When teaching your players good individual defense, maybe don't teach the Poke Check first. We realize this might sound blasphemous, since the Poke Check is a classic. But we have heard that even top coaches like Dave Pietremala are getting away from it (although don't quote us). In game situations, a beginning player is running at full speed, trying to poke the 2"-wide shaft or the ball carrier's bottom hand, both relatively small targets. Instead, teach them to play Body Defense with the Feet, Hips, Hands, Stick last.
Why is the Poke Check the first one many coaches teach their players? Why is it the one check that coaches include in pregame warm ups? We've all seen it- one player shuffles down the sideline practicing Poke Checks while all the other players stand still, holding their sticks out. All these beginning players work on Poke Checks in practice and during warm-ups, and then you hear coach yelling, "Quit chasing the stick!" the whole game. Well, what did you expect?
A good Poke Check lets the stick slide through the top hand like a pool cue, to increase the range without sacrificing everything else. However, the Poke Check does have the bad habit of causing beginning players to lunge forward at their man, compromising footwork, body position, and quickness. Lunging at the dodger ("Over-Committing") gives him a chance to run right by you to one side or the other. You can't drop step to stay in front of your man or turn your hips to pursue him when you are lunging forward with your body weight heavy on the front leg.
Defense starts at the Feet, then the Hips, then the Hands; stick is LAST. All these kids growing up playing Box Lacrosse now hardly throw any stick checks. Indoor players are very good at playing Body Defense with good footwork, cross-check push on the hips (yes, that's good Defense) to turn their man away from the goal.
- Feet- You can't play good Defense without being in the right spot on the field. Move your feet to stay in between your man and the goal, wherever he goes.
- Hips- You have to get your hips low so you have a good foundation and a low center of gravity to be strong and stable and push the man away. You have to get your hips facing the right direction to pursue.
- Hands- You have to get your hands on the Dodger's hips to play good, physical, Body Defense. Push him away from the goal. If you control his hips, he isn't going anywhere.
- Stick- Only if you've done all this will you be in the right place long enough to throw any good checks without giving up body position in between the ball and the goal.
Stick checks that lead to turnovers come from Defenders that can stalk and pursue their man anywhere he goes, staying engaged and in range long enough to throw a variety of checks whenever the stick is not protected. A good Take-Away Defender will follow you all over the field with his feet and get his stick in your hands wherever you go. He will be waiting for you as you come across the midfield line on the Clear. He will follow you everywhere you go, right out of the substitution box.
To be clear, we are not saying that stick checks are bad, or that the Poke Check is necessarily bad. The poke check is just one of many checks a defender might throw. A well-timed poke check can cause turnovers. We are just saying don't teach the Poke Check first. Teach good body positioning first, taking away the middle of the field. Teach defensive footwork first. Teach relentless pursuit first. Teach Speed, Agility and Quickness first.
1) Feet, 2) Hips, 3) Hands, Stick is last. To teach your players good, fundamental Defense, try playing the Bucket Game some time. Get out the old Blocker Pads from the football or rugby team for your 1-on-1 drills. Or make some "Stubbies" out of old shafts and have them practice defense with no stick so they can only use their feet, hips and hands.
In case you couldn't tell, we have a lot of respect for Defense here at Lax Library, especially the Long-Stick Midfielder (the LSM).
Practicing against physical Defenders playing good Body Defense will also help your offensive players learn how to initiate contact on their dodges and really get through to the goal.
Hopefully you can use some of the ideas we've suggested here to give your players many different ways to be successful in their Individual Defense. Let us know if you discover some really good, tough, athletic Defenders hidden on your team!
Defense! Defense! Defense!