Defensive Pressure: It’s All In Your Head

This post was written by John Carrier and originally posted on his Coaching Basketball Blog

Lately I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Stuff Good Players Should Know by Dick Devenzio. It’s a great book and I would encourage you all to get it. This is especially true if you are a coach who really strives to be a teacher of the game. As a preview, you can read some of the notes from an old blog post by Eric Musselman.

One of the things that Coach Devenzio talks about in his book is the idea that defensive pressure in basketball is only an illusion. Think about what a novel concept that really is! How many times have you seen players (and even coaches) panic when a team presses, traps, or just plays hard pressure man? It happens all the time and costs teams victories on a regular basis.

So what is pressure in basketball? It’s not like football where pressure can mean bodily injury. It’s more of a mindset that leads the team being pressured to panic. If you don’t panic however, now what? You will find that good teams relax when they are pressured. When you relax you are able to see more clearly and actually put the team that is pressuring at a disadvantage by playing smart, principled basketball.

It’s easy enough to preach to our players that they need to handle pressure, but we know talking a good game means nothing. How do you teach it then!? I was blessed this spring to work with a great group of athletes out at St. Croix Prep High School in Stillwater (MN). Our main focus for the development sessions focused on basketball IQ and understanding the game. They play in a conference and a section with teams that love to trap and pressure so we decided that we would spend some time teaching them how to handle that pressure. The following is what worked for us as we increased their ability to handle pressure.

  • Sold the Idea that Pressure is a Myth
    • This may have been the biggest, and hardest piece. They need to understand that pressure doesn’t matter. We even went as simple as having a defender pressure them while they just stood there. This made them realize that the defender wasn’t going to do anything to them – they were just waving their hands, not swords. Once they got used to the idea that being pressured wasn’t going to result in loss of limb or life, the rest was much easier. They started to relax and see the action much better.
    • The more comfortable they are with pressure (the less scared) the less pressure affects their ability to make decisions.
    • In order to be comfortable they need to experience pressure over and over again for this to happen. It’s like riding a roller coaster, the first time might be scary but by the second or third ride it isn’t nearly as bad. So we had them ride the roller coaster quite often during our session and experience hta tpressure.
  •  Taught Them How to Handle Pressure
    • As always, it’s important to teach the game.
    • What we did was showed them basic concepts to use when being pressured:
      • Backcut when denied
      • Cut at two speeds in two directions to get open
      • Don’t make the same cut to get open each time
      • GO-GO: get open or get out
      • Take your space on the catch – DO NOT go backwards
        • When you catch against pressure, take a tep forward, rip through hard, and take your space.
        • Makes it easier to pivot and pass as well as see the floor
        • This might be the most important one.
      • Eyes up
      • Pivot hard and rip hard with big elbows\
      • Don’t hold the ball above your head
      • Stay low and strong
      • Rip to the hip
      • Rip below the knees and above the head, not across the belly button
      • Take a deep breath and slow down
      • Take a five second call over a live ball turnover – just be patient
    • Drills should be a progression where you learn the technique first and then do it under pressure.
      • For example, you work on catching and ripping
    •  After learning technique drills should simulate game situations
    • After technique, drills should incorporate more pressure than you see in games with pieces such as extra defenders.
  • Drilled Them on Technique
    • Used a number of simple drills to teach the mechanics of how to handle pressure.
      • Staying low, ripping and pivoting, taking space, etc.
  • Let Them Learn in Small Sided Games
    • If you have not read Brian McCormick yet, do so now. He is huge on small sided teaching games and he is onto something, they work!
    • Small sided games are games of 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, or 4 on 4 that emphasize the skill you are working on while still playing.
      • So in the game you would emphasize being strong with the ball in this case.
    • Small sided games are great teaching tools because they put players in game like situations and allows players to teach themselves through experience.
    • You can create rules to overload the small sided game to make it harder than a real game. 
      • Example – 2 on 2 no dribble allows the defense to pressure and deny harder than in a game, also no dribbling forces players to be strong with the ball.
    • 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, or even 4 on 4 allows players more touches than a typical 5 on 5 game.
    • Small sided games allow players to apply the skill in a game situation and work on truly learning the skill in a trial and error environment.

