Defenders don’t often get the glory or attention they deserve, but they’re the most important part of any soccer team.
Sure, it takes goals to win a game, but if you don’t concede goals, it’s impossible to lose!
So, let’s discuss 35 ways in which you can improve as a soccer defender and lead your teams to victory, not just once or twice, but consistently.
1. The Straight Clearance Kick
It’s really tempting, especially when you haven’t been playing for all that long, to replicate your favorite player’s kicking style.
Perhaps you saw them approach a free-kick from an angle, and the ball swings this way then that, seemingly defying the laws of physics before sneaking its way in the top corner.
It makes sense too. An angled approach can help you get a significant amount of weight behind the ball, but as a defender, you need to master another technique as well...the straight clearance.
I can’t stress enough the importance of being able to clear the ball as a defender. It’s not always the right thing to do, but when necessary, there’s no substitute for a giant hoof downfield.
The key to nailing this kind of kick is to maintain a straight approach, keep your knee over the ball, and get your foot under it. It’s sort of a hybrid between a big angled strike, and a delicate chip.
The idea is that the ball has a similar trajectory as the chip, but the force of the big strike.
I’m not going to lie, it will feel incredibly awkward at first.
You’ll hit off-center and slice it, you’ll feel like you aren’t generating enough power or that you don't get the desired lift, but once you get the hang of it, that ball will be sailing through the air straight as an arrow.
The reason the straight clearance is essential is that it gives your teammates further up the field a greater chance of keeping possession. It’s direct and highly effective.
2. Only Clear the Ball When You Absolutely Have To
While clearing the ball is an indispensable skill to master, you should only ever use it if you have to, or perhaps if you see a promising opening downfield and you have the skill to drop the ball right in the path of your attacking players.
So, why shouldn’t you give the ball an almighty boot every time it comes near your penalty box?
Well, first of all, soccer is no fun if it’s as one-dimensional as that.
Secondly, it’s a sure-fire way to give away possession of the ball to your opponents.
Thirdly, the most promising offensives build-up from precise short passes that bloom into a network of passes that tie your opponents in knots.
Think about it. When you clear the ball, the whole midfield or defense of the opposing team is following it.
When you make the ball do the work and play the passing game, you're drawing opposing players in and creating gaps in their formation to take advantage of as the ball makes its way up the field.
3. There’s no Shame in Kicking the Ball to Touch if You Have To
Clearing the ball isn’t the only way you can get out of a sticky situation.
If you can't even find the time and space to slot the ball downfield, and the pressure’s building around you, as a last resort, you can kick the ball to touch.
It does give your opponents a free throw-in, but it also diffuses the dangerous situation at hand and gives your team a chance to regroup.
If you find yourself in this sort of situation, try and kick the ball out to touch as far up the field as possible. Any ground you make is valuable.
You’re not always going to be able to make the tackle, and that’s fine, you’re going to come up against some incredibly talented strikers as you grow as a player.
The best possible defense when you don’t make the tackle is a lightning-fast pivot motion.
Your stance should keep you loaded like a coil ready to explode into action in the opposite direction as the striker or midfielder chooses their direction of attack.
The fundamental principle of this technique is to stay on your toes and never turn backward. When you turn backward, it’s more of a drawn-out motion, and for a split second, you don’t have eyes on the play.
5. Directing the Forward
Just as you should compose your stance to give you the fastest response times, you can also use it to shepherd the player into a direction of your choice.
If you can guide them towards a busier area of the field, most likely, the center, they’ll have a hell of a time holding on to the ball.
6. Knowing Where Your Teammates Are
Knowing where your allies are is essential to defending.
Whether you're directing a forward, turning to pass, or preparing to defend an attack, being aware of your teammates’ locations, allows you to set the boundaries of your own.
7. Hone Your Other Foot
This is particularly pertinent if you play center back, but every player on the field should try to develop ambidextrousness.
The only way to do that is to practice every single day with your weaker foot.
That doesn’t just mean practicing striking with your weaker foot, although that is a fantastic skill to hone, it also means block passing and receiving with your weaker foot, as well as dribbling with it.
