Coaching the Backline

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

By Kyle Hardingham
Essendon VFL Playing Assistant Coach

Positional Knowledge

Role of the backs in the team structure:

  • Have to be strong communicators in setting up the field, a good leader
  • Defend first then join in attack once we have won the ball
  • Set up the field in front of them once the ball has gone into the forward half
  • Set up in the correct formation according to the game plan

Key relationships to other positions:

  • Constantly communicating to all players in front of them
  • Once the ball is in the forward line, setting the midfielders up in their correct positions
  • When we win the ball back, pushing midfielders and forwards back to make the ground bigger to make it easier to attack
  • When the ball is coming back into the backline, talking to the wingers coming back to fill the holes, telling them where to stand, making them feel comfortable to help defend
  • Key defenders need to communicate with other defenders when to sit in front of their key forward

Main player responsibilities of backs:

  • Able to defend one-on-one
  • Defends first then joins in attack
  • Knows when opponent isnít dangerous; drops off to be third man up
  • Spoils when need to spoil, takes grab when can mark ball
  • Knows their individual role within the backline
  • Communicates with fellow backs
  • Knows structures for the whole team to set them all up, especially if the deepest defender,  because everyone else is in front of you

Expectations/Role of the backs in specialized situations:

  • If we have an extra defender at centre bounce, once the ball is in play try lure out their extra defender by getting in a dangerous position
  • If two opposition forwards go into a stoppage, the first defender goes with the first forward and the second sits in front of dangerous forward/space. Must let the winger know of the free forward in the stoppage. Once the ball is in play and the opposition chip it around, the spare defender must then push back up to the free forward
  • When leading with a few minutes to go, defenders need to make sure they pull key forwards and a winger down to make an outnumber in our backline
  • Defenders must always join in attack

Player characteristics required to play in the backline:

  • Must have great knowledge of the team structures
  • Good sense of the game, whether to go fast or slow, whether to call back a spare player if the team is under the pump
  • Leadership to communicate with mids and forwards if they arenít playing their roles.
  • Knows when to spoil and when to go for the mark
  • Backs judgement and reads the play well
Coaching the Position

Key points to get across to backline players:

  • When to spoil, when to go for the mark
  • Positioning of the opponent - always stay goal side
  • Structural positioning for certain situations (e.g. Mid/forward/back stoppages)
  • Defend first, attack second
  • Play your role for the team
  • Strong communication between one another
  • Join in attack once the ball has been won - make your opponent accountable for you
  • Where we want to move the ball for attack

Specific training for the backs:

  • 1 on 1 marking
  • 2 vs 3 (where we have +1)
  • Match play different scenarios (stoppages etc.)
  • Kicking under pressure
  • Spoiling
  • Defending outnumber 1 vs 2 (where they have +1) 

Specific pre match preparation:

  • Watch and cut vision of each forward
  • Take each defender through the strengths and weaknesses of their possible opponents
  • Train specifically for the specific opposition team
  • Go through the things they have done well and the areas they need to improve on for an up-coming game. Then train those things with that player.

Key hints to becoming a better backline player:

  • Train hard and do extras for the areas that you need to improve in
  • Extra craft practice in both areas that need improvement and areas you are competent in
  • Watch vision of players in similar positions to see how they play that particular position
  • Donít get comfortable - there is always be room for improvement

Practice scenario for developing backs

Using the Spare Ė Win the Ball and Transition

Teach defenders how to use our spare defender when you donít have it and then when you win it.

Part 1: Win the ball

  • Coach kicks the ball into forward fifty
  • The defenders protect the spare man to win (mark) the ball
  • Once ball is in play they then use the spare defender to run the ball out and finish through the goals

Key notes/teaching points:

  • Block to keep forwards away from the free defender, create a screen
  • Use outnumber by foot or hand to get ball out of defence and through the goals
  • Running patterns are crucial, make space so forwards find it hard to defend the outnumber.
  • First look should always be into the corridor


  • Communication with the free defender is crucial to make the player feel safe standing under the ball
  • screen out close opponents
  • X - pushes up on the mark which then frees up a different defender
  • All defenders with a player on them must move to create space in corridor

Part 2: Transition

  • Switch ball inboard to the free player
  • the X then pushes up on the mark creating a new free player
  • important the other players keep space but stay in play in line with the ball
  • keep layers

Note: Defenders keep their layers like in a game, not all in a line in case of a turnover.

Now that the defender is in range, the player can:

  • have a shot on goal, or
  • the forward can push onto the defender who can run and draw, and handball to the new spare defender who can run it through.
  • The drill then starts again

Kyle Hardingham is a playing assistant coach in the Essendon VFL team.

This article was written as part of the requirement for AFL Level 2 Coach Accreditation.

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