Being a soccer defender takes skill, commitment and a wide variety of different qualities.
In this post, you will not only discover what those qualities are but with each section, I’ve added a practical tip that breaks down the quality and gives you something tangible to take hold of and go away and work on.
This list will show you how to be a good soccer defender and help you become the best defender you can possibly be.
If you want to be a better defender, keep reading!
Every Good Defender Has Each of These Qualities
Any good defender that has played soccer has possessed each of these qualities listed below.
In fact, to see some of these qualities in action (and be inspired!) take a look at this video below.
As with anything in soccer, defending at its base level is an art form.
Because every player is different, some defenders excel in certain areas more than others. And every soccer defender has their own unique blend of qualities that they bring to the game.
When these qualities are on display in a team there’s no limit to what a team can achieve.
As the former soccer defender and captain of the United States women’s national soccer team said:
“If we score, we might win. If they never score we can’t lose”Christie Rampone
For more soccer quotes check out this list I put together of the Greatest Soccer Quotes Ever.
Maybe you’re here looking to be a better defender yourself. Maybe you arrived at this post as a coach looking for advice on what to teach the defenders you’re responsible for. Or maybe you’re just curious about what makes a good defender.
Either way, understanding these qualities, as well as applying the advice in the are tips below, will help you to see an improvement in yourself or the defenders that you coach.
The 21 Qualities of a Good Soccer Defender
To be a good soccer defender you need:
1. A Calm Temperament
For me, this is one of the most important qualities that a defender needs to have. The ability to be calm, especially under pressure, will set the good defenders apart from the average ones.
Throughout a game of soccer, a defender will get all sorts of things thrown at them that could easily lead to feelings of frustration, impatience, and even anger.
Allowing these feelings to overtake them will only lead to poor decision making, impulsive behavior, and potentially disastrous consequences for the team.
I’m sure you’ve noticed as you’ve watched soccer yourself that the greatest defenders are calm and composed. The last thing any team needs is their defense acting rashly or impulsively because they’ve let their emotions get the better of them at the very moment they needed to stay calm.
A good defender will know how to take these situations that come up in a game and deal with them in an effective way.
Practical Tip: Be prepared.
One well-recognized technique for staying calm in a potentially stressful situation is to have prepared well beforehand.
If a defender can take the time before a game to go over any scenarios that may arise in a game and then figure out the best way on managing each of those scenarios, they will be much better prepared when the next game comes.
They will be able to approach those situations calmly as they have already anticipated and prepared for them.
2. A Focused Mentality
Playing as a defender in soccer can be highly pressured and at times stressful. And stress has a bad habit of making people make bad choices and mistakes that they would not have otherwise made.
One way defenders overcome this by having a focussed mentality.
What I mean by this is that when a defender is focussed on the things that are a priority in a game, such as what they want to achieve and how they want to play then all other negative issues begin to lose their influence over the player.
If a defender’s focussed mentality is to perform their role the best they can for every minute of the game because they know that this will help their team win the game, then nothing can distract them from that.
A great example of this is Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team who were known for playing strong counter-pressing and passing game.
The defenders in that team were so focused on the mentality of how they wanted to play that no outside influence, pressure, or stress, could affect them. They relentlessly played in this style and went on to win many tournaments and trophies.
A clear focussed mentality is a quality seen in every top defender.
Practical Tip: Know what you want to achieve.
The only way to create a focussed mentality is to be clear on what you want to focus on.
It may be as broad as playing a certain style of soccer as a team, or it may be as specific as being more disciplined in your position.
Take the time to work out what it is and then implement it.
3. The Ability to Think Tactically
A good defender will be thinking tactically throughout each game they are involved in.
Thinking tactically about what is happening in a soccer game means that the defender has to think of more than just what they individually are doing.
They need to have the team’s plan for the game at the forefront of their mind. Every decision they make should be made in light of what the tactics are for the game and move the team closer to fulfilling those tactics.
