Three games that improve defending skills

Improving your players’ defensive skills is probably the quickest and most “cost effective” way to boost their confidence and improve the performance of the team as a whole.

And it doesn’t have to be boring! The games I’ve described below are simple, effective and fun ways to help your players stop opponents from scoring.

What to say to your players about defending

“You are all defenders”

Older players often have an “I’m an attacker so I don’t have to defend” mentality. You need to counter that by emphasising that every one of your players is a defender when the other team has the ball and encourage your attackers to try to win the ball quickly if they lose possession near to the opponent’s goal.

Tip: Practise “high pressure defending” by playing a small-sided game in which goals count double if they are scored immediately after winning the ball in the attacking half of the pitch.

  • Your main job is to stop attackers shooting – you don’t have to win the ball.
  • If you’re not the closest defender to the ball, make sure you back up the defender who is closest.
  • Stay alert, try to guess what is going to happen next.
  • Direct attackers towards places where they can’t shoot – the touchline is your friend.
  • When you are closing down an attacker, keep your eyes on the ball. Wait for him or her to lose control before you tackle.
  • Be brave! If you have to put your body in the way of a shot, do it.
  • When you have the ball, get your head up and look for a quick pass to a midfield player or forward.
  • Stay on your feet – sliding tackles are a last resort.
  • Don’t hoof the ball upfield all the time, hoping that one of your players will get on the end of it. That’s another last resort!

How to practise defending

1v1 battles

Age range: U6s and upwards.

Set-up: Divide your players into pairs, one ball per pair.

Each pair plays in a seven-yard square playing area with a cone goal in the centre.

How to play: Players start by standing at opposite ends of the playing area.

One player is the defender, the other is an attacker.
The defender passes the ball to the attacker through the cone goal.
As soon as the attacker touches the ball, the defender closes her down as quickly as possible and tries to stop her from scoring a goal.
If she can succeed for 20 seconds, she earns a point.

After three rounds, players switch roles.

After three more rounds, players face a new opponent.

Coaching points for the defender: Try to steer attacker away from the goal, only tackle when you are sure to win it, stay between the attacker and the goal.

Hit the Target

Age range: U9s and upwards.

Set-up: Create a circle 50 yards in diameter. Inside this circle there is another circle of cones 10 yards across.

Split your players into a team of six attackers, a team of three defenders plus one target player.
The target player goes into the centre circle and the two teams play 6v3 in the outer circle.
Attackers earn a point if they can get a pass to the target player.
Defenders earn a point if they win the ball or for every 30 seconds the attackers fail to score.

Note: The defending team can run across the inner circle but can only intercept passes in the outer circle. The attacking team must stay in the outer circle.

To play this game with younger players: Instead of having one target player in a centre circle, you, or an assistant, is the target and moves freely among the players.


Age range: U7s and upwards.

Set-up: Create two adjacent 20-yard square playing areas.

Divide your players into two teams of four or five.

All players are allocated a number (1-4 or 1-5).

One team per playing area.

One ball per team.

How to play

  • Each team moves around its playing area, passing and dribbling the ball.
  • You shout a number and players with that number run into the other team’s playing area and try to win the ball.
  • If either player can win the ball and knock it out of the playing area within 20 seconds, they win a point for their team.
  • If they can win the ball and dribble it back to their own playing area, their team gets three points.

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