Man-to-Man Defense

Factors that Determine Championship Defense

By Hal Wissel  

The factors that determine defensive success may be classified as emotional, mental, and physical.  


Desire.Wanting to play great defense is most important. Offense is mostly fun. Defense, while hard work, can also be fun as you stop what your opponent wants to do. Desire in defense is giving maximum effort and concentration on each play. Playing defense with intensity involves great efforts at running at full speed in transition from offense to defense, maintaining a defensive stance with your hands up at all times, drawing the charge, diving for loose balls, blocking out for defensive rebounds, and communicating to your teammates by using key defensive words.      

Discipline. Desire is a start, but you must discipline yourself to stick with your goal of becoming a great defensive player. The hard work of developing superior physical condition, practicing defensive skills, and playing tough defense in games requires continuous self-discipline. Defense cannot be part-time. Defense must be played hard all of the time. This takes discipline, and tough defenders have learned to appreciate and gain satisfaction from discipline.

Aggressiveness. Defense is a battle. In playing offense you have the advantage of knowing what your next move will be. In playing defense the tendency is to react to the offensive player’s moves. This is a negative view. Take the positive approach of being aggressive on defense, thereby forcing the offensive player to react. Being an aggressive defender means that you have the attitude to dominate your opponent in all ways. You do not allow the moves your opponent wants to make. You take the initiative. Aggressive defense forces your opponent to react to what you do. Examples of aggressive defense are pressuring the dribbler, fighting over the top of screens, pressuring the shooter, denying passes and going for interceptions, taking the charge, diving for loose balls, and rebounding missed shots.      

Mental Toughness. The physical demands of aggressive defense can exhaust even the most highly conditioned athlete. The progressive discomfort of defensive movements plus the physical hurts of fighting over screens, drawing the charge, diving for loose balls, and battling for rebounds can take a toll. Being a mentally tough defender means overcoming this physical discomfort and pain. You bounce up from the floor each time you are knocked down. You do not need excessive encouragement from your coach: On the contrary, your mental toughness inspires others, including coaches, teammates, and fans.  


Knowledge of Your Opponent. Successful defense requires analyzing your opponent and your opponent’s team offense. Prepare by studying scouting reports, watching videos, and observing your opponent during the game’s early stages. Judge your opponent’s quickness and strength. Ask yourself questions. What are the opponent’s offensive tendencies? Does your opponent want to shoot or drive? What are your opponent’s offensive moves and which direction is favored on each? If your opponent is great with the ball, should you overplay or does your opponent move well also without the ball? Maybe the place to be alert is in preventing your opponent from scoring on rebounds and loose balls near the basket.  From a team standpoint, would your opposition rather beat you on fast breaks or with a set offense? Which plays will the opposing team run against your team, and which plays will they run when they need a key basket? Who are their outside shooters, drivers, and post-up players?  Study both your individual opponent and the team. Know what your opponent does best—and work to take it away.      

Anticipation. Anticipation is knowing tendencies and adjusting to each situation to gain an advantage. Playing offense gives you the advantage of knowing your next move, but in playing defense you must react to the offensive player’s move—that is, you react unless you use anticipation. By knowing your opponent’s tendencies you can adjust accordingly and anticipate the next move. You should not guess on defense but you should make a calculated move based on intelligent study of your individual opponent and opponent’s team. 

Concentration. To concentrate is to focus completely on the assignment and not be distracted. Potential distractions are the opponent’s trash talk, the action of fans, an official’s call, and your own negative thoughts. When you recognize that you are being distracted or are thinking negatively, interrupt the distraction by saying a key word to yourself, such as stop! Then replace the distraction with a positive statement to yourself. Concentrate on your defensive assignment, rather than allowing yourself to be distracted.      

Alertness. Alertness involves being in a state of readiness at all times, able to react instantly. On the ball, be ready to defend your opponent’s shot, drive, or pass, and remain alert to being screened. Off the ball, see the ball and your opponent. Be alert to stop a cut, defend a screen, go for an interception, dive for a loose ball, or rebound a missed shot.      

Judgment. Judgment is the ability to size up the game situation and decide on the appropriate action. Numerous situations on defense call for good judgment. One example is deciding whether to pressure the ball on the perimeter or to drop back to prevent a pass inside. Another example is deciding whether to go for an interception or to play it safe. The decision will involve comparing your ability with your opponent’s, the tempo of the game, the score, and the time remaining. Using good defensive judgment is particularly important near the end of close games.  


Physical Condition. Physical condition is a prerequisite to good defense. Over the course of a game your desire to compete will be proportional to your level of physical condition. The physical condition needed to play defense develops through specific physical conditioning programs and even more through expending great effort both in practice and games. Dominating an opponent requires strength, muscular endurance, and circulatory-respiratory endurance. Work to improve your total body strength so you can particularly withstand the body contact in defending a low-post player. You must also improve the muscular endurance of your legs. It is not just how quickly you can move but whether you can move quickly throughout the game.      

Quickness and Balance. Quickness refers to speed of movement in performing a skill, not simply running speed. Moving your feet quickly is the most important physical skill for a defensive player and you must develop the ability. Being able to change direction laterally is very important. Although many people consider it difficult to make great improvements in quickness, three factors can help. First, you can improve speed through hard work on defensive footwork drills and by jumping rope. Second, you can be mentally quick, using intelligence to anticipate your opponent’s offensive moves and, thus, get more quickly to the right place at the right time. Knowing and anticipating your opponent can compensate for less physical quickness. Third, being balanced and under control is critical: Quickness without balance can be useless. Because defensive quickness involves the ability to start, stop, and change direction, you must also have control. Quickness under control, or quickness with balance, is what you need in playing defense.

Edited From: Wissel, Hal. (2011). Basketball: Steps to Success, Third Edition.