Welcome to "A Lacrosse Weekend" my weekly compilation of thoughts, ideas, stories, myths, truths, about the great game of lacrosse. I hope you enjoy it!
If you are a men's or women's lacrosse player, coach, or parent, I think you will love the weekly content, videos, and analysis.
JM3 Defensive Philosophy
As a former attackman, I began my coaching career on the offensive side of the ball and and to this day I'm probably best known for offensive innovations, skill development and 2man game. Therefore the assumption would be, the JM3 is model, which is based on Free Play would not be great for defenders. This could not be farther from the truth! In my last season at Yale I was named defensive coordinator and in my first five seasons at Denver I also focused on defense. I hired Jon Torpey in the fall of 2004 and for the next 4-5 seasons we experimented with high pressure defense, double teams, over the head check (Rip Slides) 10 man rides, and poles who could run the field and score. We had 20 points out of our poles in 2006. This way of playing got us to two NCAA tourneys and two top 12 finishes in 2006 and 2008. And finally, I was Dave Huntley's Defensive Coordinator for the MLL Atlanta Blaze.
For the past 10 or so years I have been studying and implementing the Notre Dame Defense founded by Kevin Corrigan and cultivated by Gerry Byrne, now Head Coach at Harvard. I believe in the ND read and react style of play where players develop incredible team chemistry and communication along with outstanding individual defensive habits of approaches, head turns, posture, getting sideways, communication, ball pressure, V Holds etc.
In terms of skill development for poles, I use my Free Play model with a heave box lacrosse influence of developing offensive players as opposed to position specific skill development. Simply put, I develop defenseman as if they were attackmen.
From youth all the way up through high school lacrosse, the vast majority of long pole defenders are held back by the philosophies, environments they train in and reductionist coaching models. This blog will attempt address the common issues and misconceptions in defensive development as well as provide practical concepts and simple training solutions so your defender can maximize his natural abilities.
The Three Defensive Categories
When you think about the qualities great defenders need to have it breaks down into three categories: on ball, off ball and with ball. It is difficult to prioritize or rank these qualities. This topic reminds me of a conversation with my former co-captain at Brown, UVA Head Coach Lars Tiffany; I asked him what he looks for in a defenseman? "Feet" he said, "I want someone who can cover." I then asked, "what are the qualities of the guys who actually play for you? " Lars's response after a pause of thought was this, "The smartest players and best lacrosse players." I set Lars up, he took the bait, and then the truth came out! Yes we all need a baseline of on ball defensive cover ability, but the smartest best lacrosse players are the ones you win with.
Check out my podcast with Lars Tiffany from January 2023 and you'll hear some great defensive conversations!
On ball defense is important, but is over-emphasized. More goals are scored from poor off ball defense, failed clears or giving the offense a second chance by not picking up a first time ground balls, than defenders getting beat one on one.
Here's a breakdown of the three categories:
On Ball: defenders must be able to effectively and predictably guard the ball and be hard to beat in a variety of situations through good positioning and the understanding of angles and approaches, all the while applying ball pressure through the use of cross checks, pokes, lifts, and holds and other checks to disrupt and cause turnovers.
Check out the video of Landis vs Thompson, a match up of great on great!
Off Ball: defenders must be able to guard more than just their own man off ball while they read the quality of defense on the ball, which will dictate decisions to slide or collapse. Further, defenders must be able to recognize when to slow-play and when to attack, how to rotate all the while being able to communicate with teammates.
Eddy Glazener is known as the best off ball defensive player and communicator in the world. Check out the video of Glaze below!
With Ball: defenders should be skilled enough to play extra man for their team. Not only is it imperative for defenders to be excellent off the ground, in the clearing game and a threat to score in transition, but great stick skills translates to great defense.
Joel White's highlight video will show you what being a skilled pole looks like!
Why Private Lessons Don't Work
Have you watched the drills defenders do most private training sessions? Small group work focussed on agility and footwork drills working on shuffling, backpedaling and cutting, doing unopposed stick work like over passes or escape ground balls, approach drills against cones, and some type of "Shell" drill where they work on team defense concepts and communication against air. These environments which theoretically work "On ball, off ball, and with ball" situations are actually devoid of context and therefore devoid of value because there is no decision making. Decision making goes hand and hand with technique in a game and therefore separating them is wasting precious time. An example would be a coach thinking that a player who regularly gets beat 1v1 needs more work on defensive footwork, when really the problem is he doesn't position himself with the proper cushion or shade and therefore beats himself.
