It may be true of all sports, but the perception is perhaps most prevalent in the fall season. With goals often at a premium in soccer and field hockey, the moments when offenses break through and scores are celebrated, and similarly the players who can consistently score and set-up those goals are seen as vital. There is no questioning the importance of these offensive plays and players, but it is easy to overlook the defenses that make scoring those goals so challenging.
Bacon Academy boys soccer coach Andrew Storton understands the lure of the offensive spectrum from his playing days, but has developed a greater appreciation for the defense upon joining the coaching fraternity. “I was a goal scorer as a player and I didn’t realize how important defense was until I became a coach.”
Defense is not sexy, nor flashy. A team can’t celebrate every time the ball doesn’t go in the goal, or after every tackle. Effective marking and intercepting crosses or passes does not make for exciting highlights. These factors all explain why offense gets more of the attention, yet it does not do justice to the value of having a stingy defense.
There are plenty of examples across the state of teams riding strong defenses to loads of victories this year. For some of those coaches, such as Storton, Immaculate girls soccer coach Nelson Mingachos, Glastonbury field hockey coach Maureen Perkins, and Watertown boys soccer coach Vittorio Caliguiri the challenge comes from making the players care as much about defense as coaches usually do.
“It starts on the first day of practice for our team, and we stress as coaches that we build from the back and go forward,” explained Mingachos.
“Leadership is huge to teach younger players what is expected in committing to defense.”
For Perkins and Glastonbury, the focus on defense is not limited to defensive players and that is how the coaches work to emphasize the defensive needs of the team. “It can be a challenge to focus on defense as all the glory goes to the people that score. What we stress is that defense starts with the forwards and that everyone is responsible for defending, and trying to win the ball back when we lose it. So it isn’t just our defenders and midfielders that have that responsibility, it is everyone.”
That responsibility is even starker on the defensive end than the offensive end. Because scoring is so rare, a lapse in concentration leading to a goal means that defenders must be focused at all times. That is the message Caliguiri gets across to his team to keep their defensive edge sharp. “We challenge our players to have that intensity every day, and create that focus where we are not going to let the other team score. Having to play a lot of close games helps learn that they have to gear up and play tight defense.”
For these four teams the concentration and focus has paid off this season. In 60 matches played through October 26 the teams are a combined 52-3-5 with 42 shutouts with a total of just 19 goals surrendered. The strong defensive numbers produced in the regular season can also portent postseason success as well, at least based on recent history. Over the past two years, 23 teams claimed tournament championships (with four co-champions) in field hockey and boys and girls soccer, and in the 101 total matches played by the champions the winning teams allowed a total of 61 goals. That is an average of 1.66 goals per game and the group of winners produced 53 shutouts in those contests.
Coaches proclaim that defense matters. The numbers show that defense works. Yet coaches battle to maintain an emphasis on the defensive end and battle a culture in which offensive players get headlines.
While offense gets the headlines, the defenders can find satisfaction in the understanding that they do lots of the little things that a coach loves and in the way they contribute to the team success. Hearing the way coaches talk about the keys to a stout defense illustrates that defensive standouts have their own impressive characteristics, though they might be more subtle.
Offensive production can come from speed or flair, while defensive dominance are ground in more blue collar attributes. “The most important element of a strong defense is communication,” explains Perkins. Having players able to read plays and communicate what needs to be done and where players need to go is critical.” Mingachos also points to the need for communication and an understanding between players. “Knowing what each other can do, and being able to communicate and read what the other players are doing is what has helped us this season. Leadership and believing in each other plays a big role in what we do defensively.”
Communicating and working together as a team and developing the ability to work together must be developed over time. That takes commitment and the knowledge that developing a winning defense is a constant process. In other words, it requires a characteristic that Caliguiri emphasized over and over which is discipline. “Discipline defensively is the biggest element. The understanding that the group has to work together moving side-to-side, and if one player gets loose it impacts everyone. It is about discipline and not chasing the ball, but sticking with each player’s responsibility.”
Storton does not add much more clarity to the picture of what tangible elements a strong defense consists of. “The big key is having an understanding of the entire defense. Having players with speed and skill within the system is obviously helpful, but the biggest factor is an understanding between the players, and a group that has a strong knowledge of the sport and ability to read the game.”
These are not words or descriptions that capture the imagination and they are hard to define. The vagueness of these concepts adds to the explanation for why building a tough defense is not as easy as it might seem. Disciplined, thoughtful, skilled, communicative players with a strong understanding of team defensive concepts and an ability to read the game don’t exactly grow on trees. Even if a team can find a few of those players, they need to fit together and form a cohesive unit.
The challenges are plentiful but as the results show the reward can be great. This leads coaches to try even seemingly simple methods to increase that defensive focus. “We make a point to praise and recognize players in practice when they do the right things defensively,” Storton explained. “If we as coaches highlight those players who might not get recognized otherwise, it shows how important we think defense is, and hope the team responds.”
Valuing and praising defense. At times it might seem like an alien concept to those players battling away to keep opponents off the scoreboard but history shows that team success will often be the reward for squads that never let their defense rest.