Top 8: Tips for your defender
Let’s chat volleyball defense! There is a lot that goes into the simple, but not so easy skill of defense. In fact, the skill itself may be incredibly overwhelming to teach and to learn. But, no worries, through my experiences playing, coaching and discussing with some of the best defenders in the world, I have come up with 8 important skills/techniques that I believe will benefit your defenders.
BE STOPPED AND BALANCED:
Stopped and balanced…the most common defensive cue. This notion speaks for itself, so I’ll keep it brief. If you aren’t stopped, then you aren’t balanced on contact and if you aren’t balanced on contact, then your body control weakens and your reaction time slows.
Teach it: Put your athlete/s in a stressed environment that incorporates changing speed and direction. The brain LOVES pattern and consistency, but defense isn’t always patterned, so don’t let your athletes off the hook!
Let’s take the ever so popular “dig and chase” drill for example. Dig & Chase isn’t the best drill for anything other than pursuit. Why? Because it is patterned. You dig a ball in your area and then you chase a ball in the opposite direction. The body naturally flows through that pattern.
Instead of dig and chase. Try dig, react, OSS (out of system set). Try not to initiate any sort of pattern (left, right, high, low, floater, top-spin)! Now your athlete isn’t able to follow a pattern and has to change speed and direction three different times!
CHECK YOUR STANCE:
You are in a good defensive position and your eye work has been perfect. You have confidently read the play but as the ball crosses the net, you are completely glued to the ground…unable to step and unable to pursue. Result: you collapse to the floor.
As a defender, I can assure you that the scenario presented above is one of the most frustrating. Your brain says go, but your body says no and your conscious defensive discipline becomes completely worthless.
If you find this scenario happening to yourself more often than not, then I would take a moment to switch your attention to your defensive starting AND finishing stance. Wait…finishing stance?
Just because you begin the play in a strong starting stance, doesn’t mean that you are able to maintain that stance while acting on the ball. For example, if you have been taught to ‘pre-hop’ on contact, what does your stance look like post hop and are you wider than you were when you started? Do you find yourself swaying your weight from your toes to your heels on contact?
Teach it: Incorporate a pause button in drills that include live defense. Pause button? Let’s say you are playing 6v6. Immediately after an athlete gets a kill, yell pause. Every athlete has to stay in the exact position that they were in upon contact. Walk around and throw a ball one or two steps from the defender and see if they can react out of their stance quickly to pursue that ball.
TAKE A DIRECT PATH:
Defense requires quickness…of course, but efficiency is just as important, if not more so. The best defenders in the world are incredibly conscious of their movement, knowing that one-step or sway in the opposite direction takes them out of their athletic stance and away from the ball.
Teach it: I love implementing a bosu/balance ball progression when teaching a good first step. Why? Because for the most part, bosu and balance balls are unpredictable and, SHOCKER, so is defense.
Start with a bosu ball and a tennis ball. Set up your athlete in a defensive stance, about 6″ away from the of the bosu ball. Neal down, on the opposite side of the bosu, and forcefully bounce the tennis ball off of the half bosu. Have your athlete “jab” step to the tennis ball and catch it with one hand.
Things to watch: weight, direction of step, reaction time and eye work. Was their weight swaying in a certain direction or were they balanced through the middle of their body? Was their first step in the right direction? Was their “jab” step as powerful and aggressive as it needed to be? What were they watching?
As your athlete progresses, swap the tennis ball for a volleyball and the skill of digging/pursing for catching.
“FOUUUUURRRRR”…a common term we all use to describe an uncontrolled golf swing. The same swing is often seen in a defensive atmosphere, when an athlete locks their hands early and swings their platform to the ball.
As the game begins to increase in velocity, it becomes very important for defenders to learn how to play defense starting with their palms up and learning to lock their platform AFTER their angle is created.
Why? The palms and forearms take up space…just as much space as the platform at times. Sometimes the game is so fast that there simply isn’t time to lock the hands/platform. Similarly, when the hands are locked early and there is an attempt to dig a ball to the outside of the body, the angles and hips follow, usually resulting in…well, FOUUUURRRRR.
Teach it: Now don’t get me wrong…we DON’T want to teach bad habits (especially to the youngins) and digging with one hand or with a sloppy platform can be a bad habit.
Try introducing this concept during warmup/pepper. Start with normal pepper, progress into digging with the platform slightly a part (palms up), progress into digging with one arm (palms up) and finish with regular pepper again.
PLAY THE BALL, DON’T LET THE BALL PLAY YOU:
If you see the ball, react to it! Play forward, play aggressive and TAKE CONTROL! Defense is a fast, physical skill and if you don’t try to beat the ball, the ball will beat you! The more we hesitate and the longer we wait for the ball, the more control the ball has.
Teach it: This concept is difficult to teach considering that the act of being aggressive on the ball is partially a mindset.
To overcome this challenge, I teach athletes to play forward and aggressive by placing them under the net and training a quick, aggressive jab step. You can do this by placing your athlete under the net, in defensive position, with their back facing the outside of the court. Hit low, flat balls out in front of your athlete, forcing them to take that aggressive step and extend (off their back foot), forward through the ball!
CONTROL THE HIPS:
Hips are more important than one thinks. They play a key role in controlling body movement and the direction of the shoulders. When your hips start to face the outside of the court, the torso and shoulders naturally follow. If you find yourself or your athletes shanking digs to the outside of the court, check your hips and make sure you are doing everything in your power to bring them back to the target.
READ AND IDENTIFY:
Reading is one of the toughest skills to train because great defensive reads develop over time and with years of experience. I think the skill of reading deserves its own blog post…stay tuned!
HAVE GRIT AND BE RELENTLESSNESS:
Now a conclusion: everything that I just mentioned above is completely and utterly meaningless without two characteristics: grit and relentlessness.
To be frank, the REAL MVD’s (Most Valuable Defender) are determined. They are fearless. They disregard the impossible and they strive to rewrite the meaning of pursuit. The best defenders are willing to stand in the shadows of those who shine (and score), knowing that their performance will often go unnoticed. The best defenders are selfless. They care more about positively influencing the humans around them, then about the numbers on a stat sheet. The best defenders smile graciously at the critics who only mention their name in the space of negativity. They embrace the bruises on their hips, welcome the scrapes on their knees and refuse to be pulled merely because of the blood on their uniforms. Without the willingness to relentlessly pursue opportunity and greatness…without grit…that defender you all consider to be “the best”, in my eyes, just becomes just another defender.