When they have the ball at their feet they will be considering what the team’s tactics are as they make a decision about their next move.
Maybe tactically it’s best to keep the ball moving forward at speed in which case they will be looking for a quick pass forward.
Or maybe it would be best tactically to slow the game down in which case the defender may try to keep the ball for longer or pass the ball sideways or even backward.
This again is another example of a quality that sets the good defenders apart from the average defenders.
This is because they are always considering the bigger picture of the game rather than just being focused on the moment they are in.
Practical Tip: Learn about the opposition
One thing every good defender does is to learn about the opposition before a game begins.
Understanding the tactics of how the other team is likely to play will enable you to make much more effective decisions throughout the game.
Study how the other team has performed in recent games and work out how to exploit their weaknesses.
4. Anticipate What Will Happen Next
Throughout a game, a defender will face multiple situations where they have to see, think, and react fast to what is happening in front of them.
The best defenders will be able to anticipate what will happen next before the others around them do.
You will probably have seen this at times where you’re watching a game and suddenly it seems as if a defender has stepped in to intercept a pass before they could have seen where the ball was heading.
This is a prime example of anticipating what is going to happen before it happens.
This quality is also how some defenders make up for not being as fast as others around them. Their ability to anticipate enables them to be in the right place at the right time rather than having to rely on their speed or pace to respond to what is happening.
Practical Tip: Focus on body language
One of the best ways to improve your anticipation of what is about to happen in a game is to study a player’s body language.
It can be all to easy to just focus on the soccer ball and what direction it is going in, but a good defender will have one eye on the ball and one on the player with the ball.
If you can learn to be aware of the movement of a player before they make contact with the ball, that will give you a split-second advantage over other players around you.
5. Maintain Their Position
Always being aware of their own position on the soccer field is a key quality that every defender needs.
What I mean by that is not just that a defender knows what position they should be playing in, but they don’t lose focus on this during a game and quickly find themselves out of position at a critical moment.
Finding themselves out of position can happen in a few ways.
- They let an opposition player draw them out of position
- They become too focused on following the ball or the action of the game and forget where they are on the field and soon find themselves in the wrong place.
- They spend more time thinking about themselves rather than the team. This leads the defender to go where they want on the field rather than position themselves where most benefits the team.
Every good defender has the self-discipline to maintain their position and be in the right place when they are needed.
Practical Tip: Notice who is next to you
Every defender is part of a defensive unit of at least 3 to 5 players. When the game begins, register which players on your team are beside you.
Then throughout the game keep reminding yourself of this and checking that you are still beside them and haven’t drifted away into the wrong position.
If at some point you do look up and find you are not next to the players you should be, then use this moment to get back into position.
6. Awareness of What Is Happening Around Them
Following on from the previous quality, a defender needs to not only be aware of what they are doing but fully aware of what is happening around them.
A defender who only concentrates on themselves will be no good to the team. They may seem to be doing everything right but if they are not doing it in the context of what is happening around them, they will be operating in their own little world!
Everything the defender does is in anticipation of or in response to what is happening around them.
- Who they pass to will depend on where the opposition players currently are.
- Whether they move up or down the field will depend on where the ball and the action is currently taking place.
- Whether they run towards the ball or cover an opposition striker depends on where the other players on their team are at that moment.
A good defender must be looking around them at all times to keep an eye on what is happening and then act based on what they see.
Practical Tip: Keep looking around
Next time you are training or playing a game of soccer, focus on looking around you.
Notice where the other players are, what they are doing, and where they look like they are about to go.
The more you do this, the quicker it will become second nature and you will find you’re doing it without even thinking.
7. Strong Value for Teamwork
Soccer at its core is a team game.
Although individuals are often rightly celebrated and rewarded, they could not do what they do without the team around them.
The quality of valuing teamwork allows a defender and those around them to play at their best. This is because they know how to work well together. And a team that works well together is hard to beat.
A good defender is fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the other players around them.
This allows them to cover for the other players on their team when needed and gives them the opportunities to shine when they can.