Every second you spend positioning the ball for your strong foot, you’re giving your opponents time to fall into place or make a tackle.
Even some professionals get caught out doing this. When a forward switches foot, defenders have time to close in and narrow the angle of the shot.
When a defender gets caught out doing this, it can cost your team a goal.
8. Eye on the Ball
Any midfielder or striker worth their salt is going to have a few fancy tricks up their sleeve for taking on defenders in one-on-one situations, and you need to be prepared for this.
There are a few things you can do that will help to stop an attacker in their tracks such as having the correct stance and learning their playing style, but the best one is to always keep one eye on the ball.
Strikers may have twinkle toes that create a great deal of misdirection, but their feet can move a lot faster than they can actually manipulate the ball, and of course, that’s what you’re after.
There’s a similar saying in football and rugby that goes, ‘watch the hips’, because Shakira was right, guys. Hips don’t lie.
A football player might have fancy footwork and feign passes flawlessly, but the hips are stationary and make a great target. In soccer, the ball is the target.
9. Learn the Opposition
It can take as little as ten minutes of play to suss out which players on a team are the ones that really make things happen, but don’t stop analyzing at this point, especially when it comes to the striker you’re covering.
Never lose concentration, but try your best to observe the players you mostly clash with during the game.
How do they move? What tricks do they use? Which is their weaker foot? How fast are they? Can they strike well from a distance?
In a one on one situation, if you don’t know the player, who knows what their move will be.
The more you can glean about a player’s style before you meet head to head, the better the chance you have of completely stifling their attack. Learn to read their body language.
Learn to read their temperament and how their mood affects their choices on the field. The old adage ‘know your enemy’ couldn’t be more pertinent in this sense.
Think of each on-field interaction like a card game. Imagine how much more money you’d win going into a poker game with a list of the other player’s tells as opposed to how much you’d win if you went in blind.
No one needs to read the game as a defender does. You need to be three steps ahead of everyone else.
10. Finding the Zone
The zone for me is on the thin line between cognition and instincts. If you’re too much in your head, your actions are going to slow and predictable.
If you lean too far into your instincts, you’ll be making a lot of silly mistakes.
Unfortunately, you can’t really teach this. It comes with time. It’s a mixture of confidence and doubt that’s essential to the defender’s frame of mind.
If you can live in that zone when the whistle blows, the other team doesn’t stand a chance.
11. Stay Goal-Side
This may sound obvious to a defender.
Of course you’re supposed to stay between the attacking players and your goal, especially if you're sweeping (last man), but it’s not always as simple as knowing you should be in a certain position.
When I was playing an Italian team in a tournament in Madrid, I was caught completely off guard by a striker I was marking during a corner kick.
I was exactly where I was supposed to be, between him and the goal.
The referee looked the box over making sure there was nothing more than a little pushing and shoving and general physicality going on, then turned to watch the kicker.
As soon as his eyes weren’t on us, the striker grabbed me, picked me up, and physically placed me behind him. All of a sudden he was free to make an attack on goal.
Something like this is incredibly hard to prevent, and of course, I had no way of knowing what the striker was about to do, but it’s an example that shows that goalside position can be easily compromised.
12. Never Expect an Opponent to Play by the Rules
Following on from my last point, you should never expect someone to play by the rules. Do professionals play by the rules?
No. There are at least ten times a game someone’s diving, faking an injury, injuring someone else, making an illegal move or interaction, and the referee is only human.
They’re not going to read the situation correctly all the time.
It’s a shame professionals don’t play with honor, because this is what inspires young players to break the rules.
Obviously, there’s nothing you can do to stop them breaking the rules of the game, but what you can do is keep your head, and make calm appeals to the referee.
Whatever you do, never stoop to their level. Try your hardest to outclass them. Show them that even when they're playing by their own rules, you can’t be beaten.
13. Let Your Skills do the Talking
Soccer can get pretty heated, and words might be exchanged that aren’t exactly sporting.
Sometimes the situation doesn’t even have to be tense. Some players will try to trash talk you, get in your head, and throw you off your game.
The best thing you can do is to truly ignore them and let your skills do the talking.
