Decision-Making and Team Defense

Good decision-making may be one of the most critical elements of successful team defense. It can also be one of the most difficult elements of the game to learn. Good decision-making especially as it applies to team defense depends on assessing options, developing a plan of defense, communicating the plan and executing the needed skills, usually in less than five seconds.

I often receive questions such as this:

Hi Jon,
The thing that I really need help with is two on ones! When I’m up against two forwards with no defenders I really struggle with my decision, as to whether to go out to the player with the ball or whether to hold my ground? People tell me there is nothing I can do but surely there is something I can do to prevent them scoring? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Whether it be two forwards going to goal with just the keeper, or virtually any other situation that results in a goal, there is the question, “What could I have done differently?” Depending on the situation, the answer could be nothing. The answer could be positioning you or your defender in a different place. It could be playing the shot; it could be playing the pass. Most frustrating of all, what worked in one situation, might not work in another. The good news is that whatever the scenario, there is a way to defuse dangerous situations if a defense can play together as a team. Team defense requires players to think as a team and that’s essentially decision-making.

Good decision-making may be one of the most critical elements of successful team defense. It can also be one of the most difficult elements of the game to learn. The longer you play hockey, the more you realize there are very few absolutes. Hockey is a game of options, attacking and defending, and while a goalkeeper may be the last defender, he is a defender with options as long as he can play with and off his teammates. Good decision-making especially as it applies to team defense depends on assessing those options, developing a plan of defense, communicating the plan and executing the needed skills, usually in less than five seconds.

We’ve stressed that hockey is not a black and white game in terms of absolutes. Having said that, it’s critical that a keeper and his teammates have an understanding of the attacking situation if they’re going to be able to defend it. To understand attacking situations, it’s important to have an understanding of defensive principles, especially as it pertains to your team. Whatever level you play at, you and your teammates need to have a common understanding of these principles if your team is going to be successful.

That understanding becomes the crux of decision-making and as such, your coach is the person responsible for shaping your decision-making. While teams may play similar styles and use similar skills, each team is unique. Good coaches recognize that and will play the systems and skills that draw on the best of their team and players. For that reason it’s important that your coach is your first resource when you have questions about defensive principles.

This tip started with a question about what to do with two on the keeper. My best recommendation is to not let the situation happen, though sometimes that’s not possible. In my own personal experience, two attackers bearing down on a keeper don’t just happen. Usually there’s a breakdown up field and a chain reaction that leads to the keeper’s ultimate problem/nightmare. Early identification of a potential problem is critical for effective decision-making. Who identifies those problems on your team will depend on where the ball is on the field, the position of your opponents and the system your team plays. If you’re not sure, that’s usually the start of the problem becoming your nightmare.

Once a problem area is identified on the field, the next component is dealing with it. Essentially that’s a matter of positioning the available defenders to take away the most dangerous passes or penetrating runs and once again that will depend on the systems your team uses. A team that plays man-to-man defense will position themselves differently than a team that plays a zone defense. Some teams play a combination of zone and man-to-man. Regardless of the system, it’s important that all players have a common understanding of the situation and know their roles within it.

While systems may differ, there are common defensive principles and roles that all successful teams use. In a situation where a defender has been eliminated up field, there are a number of things that need to happen. First off, it’s up to the remaining players to reorganize. Positionally, players may not need to physically move, but their responsibilities in those positions may change. We talked about taking away dangerous passes and that’s marking. Going back to marking, that means that a defender has to position himself, or be positioned, to deny the opponent the pass if he’s in a direct line to goal.

If a defender is beaten and his player is going to goal with the ball, channeling and delaying are important concepts. Channeling is taking away the straight line run to goal and allowing/forcing the opponent back or wide with the ball. Delaying is often a successful tactic in the early stages of a fast break and can take the form of a player fouling to stop the play. We’re not advocating deliberate fouls, but a spoiling tackle by a defender, or a loose ball put out of play, allows an outnumbered team the time to get back in to the play and match up even numbers. Where ever the ball is on the field, the beaten player has got to work their way back in to the play and that’s recovery. A defending team will always be numbers down unless they accept the responsibility of working themselves back in to the play.

We’ve talked a little about understanding and executing roles in a team defense. Understanding and execution can be two different things and most problems with break- downs in team defense come from misunderstanding. Typically communication, or lack thereof, is the biggest culprit when it comes to breakdown and misunderstandings. As we mentioned before, who identifies problems and communicates them, will depend on where the break down on the field is and how your team is set up. Once again, it’s important that players have an understanding of who communicates what as play develops.

What is communicated is also critical. Players need to understand what they’re being asked/told to do. Quick, direct, effective communication is critical, especially in the early stages of a breakdown or as the ball moves closer to your circle. While there are common things teams try to do in defending, the terms used to communicate them might be different. Know the language and terms your team uses in communicating and make sure all players understand what is being said.

It’s important for a keeper to have a style of communication that is effective. That starts with identifying the player you’re talking to; call a name. Next, let that player know what you want to do, especially as it pertains to the urgency of the situation. There’s usually not a reason to get hysterical screaming at your right back to move two meters when your team has the ball in the opponent’s circle, but if the ball is in your circle and you’ve asked him to do the same thing three times, a little volume might be warranted. Communication is not personal. Make sure your teammates understand that if you are yelling, it’s only to stress the speed needed for them to respond to what you’re saying.

Finally, it’s critical that a keeper has an understanding of his responsibility in the team’s defense and is able to execute the skills required for the role. Just as a defender may need to mark or channel, a keeper may need to mark or channel. If a team plays with an up field forward, you may be the player responsible for denying them the ball. In a breakaway a keeper can win the time to let his teammates get back into the play by forcing the ball carrier wide, the same as a defender channeling. That can happen simply by stepping up and putting pressure on the player or taking him wide where he has a poor shot or passing angle.

This tip started with a question about two forwards on the keeper. I’ve played this game for over 20 years now and probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in this game is there is not a definitive answer for everyone. There is an answer for you and your team if you can put your heads together and work as a unit. As situations come up, talk about them. If they’re not addressed in training or in a game, write them down. Sit down with your coach and your teammates and make sure you’re on the same page. I can’t promise that you’ll find an answer that will work every time, but I can promise you that if you and your teammates don’t talk about problem situations, you’ll get the same results. Finding answers can be frustrating. It can also be so rewarding when your team works through these situations together.

On a personal note, we recently celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday in the States. I’d like to give my own thanks for what I’ve received through hockey, to OBO for making the best goalkeeper gear I’ve ever used and allowing me the opportunity to share my experience and to all the goalkeepers I’ve had the chance to learn from through playing or coaching. I hope you all had a Happy Holiday.

Goalkeepers are amazing people!!!

Good luck,


e-mail Jon

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