This quality in a defender will be evident as you watch them play.
Practical Tip: Find out about those around you
Knowing other players’ strengths and weaknesses only happens by watching them play and talking to them.
Take the time to find out about the players around you with the intention of being able to support them when needed and to give them the space to do what they do best when you can.
This will not just make you a better team player but a better defender because of it.
8. Clear Communicator
After discussing the quality of teamwork it’s hard to go onto any subject other than communication.
The ability to communicate clearly to those around them is a vital quality for every defender.
Good defenders work best in a team when they are able to communicate clearly to those around them.
Clear communication helps everyone know what is happening around, where other players are, and what is expected of them.
Although verbal communication is important, a good defender can communicate effectively through body language and hand signals as well.
Signaling where another player should be or where they should pass the ball can make the difference between conceding a goal or not.
Practical Tip: Keep it short
Studies in communication techniques have shown that simple and direct is by far the most effective way to communicate with those around you.
If you haven’t already, take the time to work out with your team a list of short but direct words or phrases to use during games that clearly convey the message you want to get across.
It can be as basic as “pass”, ”turn”, or ”back”. All that matters is that everyone knows exactly what is meant when they hear them.
This way every player knows straight away what to do and can react accordingly.
A defender displaying the quality of being assertive on the soccer field can keep a team together and performing at their peak for the duration of the game.
When a defender is clear and assertive in their communication all other players around them know what they should be doing and what is expected.
Assertiveness leaves no room for doubts or confusion and keeps all the players on the same page as each other.
When a player starts to doubt what is expected of them or what has been communicated, then you can end up with different players on the same team doing different things to each other.
This can only lead to chaos!
Every good defender is able to be assertive during a game.
Practical Tip: Being assertive is different from being aggressive
As you focus on improving your own assertiveness in a game remember that you are not trying to be aggressive.
People respond well to assertiveness but not aggressiveness.
Being assertive is about getting your message across in a clear and confident way. If you start to be aggressive or forceful you may lose the respect of those around you and damage the team dynamic.
10. Technically Proficient
Although the qualities we’ve talked about so far such as communication, awareness, and teamwork are hugely important, they are meaningless unless a defender is a good soccer player!
Being technically proficient on the field means the defender has all the skills needed to play the game at the top level.
Great defenders are not just good at defending but they are also great soccer players in general.
Hours and hours spent on the training field honing their skills over the years have taken them to the level they are at. They have earned their place on the team by being good at what they do.
Practical Tip: Work on basic soccer skills
Don’t neglect the regular passing, shooting, or control focussed drills. In every training session work hard on the basic soccer skills that are needed to improve your game.
Consider investing in an online soccer course such as the Play Like A Pro Soccer Player course (Click link) on Udemy.com. This fantastic course has over 200 5-star reviews from other players who have been through the course and provides hours of tips, techniques, and training sessions for less money than you will probably spend on your next pair of soccer cleats!
Take advice and instruction from your coaches. Work on the areas they see that need improving. If necessary approach them and ask how you could improve.
All of this will make you a better defender.
11. Composed on the Ball
Part of being technically proficient is being completely composed when in possession of the ball.
Playing as a defender is a highly pressured position as it is only one line of defense away from the goal. One mistake with the ball could allow the opposition in and see them scoring a goal because of the defender’s mistake.
The top defenders are confident with the ball at their feet. They have learned to deal with the pressure and not panic in tough situations.
Even under the pressure of an opposition player attempting to tackle them, you will notice that a good defender will still be playing as if they had all the time in the world. If needed they may take another touch or another look around before passing.
They are composed and in complete control of the situation.
Practical Tip: Don’t rush
Whenever you have the ball at your feet as a defender it can be tempting to pass it away as soon as possible to reduce the possibility of making a mistake.
Although there is no place for being complacent with the ball, there is often a little more time than we first think.