If you show them you have a no-nonsense attitude, you're dedicated to the game, and - better yet - that you’re more skilled and talented than them, they’ll feel all kinds of silly for trying to bully you.
The most you should ever do is give them a sardonic laugh, or if you’re winning, simply hold up your fingers illustrating the score.
This verbal abuse might not even only happen during the game. It’s part of a psychological clash that happens as soon as you arrive at the opposing team’s grounds or they arrive at yours.
For my entire soccer career, I had long hair, and it was the same every single game. The opposing team would focus on me and start hurling unimaginative abuse.
By the end of the game, having shown myself to be better on the field than anything their team had to offer, they were talking to me like a human being, praising my abilities, and asking if I was in talks with any professional teams.
14. Apologizing When You’re in the Wrong
If you do let your passion get the better of you and unsavory words are exchanged, or worse, you end up in somewhat of a showdown with a player from the other team, it can weigh heavily on your mind.
It’s not your fault, but with the interaction in the back of your mind, you can’t focus fully on the game.
In my experience, the best thing to do is to just be the bigger person and apologize.
You’ll instantly feel tons better, and from despising you, your opponent, against their better judgment, will start to respect you.
Apologizing isn’t always the best cause of action, though.
Some players will be completely switched off to the idea of reconciliation, and if your apology is thrown back in your face, it’s only going to aggravate you and take even more focus from the game.
If the opposing team is incredibly hostile, don’t sweat it, and don’t apologize.
The chances are that they were trying to get a rise out of you from the start.
15. Fake Clearance
This is the most simple but effective technique you can use as a defender to create more time for yourself on the ball and make some decent ground before unloading.
When you have possession of the ball and a striker is closing in on you, he’s not actually expecting to get the ball from you. They're assuming you're smart enough to rid yourself of the ball.
Perhaps he puts enough pressure on you that you make a mistake and their team can gain possession.
Realistically that’s all they can achieve, but what happens if you play into their assumptions and start a big dramatic swing at the ball?
They don’t know what’s going on behind them.
As far as they’re aware you could have lined up the perfect long-range shot that will drop right in at your striker’s feet, so when you start the kicking action, they flinch, trying to protect themselves from a possible ball to the face.
All of a sudden, they’re looking away, their posture is broken, and you have free reign to continue dribbling up the field.
In my experience, the false clearance works every single time, but use it sparingly. If a player clocks on to your techniques, they’ll stop falling for it.
16. Never Give up a Chase
Even if the ball is lobbed over you and your fellow defenders, and an attacker has timed their run just so that they weren’t offside, and now they’ve got a clean run at goal for a one on one with your goalkeeper, give chase.
Even if you know in your heart that there’s a one million to one chance of catching them, try your hardest to close the gap because this is soccer and anything can happen.
Perhaps your keeper deflects the ball and you arrive just in time to clear. Maybe the striker fumbles the ball, and if you’re about, it’s free for the taking.
Sometimes, you may not realize it at first, but you’re faster by far and actually manage to catch them. A well-timed slide tackle can completely quell their offensive.
17. Learn as Much as You Can From Your Early Coaches
I’ve been through many levels of the soccer hierarchy as a player.
I played for my schools, my college, my area, my county, my local team, and for professional organizations, and it’s my opinion that the further you travel in your career, the more you’ll be challenged, but the less you’ll learn.
Just because you’re early coaches aren’t exactly big in the industry as a whole, doesn’t mean they don’t have a wealth of experience to draw from and some fantastic things to teach you.
If you’re lucky enough to make the cut for a professional team’s development program, those coaches aren’t really there to teach you anything.
They’re there to provide challenges for you and see who rises to the top, so make the most of early lessons.
18 Practice Five Times a Week
Talent can only carry you so far. If you do have a natural affinity with the beautiful game, consider yourself incredibly lucky, but don’t trick yourself into believing it’s anything other than a headstart.
A player who at first seems to have less talent than another can easily become the better player by putting in the effort and honing their abilities.
This isn’t particularly defender-exclusive advice, but as defenders don’t get much of the possession, it’s easy to develop the mindset that there are certain aspects of the game you don’t need to engage with.
