Expert section: Mate Kontra – I’ve played soccer at a very high level all my life. I’ve been coached by ex-pro, D1, and Academy level coaches, currently playing at the MLS-Next level as a wingback in California. Today, I will share which skills you need to practice as a beginner playing a defensive position.
Soccer is one of the most complicated sports for athletes to play because of the wide variety of skills that players have to learn.
Each position is different, and every player specializes in unique aspects of the game.
For this reason, figuring out what skills to practice and how to get better at the sport can be overwhelming for beginners.
But don’t worry, that’s where everyone starts!
As a defender, I’m inclined to say that my position is one of the most challenging positions on the field.
Defenders must master many skills before they can adapt to any situation during a game.
However, as a defender, there are a few core skills that you should prioritize over others to be as effective as possible.
So today, we will discuss the six skills defenders should learn to be more effective during a match.
Related article: Why Include Cone Exercises in Your Soccer Training?
The 6 Skills to Train to be an Effective Defender in Soccer
For beginners, it can be challenging to recognize the key to success in a defensive position, especially with mixed opinions circulating the internet.
However, I’ve played all my life as a defender, and there are six skills that beginners should learn to become effective defenders in soccer.
I guarantee that mastering these six skills will elevate your game, even if you are an advanced player.
I’m confident because I trained the same skills to succeed at the MLS-Next level.
So let’s get right into it!
#1: Short Passes
Short passes are one of the most fundamental skills that every player on the field must master.
This skill consists of kicking the ball with the inside of the foot to a teammate, flat on the ground.
Players use it to move the ball around opponents in a tight area or even from one side of the field to the other.
Essentially, it’s the most used skill in soccer, so defenders must practice it.
How is it beneficial?
Well, how is practicing short passes beneficial?
Since it is the most used skill in the sport, players must be able to perform it flawlessly one hundred percent of the time.
Defenders must be especially good at it, considering their position is one of the riskiest on the pitch.
If they miss a single pass, opponents can take the ball and score immediately.
So practicing short passes is very beneficial for defenders because it increases their team’s security and decreases the likelihood of gifting the opponents a goal.
Additionally, by practicing short passes, defenders can perform high-risk, high-reward passes that benefit their team more.
How to train short passes?
There are many options to train short passes, but the best and most accessible way is using a wall.
With proper technique, using the inside of the foot, repeatedly kick the ball flat against the wall.
Ensure the ball skims across the ground before bouncing back to your foot, which signifies a perfect pass.
For beginners, take at least one touch to control the ball before kicking it against the wall again.
Once you can consistently perform perfect passes with both feet, progress to one-touch passing.
That means immediately passing the ball against the wall as it bounces back from the previous kick.
Additionally, I highly recommend checking out our beginner’s guide for short passes, covering more in-depth advice about improving the skill.
#2: Aerial Passes
Aerial passes are another passing technique, but this time more specific to the defending position.
This technique (the “cross” or the “ping”) puts more power behind the ball than ground passes and also lifts it in the air to make sure that opponents cannot intercept it.
In general, defenders use aerial passes to transport the ball to a teammate who is far away when a short pass will certainly not work.
Although it is a less commonly used skill, it is one of the most important in a defender’s arsenal.
How is it beneficial?
But how do defenders benefit from training aerial passes?
During a match, defenders frequently find themselves in a position where zero teammates in their vicinity are open.
Opponents block them off, so no teammates are available within a 20-yard radius.
In this case, defenders must pass the ball to a teammate who is farther away, maybe even past half-field.
The opponents will likely intercept a pass on the ground, so the defender must pass the ball in the air to ensure that it reaches their teammate.
So, defenders benefit from training aerial passes by preventing the opponents from getting the ball in dangerous areas.
As we said, if opponents got ahold of the ball so close to the net, they would most likely score, so by learning aerial passes, defenders can prevent the opponents from scoring easy goals.
How to train aerial passes?
Practicing aerial passes is the easiest to do with a partner.
The two players practicing should be at least 20 yards apart, aiming to pass the ball in the air to the other player’s foot.
Beginners should first practice lifting the ball into the air, using the inside of their foot, by striking the ball below its center point.
After getting the hang of the technique, I recommend moving progressively farther apart from each other to practice striking the ball with more power.
A more advanced technique that players should practice after mastering the pass with the inside of the foot is striking the ball with the laces.
This technique is called the “ping,” and defensive players commonly use it.
The same progression should be applied when practicing this technique.
Defensive players, especially center backs, are often known for their fierce heading ability.
This technique is when a player uses their head to hit the ball.
The header can be a pass to a teammate, attempting to score from a corner, or clearing the ball as far as possible.
Defensive players must learn how to head the ball because every game requires them to perform a header sooner or later.
How is it beneficial?
