The Defensive Shell Drill Sucks?

"The defensive shell drill sucks."

"We always use the shell drill to work on defense."

These are two contrasting statements that I have heard from coaches on multiple occasions.

People from the shell drill sucks group criticize the shell drill because it is too controlled. It is not game-like enough. The argument is that you can become great at the shell drill, but still have a poor defense when the games are played.

On the opposite end, the coaches who spend a lot of time on it swear by it. Some will even claim it is the reason that their defense is great.

Well, here's what I think...

Both opinions are right!

If you exclusively use a CONTROLLED shell drill for teaching your defense, you probably won't become a great defensive team.

However, the shell drill can also be a vital tool from your coaching toolbox to develop a great defensive team. That means you don't rely on the shell drill exclusively. Just like anything else in coaching, you use every tool with a specific purpose to create a greater whole.

Here is why I believe every coach should use the shell drill...

  1. Great for teaching and getting players on board.

    The shell drill is great for teaching and allows you to demonstrate to the players exactly what your team defense should look like and to build confidence. It allows you to communicate the players how you want things to be done and why you want things to be done a certain way.

    Are you closing out properly? Are you sprinting to areas? Are you in the right position? Are you guarding the ball properly? Are you properly rotating on help?

    It also gets your players on board so they understand the big picture.

  2. Great progression for developing your defense.

    Most great coaches like to start in a closed, controlled environment to teach and build confidence before introducing an open, reactive environment. This would be a prime example of progressing from a shell drill to live scrimmaging.

    When you are working on developing a player's shooting form, you're not going to teach them the form, then instantly progress them to a 5 on 5 setting and say, "Okay. Work on your shooting form." You're going to build the proper habits in a controlled environment. You're going to practice repetition after repetition to develop the skills and habits needed to be a good shooter.

    Even though teaching defense is not the exact same as teaching shooting, you should still use similar philosophy when teaching your defense. The shell drill does that by building the proper habits and engraining proper defensive positioning through repetition.

  3. Used to improve weaknesses.

    Sometimes, during the middle of the season, you may find a few weak areas in your defense. The shell drill is a tool that you can use to go back to those areas, emphasize them, and clean it up to improve your defense.

  4. Used to be more efficient with your time.

    As a coach, you are always trying to be more efficient with your time. What's a better way to be more efficient with your practice time than getting 8 to 10 players on the court at the same time working on defensive and offensive fundamentals? This is especially useful if you don't have a bunch of quality assistants to run breakdown drills.

    Your players also get to work on multiple aspects of defense all at once: on-ball defense, help positioning, close outs, defending cutters, defending screens, defending post play, rotations, etc.

Coach Jim Huber demonstrates a progression of the shell drill below. This followed a teaching section in which he taught positioning.

For those of you unfamiliar with Coach Jim Huber, he coaches some of the best high school players in the nation. He is a coach and director of operations for Mokan Elite who is a team in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). Since Jim's team competes nationally and they often face teams with more physical talent, great defense has been a staple for Jim's teams to win tournaments and compete in the EYBL.

Jim has coached defense at almost all levels, ranging from 4th grade to college.

This is a preview from our Man to Man Defense 4-DVD Set that we will be introducing shortly. We are really excited to get this out as we've spent nearly 10 months on this project and it's unlike any man to man defense video that we've ever seen.

More details coming soon!

UPDATE 5/12/13: Jim Huber's new DVD set is now available here.

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...

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Coach Hart says:
5/8/2013 at 6:37:01 PM

I would never put 3 players on the ball.( baseline drive) Easy way to give up a 3 ball. I use different terms. Deny( bring him my way) Help help( Skip it skip it) beat him beat him( "drive", I have help side defender take a charge then we pass to helper and pass to the player who took charge and have him shoot the ball and make everyone box out or we start the drill over). Any time someone messes up we start over. Everyone goes through the drill once. We do it everyday. I think the shell drill is very important to teaching man to man D. There are several progression we do to keep players thinking about how to play man to man Defense. That is what works for us and we have gotten great results


Dave Bogataj says:
5/9/2013 at 8:16:37 AM

I have used shell for 40+ years. One thing I do is have defensive players in a fist and finger set. Fist at you man, point finger to ball. This helps in rotation to passes and in the ball-you-man principle. I also use the no face cuts idea. With the fist and finger the offensive man hits fist, no grab by defense, and causes cutter to stop or change direction. Causing a timing problem. I taught this from the very young thru college. I also teach "football is a collision sport, basketball is a contact sport". Mke your man do what you want him to do, not what he wants. I also put a post man in so it is 5 on 4, call out post, pass in, outside collapse, pass out and recover. I love this drill and have used it, modified it, used at all levels.


Coach Carlson says:
5/9/2013 at 8:20:12 AM

I've always felt shell drill is a must for youth basketball. The progression aspect of it is unmatched with any other defensive drill. It has always allowed my kids to get a better understanding of the team defensive concept.