I don’t want to take the fun out of the game, but if you can treat soccer practice somewhat like a job, getting in good sessions five times a week, your skills will grow exponentially.
Even if it’s just for an hour or two. Practicing on your own time is what’s going to help you stand out in the crowd.
19. Short Throw-ins
As a defender, your instinct is to launch the ball as far down-field as your arms can muster, and sometimes a Superman throw-in is exactly what the doctor ordered, but before you dedicate to that, always consider the short game options.
You’re far more likely to create fast-paced dynamic play with a short throw-in to the player directly in front of you.
Sure, they’re marked pretty aggressively by a player, but all it takes is two touches: one touch to control the ball, and a second to knock it back to you.
Now you have space and the time to open up your field of vision and play the ball across the field to a less crowded area where an explosive offensive can build.
Strikers are going to try and close in on you as fast as they can, so although you have a little bit of time, it’s still important to act fast.
Try and use their willingness to charge into your advantage, as once they’re focused on you, your teammates are free to run into some space and receive the ball.
20. Big Headers
Big headers can be a terrifying prospect.
I remember when I was first told that as a center back, it was my job to get behind those monstrous goal kicks that came down so hard and fast you’re surprised they don’t burst into flames like a comet.
I thought for sure that even if I wanted to do it, it’d just knock me out, but with proper technique, it’s not so bad.
The trick is to have confidence. If you doubt yourself going for these big headers and you flinch, you probably won’t make good contact.
It will hurt more, and who knows what direction the ball will fly off. Worse still, it’ll go straight over you, leaving a striker free to run for a chance on goal.
The best way to prepare yourself for returning a goal kick with your head is to assume the correct stance.
Before you jump, you should set your weaker side forward so you’re almost but not quite side on to the approaching ball. You can create more force with your stronger side behind you.
When you jump to make contact, really try and strike the ball with your forehead. It’s not enough to just let it hit you, and in fact, that often hurts more
Remember that heading the ball can be extremely dangerous, especially over long periods of time, so if at any point you don’t feel safe, or you’re worried for your health, just don’t do it. There are other options that aren’t quite as damaging.
21. Force Dampening Touches
If you don’t feel comfortable heading the ball or you see the potential of bringing the ball under control and building an offensive from your position, you need to be able to take the force out of the ball and bring it to your feet.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to receive the ball into your chest. It’s quite a complicated movement, but once you’ve nailed it, you’ll use it all the time.
The trick is to push your chest out a bit and bring your shoulders forward. Once the ball hits your chest, it should drop softly to your feet ready for your counter-attack.
Another great way to take the force out of a fast-traveling ball is with your upper knee.
Precision is key in this instance as, unless you’re Roberto Carlos, your leg is a fairly thin surface, but if you make contact in just the right place, your quads are the perfect consistency to take the heat off the ball.
22. Trapping the Ball
Trapping the ball is a skill that a defender will have to use in almost every game, but there’s a couple of ways to do it.
Trapping the ball is a technique that involves bringing a powerful kick under control by trapping the ball between your cleats and the ground.
The quickest way to get the ball under control with a trap is to use the inside of your foot. The ball will rattle between your cleats and the floor and roll out in front of you.
You can trap the ball square-on, but bear in mind that it risks running beneath your cleats and behind you, and even if you trap it perfectly, it takes longer to bring into a playable position.
23. Pushing Out
Just because you’re a defender, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a part of an offensive force. There are two ways to think of yourself in regards to your teammates.
The first is to think of yourself as one with your fellow defenders. The second is to think of yourselves as part of the whole team.
There should be a visible symbiosis when play moves up and down the field.
Pushing out specifically refers to attacking movements.
When the ball is delivered to your midfielders or strikers, and they carry the ball deep into your opponent's side, That’s your cue.
Your whole defensive team should be moving out as one as far as the halfway line. You don’t always have to go that far - only if it’s safe to.
What you’ll find is that if the opposition’s striker retreats as you push forward, they’ll linger on the halfway line. It’s not a good idea to push beyond this player if they’re in their own half.
Pushing out is a fantastic way to catch strikers offside. You and your teammates, burst into action, leaving disconsolate strikers - whose attack has just been quashed - dawdling back upfield.
