The Ultimate Team Defense Drill

Before we get into this drill that your players will grow to love and keep asking to do, I wanted to preface it with some helpful information that will make this drill and other defensive drills even more beneficial.

With age and experience, you soon figure out that there is not a magic pill or any quick fixes that will help you get good consistent results for almost anything that you do. It takes a lot of hard work combined with a smart plan to be successful. It also never hurts to have a little bit of luck. But as they say, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.

It's also not what you do, it's HOW you do it. Throughout my coaching career, I've gone from coaching like a drill sergeant early in my career to not being demanding enough. Jim Huber has really helped me in this regards. As he likes to say, "You have to be demanding, not demeaning." Jim Huber is director of operations for the MO-KAN basketball program which is a Nike EYBL team.

Now, I don't like to yell. I feel like I have to get angry in order to yell and I don't like to be in that mindset when I'm coaching. So how the heck am I going to be demanding, yet still be myself?

During our defensive breakdown drills and progressions through our defensive concepts, I tell the players what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Then, I demand that they do the things correctly. Don't accept anything less than 100% effort and proper execution. If they don't do it right the first time, correct them, then have them do it again. Remember, be constructive, not demeaning.

If I see the error, I will usually ask them things like...

"Did you sprint 100% to your spot?"
"Did you block out on the shot?"
"Did you get on the rim line?"
"Did you have high hands on the closeout?"

Almost every time they will say, "No."

Then, I will take them back to the situation and say let's do it again and show me the right way to do it. As discussed at the very first practice, if they display poor attitude and effort, their playing time will be reduced. As long as you communicate this to the players and enforce it, players usually respond quickly.

Funny how my skill development and offense philosophy which is heavily influenced by Don Kelbick is quite different. Not sure if that is the right way to do it, but it works for me! Or at least, I think it does. Here are some articles to read after this article in case you are curious:

Now, as we progress through these defensive concepts, I will emphasize things like:
  • Sprint! Sprint to ball. Sprint to deny. Sprint to helpside.
  • High hands on close outs.
  • Contain the ball.
  • Force to the sideline - no middle drives.
  • Move as the offense moves - don't wait.
  • Finish possessions. Make contact and block out.
  • Deny one pass away.
  • Step in front of the cutter - no face cuts.
  • Deny post entries.
  • Hedge on ball screens.
Since I'm big believer in communication, I will also emphasize things like:
  • "Ball. Ball. Ball" when guarding the ball.
  • "Tim, I got your help!" when in help position.
  • "Keegan, the post is open." When nobody is in the post.
  • "Deny. Deny. Deny." When denying one pass away.
The important thing is to make your own list and emphasize what you feel is important.

Now, once you have covered a few breakdown drills I always like to end with this drill. The kids love it. I have an offensive version that I like to run, but the kids always want to run the Ultimate Defense Drill.

The Drill

Now I've taken bits and pieces from cutthroat, defense wins, and other drills to make this my own.

Here is how it works:

  • Start 3v3 half court. You can also do 4v4 and 5v5, but I prefer 3v3 because it makes the defense cover more ground. When it comes game time and they have 5 defenders, it will also feel easier for them. Just like most other coaches, I try to make practices more difficult than games.

  • Play to 3. This keeps the intensity level high. I'll also do best of 3, so we will play two to three games.

    A variation would be to get a certain number of stops in a row in order to earn one point. 2 stops in a row earns 1 point. 3 stops in a row earns 1 point.

  • The only way you score a point is by getting a defensive stop. Examples are rebounds, turnovers, ball goes out of bounds, or jump ball.

  • If you get a defensive stop, you stay on defense.

  • If you score on offense, you go to defense.

  • Now, here's the kicker - if the defense does not do the things I emphasize, I will blow the whistle instantly, correct the mistake, and have offense and defense switch.

