Man to Man Defensive Techniques

Contributed by Brett Ayers. Email the author at

I think when folks watch a game, and a team plays man to man, often many will think that a team that steals the ball a lot, or blocks a lot of shots, or takes a lot of charges is a team that has good, fundamental, man to man breakdown skills. This is certainly not always the case. I think you can use some of these numbers to gauge to a degree as to whether or not a team is a good defensive team, but some of these statistics can be as a result of very poor man to man break down skills.

I think the first and most important aspect of what makes a good individual and team defense is one of heart and brains. If you get a group of kids who really buy into the fact that defense starts with valuing your manhood, so to speak, then that team will make up for a myriad of break down sins, but these sins can catch up with them, a la Duke against Indiana, when the chips are down. Sloppy breakdown opens the door for defeat in tight situations. Not good. You have to meld heart and head together with technique being the glue that binds.

One of the keys to man to man breakdown, no matter what aspect of it you are looking at is balance. Whether it be balance away from the ball in terms of spacing or body balance when you are on ball defending your man. Balance, and in all aspects of the game can be equated to a phrase I have used before in dissecting other aspects of the game, and that is the phrase "sitting down". See if the kids can drop their ass instead of either bending over at the waist or playing defense on ball and away from the ball like they have a stick stuck up their arse. You get your rest on offense, not on defense. It is a cliche' and true as the day is long. If your kids do a lot of "reacting" on defense, I assure you that you will have problems stopping other teams.

When watching a team and teaching kids to play defense there are several different ways to go about this. The first thing you need to look for is does a kid or group of kids play with their hands first when the ball is dribbled, or do they move their feet first. There are a couple of different ways to instill this. One is to run what we used to call one on one half court/full court. You basically start out at half court, groups of two, and play  one on one from the sideline to an imaginary line that divides the court. The offensive man can not cross that imaginary line that separates the court, and it is not a drill that goes to the basket, just from the half court to the baseline. The defenders should start with their hands behind their back this way they learn to drop their asses and also how to move their feet first and foremost. You then move this drill out to the full court length, from baseline to baseline.

I also see a lot of kids who have either not been taught, or simply refuse to learn, that when you approach the man with the ball that you do not turn your body sideways, in doing this you become half the defender you were prior. Some players do this thinking they are forcing an offensive player one way or the other, depending upon which is their strong hand but this simply give the offensive player a very open lane either way because once the ball goes on the floor towards the up shoulder the defender has to pivot just to get even. By then it is too late. A defender should always approach in the squared up position with the offensive man. If you want to force him to a specific hand you simply move over on the strong hand four to eight inches, but stay squared with him.

Another thing I see a lot of kids do is when they square up to play defense, they might drop their butt, but often they still end up off balance because they put their hands down at their sides or out in front of them. This leads to one of three things. First,  it gives a shooter who can read the defense the chance to get off a shot with no hand in his face. The second thing it does is pull the defender forward putting him off balance again. Third thing it often does is cause  reaching as the first reaction to an offensive players move.

With all of these things in stance and approach, another very important thing to remember is this question: what is the target that the defender is honing in on? This might sound a bit funny, but if you watch a lot of defenders, they go with every fake, switching their foot position back and forth, getting off balance even before the offensive player has made a move. Keeping your eyes on the ball, which is what you ultimately want, or the offensive players mid-section should hopefully greatly cut down on the going for fakes and shifting of feet which just makes an offensive player salivate.

When it comes to what to do with the hands, I am of the mindset you want a kid to keep his hands at 90 degree bent angle with his palms up when the ball is being dribbled, and you want at least one hand up when it is not being dribbled. I think if you have your hands out with the palms up by near to your body you will reach less, and if you do reach you will be reach up instead of reaching down. Reaching down almost always assures a foul being called. It just looks worse.

The next aspect of individual defense that is awful darn important to look at is the closing out aspect. A lot of breakdown defensively, from a team perspective, begins with poor closing out you see far and wide in the college game. Much of this is from the simple fact that these teams do not spend anytime during the practice week just running some dry run close out drills. It does not take a long time to do, but it certainly can ensure some better mind and muscle memory come game time. The closing out method I subscribe to is one where,  for the initial close out, you come out with either your right and or left foot forward, depending upon what the over all team philosophy is on driving offensive players, (i.e. to the baseline or to the middle when closing out from the 45 degree angles down to the baseline) closing out with your weight slightly back on the back leg with your butt dropped, leaning back slightly with hands up in case of shot. If the defender gets out there and, as he gets within two feet of the offensive players, he squares himself back up, chopping up the steps and squaring up again in regular defensive position. Keeping up on the balls of the feet are another important aspect of defending. You see a lot of kids who get flat footed on defense and, even if they might be intrinsically quick, they often get beat because they are not ready to react.

The last thing that is imperative to watch for is for a kid who has his feet too far apart. The first step in defense is one of a reach with that lead foot to cover the offensive player whichever direction he attempts to go. But, if you think about it, if you have your feet all ready nearly has far apart as possible, then your first reaching step can only be a small one. This does not mean you should have your feet together, but the same rule that applies to the distance your feet should be when shooting your jumper also applies to defense. Keep a base of about four to six inches more than shoulder width. This way you can drop your butt and also really get a good thrust out with your first step defensively when your man drives. 

Some thoughts and comments on man to man offensive technique for the individual player.