Even if the other team gets possession and delivers a perfect ball over your heads, you’ll claim a freekick and your offensive can continue.
The best way to signal to your teammates it’s time to move on down the field is to simply scream ‘push out’ at the top of your lungs.
It should be like a battle cry! With your whole team pressing the opponent, it’s going to be extra difficult for them to reclaim the ball.
24. Communicate - Use Your Voice
Developing your vocal confidence on the field couldn’t be more important, especially for a defender.
Of all the players apart from your goalkeeper, you have the most holistic view of the play, which means you know more than your teammates, and now you have to share it with them.
Once you’ve been on a team for some time and you have some form of rapport with every player on your side, communication is easy.
If you have a good coach, they’ll understand the importance of this communication and nurture it.
That’s all brilliant. Your team is sure to perform well, but what about when you are placed in an unfamiliar situation, with players you’ve only just met?
When I was called in to play a trial game for a professional team, it was a total shock to the system.
You're playing against the most talented players you’ve ever come across, and you don’t even know the name of the player beside you.
I had been captain of my local team for years at this point and was used to yelling my head off on-field, but all of a sudden I was nervous, shy, and lost for words.
You should start to develop something of a universal language in soccer from an early age. You’ll scream, “I’m open”, or, “Here”, to signify you want the ball.
It can be a little more complex when you’re trying to deliver the ball to an unknown player as communication plays a key role in that situation too.
The only way to achieve it is to be noisy, articulate, and demanding. Even if you’re a shy person, you have to try your hardest to forget that when you walk onto that field.
25. Zonal Defense
This is basic stuff. You’ll have probably learned about zonal defense in basketball.
It simply describes a situation in which you are in charge of a zone, and anyone who enters this zone is your responsibility to mark or confront if they have the ball.
The alternative is the player-to-player marking system in which everyone has their equivalent player that they stick to.
This is by far the weaker idea because the constant chase is exhausting, and your formation is non-existent, leaving the opponent a million gaps to exploit.
The key to effective zonal defense is once again, communication. You need to be talking to your fellow defenders, and they need to keep you updated in return.
If your player is making a switch with another in a different zone, tell your teammate in charge of that zone immediately.
This way, the attacking players are only wasting their energy, as they never get free of the marker.
26. Breaking Form
All the advice so far has been about discipline and technique in the defensive form, but sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and act out of character for your position.
While you do have to be extremely careful before you try any form-breaking actions, these little sparks of imagination are what make the game so exciting to play and watch.
I remember in one game against one of the weaker teams in our league, I noticed how sluggish they were on their kickoffs, so I waited until we scored and they took the ball to centerfield to restart play, and as soon as that whistle was blown, I darted straight towards the kickoff, and as the striker turned his back to me to unload to a center-mid, I caught up with the ball and intercepted it.
At point of collection, I had already passed half their team as they had no way of expecting what was to come. From there I took on two defenders and planted the ball nice and softly into the bottom left of the net.
These opportunities are rare, so you need to be intelligent about deciding when it’s the right time to do something a little out of positional character.
27. Speed Training
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone on a soccer field should have some serious pace, but defenders need to be the fastest of all the players.
You need to be able to catch up with any of your opponents even if you start with a disadvantage. If you’re fast enough, there’s always hope you can stop an opponent regardless of the headstart they get.
To improve your speed, you’ll need to test yourself on a regular basis. Leg exercises in the gym aren’t strictly necessary but will definitely help.
A good way to inspire growth is to engage in weekly 100-meter time trials against your teammates.
It nurtures healthy competition and gives you an idea of where you stand in the context of the whole team.
Interval training is a fantastic way to work on your running speed, as is stretching.
You should stretch every single day, whether you’re playing or not, but especially before training or a game. If you have a bit of free time, yoga can strengthen your joint and muscle strength.
28. Deliver the Ball to the Wing
Trying to navigate central-field is incredibly difficult, even if you and your teammates have fluency in rapid one-touch passing.
It’s just too congested, and you’ll find both the wings close in slightly, choking play to an even greater extent.