But how do defenders benefit from learning how to head the ball?
Firstly, defenders have to head the ball very frequently during matches.
Whether it is a defensive or offensive scenario, teams generally rely on defenders to head the ball because they’re typically bigger and stronger than the rest of the team.
Secondly, when defenders contain the opposing attackers well, opposing players will generally try to skip the defensive line by playing aerial passes.
They believe that playing the ball in the air, over the defenders, will allow the attackers to run past the defenders and put the ball into the net.
However, great defenders can stop aerial passes by intercepting them using their heads.
They clear the ball by heading it back toward the opponents, letting them know that aerial passes will not work against them.
But what if the ball is too high for them to head it?
In that case, the goalkeeper is generally close enough to gather the ball.
And if the goalkeeper can’t gather the ball, defenders must be agile enough (discussed in the next segment) to react by quickly turning and containing the attacker with the ball.
How to train heading?
For beginners, the best way to train heading is with a partner.
The exercise consists of a partner tossing the ball to the player practicing their heading skills, who will then use their head to pass the ball back to their partner.
Keep repeating this exercise with light throws to avoid concussions.
Additionally, avoid performing too many repetitions because that can also contribute to a concussion.
After mastering the skill with a partner, more advanced players may want to try juggling the ball with their heads to learn precision.
Alternatively, incorporating heading into wall juggling is another excellent training option.
A common misconception is that agility is simply changing directions quickly, but agility also includes reacting to an external event.
For example, an attacker can suddenly change directions while dribbling the ball toward a defender.
The defender must change directions according to the attacker, so they’re reacting to the event of the attacker cutting.
Additionally, they must change direction while staying balanced on their feet.
How is it beneficial?
So how will training agility benefit defenders?
As we said, agility is reacting to an external event while staying balanced on the feet.
Well, if we look at the job description of a defender, they are primarily responsible for preventing opposing attackers from scoring goals.
That includes confronting the attackers to take the ball from them, which attackers will try to prevent by changing directions, performing skill moves, and escaping defenders.
To ensure the defenders can keep up with the attackers’ trickery, they must be agile enough to react to their movements correctly.
Therefore, agility training can help players become more effective at keeping up with attackers and containing them.
How to train agility?
Generally, the best way to train agility is with some stimulus, such as a random number or color chosen by another person or an electronic device.
This external stimulus represents a specific reaction from the player, such as running around a cone.
However, since beginners usually don’t have a great foundation of footwork, this may be too advanced to start with.
To begin with, I recommend using cones, hurdles, or an agility ladder to perform simple footwork exercises, only focusing on technique.
Once the technique is mastered, focus more on speed and performance while maintaining good form.
As you improve, increase the complexity of the footwork exercises, first mastering their techniques and then increasing the speed.
After several weeks of training footwork (2-3 times per week), I recommend starting basic agility exercises as described in the first paragraph of this section.
The progression of agility exercises should be more gradual.
Tackling is the skill that defenders on a soccer team specialize in.
This skill refers to the ability to take the ball from the opposing player, specifically the movement of interfering with the ball and taking it from their foot.
Whether it is slide-tackles or standing tackles, the skill of tacking includes any method of taking the ball from the opponent without breaking any rules.
Tackling is used to take the ball directly from an opponent to win back possession.
How is it beneficial?
So how is mastering the skill of tackling beneficial for a defender?
As we said previously, the main job of a defender is to fiercely guard their team’s goal to prevent the opponents from scoring.
Well, one of the most effective ways of preventing opponents from scoring is taking the ball away from them.
But in order to take the ball from an opponent, defenders must learn how to tackle.
So, the overall benefit of learning how to tackle is that defenders will guard their goal more effectively with a skill that also wins the ball for their team.
How to train tackling?
The most effective way to train tackling is against a partner, preferably with a decent amount of soccer experience.
Regardless of the level, there is no other effective way to train the skill.
Aside from athleticism, tackling is purely based on experience against other players.
For every skill level, even beginners, the best way to learn how to tackle is to find a partner who is more experienced so that you can learn from them.
They likely answer any of your questions and even demonstrate their answers.
When I was a beginner, my friend, who had more experience with soccer, taught me the basics of taking the ball from an attacker, so I can assure you that it’s very helpful.
And as you progress, your partner’s skill level should also increase to ensure that you’re improving your skills.
Please check out our guide on how to find the right training partner if you need any assistance finding someone to practice with.
Juggling is a fundamental skill in soccer that all players have to master.
This skill is when a player can keep the ball in the air by repetitively kicking it straight up with any body part.
It is not specific to a position, but it is one of the most essential skills a soccer player must possess.
Some players will say otherwise, especially at the beginner level, but don’t be fooled because the higher the level of play, the more critical it becomes.
How is it beneficial?
