NBA players like Tony Allen, Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen and Avery Bradley have made careers by shutting down their opponents’ perimeter threats. And although these players have a size advantage, standing between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6 with incredibly long arms, lack of size is no excuse for failing to become a pesky defender opponents hate to face. Basketball defense is about mindset, focus and effort.
I study movement for a living. I am a full-time strength and conditioning coach and a varsity basketball coach. I love watching young kids play great defense. Over the years, I have broken down how to get athletes to be better defenders by emphasizing three things: Physics, Posture and Power.
There’s no need to study equations, but you need to know the why behind the positions and the movements.
Understand Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
If Sir Isaac Newton had been a basketball coach, he would have taught his defenders to stay down in their stance when playing on the ball. Why? Playing on-ball defense requires you to move laterally in an explosive manner. When you sit low, your feet, legs and hips can drive the ground away, resulting in explosive defensive movements.
If your stance is tall, you will waste energy as your force pushes vertically instead of laterally. If you’re going to work your butt off, you might as well shut your opponent down in the process. How do you know what position to assume? I borrowed a cue from speed coach Lee Taft and used the visualization of “sitting in a tunnel.”
Watch the video below, which breaks down the stance.
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Keep your feet constantly active or bouncing. This physics lesson is about force and the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). The SSC is the rubber band action of your body. It’s the reason why first taking a step allows you to jump higher than leaping from a static stance. As a defender, you can use the SSC by keeping your feet bouncing and active. The last thing you want is to have your feet glued to the floor while your opponent flies by you.
Watch the video below of Avery Bradley showing a great tunnel stance and active feet.
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You’ve been told to sit up straight in school, at the dinner table, etc. The basketball court is no different. Posture is important if you want to be explosive and avoid injury. Maintaining a neutral spine (flat back) allows your body to move naturally and efficiently.
How can we know if our posture isn’t ideal?
- Ask a coach or teammate.
- Watch game film.
- Shoot a quick video of yourself in a defensive position you think feels comfortable.
You want a nice straight line from your neck to your tailbone, as shown in the picture below.
Below are some common posture faults, especially seen in youth athletes and among taller players:
- The Round About. When a player tries to get low, but instead of using his hips, he rounds his shoulders and back forward, looking like a turtle shell. This leads to constant energy leaks and upsets his coach, because the player can’t keep his opponent in front of him. The player needs postural exercises to even have a chance.
- Barely Bender. This player typically doesn’t get very low at all. He doesn’t stay in the defensive position. Most of the time, this is because it’s a very uncomfortable stance for him. Postural and mobility work will be a huge help here.
- The Kneedy. This athlete bends all from his knees and minimally from his hips. Changing direction is incredibly hard since his shoulders are tall instead of slightly leaning forward. This athlete probably works his butt off, but he can’t ever seem to play great on-ball defense. Tall guys typically fall into this category if they’ve been coached to stand tall with their arms up, and have minimal experience staying in a stance.
How can we correct these postures?
- Mobility: Use a toe touch as a baseline. Before you do anything else, stand up, feet together, lock out your knees and reach down to touch your toes. If you feel pain, stop and get checked out by a qualified medical professional. If you can touch your toes, go to Stick Hinge (below). If you can’t do it, watch the video below and do this twice a day until it’s automatic. Some changes happen very fast; others take longer.
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- Stick Hinge: Find a stick about 3-feet-long and hold it against your back. Create three points of contact: the back of your head, between your shoulders and your tailbone. If this feels uncomfortable, this is the movement for you! Watch the video below and add this to a warm-up stretch for up to 10 reps.
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- Goblet Squat Hold: Hold a 15- to 30-pound dumbbell or kettlebell against your chest. Keep your heels down and squat until your elbows are inside your knees. Keep your back flat and breathe into your belly. Perform for 5-8 deep breaths. Another great warm-up movement. Watch the video below.
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Defenders want to create quick, explosive power with a lateral emphasis. Defense involves being reactive, elastic and explosive. You can acquire these attributes with Olympic lifts, plyometrics, strength work and by just playing more basketball. Below are three examples of ways to train power that will improve your ability to move laterally.
This is the heart of basketball movement. The ability to move in any direction quickly and with control will always give you an advantage. You can perform this anywhere at any time. I typically pair this with a medicine ball exercise and core work right before heavy lifting. You could also add it right before you get into your practice or between shooting drills and ball-handling. Aim for 2-3 repetitions per leg, per direction.
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Adding resistance to lateral movement is always a challenge. You want enough resistance to make it difficult, but not so much that it changes the movement completely. One-half-inch wide super bands are a fantastic tool for this purpose. Have a partner or a squat rack anchor it down, and work on your ability to cover ground. Check out the two progressions below. Aim for 5-6 repetitions per side.
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Medicine Ball Push Throws
Every athlete I work with does some variation of Med Ball Throws daily. They are incredibly fun and they teach the body great positioning for lateral and rotational power. Use the same defensive stance and fire the ball at the wall. The more whip the better. You can also use different shuffles or crossover steps like you would use playing defense on the court. Perform 5-8 repetitions per side and throw as hard as you can.
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