Playing the ball to the edges of the field opens things up significantly. If you’re left or right back, be confident, and ask for the ball. If you’re a center-back or sweeper, put your trust in your wingers.
Once they have control of the ball, your inside players can find space, and an offensive can brew.
29. Playing Back to Your Goalkeeper
I know it sounds rather counter-productive, but one of the best ways to give yourself some breathing space and to create a bit of time when a forward is closing in on you is to turn around and give the ball back to the keeper.
The striker will be drawn towards the ball and forget about you, which leaves you open for a quick return pass.
Now you have the ball and a huge gap between you and the forward. Your goalkeeper can also choose to pass the ball out to the wings or even clear the ball way downfield.
This sort of pass should never even be considered in frantic situations. If it doesn’t create space and time, it’s no use, and always remember that your pass should be accurate, floor-bound, and firm.
30. Asserting Your Presence
Presence is everything for a defender. The opposing striker needs to feel smothered at all times. Don’t even allow them to turn and take you on, they need to be taken out at the root of their play.
The best way to do this is to exert physicality. Make yourself known.
You need to find the balance between rough physicality and illegal, aggressive physicality. You don’t want to go too far and concede a freekick or penalty.
Try and make your presence noticed with your shoulders. Press into the opposition, testing their form and strength.
You should also make confident attempts on the ball that jostle them. Remember, as long as you target and make contact with the ball, it can rarely be considered a foul, even if your opponent takes a bit of a tumble along the way
31. Covering the Ball
Covering the ball is a technique you can use in tense situations where the striker has caught up to you and you need to buy a bit of time.
In professional games, you’re most likely to witness this in the corners. A defender will be trapped in the corner by a striker, but they’ll use their physicality to shield (cover) the ball.
The idea is that the striker will nip the ball over the goal line, earning you a goal kick, or it will force a foul as they become impatient.
This technique is difficult as you’ll need to lean into your opponent to keep them from the ball, but you really have no way of knowing which angle they’ll strike from.
You can also use this technique to protect the ball as it rolls out to touch. As long as the other team was the last to touch the ball, you’ll earn yourself a throw-in.
One last way to utilize this technique is when the ball is headed to your keeper, but there’s a striker closing the gap. Protect the ball until your goalkeeper can pick it up.
32. Slide Tackles
A great slide tackle is your secret weapon. It shouldn’t be used all the time, as a simple block tackle is much more reliable in most situations, but when it’s necessary, there’s nothing quite like it.
Before attempting a slide tackle, consider the weather and the state of the field.
You should be able to glean some clues about how you will travel on the ground which in turn will give you an idea of timings. Always try to keep your cleats away from the player.
33. Overlapping Runs
This one’s for the full-backs. You’ll be responsible for making plays down the wing, but once you’ve delivered the ball to your midfielder, what then?
Of course, you can hold your position, and that’s correct to do in tight situations, but if there’s a bit of space, you can overlap your midfielder and become part of the attacking force.
Just be sure you know if moving forward is the right thing to do.
34. Listen to your Coach During Play
Sometimes, you’ll be so focused and in the moment, it’s like it’s just you and the attacking player on the field, but allowing yourself to recognize and hear your coach’s voice during play can be a great help.
They have a great understanding and view of the game as it’s playing out, so if they shout something, try to acknowledge it and act accordingly, but don’t let trying to listen destroy your focus.
35. Give Defending Everything You’ve Got.
What’s the most galvanizing aspect of a soccer game? Is it when your team scores a goal, no. If anything that drops your guard.
The most rallying event in a soccer match is when the defense halts a dangerous attack. Everyone lets out a big sigh of relief, thanks you and their lucky stars, and doubles their efforts.
This is why playing with heart is so important. You’re the engine of your team’s morale.
It’s a lot to take in, I know, and you’re not going to be able to incorporate all this in your play-style for some time, in fact, if you try to take all this on board too soon, you’ll be a confused wreck on the field.
The best thing to do is to address each tip individually. Eventually, all this and more will become second nature as you become the driving force of your team’s success and top the league tables every season!
Head-related injuries are unfortunately quite common in both amateur and professional surfing. Such injuries can cause unconsciousness and drowning, which is why it is so important to wear a helmet.