So how is juggling beneficial for defenders, and why is it so important?
Juggling is the golden standard for players to practice their touch, otherwise known as ball control.
It teaches players how to control the ball perfectly with one touch in any situation, with any body part.
This skill massively benefits defenders because opponents frequently throw difficult passes against them, which can easily cause mistakes.
If defenders have the skill to control the ball in any situation, opponents won’t be able to score goals by forcing easy mistakes.
Defenders benefit from mastering juggling because they will perform fewer mistakes, preventing opponents from scoring goals.
And the reason this skill is so important isn’t just because of goals.
It’s also because the ability to control the ball in any situation is one of the fundamental skills of high-level soccer.
For high-level players, whether academy, college, semi-professional, or professional, the speed of play is so fast that players can lose the ball because of just one mistouch.
So ball control is the baseline for keeping up with the speed of play; it’s impossible to compete without it.
How to train juggling?
For beginners, the first step of learning how to juggle a ball is learning to kick it vertically in the air.
Take the ball with your hands, and drop it right above your foot so you can kick it straight back up.
Lock your ankle and hit the ball with the laces of your shoes so that it bounces back into your hands, and alternate feet between each kick.
I recommend mastering this skill before moving on to actual juggling.
That said, it’s possible to learn how to juggle without it.
Once you move on to juggling, spend time mastering it with the feet only, alternating them between each kick.
The next progression is the thighs, the insides & outsides of the feet, and lastly, the head & shoulders.
If you master this, nobody can call you a beginner anymore because learning these skills is considered advanced for a beginner.
More advanced training methods:
If you want to push your limits, I recommend starting with basic freestyle skills such as the “around the world” skill move.
However, I recommend learning how to wall-juggle if you want to keep it game-realistic.
In short, this exercise requires players to juggle a ball while kicking it against a wall, then receive it without dropping it.
This exericise is entering into advanced territory, and it can take up to a year to master for complete beginners.
With soccer being such a complex sport, it’s difficult for beginners to know what skills are necessary to be an effective defender.
So, here are the six skills defenders should practice to become more effective on the pitch.
Short passing is one of the most common skills that defenders use to start building the attack.
Whether to circulate the ball from side to side or avoid an attacker, defenders must be able to perform this skill flawlessly.
Since losing the ball will likely have detrimental effects, defenders must make sure they can perform the skill ten times out of ten.
Aerial passing is another technique defenders must get familiar with as early as possible.
In high-pressure situations, one of the best solutions for defenders is to pass the ball to a farther teammate.
However, since opponents will certainly intercept flat passes, defenders must use aerial passes to deliver the ball to their teammates.
Defenders must also learn how to header the ball.
Since opponents often prefer to use aerial passes to attack, defenders must be able to use their heads to intercept their passes.
The best way to train heading is with a partner, who repeatedly tosses the ball, and the practicing player heads it back to them.
Agility may not always include a ball, but it’s a crucial skill that all defenders must be great at to be effective.
This skill refers to the ability to react to a stimulus while maintaining balance, such as reacting to an attacker changing directions.
To practice this skill, an external stimulus is required by a person or an electronic device, which refers to a specific reaction that the player must perform.
Tackling is one of the most related skills to the position, as it refers to the ability to take the ball from another player.
Whether that is through slide tackling or with a standing tackle, it doesn’t matter.
The best way to train it is to learn from a more experienced player and perform one versus one exercises to gain experience.
Juggling is also a crucial skill that all defenders should master because it relates to players’ ability to control the ball.
Being able to control the ball is vital for defenders because any mistake in the back can gift a goal to the opponents since they’re so close to the goal.
The best way to train this for beginners is to learn how to juggle with alternating feet and then progress to juggling the ball with the rest of the body.
Image Attribution & Licensing
Featured Image: ‘Professional Soccer Player Performing a Sliding Tackle’ by Leonardo Hidalgo (Licensed via Pexels)
#1: ‘Female Soccer Player Dribbling Soccer Ball Through Mini Cones’ by Image-Source (Licensed via Envato Elements)
#2: ‘Soccer Player Wearing PSG Jersey Passing the Ball’ by Duong Huy (Licensed via Unsplash)
#3: ‘Professional Goalkeeper Practicing Aerial Passes’ by Dean Gnjdic (Licensed via Pexels)
#4: ‘Soccer Player Performing Fierce Header’ by Kenny Webster (Licensed via Unsplash)
#5: ‘Female Athlete Performing Exercises With Agility Ladder’ by RDNE Stock Project (Licensed via Pexels)
#6: ‘Soccer Player Performing a Harsh Sliding Tackle’ by Omar Ram (Licensed via Unsplash)
#7: ‘Soccer Player Juggling Soccer Ball’ by Desiray Green (Licensed via Unsplash)