Coaching and Motivation Tips

At first, it will be impossible to emphasize everything. So the first couple of practices, pick what is most important to you at first. For me, this was:
  • Close out high hands.
  • Contain the ball. Force to the sideline or the corner.
  • Sprint on the flight of the ball to new positions. Sprint to denial. Sprint to helpside. Sprint to ball.
Now as the season progresses, I will add these things to the list. I will usually add one or two things each practice.
  • Communicate.
  • On change of position, sprint to defense.
  • Deny the post.
  • No face cuts. Forearm to cutter.
  • Down screens. Jump off screener to create gap. Don't lock and chase, unless told to.
  • Ball screen. Hedge and stop ball. Sprint back to man.
  • Back screens. Pop off of screener to protect basket until defender recovers.

More Coaching Tips
  • Whenever you blow the whistle, have the player instantly throw you the ball. You throw the ball to who you want.

  • Vary who you throw the ball to start from different positions on the floor.

  • After correction, blow the whistle, and start the next possession instantly. Keep it at a high pace.

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


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Kevin says:
12/14/2016 at 3:36:19 PM

What does "Did you get on the rim line?" mean?


Coach Rob says:
5/14/2014 at 6:43:48 AM

Very similar to the paint touch drill we use to build our packline ,,,


Floyd Brooks says:
3/11/2012 at 8:41:29 AM

I have used this drill many times.its a great drill for teaching defensive rotations.My players love it also.Its the most intense part of practice.We reward players for taking charges and diving for loose balls.


Ken Sartini says:
12/24/2011 at 2:30:54 PM


You are right, communication is one of the toughest skills to teach... I was a varsity coach and it was tough. Funny thing... we played two defenses... on/up the line m2m and a 1-3-1 match up zone... and they did a great job of communicating in the zone... but you would have thought they went mute all of a sudden when we played m2m.... I don't have the answer why, it just happened that way. We wanted the big three also...BALL - DENY - & HELP.

Yes, we taught "pick right - screen etc but we did much better out of the zone. Like I always say to other coaches, IF you have something that works for you - GO FOR IT.
I don't care who says its wrong or right.

We also ran an Open Post offense and I heard a lot of people say we didn't know what we were doing.... frankly I don't care what they think... you just don't roll the ball out and they can run any offense. It takes reading defenses, passing skills and how to get yourself open along with all the other fundamentals necessary to play the game.


Joe Haefner says:
12/24/2011 at 9:47:05 AM

Great points, Coach Paul. We appreciate the feedback.

I talked to the kids about unnecessary communication on offense. Not just saying stuff to say stuff. That you need to communicate clearly.

One time during practice when we were setting a down screen, I had a player who was the screener say to the cutter who was just standing on the block "Ryan. What are you doing? Go!" So I stopped the play and told the sreener to be clear with the communication. Instead, say, "Ryan. Pick. Come off the pick." would be more helpful.

These are the three phrases I had players yell 3 times:
Ball. Ball. Ball.
Deny. Deny. Deny
Help. Help. Help.

I emphasized that because, like you said, it is very difficult to get youth players to talk, in my case, 13 and 14 year olds. My thought process was that if I can get them to think about saying it 3 times during practice, they would probably say it 1 or 2 times during a game. That usually held true.

And it didn't bother me if they did say it 3 times. Like you said, a ball handler is less likely to try to attack the basket when they see and hear a player shouting, "Help." My thought process was that the offensive player is more likely to recognize this if is repeated. But like you said, maybe it is just noise and ineffective communication? Maybe it doesn't make a difference? Maybe it does?

I like your tips and will definitely consider using them in the future.


Coach Paul Patrick says:
12/24/2011 at 7:29:23 AM

Talking On Defense

Talking on defense might be the second most important or effective skill you can use to become a better defensive team. Nothing replaces strong defensive fundamentals, but talk can help your team in at least two ways;

1) Communication between your players will let your players know what is going on behind them, and how they should play their man. If the defender on the ball hears his teammate talking to the ball “I have help at baseline” he knows he can play his man a little closer and force in that direction.

