The Best Defense is Whacking Your Opponent’s Shins
Sound team defense in tennis hockey most likely shares many principles with its iceborne forebear, as well as with basketball, soccer and the many other sports featuring continuous action around a goal or target. However, this plausible supposition has been at best haphazardly confirmed by the actual play of games unburdened by organization-minded coaches.
As in any sport, the tennis hockey defense has two related objects: prevent goals, and regain possession of the ball. And as in any team sport, it has two related manifestations: individual (one-on-one) defense, and team coordination. Unique to tennis hockey is the overarching goal: get to Safeway to sit on some cheese.
Allowing for slight variances, individual defensive technique involves the same principles in virtually every ball-handling sport. Tennis hockey draws from that basic school: a low center of gravity, legs apart, with the weight on the balls of one’s feet, allowing for rapid lateral movement is the starting point for effective one-on-one defense against the player with the ball. Move with short, rapid steps skimming the surface of the court and avoid crossing legs whenever possible, keeping oneself agile and ready for any line of attack the offensive player might attempt. Present the widest possible barrier to the ballhandler, although not to the exclusion of one’s own mobility. The racquet remains a complement to the position of the body -- it can be used to control the movement of the attacking player, or to extend one’s reach, but reliance on stickwork alone is a close cousin to reliance on one’s goalie. One possible approach: play the attacker’s body with one’s own body, maintaining center of gravity and footwork to stay in front of the offensive player, and play the ball with one’s racquet, maneuvering one’s own stick to keep it close to the ball and ready to obstruct a shot, tip a pass, or poke at a carelessly played ball (and, in any event, threaten to do all of these things and thereby decrease the attacker’s level of comfort).
However, whatever the approach, the defender should strive first and foremost — especially when confronted with a dangerous offensive player — to stay between the ball and the goal; of nearly equal importance is gaining a steady defensive stance as described above. Sprinting is occasionally necessary on defense, but a defender on a dead run is vulnerable to being deked out of the play; agility and quickness are prized more highly than stopwatch speed.
A defensive player in good position has a number of options, which may be poor plays or good ones depending on a variety of game situations as well as the level of roughness countenanced by prevailing local standards. Factors to consider for the defender may include, but are not limited to:
Position on the court
Clearing and forechecking will be covered elsewhere, but at any point on the court, the defender must be aware of an offensive player’s options, limitations, and likely objectives and play accordingly. For instance, when the ball goes to a corner, the offensive player has less space to maneuver and is very far from a dangerous scoring position. Therefore, the defender can often play very aggressively for a takeaway.
Conversely, a player with the ball in a high corner is of little immediate danger to the goal but has space to maneuver and can create an opportunity with a step or two if s/he can get past the defender. Therefore it is usually wise to play cautiously against the perimeter, an extra step or two off a skilled ballhandler and force the offense to earn its opportunities the hard way. Offensive players in space have many options for maneuvering, but when they are against a fence or net, they may be vulnerable to an aggressive takeaway play.
The position on the floor also affects the value of a takeaway. A clean takeaway from an offensive player just in front of the alley between the nets may create a breakaway and easy score for the erstwhile defense. If the right opportunity against the right player avails itself, it may justify the danger of opening a lane to one’s own goal.
Size of the game
A well-staffed game of 6-on-6 (about the reasonable maximum for the original tennis hockey court in Port Angeles) affords offensive players considerably less room to create than a bare-bones game of half the size. Games with many players tend to be lower-scoring, and a defender must take care not to risk giving away an easy score in a game when points are at a premium. Turnover situations will occur with regularity in these games; defenders should be content to pounce on them as they present themselves, without forcing the issue. In a high-scoring game, possession of the ball can become nearly as valuable as points themselves, while more open space puts everyone’s stamina to the test. Under such conditions, a decent takeaway chance can be worth the danger of allowing a good scoring opportunity, and will be eminently more tempting to spaghetti-legged defenders interested in resolving the play one way or the other.
If the scores are of more than passing interest in one’s games, then one’s philosophy should evolve according to the lead or deficit one’s team faces. If one holds a solid lead (three or four goals at the least), be more cautious on defense -- surfacing out of dangerous situations, conceding loose balls whose pursuit might leave one out of position. Force the opposition to earn its comeback. If behind by more than one or two, the defense may wish to become more aggressive in the hopes of creating turnovers -- although with the caveat that if this is done on the initiative of particular individuals while others play slug-footedly out of exhaustion or discouragement, the likely outcome is a burgeoning blowout.
Relative skill of the players
Obviously, calculations of game scenarios are so much dross if they discourage a stronger player from taking advantage of a weaker player, and a defender with little to fear from their mark can be as aggressive as s/he desires. It is more important to note that when the defensive player is the weaker of the two, conservative is the defender’s byword; Tory MPs must gape at the obdurant caution of the on-ball defense. An overmatched defender should remain in front of the ball -- and therefore a part of the play -- at virtually any cost, playing as far off the ball as necessary unless the offensive player is in an obvious shooting situation.