Hands Down on Defense!


Summary: When will the myth end?  Putting your hands up on defense just puts you at a disadvantage.

We all grew up with that instruction – often yelled at the team from the bench and stands.  You’re in a zone defense and the coach yells “Get your hands up!”  The implication is also “stand tall”.  I even heard a coach recently turn to her bench and tell the players there “Don’t they look impressive with their hands up?”

Yeah, they look like a very short forest, with the same mobility as a grove of trees!

Would we tell a defender in a man-to-man defense to pressure their opponent by chasing after them with their hands in the air?  Of course not, we recognize that a high center of gravity reduces a player’s ability to move quickly and maintain balance.  The classic defensive position – in every competitive sport from baseball to tennis to wrestling – is an “athletic stance”.  Feet a little wider than shoulder width, knees bent, back straight, weight on the balls of your feet, hands comfortably out in front of your chest, and fingers spread.

In an athletic stance you can:

  • change direction quickly,
  • immediately transition to a jump,
  • quickly reach out to steal or hold the ball,
  • pivot into a box-out position,
  • easily reach down to challenge a bounce pass or high for an overhead pass,
  • your hands are already in position to steal or deflect a chest pass.

In an upright posture with your hands in the air, you can:

  • block the pass or shot of an opponent who tries to push the ball right through your hands.

That’s about it.

If you’ve got your hands in the air and are in an upright position, just about any defensive action you want to take will first require that you drop your hands and get into a crouch.  All that means is a loss of precious fractions of a second – time that your opponent will use to obtain a position of advantage.  He’ll get off the ground quicker for a jump shot or rebound.  He’ll bounce pass around you before you can react.  He’ll drive to the basket and get his head and shoulders around you as you try to move into position and instead draw a blocking foul.

It’s never really appropriate to put both hands in the air and almost never appropriate to stand upright.  You can put one hand in the air and the other out to one side as you approach a shooter and break down; and it’s easier to draw a charge from an upright position – easier in the sense that a referee is more likely to make the call.

Other than that, stay in an athletic stance on defense.  Stay aggressive.  Leave the waving limbs to trees and scarecrows.