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How To Become A Dominant Lacrosse Defenseman

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by Connor Wilson originally entitled ‘How to Become a Dominant Lacrosse Defenseman’ was published March 28. 2012 at 6:31 p.m. It has been reformatted and updated to make sure it brings as much value to the lacrosse community as possible.

Is it possible to be a dominant college or professional lacrosse defenseman without being 6’4″, 230 pounds and NFL-linebacker fast?

This question was posed to me by a parent whose son plays longpole. The kid is an even 6 feet and weighs in at a buck forty-five, yet he’s got crazy potential and everyone knows it. As I prepared to answer the question, I could not help but start thinking about what it truly takes to dominate on the defensive end of the field.

There are top level lacrosse players out there who aren’t the biggest, strongest, or even the fastest athletes, and yet they still make their way onto the field. In fact, sometimes they even stand out as a team’s best player. From this simple fact, we know that overall playing ability is not solely decided by one’s physical stature.

On the defensive side of the ball longpoles do tend to be big, strong, and fast but there are many cases in which the above is not 100% true. Look no further than lacrosse great John Gagliardi (not the biggest guy), former Cuse LSM Joe Ceglia (on the smaller side), or Syracuse legend Joel White (not a physical monster) as extreme examples of non-traditional success. These three guys were all known to dominate their opponents.

The answer to the parent’s question above is simply, yes, you can be a dominant defenseman without being a physical monster.

The real question is…

How can YOU become a dominant lacrosse defenseman, even if you don’t possess a ton of natural size or athletic ability?

I’m going to provide you with three areas to focus on for making huge improvements! We’ll start off with the Athletic Training portion, and then get to Stick Work and Lacrosse IQ.

How To Become A Dominant Lacrosse Defenseman
It’s all about footwork!

1) Defenseman Footwork And Training

A good defenseman plays defense with his feet more than anything else. As a pole, being able to get your body between the offensive player you are covering and the goal is priority number 1.  Defenseman have a number of tools at their disposal to get this done, but without good footwork, those tools will all be dull instruments at best.

The key to good one-on-one defense is dictating play, and remaining one step ahead of the attacking player at all times by maintaining good body position.  Against a skilled opponent, staying in front of your man is almost impossible if you can’t move your feet effectively.  The drop step, side shuffle and a lateral change of direction are an excellent defenseman’s best friends.

When you train, focus on the things that will help you the most.  Bicep curls and bench pressing are NOT the keys here. In this case, you’ll want to work out your legs as much as possible.  Using a speed ladder can be great for quickness and body control, and plyometrics can certainly help with speed and power.  The focus should be on getting faster and quicker, and also on the ability to play a full game at 100%.

Work a good deal of leg and cardio conditioning in as well, and always go hard when you train.  Long breaks between sets don’t replicate game situations, so stay active and keep your feet moving.

Jumping rope for 4 sets of 3 minutes each with 1 minute breaks is a great example of conditioning training.  You can also do sprint-jog intervals – sprint for 50 yards, jog for 50 yards, repeat for 20 minutes.  Playing good defense for 1 minute is easy, but stopping a 6 minute possession is hard.  Prepare for those hard situations so you can dominate on the field!

This focus will lead to strong legs that are there when you need them the most. As an aspiring defender, you want your legs to allow you to float like a butterfly and sting like a giant concrete bee.  I’m mixing boxing metaphors now, but if you focus on speed and leg power, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a dominant defender.

2) Stick Work

It’s truly amazing what some of the best defenders in the game can do with their sticks, both when playing one-on-one defense and when carrying the ball. Often times, the best takeaway guys are also the best ball handlers, and I’ll tell you right now, that is NOT a coincidence.

As a defensive player, you want to always be in control of your stick. It is the biggest tool in your toolbox, and when you’re in full control it can fix any situation. Having a great stick is about comfort, confidence and ability, and the only way to develop these three things is practice.

Wall Ball is a huge component of practice. The passing, catching, shooting and ground ball benefits are extremely obvious, yet many young players do not use the wall to their full advantage. Since no one else is for a solid Wall Ball session, hitting the wall is really your best opportunity for self-improvement.

Just as basketball players imagine last second situations while playing on their driveway, it is important that you pass and catch off the wall like you mean it. Work up a sweat while you hit the wall and visualize situations in which you want to improve. This will help elevate your game.

By hitting the wall, you will also see an improvement in your ability to time checks and control your stick, simply because wall ball builds up your strength and eye-hand coordination.

3) Lacrosse IQ – Know The Game!

This one is simple, easy and fun. Watch as much lacrosse as you possibly can.

When you’re watching lacrosse game on TV, pick out a defensive player on the field that you want to play like, and watch him religiously throughout the game. Don’t focus on the ball, or the “action”, but focus on the one guy you think is the best defender.

– Where does he position himself when he’s defending off-ball?

– How does he set up and manipulate the motion of his dodging opponent?

– Can you hear him and his teammates communicating on the field?

– How does he set up his stick checks?

– When does he pressure out, when does he sit back and/or move in toward the crease?

– Where does he go during clears? How comfortable is he with the ball in his stick?

These are all questions to ask yourself as you’re watching the player on TV. Collect all the answers – even write them down. Know it all and value all portions of the game. By focusing on a certain player, you can more effectively learn from the best. And if you can develop an understanding of a player’s actions and reactions on the field, you will raise your Lacrosse IQ tremendously.

While you’re watching, you can also do a little fact checking on this very article. Do the best defenders play primarily with their feet?  Do the best takeaway guys also have the best stick skills?  Do the best players stand out and go hard 100% of the time?

Try these three approaches for yourself, make an honest effort, and I guarantee you’ll become a much better defenseman.