Basic Concepts: Defensive Structures


In this piece will talk about the main defensive structures in hockey.

I have decided to share some thoughts on this topic, as it seems to me, that certain tactical and technical components, are currently neglected or undervalued at every level of coaching.
The information below is a result of my practical learning and tactical influences from other sports, namely football (soccer).
Ultimately, some of these are just my convictions and part of an ideology that I have been developing as coach.

A modern coach has to pursue capacities in several areas that require a certain level of academic or practical knowledge such as; player and staff management, psychology, fitness, communication, etc.
However I always felt that in order to become a real expert, the technical and tactical content would always be of main priority..

Words like: decision making, self-regulated teams and learner-centred-approached sound fashionable like the ‘right speech’.
Although the previous approach is undoubtedly necessary in any modern team, I believe that is equally important that coaches are able to provide some kind of guidance.
There must be room to stimulate questions and self-regulation, but also to provide or at least support finding some answers.

Evolvement of Modern Hockey

As the sport continues to evolve, either in terms of game philosophy, players athleticism, technical and tactical knowledge, training methodology, rules and also enhanced fields and playing materials, the game become faster and more dynamic.


All the factors mentioned above, logically, contributed for a speed evolution in the game.
It is a fact that in current hockey, the ball travels faster, the players on and off the ball also run faster than before.
Simultaneously some of the new rules like unlimited substitutions and self-pass had an enormous influence on how in modern hockey there is more acceleration and a higher level of fitness.
To sum up, the modern game is faster because there is more movement dynamic and speed.

The modern nature of the game, brings renewed (coaching) challenges, particularly from a defensive point of view. There is more dynamic, technical ability and speed  – this means that currently it is more complex to defend.
It is now fundamental, for any high performance coach to understand collective strategies that can ‘organically’ respond to the game flow where the ball – either carried or via passing – travels much faster.

Although the main objective of any collective defensive structure is to recover possession of the ball, it is important to recognise that different systems and/or tactical formations might represent different characteristics and behaviours.

Any defensive structure can be efficient depending on the quality of their collective and individual execution.

In certain tactical areas, it is undeniable that without the correct execution of the individual task and responsibility, collective structures will be inefficient and most probably unsuccessful.
The appropriate correlation of individuals, either in spatial positioning and occupation, team-mate (spatial) coordination, timing and quality of action are decisive for the success of collective processes.

Logically, defensive systems that are based on a basic individual marking style, require less collective coordination and more individual responsibility.

Currently when watching high performance teams, it is recognisable that they develop their defensive concept further than the conventional thought of ‘only’ defending when in non ball possession.
Without intending to move ‘off topic’ that is based on collective defensive behaviours without possession, it is of extreme importance to mention that modern top teams are also investing in developing game principles and tactical structures that allow them to attack/be in possession while keeping ‘balance’.
The term ‘balance’ can sum up the correlation of several technical and tactical aspects that will ensure that while in possession and with the intend to attack the team is aware and pro-active about the possibility of losing possession and being counter-attacked.

In this research will try define the main characteristics, defensive styles and elements of each of the 3 main defensive structures and also some of the trends in defensive tactical behaviour practice by the world’s best teams.

Would like to reinforce that I have tried to bring ideas and concepts from my own practical and observational experience.

Defensive Styles


The defensive marking style can be considered the main definer (denominator) of a collective defensive structure. The 3 main marking styles are:

Individual – Based on individual responsibility (1v1)

Zonal – Based on spatial responsibility (zone)

Mixed – Based on split responsibility of space and opponent marking (zone + 1v1)

Hybrid – It is also noted that some teams execute what I will describe as Hybrid systems; which means that in the same collective structure the use of more than one defensive styles.


There are several game elements and situations that can affect defensive tactical organisations.