Coach Stew says:
5/9/2013 at 8:25:26 AM

I love the shell drill BUT I do understand why some people don''t. You have to use it as a progression. You have to let kids play live out of it. You can even start in the shell and work on transition. What I don''t understand from this video is the number of times he seems to WANT his players to turn their backs to the ball and/or their man. That, in my opinion, is a NEVER. You can guard and be aggressive without losing sight of one or the other.


Keith Lane says:
5/9/2013 at 8:34:51 AM

If one uses their imagination they can come up with a variety of variations for the shell drill, cutters, exchanges, closing out, flashing... Often I will finish with 8 - 10 minutes of 4-4 live, do what ever you want, winners out , must get a stop to get on O.


coach hebb says:
5/9/2013 at 9:24:18 AM

we use the shell drill every practice for what we call the "chatter drill" usually 5 on 4 or 4 on 3 b/c if they don't talk they fail !!!!!! THEY WORK HARD.


Coach Culley says:
5/9/2013 at 10:36:09 AM

I like the shell drill but over the past few months have gone to use the Cutthroat drill alot more as I feel I get more out of this.


Joe Haefner says:
5/9/2013 at 10:48:50 AM

Coach Culley, I'm a big fan of the cut throat drill as well. I wrote this article about it awhile back.


Ken Sartini says:
5/9/2013 at 12:34:38 PM

We uesd the shell drill a lot.. at times we played 5/0 vs 4/D...this makes you talk a lot and move your feet.
When we went to straight 4 on 4 and allowed cutters all the way through that was more like game situations and made our match up that much better.

Along with our m2m D, we played a 1-3-1 match up zone... our 5 played their 5 m2m and everyone rotated around him. Our match up was pretty good and what was amazing was.... they talked all the time... not so much in our m2m, go figure.


Henry Ray says:
5/9/2013 at 3:08:47 PM

Great Drill! I would remind players to keep their arms and hands up when on ball defending, making passes be tall and out when off the ball, closing down passing lanes


Coach Lou says:
5/9/2013 at 5:34:19 PM

GREAT DRILL!!!! Can't wait to use it tomorrow at practice, will let you know how we do.....


Coach Phil says:
5/10/2013 at 9:22:25 AM

This is a good teaching drill. I am nt sure why it would "suck" to anyone. Definitely goes over good defensive position and help side. I like it.


Ken Sartini says:
5/10/2013 at 9:49:47 AM

I think it was Joe's way or creating some good conversation. It's a great article Joe.


ugyen says:
5/13/2013 at 1:04:53 AM

All the coaches have given good comments, as I am new/fresher as a coach. It is interesting to know all the facts, thank you. During all my coaching, I have always used shell drill and i find it effective and will keep in mind the comments of other coaches too.


Joe Haefner says:
5/13/2013 at 12:45:55 PM

Coach Hart, I don't Coach Huber's intention is to put 3 players on the ball. Here is his explanation for having the wing defender dropping low...

"I usually work on emphasize sinking to the level of the ball, which sometimes will be the block area. We over emphasize this initially at practice. Players will usually not play at the same levels demanded in practice on every possession in games. It is like exaggerating kids being low in stances. The players will usually not be that low in games. In youth basketball most teams are not good shooting 3 pointers. They are better getting in the lane or to the basket. When I work with high school teams or college teams we will adjust and not sink as low because of shooters, but we still do not want the ball in the lane or house. We might have a player barely sink or not sink to stay with a great shooter on the other team (it is usually adjusted on scouting reports of each team). Every team and game is different on the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent. You need to know what the offensive goal of another team. Are they drive first with limited shooters, big team attempting to get the ball inside, 3 point shooting team, etc."


Ken Sartini says:
5/13/2013 at 1:15:54 PM

This is what I called - " Picking my poison "

If I am going to get beat, I want it to be by your worst scorer.... it doesn't always work out that way.... but thats what we attempted to do. Sometimes they surprise you.


Elias Soto says:
5/16/2013 at 9:51:06 PM

I coach Girls High School and I have used
the shell drill for years and its been the best
coaching drill for me. I've used it even with
younger kids to help them understand what
we are trying to tech them. If you feel that its a waste of time then maybe your not spending
enough time on it


Ken Sartini says:
5/17/2013 at 9:39:13 AM

Elias -

. "If you feel that its a waste of time then maybe your not spending
enough time on it"

I might add this too.... or you are not explaining it to them properly.

GOOD TEAMS pressure the ball well.

VERY GOOD TEAMS play good defense ONE pass away

GREAT DEFESIVE TEAMS play GREAT defense 2 passes away. JMO


coach tony m says:
6/29/2013 at 12:47:09 AM

we have implemented shell drill to our practices and it has improved our man to man defense .It has also help players with weak defensive skills and to counter any boredom during the drill we play 4 on 4 or 5 on 5 at the end of the drill. It has always been a staple drill for our team and we play pressure man to man. WE HAVE WON A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP 2012 AND I BELIEVE IT WAS OUR WORK ON DEFENSE AND SHELL DRILL WAS A PART OF IT !!!!!!!!