To sum it up, you can't get better at the three main categories of on ball, off ball, and with ball without playing with and against other players. Training like this is a red flag.
Note: it's fine for kids to work on your own if they can't find someone to work with. Try applying the concepts of Differential Learning and repetition without repetition, to find some value. However, it must be noted that isolated skill practice can sharpen existing skills, but will not add new skills to your game.
Youth / HS Practices Are Great!
While high school and youth practices are variable from coach to coach and team to team as to the quality of the learning environment, they are also the best opportunity for kids to get better! The only way these practices won't make a player better is if they aren't game-like with context and competition. Kids need to play live with and against other human beings and outside of practice it can be hard to make this happen. Therefore these practices are key!
A good practice will create various all-even situations of 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 where players learn individual and team defense. The experienced coach will make sure short sticks are integrated into these all even situations defensively so the poles will have more opportunities to slide and recover, how navigate big-little picking situations, and how to look for double team opportunities. I can't stress enough the importance of defenders playing in these live situations with multiple set ups and constraints of space, shot clocks, pick coverages etc.
These all-even small-sided situations are the most important for the individual defensive development of the poles where they should learn the concepts of cushion and shade, poke and lift, how to trail to X, drop steps and hip turns, V Holds, Cross Check Holds, and Reverse V Holds as well as how bump a dodger off track using his momentum against him and take an angle up field.
Uneven drills are important too! Uneven situations teach players how to rotate, split two, hedge, slow play the ball, cover skip lanes and help to the middle. The problems I see in most youth or high school practices is not enough context and not enough pressure. 3 on 2's for example is kind of a waste of time for both sides of the ball. It's too easy for the offense to score and defensively there's not much to it after you learn how to slow play and scrape. I greatly prefer 4v3's, 5v4's, and 6v5's.
The not enough pressure means simply, I want the defenders to fly around and rotate, not pack it in in a box and let the offense shoot. Play the ball behind, pressure in your rotations in practice and this coverage constraint will pay dividends.
Some Thoughts For On Ball Defense
As you know holding is a 30 second penalty. Actually, holding in all sports is flagged because of the advantage it creates over the player being held. There are degrees of holding that are allowed and the goal of defenders should be to hold as much as possible without being flagged. We must use our stick to hold, leverage, slow down, and capture our man as much as possible and this requires great skill and dexterity.
Many coaches (and players) hate the V Hold and I'll tell you why. First, they will say the V hold is not as strong of position as the cross check hold and there is some truth to this, but the benefits of ball pressure outweigh liabilities. Right on right, if you only use a cross check hold, the dodger's hands and eyes are free to feed and shoot around you. Plus, if a dodger gets a step on you, you will have no choice but to use a V hold and lift anyway, so it's literally impossible never to use your V Hold. Furthermore, cross check hold and V hold are not mutually exclusive, the experienced player uses both! For example in a right on right situation where a dodger is attacking the "Island" a defender will often times initiate contact with his cross check to bump the dodger off track and use the dodger's momentum against him before he employs his V Hold. Also, when a player spins underneath out of a V Hold, the defender will sit on his topside, trail to X, and wait for a topside rollback with his cross check.
The second reason coaches and players hate the V Hold is they mistakenly apply the concept of getting your hips topside of your man, which is necessary in a cross check hold, but a fatal mistake in a V Hold. If a defender uses a V Hold with his hips topside, he will give up an easy and instantaneous inside roll. Instead, defender must keep his hips slightly below the hips of the dodger in his V Hold, providing ball pressure and a literal clamp or hold, and act like an anchor or a drag on the dodger while moving his feet to stay with the dodger. The V Hold effectively allows the defender to guard the topside with the V Hold and the underneath with the body and legs.
Third,, if the on ball defender doesn't shuffle his feet during a V Hold, he will get "Scissored" as Harvard Head Coach Gerry Byrne says, and will again get inside rolled badly.
Fourth, defenders are universally taught to push their man out when defending the "Island" which can result in the defender getting off balance. This will sound counter intuitive, but the goal is actually to "Capture" the dodger in the V Hold by giving ground which will set up a double team opportunity. Pushing or leaning on your man will get you beat. Your opportunity to push people out is usually when they're on the run and you bump them off track up and out or behind the net when they roll back.
Sadly, most defenders are instructed not to use a V Hold, never to check, just "Move your feet" and don't give up top side in their 1v1's. The best defenders use their sticks to play defense, to create ball pressure, to hold, lift, and check. The idea that players should not check is absurd! And I hate it when coaches take their sticks away to focus on footwork! This is such a waste of time! Have you ever noticed how easy for kids to play defense without their stick? The key is to move your feet and use your stick to defend!