I will designate those elements as ‘Influencers’.
Below some of the influencers that I consider fundamental during a hockey match and that can have a considerable impact on the composition or alterations of a defensive collective structure:

  • General game strategy
  • Time frame
  • Scoreboard
  • Team and individual characteristics
  • Opponent characteristics
  • Numerical advantage or disadvantage
  • Fatigue
  • Fitness (ex: speed) characteristics
  • ‘Risk’ management
  • Others


In any non ball possession situation, the collective defensive structure of a team is regulated by following 4 main regulators:


These 4 elements vary in their order of ‘priority’.
Influenced by a football coach I developed a simple graph where I intend to demonstrate the different priorities that these 4 elements occupy in each defensive structure.
I strongly believe this is an effective and complementary way to educate coaches and players, helping them to understand the behaviour differences according to different defensive systems.


Recovery and pressure areas

Following the logic that different structures present different behaviours, it is also clear that each present preferable areas to recover the ball. As an example we can recognise that the more zonal style of presses tend to ‘invite’ the opponent to bring the ball inside of their tactical formation – what we could commonly designate as ‘inside the box’ – in contrary recovery styles that are mainly individual would preferable approach and attempt to recover the ball in areas or channels in the proximity to the sideline.

Preferred recovery areas will influence the aggressivity and approach of the defensive players will execute in order to put ‘pressure in the ball’.
Here, it is important to observe some details such running lines to approach the ball; distance of engagement, body and stick engagement on the player; body and stick pressure on the ball, where to channel the ball and follow-up movements.

(I would like to underline that although my presentation and research will be dedicated to collective defensive structures, these are only as solid as the coordination of each of their individual executer.)

On a non-possession situation there are 3 main possibilities to successfully recover the ball:

  • 1v1 – By tackling/stealing the ball from a direct opponent
  • Interception – By intercepting the ball in the space
  • Unforced errors – By accidental insufficient receiving/control from opponent that will originate the loss of the ball


Independently of the defensive strategy style, every collective recovery strategy has the same action process composed by the following stages:

  1. Prevention (Positioning and organisation)

This is the initial and primary stage of a defensive strategy when the team settles their formation, in order to start their defensive structure and adjust to opponent possession.
However there will be differences in the timing of positioning or re-positioning depending if the opponent is on a static or dynamic ball possession situation.

  1. Channeling (active or passive) 

This stage represents the intention and behaviour that intends to conduct to opponent possession to certain preferable areas of recovery. This part of the process can be either executed actively or passively.
By certain running line, it is possible to trigger and channel the opponent to a certain area. It is also possible to ‘invite’ or channel opponents possession by remaining in a more statical behaviour, create areas (zones) of recovery.

  1. Approach (Engage) 

In general, any recovery process, being more zonal or individual, will culminate in 1v1 situations. That stage will be designated as approach to the ball or engagement.

  1. Recovery (Action)

The last stage of a successful defensive structure, is obviously, the ball recovery.

Examples (Teams)

In this presentation, there will used as examples, footage from the current top 3 teams according to FIH ranking. that achieved outstanding results and performances in the last major international competitions to illustrate different defensive structures.


Australia ( FIH Ranking: #1  / Current World Champion 2014 ) – Individual

  1. Prevention (Positioning and organisation)
  2.  Approach

Approach JPG

3.  Recovery

Recovery JPG




Argentina (FIH Ranking: #2 / Current Gold Medalist Olympic Games 2016) – Mixed

  1. Prevention (Positioning and organisation)


2. Channeling

Channeling JPG

3. Approach

Approach JPG

4. Recovery

Recovery JPG.png



Belgium ( FIH Ranking: #3 / Finalist Olympic Games 2016 and Finalist Euro 2017) – Zonal

  1. Prevention (Positioning and organisation)

Channeling JPG

2. Channeling


3. Approach


4. Recovery




Thank you!

Bernardo Fernandes



One thought on “Basic Concepts: Defensive Structures

  1. Pingback: Simplifying a Zonal Defensive Structure: Part 1 | Coaching Hockey

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