One of the most important defensive skills which players will learn is how to properly mark an opponent so that he does not appear "open" to his teammate. This is a difficult skill for beginning players to learn, because they tend to watch the ball instead of their marks. Furthermore, because it is only necessary to mark your man when your team doesn't have the ball, younger players can get confused about when to mark and when to get away. As a result, it is necessary to break these skills down into manageable steps, starting with just staying with your man and teaching some tricks on how to do this.
The first basic rules of marking are to be stay within 2-3 feet of your man. Start by putting players in pairs, with one player in each pair as the attacker. It is the job of the attacker to try to get away from his marker, and the job of the marker to stay with his attacker. Do not bother using a ball. Just put the players in a grid and play it like tag. When you blow the whistle, everyone must freeze and any defender who is not within 3 feet of his mark must do a "special exercise". Pick silly special exercises, like doing a duck walk for 3 steps, quacking "mark, mark, mark", etc.). Play for several minutes, then switch roles between defenders and attackers. Reinforce the idea that those who are sticking with the opponent are "defenders" and that attackers can go anywhere and should try to lose their marks.
Now, introduce the idea of transition which means the switch from offense to defense when possession is lost. Put pinnies on one member of each pair and give them a team name. Also give a team name to the kids without pinnies.
Put them back in the grid, and periodically shout out a team name for the kids who are to act as defenders. Require that they find their marks and get within 3 feet of their marks by the count of 2 which requires them to always have a good idea of where their marks are, even when trying to lose them). Once again, use a silly "exercise" for those who do not quickly switch off.
Now, introduce a ball and make the team without the ball the defenders. Put small cone goals at the ends of the grid so that each team has a goal to defend. At this point, things will fall apart with new players, as they will start watching the ball and stop watching their marks. Expect this. It is normal. Let them play for 2-3 minutes, and find the kids who have gotten the concept down. These are the kids whom you will name as captains.
Blow your whistle; stop the game; and assign captains for each side. Their jobs are to yell "Rockets, mark" or "Rockets, attack", depending on whether or not their team has the ball. Always try to have 2 captains for each side, as somebody will get tied up in the excitement and forget to shout instructions.
Play the game again, and watch the transitions. Don't interfere, just let things sort out for 3-4 minutes. Then, announce a new game, where the entire team has to do a "special exercise" if, when you blow the whistle, they are not marking properly. The use of a team special exercise is important, as you want the entire team to learn to look out for somebody who is not marking his man. This will be crucial in games when, for instance, a defender falls down and it is essential that another player pick up his mark, so get them used to the idea of watching each other.
Let them play for about 1 minute, then blow your whistle. Resume, and blow again when the other side should be marking. Now, play a game where a goal counts for 1 point, and good marking counts for 2 points. Be sure that you give equal chances as you blow your whistle for both sides to get 2 points. At this stage, do not give out any "special exercises" as the loss of the chance for 2 is quite sufficient to get the point across. Additionally, and you don't want to do anything more to single out the poor kid who messed up.
For younger players, this may be as much as you can handle in one session. However, for older players, you can proceed to the next step, which is learning where to stand in relation to your opponent, assuming that teams are equal in numbers. In general, the safest place for a defender to stand is goal-side AND ball-side of his mark. In the midfield, it is more important to be ball-side than goal-side. When in the penalty box, you normally should be ball-side unless your attacker is considerably faster/quicker in which case you should be goal-side. Inside the goal area, you should always be goal-side if standing still, and ball-side if you are running in towards the goal with your attacker.
By ball-side, we mean that the defender is standing between his mark and the ball, so that the ball cannot "see" the feet of his man. "Ball-side" marking looks like this:
Attacker (A) Defender (D) Ball(B)
A D B
"Goalside" marking looks like this:
[ Goal ] D A Ball
Marking which is both goalside and ballside looks like this:
[ Goal ] D A Ball
Put a pair of players in a grid, with one goal at one end, and put another pair in a long narrow grid that runs along one sideline. To score, the team in possession must have passed to a teammate on the sideline, then shot on goal without an interception by the opposing side. The use of the alley forces ball-side marking - and helps to show why it is effective. It also shows the players that, to succeed, they must play to space ahead of or behind the marked teammate and immediately move to accept a quick pass back. In the meantime, once a pass has been made to the outside, it places great urgency upon the inside defender to either intercept the ball before it can come back in or to get between his mark and the goal. Play for about 3-4 minutes, then switch inside and outside players.
Add another inside player for each team so that they are 2v2 inside, and put a goal at both ends. This is the stage where the players start to learn to balance the defensive principles of Pressure/Cover with the concept of marking. When outside of scoring range, it is more important that the other inside player act as Cover so that, if the Pressure player is beaten, the on-ball attacker does not have a free run at goal. As a result, he will drop off vertically from his man, so that he is goal-side of his mark and also slightly goal-side of the Pressure player. He does this so that he can keep an eye on both. (The page on basic defensive principles has more discussion of these concepts.) If the Pressure player can bottle up the opponent at the touch line away from the outside support, he will turn his efforts to winning the ball since the opposing inside player should drop back to provide an outlet pass for the beleaguered attacker and also to provide instant cover for his own goal if possession is lost.
However, as the attackers start to come within scoring range, the off-ball inside attacker becomes a much greater threat, so he will close down on him in an effort to be both goal-side and ball-side. He will be sure to choose goal-side if he does not believe that he can stay ball-side on a run towards goal. The outside defender, on the other hand, will generally try to stay ball-side because he knows that the outside player is just a relay person who will try to cross the ball in quickly if he ever gets possession.
After quickly discussing these ways in which marking decisions change as you add a third person, let the players experiment. The game is truly the best teacher for these concepts, as the kids will learn much more quickly from trial and error than by any extended lecture. So, just stand back and watch for at least 5 minutes. Praise good marking decisions and good interceptions, and overlook the poor decisions. To mark well is a skill that will take many years to develop properly, as there are a number of very complex variables that enter into the equation in a split second. Errors are common and the kids can see for themselves when they make an error so give lots of reassurance and encouragement.
Add an alley on both sides of the field; put a pair of opponents in each alley; and put the rest in the middle. Require that a team must use one set of alley players before scoring and that goals count double if they use both alleys. Then, sit back and enjoy yourself, as the players go about teaching themselves the reasons why good marking is so important.Updated 9 February 1999