Matt Landis Webinar
I did this breakdown of Landis vs Lyle with Matt Landis a couple of years ago where he explained the match up, the preparation and game plan, the adjustments in game and his though process through the whole game. This is the kind of content you will find in the Coaches Training Program along with how to install the Notre Dame Defense!
The JM3 Model For Defensive Development
Chop the stick: the first thing that you need to do is cut your stick down to between the chin and nose. I err on the side of shorter, but it's relative to the over all physical maturity and strength of the athlete. A shorter stick will help with every facet of the game because a shorter stick allows you to be quicker and stronger with it. Whether it's picking off passes, checks of any kind, or handling the ball in terms of dodging, playmaking and ground balls a shorter stick makes a massive difference. The shorter stick makes it much easier for defenders to use their holds: V Hold, Cross Check Hold and Reverse V Hold because they have more leverage.
In the summer of 2017 I was the DC for the MLL Atlanta Blaze and this story is about my suggestion to All-Pro Scott Ratliff that he try to cut his stick. Enjoy!
Play Pick up: A big part of the JM3 Athlete development model involves Free Play with small nets and tennis balls. I can't stress enough how important it is for D-men to play pick up! This is where players become exceedingly slick with their sticks which is no less critical for defenders than it is for attack or mids. Incredible stick skills not only is important in the clearing game or being a playmaker in transition, but factors in directly to defense. The more deft a player is with his stick, the better his ball pressure will be in the form of lifts, holds, pokes, and checks of all kinds. As my mentor and Hall of Fame Player / Coach (Yale) Mike Waldvogel would say, "Play defense with a foil not a saber." which is an interesting fencing reference, but it's true.
Furthermore, playing pick up puts defensive players in live situations where reading the play, slow playing situations, splitting two, helping, communicating occur the entire game. It is true that there is no contact in these games, but the defensive player is working on every other part of the game and will gain true fluency.
The video below is a zoom call I had with PLL star Eddy Glazener where we watched a pick up game and he gave his thoughts on how it's important for defenders!
Check out the video below of some JM3 Athletes playing pick up in Rye, NY and look closely at the 2027 defender with the Short-Long (Sh-long), a 50" stick which gives players the feel of a pole while still using a shorter stick. Watch the way he handles, knocks down passes, gets ground balls, and learns a smooth style of attacking with a longer stick.
Small Group Full Pads 1v1's and 2v2's: Here is where we get our defenders to get some buddies together and run through variations of 1v1 and 2v2 drills with picks or with crease and sliders. We use various space, time, and coverage constraints, mix in longs and shorts into the pick game and practice live scenarios of defending, sliding and double teams, learning how to communicate and read the play.
Check out the short video of a 2027 JM3 Athlete and defender from Rye, NY and his buddies doing backyard 1v1's and 2v2's. You can tell which kid I'm talking about because his stick is shorter and he's more active with it!
Zoom calls: each week JM3 Athletes hop on a zoom with me and we study film. We watch pick up film, small group full pads film, or game film. All film with context is good film and it's a necessity for game optimization, learning and improvement. The power of this simple model is incredible: Play (in context), watch the film and discuss on zoom, play again, watch it and learn, play again, watch it and learn etc. Since we have design control over the Free Play and the Small Group Full Pads Training, we can guarantee an opportunity for the athlete to practice the situation we go over on zoom.
Other than playing, film is the best way to learn. Athletes usually don't know what actually happened or what they're really doing until they see it on film. However, film without playing doesn't work for most athletes. Just because you understand it on film doesn't mean you will do it real life. Kids actually have to play in context. However, the combination is playing then watching film is the ultimate model and is exactly like a college lacrosse program: they run a practice, film it, teach the players the key points and optimize for next practice or game. That's what we do!
A 2027 JM3 Defender
Check out the highlights from a JV game that this 8th grader is playing in. There's a lot of work yet to be done on learning the nuances of the game, but this kid is making a lot of plays and you can see the influence of pick up and small group training on his game. You'll notice his shorter stick, you'll notice his stick is active and you can totally see how the sh-long stick translates. How about his sick over the head check?!
Here's a text I received from his dad yesterday:
"The pads work recently has been incredible for him but I Don’t think you can underestimate how much the pickup has added to his game. And then the pickup with the shlong adds even more. All of it combined has been huge."
Have a great weekend!