6 min read

Positionless Defense: Building a defense in modern lacrosse

Positionless Defense: Building a defense in modern lacrosse

Every Sport evolves over time. The athletes and teams who thrive in these sports embrace change.

The game of lacrosse is evolving, and offenses are leading the charge. With the influence of small-sided games, the shot clock, and Canadian-style play, offenses are now more positionless, fluid, and principles-based. Deception is king and pick play is constant.

Offense in Lacrosse is Changing

You can read more about offensive styles in lacrosse here. This shift requires defenders to be more aware and adaptable, as they need to anticipate and react to a constantly changing landscape. As a fan, this style of lacrosse is more fun to watch, with skill levels at an all-time high. However, as a defender, this style of offense presents a challenge that many players haven't been adequately equipped to handle.

Defense in lacrosse is reacting slowly

I mean this in a broad and general sense. I do not believe the realities of defense in modern lacrosse are being appropriately discussed at scale. Defensive coaching and concepts are largely the same sound bites from years past. If offenses are evolving, defenses must adapt. The idea of being a “crease defender” is long gone, and we cannot address the nuances of such a dynamic game with black and white rules.

I want to clarify that I do not believe traditional coaching tips are inherently wrong or bad. I just do not think they paint the full picture for defenders and often lead to confusion. The reality of playing defense in lacrosse does not always line up with advice we give players. I have been playing and coaching during a time of offensive transition where I have had to alter my own style and continue to develop. 

The disconnect between college innovation and general defensive coaching

The ideas I am presenting are not all that revolutionary, they are just not as widespread as I believe they should be. In fact, the best college defensive coordinators are implementing and coaching this first principles way. The issue is this style of coaching is siloed in these pockets while general defensive coaching across the country still echoes the same sound bites as were prioritized decades ago. If you ever hear a coach talking about defense in lacrosse you hear things like:

  • “Slide to body”
  • “Don’t chase stick”
  • “Don’t cross your feet”
  • “Communicate”
  • “Take away topside”
  • “You’re in no man’s land!”
  • “Stop ball watching”
  • [insert other general defensive phrase here]

None of these calls to action are inherently wrong, but these phrases lack adequate nuance and context that is critical for players to develop. These might be an ok starting point, but players hear this over and over for years without ever gaining the critical context and true intent behind these phrases.

I have been guilty of dropping these general phrases throughout my coaching career. However, I also remember hearing these as a player and still feeling confused as situations presented themselves and these phrases did not provide guidance.

The "no-man's land" dilemma

One vivid example of the limitations of traditional defensive coaching is the "no man's land" dilemma. A coach would say this when a player is indecisive on a slide, neither sliding nor covering their man. This phrase makes sense to a coach, but not to many players. In fact, I bet most players have been told they're in "no man's land" without knowing how to solve it.

  1. Option 1: If they stay too close to their man and miss the slide, they'll get yelled at for not sliding.
  2. Option 2: If they float too much and don't slide, they'll end up in “no man's land." 

This damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario can be very confusing and hurt a young defender's confidence. I believe this scenario falls on the coach, not the player. The truth about no man’s land is that it is not just about where you are on the field, but also, the way you are there (ie, your stance) and the time you are there (ie, how early / late). Most players don’t grasp this and are not taught this. At least I know I was not early on. 

Rather than telling players they're in "no man's land," we can teach them proper slider stance, launch points, and how to read scenarios (body language, matchups, and spacing). We need to drill their stance, field awareness and decision making. We can give them landmarks and tips on how to hold a good hot position while maintaining an off-ball triangle and reading body language while staying connected to the backside. That way, we can build a defender who learns core defensive principles that apply against any offense. This will not happen overnight, but if taught consistently, it will happen over time.

Painting the Picture for Defenders

To build an effective defense, we need to paint a clear picture for our defenders. We must utilize first principles thinking and build off of the most basic objective of defense. This involves:

  1. Defining the objective: Prevent quality shots and regain possession. You will have to define what quality shots means to your unit. 
  2. Establishing non-negotiables: Set behavior-based standards for your defense, such as effort, off-ball stance and connection / communication.
  3. Building guiding principles: Provide rules of thumb for decision-making, such as influencing dodgers to their weak hand, not sliding off of drifts, reading body language, and being decisive.

This is where it is our job as coaches to define these 3 things for our players and teams. These can be unique for each program, but everything we teach our players should fall under the umbrella of the objective of the defense. 

