Effective way to shore up your Defense

The floor will beat you every time. This sage advice comes our way in almost every issue of Handball magazine. What it means is that a player’s continued attempts of low-percentage kill shots will result in defeat.

Making a defensive choice, Tony Healy opts for a pass in his match quarterfinal against David Chapman
at the Nationals in Austin, Texas.  Photo by Keith Thode.

But “the floor will beat you every time” means more to the advanced player than it does to the beginner. In fact, the more advanced, the more the statement means. At the highest levels, the ability to execute shots is very even, and shot selection takes over as the determining factor in who wins and who loses.

So call this an advanced bit of instructional advice. Beginners will still benefit, but please realize a higher priority for the newer player is shot technique.

The beginner should learn to stroke the ball with solid fundamentals — to hit the kill, the pass and the serve. The beginner can agonize over shot selection later.  Now is the time to play and enjoy the relative freedom from the subtleties of choosing between offense or defense, kill or pass.

Since so many handball experts talk about the importance of shot selection, there must be something to it. Furthermore, if you have any doubts of the importance, watching the pros will dispel them. The way handball is played at the highest level, shot selection is paramount.

Although the problem is often raised, solutions are rarely given. Usually some vague advice recommends that you shoot good shots while on defense and certain other good shots while on offense, or that you practice “percentage handball,” whatever that means.

The trouble with the advice is that most of us don’t know what “good” or “percentage” shots are, and no amount of explanation can teach us what is safe and what is risky.

Let’s face it: Most of us learn to play handball by simply playing. We find out what works and doesn’t work by trial and error. We formed habits early in our playing careers. These habits were usually determined by our physical characteristics, so a big person learned to hit hard pass shots, while the short, quick person learned to be a shooter, and a person with lots of stamina became a retriever. Those habits were reinforced with winning performances, and soon we had our “game.”

So when someone tells you to use percentage shots, your mind says, “Yes, that sounds logical and right.” But when you get back on the court, your old habits take over. The pressure of the game and the good feeling you get when you take your best shot removes the mental assent you gave to play percentage handball.

So how do you break out of these self-defeating playing patterns?

Try a new game: Determine before you start that in every rally you will hit five defensive shots before you attempt one offensive shot.  When you are serving, start counting after the serve, because the serve is an offensive shot. Don’t worry about what kind of defensive shots to take. For starters, just don’t attempt to kill the ball. Consider every shot except the kill to be a defensive shot. After taking five defensive shots, start looking for the rally-ending kill opportunity.

Don’t relax. Just because you are not killing the ball doesn’t mean you are on vacation. You have to work just as hard to hit good defensive shots as you do to hit good offensive shots. Your opponent will soon catch on that you’re not trying to kill much today, and he will start laying back for your passes and ceiling shots.

Don’t let this tempt you. Stick to your plan; it will just be better practice.

A couple of things will surely happen:

  • You will find very few rallies last long enough for you to attempt a kill. Someone will err first. If you are hitting well-executed defensive shots, you will find your opponent will frequently hit the ball into the floor, far more than you would have imagined.
  • You will also find there are a wide variety of defensive shots from which to choose. This is one of the main reasons this type of game will improve your shot selection. You don’t have to worry about choosing among many different shots. All you have to remember is not to attempt a kill until you have hit five shots.

The reason for recommending this game is that you can’t learn shot selection until you learn the many shots at your disposal. This game will help you explore the uncharted regions of shot variety.

You may want to start by playing this new game with opponents you usually beat handily. At first it will even things out. Later, as you begin to hit good defensive shots, you will beat him worse than ever.

Then it’s time to try your new “game” against better players, or limit yourself to just one type of defensive shot against the player you’re handling with ease. In one game you might hit only ceiling shots for defensive shots, and in the next only wraparounds. You’ll soon know what your best shots are and which ones need to improve.

The idea is to get you thinking about the shots you use regularly. What you use — and use effectively — may still be determined by your physical capabilities, but you will find you have a much wider range of shots than you realized. And you will learn to use them all more effectively.

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