2) There is an intimidation factor that stunts some teams. If a player with the ball hears a help defender talking to the ball “I have help at the elbow”, then they might be less likely to attack the elbow, knowing it’s covered.

However I question the way we teach talk on defense. A lot of noise coming from 5 players to my thinking is not useful. It’s just noise. It’s the difference between hearing and listening.

If the ball defender is screaming “ball ball ball”, can they really listen to their teammates instructions?

Also can they really be effective in covering their man if they are so focused on yelling “ball ball ball”?

If the ball defender is yelling “ball ball ball” and 3 or 4 other teammates are yelling “deny deny deny”, where is the useful information for the ball defender. Do you really think the ball defender can hear and distinguish all the different players yelling “deny” and even if they could, would it be useful information? Would they know where each of their teammates are when they are yelling deny, and would they be able to process that information quickly. Compare that, to these instructions;

Elbow help Sean
Baseline help Eric
Open post Colin

Some will argue that yelling “ball ball ball” will have a negative effect on the player with the ball. I’d like to suggest that, it is really not the case, check your game tape. If it does have an effect, then my guess is your playing against younger teams, and I’ve even seen referees ask teams to refrain from that behaviour, because at a certain age they find it doesn’t fit with fair play rules.

Some will say, yelling “ball ball ball” triggers or initiates the rest of our defenders to play in a certain style or position. I would suggest, that of all your players, playing up on the ball with pressure is the one thing, that we all want as coaches. It’s really a given or a standard, so calling “ball” is more chatter than useful information. The rest of your team are behind the ball. They can see the ball and their man, it’s really the players behind the ball that should inform the ball defender how to play, and let him/her know, that they have support.

I think the key to developing your defensive language is to get rid of useless chatter, and replace it with information packed key words or phrases. John Wooden would run drills in this fashion and I have tried to adopt this behaviour when running drills. Teach the principles you want to be emphasized in your drill, then when the drill is running, you simply call out words that reflect those principles, when they are not being done; “catch two hands”, “run lanes wide” etc. This same principle can be applied to developing a defensive language.

I would suggest the first thing you need to do is develop a defensive language for your team. Short quick phrases or words or sound packets that are rich with information. The language of course should be built to reflect your defensive principles. Whatever you want to do with your defense, then come up with short phrases or words that communicate these principles.

Getting players to communicate! If you have coached youth boys, then you know this is always a struggle. How do I get them to do talk? I searched long and hard for an answer to this puzzle. I went around from sport to sport, team to team looking for players that were good at this skill and asked them how they developed their ability to communicate effectively. Usually what I found out was that player was a coach’s son or daughter, or they were a natural team leader and the concept came easily to them. So I decided to do what I did for any other skill. I scored it and had consequences for not doing it. For e.g. if you are in a shell drill, score defensive talk, as well as rebounds, or paint touches. Apply a consequence for not doing it. Just like in lay-up drills if a player misses, I have them automatically go to a safe place to do 10 push-ups before they get back in the drill. There is motivation to get back in the drill because we are also scoring team makes. Apply the same technique to a missed defensive instruction. I think you’ll find it works.


Alex says:
12/22/2011 at 10:41:05 AM

I really like this. Awesome drill!


Joe Haefner says:
12/21/2011 at 10:20:32 AM

Hi Steve, a face cut is when a offensive player cuts in front (face) of the defender. So they are between the defender and the ball when making the cut.

To defend the face cut, you need to move on the pass. If you move on the pass, you will be between the defender and the ball and this will make it much more difficult for the offensive player to cut in front of the defender's face.


Steve says:
12/21/2011 at 10:11:41 AM

Really love this site and all the information. Could you describe what a face cut is and how you deny the cutter in some detail?



Coach VW says:
12/19/2011 at 7:41:44 PM

I have been running this drill for a few years now, I like it a lot. We also added a wrinkle that the offense only gets 1 or 2 dribbles per man. I feel this promotes non wasted offensive ball movement, which in turn makes it tougher for the defense to defend.


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