is the secret to good defensive play. This allows the player to have proper control of his body at all times and be able to move in any direction. Proper guarding form will vary somewhat to meet particular situations and will differ with the physical characteristics of each player. What is a good defensive stance for a tall player isn’t necessarily a good stance for a shorter player.

We believe in spending a lot of early practice time perfecting both the boxer’s stride and parallel stance. Furthermore, much time should be spent on drills that develop good habits of guarding players with and without the ball. 

Boxer’s stance

The boxer’s stance is used when guarding an opponent facing the basket with the ball, or within shooting range of the basket. To get into the boxer’s stance, do as follows:

1.    Spread the feet to a comfortable position.

2.    Place one foot slightly forward of the other.

3.    Flex both hips and knees.

4.    Body is in a crouched position, with head and shoulders slightly forward.

5.    Your weight should be evenly distributed on the balls of both feet.

6.    Your back, shoulders, and head should be in a straight line.

7.     Your eyes should be focused on your opponent.

8.    Stick the weak-side hand in his face and use the strong-side hand to stop, or deflect, a pass, shot, or dribble.

9.    When the right foot forward, the natural position of the right arm is up and the left arm down more to the side. Shift feet according to position of the opponent and the ball.

Parallel stance

A parallel stance is used when guarding a dribbler or cutter who is moving laterally across the court or is driving for the basket. The defender’s body positioning should be as follows:

  1. The feet should be parallel and comfortably spread to maintain balance.

2.    The knees should be comfortably flexed.

3.    The body should be in a semi-crouched position and ready to move in any direction.

4.    The head should be erect.

5.    The body weight should be evenly distributed on the balls of both feet.

6.    The arms should be bent at the elbows and extended from the sides.


Running Backward

When trying to run backward, most defensive basketball players will lack good body balance. This can be corrected by teaching them to keep their weight centered but slightly forward. If the weight is shifted to far back, he generally will find himself seated on the floor.

The only way you can teach this skill is to have them run backwards in designed drills. There are hundreds of ways to do this. The diagram of such a drill is shown here; however, it is very effective. Players must develop this through practice. We have had players who could run as easily backwards as forward.

The ability of your players to do this will stop your opponents from scoring many times. It enabled our players to maintain good defensive position, keep both opponent and ball in view, and intercept many passes.


Use of Body Parts on Defense

Nearly every body part is keys to good defensive play. To be effective on defense, a player must be able to move quickly in any direction.

Hands and arms

On defense, the hands and arms are used to maintain good body balance, intercepting passes, blocking shots, obscuring an opponent’s vision, and unnerving the player being guarded. Of course, the position of the arms varies with a particular defensive situation.

1.    Extend arms and hands shoulder high and straight-out to block the greatest area. This position is used more in a five-man defense, such as a zone to form an impenetrable barrier.

2.    Bend elbows, with arms forming a wide half-circle. Spread and extend the fingers. A player, from this position, can use his hands to quickly block the ball, deflect or intercept a pass.

3.    Keep hands and arms extended at all times.

4.    Keep arms and hands constantly moving.

5.    Shift from one defensive position to another quickly as the situation requires.

6.    If guarding the player with the ball, extend one arm up and out at an angle from the shoulder with the fingers spread to block shots. Carry the other arm low and pointing toward the floor to guard against the dribble.


A good defensive player must learn to use split vision. He must keep his man, the ball, and other opponents moving into his direction in his vision. This prevents him from becoming boxed-in and help switch effectively with teammates if a screen is set.

After an opponent passes, the guard must keep his eyes on the passer. If he follows the ball with the eyes, there is a good opportunity for the give-and-go. Watch the eyes, but don’t be fooled by an eye-fake.


Usually, a defender will use his feet like a boxer. Do these things:

1.    Step forward with the front foot.

2.    Keeping the rear foot in contact with the floor, slide it up in the back of the front foot.

3.    Keep the weight evenly distributed on the balls of both feet as you retreat or advance with your assigned opponent.

4.    Move laterally with your opponent, stepping right or left.

5.    Drag the other foot to the side of the stepping foot.

6.    Shift weight quickly from foot to foot, as you move with the opponent.

7.       Take short, quick steps, but never cross step.


Guarding the player with the ball

A good coach will scout upcoming opponents and brief each of his team members the actions their particular assignment might take. The coach must make it clear; however, that each defensive man must use his own judgment about his assignment for himself, using the following criteria:

1.    What kind of shots he takes.

2.    How quick he is?

3.    How clever he is?

4.    What are his weaknesses?

5.    What is the most effective distance to take from his man?


As the defender of this particular opponent, the defender has these five responsibilities:

1.    To prevent his opponent from shooting over the top of him.

2.    To prevent his opponent from driving by him.

3.    To hurry the opponent into taking bad shots or passes.

4.    To deflect passes.

5.    To tie up his man, if possible.


As the defender of this particular opponent, the defender must maintain a good defensive stance:

1.    Use boxer’s stance when guarding his man facing the basket within shooting range.

a.    Body in a semi-crouch position with one foot forward.

b.    Weight distributed on balls of both feet. Never be caught flat footed.

c.    Feet well spread for a solid base, but in position for a quick takeoff in any direction.

d.    Constantly keep moving the hands and arms.

e.    Keep forward foot and leg in line with opposite leg of opponent.

f.     Never cross step.