Example: "Topside" in the context of our Objective

Taking away “topside” is another example of dogma and rigid principles that lacks context. Nearly every defensive coach says it, and most defenders would say they should take it away, but what does it really mean?

If we tell players to absolutely takeaway topside without context, we are leaving them short changed. Sure, many times we want to take away the topside, but what exactly is topside and why do we want to take it away? Are we ok with a player sweeping 20 yards away from the cage? I would say so, but is that technically topside? What about inside rolls and “S” dodges?

This logic can be applied to almost every defensive concept commonly taught, there is context missing that we need to fill in as coaches. If the objective we define is to take away strong-handed shots inside “the Heart”, we can explain how a “topside” approach helps to meet that objective. 

Building a Positionless Defense

A positionless defense is one that's adaptable, resilient, connected and thrives in the gray. It is not built on absolute rules. To build such a defense, we need to:

  1. Empower players: Encourage them to make decisions and take ownership of their play.
  2. Focus on individual decision-making: Rather than predetermined “if this, then that” rules, rely on individual, in-the-moment decision-making.
  3. Commit to decisions: Make decisions 100% and play off them as a unit. Once a decision is made, we all must be on the same page. 
  4. Live with certain mistakes: Refine decision-making and avoid cherry-picking every mistake.
  5. Teach defenders: Off-ball stance, connection to teammates, communication queues, body position on ball, footwork techniques, reading body language, and rules of thumb for general good decisions.

The Influence of Basketball and Brian McCormick

Much of this framework is influenced by Brian McCormick, a basketball coach and author who shares cutting-edge opinions on basketball.  His view of defensive fundamentals and philosophy in basketball largely mirrors my feelings about lacrosse. In his book, NADA, The Antifragile Defense, he writes, "Players must perceive a situation, make a decision, and then execute." This is exactly how I feel we must build our defenses in lacrosse, starting with the individual defender. Brian's philosophy "relies on individual, in-the-moment decision-making, not predetermined plans, which heightens the importance of communication and body language" (NADA, page 30). We need to build great decision-makers and this can take time. There cannot always be an absolute “do this, or do that”, but rather, we need to help players understand the trade-off’s of decisions. 

Brian credits Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, for his usage of the word antifragile. Taleb says it best in his book when he states: “Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time” (Antifragile, page 4). For lacrosse, this implies not trying to think through an answer for every scenario, but rather build players that can execute your principles consistently, together and at high speeds. 


Time to move forward

Defense in lacrosse is ready to move forward collectively. The way we teach it matters. As coaches, we need to challenge ourselves to separate non-negotiables from principles. We need to ensure that players understand overarching objectives of defense. In doing so, we can create a defense that's capable of handling the evolving offense and giving our players the freedom to make plays and win games. 

Coach Mike Pressler, who I currently coach with at Highland Park in Dallas, always says “lacrosse is a player’s game, football is a coach’s game”. Lacrosse is a player’s game, and we need to empower our players to be excellent decision-makers and executors of those decisions. Our job as coaches is to set them up for success on game day and hold them accountable, but at the end of the day, you need playmakers to win big games. Coaches cannot make those plays; the players must do it.

See How College Coaches Are Doing It


We are working hard at FCL to share coaching insights from the top minds in our sport with a wider audience. Our current method of doing this is through our online coach communities. The video above of Coach Stevens from Cornell is one of many coaches drills, tips and clips we have in the community.

Check out our community and become a member to view drills, webinars, film breakdowns, courses and more from other college coaches, HS coaches and our staff at FCL. Use code BLOG15 for an exclusive discount from our Blogs for this Online Community!

Men's Coaches Community

Women's Coaches Community

We hope you found this helpful. We started First Class Lacrosse because we believe in the power player development. We believe you can get exponentially better if you combine a great work ethic with the guidance of knowing what to work on and how to do it. Luckily, we experienced it firsthand as players and coaches. Our goal is to pass on what we have learned and experienced to future generations of lacrosse players, parents, and coaches.

Join Our Email List

Defenders Trailing to X

Defense in lacrosse has more technique to it than some may realize. You might be the fastest and strongest player on the field, but unable to cover...

Read More

Clean & Clear: A Look at Maryland Defense's Clearing Success

Transitioning the ball from the defensive end to the offensive end is the ultimate goal of a defensive unit. No matter the talent of your unit, an...

Read More

Universal Defensive Skills: Building Your Foundation

Building a great defense starts with building great defenders. I am a big proponent of building an extremely solid foundation of universal defensive...

Read More