Plan Pressure into Practice


It’s very disappointing to watch your team lose a game because they can’t handle a pressure defense.  Whether it’s from a total game package of full court pressure or just a late game bid to come from behind, losing a game that should have been won is frustrating for players and coaches alike.  As a coach, I certainly have experienced this myself and believe me, it’s not a fun ordeal.  That’s why I decided many years ago to make “handling pressure” a part of every practice during the entire season.  From individual fundamentals, to early-practice Group Work, to late-practice full court work, we did something everyday to help eliminate the stress of handling pressure defenses. This was always accomplished in blocks of time that ranged from only 5-10 minutes in length.  But by repeating these drills and situations over and over, our players became more comfortable in pressure situations and I know it led to more victories.

Dribble Drills, including the Back Dribble were incorporated into warmups on a regular basis.   One on one full court, body to body attack was another highlighted drill.  Handling double teams is a skill we liked to throw in there too.  And when the Bigs were working on post moves at one end of the court, the Guards would do extra work on the pressure drills and even some 2 on 2 and 3 on 3 backcourt work on the other end.  We usually avoided doing the same drills two days in a row, but rather rotated drills to allow us to cover more situations and keep the players motivated.  Having a plan and knowing how to execute it are keys to defeating full court or half court pressure.  Repeating drills often enough so that players are comfortable and confident makes a big difference too.

Having a good mindset for facing pressure is also important.  If you present full court pressure as an opportunity to score easily, it gives your players confidence.  Teaching them about various pressing defenses, their strengths and weaknesses, also adds to the confidence of players attacking any type of Press.  And as a coach, if you don’t know how a certain press works, then you need to find out.  I have gone so far as to meet with opposing coaches after the season and pick their brains about what they try to do with their Presses.  Most coaches are eager and flattered when asked to share, plus, you probably have something they want to know about in return.  I’ll admit, seeking and sharing information is how I got a lot of my knowledge through the years.

It is also important to teach your players how to run a Press that you might soon be facing.  This helps in the understanding of how that Press works and also gives your team a better representation in practice for when they do face that particular Press.  I always started the pre season explaining the Run and Jump Press because it was the most difficult for my teams to beat.  Next I covered our press, which was usually a 2-2-1 Zone Press, so we could work against ourselves.  As the pre season progressed, we added others that scouting reports said would be coming up soon; and later, added presses that we knew league opponents would throw at us in January/February.

Every practice you should allow 5-10 minutes to review your attack for a different press.  It can be 5 on 0 going through the progressions or 5 on 5 in game-like fashion.  Personally, I like to review the day’s Press Offense with 5 on 0 first, then move to 5 on 5.  This allows me and the team to refresh our memory of the strengths, weaknesses, and attack plan for each type of press we might encounter.  

 Basically, there are Five Types of Presses to cover:

  1. Straight Man to Man
  2. Man to Man Run and Jump
  3. 2-2-1 Zone Press
  4. 1-3-1 Half or Three/Quarter Court
  5. 1-2-1-1 on the ball Full Court

In the pre season, we might cover a different Press each day of the week, rotating and starting over the next week.  As the regular season started and there were less practices each week, we narrowed down to the ones we thought might or would occur in upcoming games.  To review our Press Offense, sometimes, I would have different groups go 5 on 0 using the  Press Offense of the day.  At other times, I would give each group a different Press call and have them to go through the progression I requested.  Another method of review is what I call Press Cycles.  Cycles is a 5 on 0 Drill that allows review of several full court attacks in quick sequence.  I might have a team go up court with the regular, full court, zone press attack, come back with a soft, three-quarter court press attack, go up again with a half court trap attack, and finish with the Man to Man Run and Jump attack.  The groups had to cut hard, fake passes, throw snappy passes, meet all passes aggressively, and demonstrate knowledge of the holes that could be found in each type of press presented.  

For 5 on 5 work, I often had a member of one team shoot a free throw (Free Throw Press Drill) and then we would press off of that.  The opposing team had to box out, rebound a miss, or take the ball out quickly on a make and get it in and GO.  Since I liked my teams to press on a make or miss free throw, this was a great way to prepare both the offense and defense for game situations.  

When teaching a press attack or reviewing for a particular opponent coming up soon, we would go 5 on 5 full court from Dead Ball Situations and Live Ball opportunities.  We would also mix in the Free Throw Press Drill one day and follow up with 5 on 5 Live and Dead Ball the next day to get more game prep.  The key though, is to do something every day against pressure.  What you practice every day, you will become good at doing.

I found it helpful to use colors to designate the different Press Offenses we would use.  Especially in practice, during Cycles, I could call a color and have the team run that particular press or press offense.  It was much simpler to say, “Run Blue”, rather than to say, “Run the 1-2-1-1 Full Court Press.”  It was also helpful in games for me to say, “They are running a Blue Press.”  Then everyone knew to run Blue Press Offense.  You can use your school colors for any press you use in games, and pick other colors to represent presses that opponents run and you don’t.  I always used “Red” for the Half Court Zone Trap because it reminded my point guard to “Stop” before crossing mid court and read the situation.  Keep in mind that my press offense sets up the same for any press defense.  The “color” adjustment is just to help remind players where the openings are and where to anticipate the traps.  

Another suggestion I have for coaches is to mix your talent up sometimes, but have your Top 5 work together a lot too.  After all, they are the ones who will usually be in at the end of a tight game.  If, as I often found, your second unit is not nearly as good as your first unit, the first team won’t get much of a challenge.  In this situation, I found that adding a 6th defender really made the first unit work harder and gave them the challenge they needed. (6 on 5 Drill) The extra player (6th man) would usually be put on the ball to bother the inbounds pass or added in another zone area that had only one defensive player.  Sometimes I had the 6th player double the first pass and other times just step off after the ball got in.  It depended on the amount of challenge I wanted to give the first unit.  

Seeking confidence and success against pressure defenses is a continuous challenge in coaching. Remember, it is better to practice skills a little bit every day than to practice once for a long time just before the skill is needed in a game.  By constantly reviewing, your team will be prepared for any press situation that might come up.  It takes time early in the season to learn the basics, but by doing a little every day, your team will know exactly what to do by the time the “real” games start.  Create good habits with repetition in practice.  Practicing daily against pressure will relieve the pressure in games.

Key Teaching Points:

  • Teach players how a press works so they know it’s weaknesses.
  • Review press breaking fundamentals daily.
  • Review all types of press attacks on a rotating basis.
  • 5 on 0 as well as 5 on 5 are effective review drills.

Note: For a lot more, including Diagrams, on how to handle Full Court Pressure, check out Chapter 13 in my new book: You Can Run With Anyone.  If you don’t have the book yet, you can order below.


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