2.    When the offensive player makes a move to go into a dribble or pass-off, the defender moves back into a parallel stance:

a.    Feet are parallel with a solid base.

b.    Knees are well bent and body in a crouched position.

c.    Arms are flexed and extended.

d.    Weight is distributed on the balls of both feet.

e.    Back straight with head erect. 

The dribbler

If dribbler is out in front on a fast break, run as fast as you can, preferably on the ball side of the dribbler attempting to overtake, pass him and get in front trying to stop his dribble. If you are guarding a dribbler in place:

1.    Use a parallel stance, arms parallel to the body.

2.    Be up on the balls of your feet, moving to challenge the dribbler, forcing him to declare his direction.

3.    Play in front of him. Be careful about playing him too strong on one side or the other.

4.    Use a defensive fake to make him pick up his dribble or make him slant left or right.

5.    If he stops, move in quick to tie him up or prevent a pass.

6.    If he slants right or left, keep good position and try to force him to a sideline.

7.    Should he outmaneuver and get past you, do the following:

a.    Turn and run with him, trying to get back in front.

b.    Pass by the dribbler, playing the ball as it comes off the floor, with the hand nearest the dribbler without body contact or breaking stride. Perfect timing will get you the ball.  

The pivot player

1.    Today, we see three types of pivot players:

a.    The big man who is strong enough to take position at the low post, remaining stationary.

b.    The tall, agile player who moves well to get position.

c.    The small player who plays at the highest post and uses his cleverness and quickness to get position.

2.    We like to play in front of the pivot man who sets up in the area below the free throw circle to the basket.

3.    The defender is constantly moving around the post man, always looking to deflect or incept a pass.

4.    The defender, moving out in front, must not let the offensive man feel him. A clever post player put his body on him and move him higher should this happen.

5.    When a pivot player sets up high at the free throw line, his defender plays an arm’s length behind. He is alert to quick spins and is in good position to switch-off.

6.    The defensive man plays the ball for interceptions when the pivot player sets up close to the basket. Don’t let the ball get into a pivot player at this position by playing from the side and front.

7.      Learn the pivot player’s good shots and the area from which he shoots them. Maneuver him away from these areas. Intercept, block, or deflect any pass into him.


Guarding the man without the ball

The distance and stance of the defender depends upon the opponent’s ability and position on the floor.

  1. Keep good position.
  2. Get between the opponent and the basket.
  3. Keep the opponent and ball in sight at all times in order to play both man and ball.
  4. From the position of the ball, anticipate opponent’s next move. Be alert and beat him to a new position, intercept or deflect a pass.

 When it comes to teaching both individual and team defenses, we think you should draw a line from basket to basket, splitting the court lengthwise. Teach your players that the side the ball is on is the strong side and the other half is the weak side. Make certain each player understands your terminology, regardless the style of defense you are teaching your team.

Such a diagram, shown on the left and used throughout the teaching of the 1-3-1 flex defense, will help them better understand proper positioning whenever the player they are guarding doesn’t have the ball.

We want the weak side players to always be helping the teammates on the strong side of the court. Basketball is a team, not a one-player sport. Another concern is a player’s attitude. In our view, this is the most important single factor in playing either a man-to-man or zone pressing defense. His attitude must be of complete dedication toward stopping an offense.


Conditioning and Training

In order to be a winner, no basketball coach would ever start a ball game with poorly conditioned players. Stamina, muscle coordination, good wind, and agility are prerequisites for a good defensive player. Good physical and mental condition assures a coach that every player will play his best throughout a game.

The way basketball is played, today, it is one of the most strenuous games; therefore, every player must be in top physical condition. Many basketball games have been won, not because one team has a better offense and defense, or greater scoring power than the other, but because one team was in better condition than the other. Players take pride in being in good condition and being able to run the other team off the floor. Our players were always in such good condition, we never worried if we were behind at the half. We knew they would run them off the floor in the last quarter. And they did. We ended the season with 28 wins and one loss. The lone loss was later avenged by over 20 points. That team played the style of offense and defense that demands action all the time.

Poor conditioning shows up in a basketball player in many ways. When a player begins to tire, his ability to shoot the ball accurately, become quite noticeable. His timing is poor and passes go astray. He has trouble keeping his hands up and is most quickly spotted when he is on defense. Generally, he will be a full step out of position. The player he is guarding will get around him and he can’t catch up. He stands flatfooted and can’t get any rebounds.

The only way a player can get in top condition is by doing a lot of hard work. Start conditioning your players soon as school opens. Each player who intends to come out for basketball must do a lot of running and pass a test before he is allowed to practice with the team. He must do a lot of running. There is no better conditioner than straight outdoor running. The players are on their own and every afternoon run a cross country course and stadium or church steps. This running builds wind and endurance, strengthens leg muscles, and develops stride and muscle coordination.
Big awkward boys do a lot of rope skipping to develop fast footwork. It puts spring in their legs, so essential to rebounding.


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