 Drills and Progressions

The following is an example of a drill progression that we use to teach toughness with the ball. I believe in progressions because in my experience (although limited) progressions yield a better understanding of the skill. Players learn to apply it faster as opposed to just drilling it. For me a progression starts with a skeleton drill (no defense) to work on the technical aspects of the skill, then we add defense to a drill, then we make the drill game like, and then we play a small sided game. Sometimes the last two steps are blended into 1. Also, as the year goes on we spend less time with the drill and more time on small sided games.

As always, it’s not what drill you do it’s how you do it and what you  teach and emphasize within the drill.

Rip Throughs (Skeleton drill)This may be the most boring drill, but I always tell the players that if they go hard that we will do the drill for 2-3 minutes tops. If they don’t go hard we will do it all day.

Players move out around the floor, spin the ball out, catch it with two hands and two feet. Right as they catch they rip forward to take their space. Then they rip 3-4 more times hard with big elbows. They should rip to the hip. As they rip the ball should go below their knees or above their head. Once they are done they spin out and repeat.

Boss Drill (With defense)
Now we add some defense to the situation. In this drill you partner up with one ball. The defense starts with the ball about 2 feet from the offense. The defense throws the ball to the offense and comes up and really gets into them – hacking at the ball, pressuring them body to body,  and slapping their arms to try and force them to lose the ball. The offense can’t dribble and rips through hard with big elbows and tries to keep the defender off for 5 rip and pivots. Make sure we are emphasizing proper footwork in this drill. Players don’t try to hurt each other, but the drill should be overly aggressive with no fouls – making it harder than the game. If you can keep the ball against this type of pressure, whatever you get in a game. Unless, of course, it’s on the road and the coaches brother is the official! Even then you have prepared for the situation with this drill.

2 on 2 10 Pass Drill (With defense and closer to a game)
In this drill we now introduce something else to worry about outside of being strong with the ball. In this drill we add passing and moving to the equation. The drills has one ball with groups of four – 2 defense and 2 offense.

The offense has an entire 1/2 court (or 1/4 if you want to make it harder) to move around and they have to successfully complete 10 passes in a row. The offense cannot dribble or shoot. This means the defense pressures really close on the ball and denies the players off the ball hard. If they dribble or turn it over they have 10 pushups. If they successfully complete 10 passes the defense has 10 pushups. Defense and offense switch each time. This drill is great because again it puts your playres in a situation that is harder than a game, the offense now has to work harder to get open, make better passes, and still be strong with the ball on the catch while being mauled.

3 on 3 (or 4 on 4) No Dribble
Now we add in the small sided game. Players play 3 on 3 and try to score but cannot dribble the ball. Again, this creates a situation that is harder than the game.  Also another rule for the game is that if they are not strong with the ball it’s an automatic turnover. It is an automatic turnover if a player catches and doesn’t rip forward to take space take space, if they don’t rip and pivot, if they hold the ball over their head, or if they don’t rip to the hip. On a turnover the offense goes out and a the defense goes to offense.

Play the game to a set number of points or for a set time. You can also play it cutthroat style with 3-4 teams on one court. There is a dribble allowance if the player catches the ball cutting to the hoop and has to take a dribble to finish the layup (either that or you get some crazy – no game like shots).

As you can see, this is where the learning takes place. It’s easy for players to remember to use the skill in a drill where that’s all they have to focus on, but now they have to handle defensive pressure, other players cutting and moving, trying to score, trying to make passes, etc. If they can remember to be strong with the ball here they are going to have a better chance of doing it in a game. There is a much higher probability of carry over because in small sided games they are building habits.

 In Closing

Handling pressure is much more mental than physical. I’ve seen 5-5, spindly, weak players handle pressure better than 6-6 wings who weigh 230. It’s more about training their minds to do the little things (take space, big elbows, rip and pivot) than it is training their bodies. Hopefully the ideas above, although a little jumbled, will help you work with your players on better handling pressure. The more you can do drills and games that make it harder than the real game, the better your players will be. Lastly, teaching in a progression such as the one above is the very best way for players to learn how to be tough with the ball.

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