Steve Lang says:
11/5/2013 at 10:57:54 PM

Best defensive drill we do. We start with no movement, just positioning. Then we move to ball screens on any player and how do we defend with help principles. Then we allow anyone to drive to the basket, making sure we cut off driving lanes. Then we move to running our own plays and how do we stop them. If I blow the whistle everyone must freeze (to fix positioning,or make a coaching point. We call this an "everyday drill". Even if just 5 minutes to review. Do it until it becomes second nature.


David (Aussie Coach) says:
11/12/2013 at 9:11:28 PM

Thanks for the video clip of this. I will be incorporating this drill into training next session onwards.


David (Aussie Coach) says:
4/1/2014 at 9:38:30 PM

Follow up from previous message.

I started doing this drill at training after my first comment. The first couple sessions I can say comfortably were an unmittigated disaster. However I have kept at it, tinkered a little, and can say after 5 or 6 training sessions, I now have a shell drill that I am really pleased with, and I believe is definitely providing results.

Funnily enough, its actually proving to be an excellent teaching aide for attacking also, moving the ball around the 3 point line, and teaching players to cut and move together as a unit, rather than just having them stand like bottles. Also very good for encouraging talking.

ps. Prior season - team was in Div 4 (lowest out of 4), this season top of Div 3 (of 5) and moving into Div 2 next season. Enjoying the improvements. Thanks.


PK says:
6/14/2014 at 8:27:07 AM

Something else that is missing here in the progression. Getting into your shell in transition. Any RUSH drill works great. We also use it to help explain our full court m2m positioning/principles. Another good half court drill we use is the CHANGE drill.


Joe Haefner says:
6/14/2014 at 8:48:18 AM

Glad to hear about your success, David! Thanks for the update.

PK, I agree. You definitely need to work on transition. Coach Huber covers that as one of his progressions in his video.


Rhea says:
9/18/2014 at 11:06:09 AM

I love this defense. I still use it when I play. The deny and skip work great. I am able to keep an eye on my man and know where the ball is.

I plan on using man to man defense with my youth team. Would this defense be too difficult for a group ages 9 & 10?


Ken Sartini says:
9/18/2014 at 11:40:51 AM

Rhea -

Everything is relative.... 9&10 year olds vs 9&10 year olds... as long as you work at it, you should be ableto handle it. My last year as a Jr High coach , we scrimmaged a Fr B team and did very well. One of their kids came to me and asked me what defense we were running.... told him m2m with a lot of help on the back side.

He said it was great, we couildn't run any of our stuff. You will be doing those boys a b ig favor playing m2m..... getting them ready to play at the next level. Teach them a lot of fundamentals and let them have some fun.

Good luck


Coach Justice says:
11/20/2015 at 7:47:42 AM

I agree with Coach Stew. Early, he had teh defender on the right wing facing the baseline, back mostly to the ball instead of opening up , dropping back and being in a good position to help on the drive. I love the drill, not sure I agree with the basics he is teaching out of it.

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
11/20/2015 at 2:52:10 PM

Coach - Thanks for the comments. I'm trying to figure out which part you're questioning. Is it at the 45 second point in the video when the defender is one pass away denying with the hand in the passing lane?

If so, even though the player was relaxed at that point, not really in a defensive stance, he was generally speaking in a good 1-pass away denial position. If that's the style you want to play, which many coaches do. He should be able to see both his man and the ball. I have taught this way and have had a lot of success. If you drill it, players can both deny the pass and seal seams to help.

The other style is to use an open stance when one pass away and sag a little more in help position... more of a packline type of defense. Coach Huber covers that method in a different part of the DVD. Ultimately it's up to the coach on what method to use... personal preference type of thing but they both work.

Is that what you were referencing or am I way off on that? Thanks.


Dave Bogataj says:
11/20/2015 at 5:08:26 PM

My position is to have the defensive player moving his feet with every movement of the ball or the player he is guarding. All players defend the basket and any movement to gain position by offensive team. Teach happy feet, always moving, knees bent ready to move or jump. The shell teaches the defender to deny any movement the offense wants to do. Also nobody but you and your teammates access to the basket. I teach aggressive action all the time. I coached a 7th boys travel team for my sons middle school and practiced the shell for 45 minutes at each practice. They beat 80 % of the teams they played and were smaller and not as talented. Now as soph in high school they have only lost one game since the 7th grade season. It works


Coach says:
10/13/2018 at 8:51:05 PM

Curious about defending the slot to slot pass in the shell drill. Let's assume we're doing a 4 on 4 shell drill and the offensive is set up in a 4 out. (guys in both slots and wing areas).

The player in one of the slots has the ball. I believe in the Huber DVD the player guarding the other slot player was actually sagged into the lane and his hand wasn't on the line of the ball. What would be the reasoning for not denying the slot to slot pass or would you?

  1 reply  

Coach says:
6/9/2019 at 5:43:25 PM

Still haven't come across a good answer for this. We play a little of both ways one pass away (deny and gap) and have just told my guys to go to an open stance across the top (slot to slot) because I wanted to help avoid penetration down the middle of the floor but I can also see the argument for getting the ball on one side of the floor and keeping it there. Curious on your general philosophy on trying to pin the ball to one side or hang back and plug up the middle on a slot to slot pass.


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