Next time try taking one more touch or one more look around before playing the ball. This should make your choice of pass more effective, it will give you more confidence and it will benefit the team as you move forward.
12. High-level of Passing Ability
A good defender has an exceptionally high level of passing ability. They know how to pick the right pass in every situation and can execute that pass to perfection.
As I’ve previously mentioned, playing in defense is a highly pressured position as there is less room for mistakes than in some of the other positions.
If a defender cannot pass well they expose the entire team to a higher risk of the opposition receiving the ball and scoring a goal.
A good defender will have perfected the ability to pass well in every situation and have the quality to do it even under extreme pressure.
Practical Tip: Pass, pass, pass, pass!
The best way to improve at anything is to do it over and over again. This is no different when it comes to the ability to pass the ball well.
Repeat those passing drills again and again. Maybe even spend some training session games focusing only on passing the ball every time you have it. Rather than looking to run with the ball or do anything else, just pass it. This will increase your opportunities to practice your passing.
13. Effective Distribution of the Ball
Effective distribution of the ball can be more important than many people realize.
More than just passing the ball accurately, the effective distribution of the ball is choosing the right pass and then passing it accurately.
This quality has the ability to not only reduce the risk of conceding a goal, but it can also set up an attack at the same time. That’s a pretty effective move!
Starting an attack from the back is a quality that you will see in any good defender. As they look ahead of themselves they are able to see where the ball can go and what would be most beneficial for the team.
Practical Tip: Understand where the attacking players want the ball
Knowing where to play the ball is reliant on knowing where the attacking wants the ball.
It’s no use distributing the ball to one side of the field if the attacking players would prefer it on the opposite side.
Take the time to understand the team’s tactics for the game and communicate with the attacking players about where they would ideally like the ball when starting an attack.
14. Strong Heading Ability
Heading the ball well is a key quality needed by every defender.
In any game, there will be multiple occasions where the ball is in the air when it arrives in defense.
On these occasions, a good defender will have the confidence and ability to head the ball firmly in the direction they want it to go.
They will not be afraid of battling for possession of the ball in the air and strongly move towards the ball as it arrives rather than waiting for it to come to them.
A defender needs the strength and ability to head the ball away to protect the goal behind them.
Practical Tip: Focus on technique
Heading the ball is as much about technical ability as it is about strength. If you don’t know how to head the ball effectively take the time to learn how. This article that I wrote is a great starting point.
Then spend time working on this technique.
Another tip to remember when heading the ball is to be assertive as you move towards the ball. Attack the ball rather than letting it come to you. I remember when I first learned this and how big of a difference it made to my heading ability.
15. High Level of Core Strength
Although a defender doesn’t always need to be physically imposing to be good at what they do, they do need to have a high level of physical strength.
In fact, the premier sport science research facility Athletic Lab released a report detailing how important core strength is for soccer players.
Their report showed that core strength:
- Impacts a player’s ability to move fast and change direction quickly,
- It is vital to their ability to win tackles,
- Serves as a base for endurance, posture, strength, power, coordination,
- And reduces the likelihood of injury
These reasons alone show why a good defender needs strong core strength to be the best they can be and dominate in their position on the field.
Practical Tip: Work on your core strength
After reading this section it may seem that increasing your core strength is the obvious thing to suggest but sometimes doing the obvious thing is exactly what needs to be done!
Working on increasing your core strength can dramatically improve your performance on the soccer field.
Using a balance board trainer is one of the best ways I’ve seen to do this. They are so simple to use but highly effective.
And the best thing is is that it can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. You can spend more time working on your core strength without even changing your schedule whether you use it in your morning work out or just stand on it while watching TV in the evening.
Click on this link to check out the price of the balance board I really like on Amazon. This one even includes a free workout guide to get you started.
16. Ability to Shield the Ball Well
Having the ability to be able to shield the ball well from other players is a key quality that you see in all the great defenders.
As with many of the qualities in this list, this one is linked to the previous point of having strong core strength.
This is because the ability to shield the ball well relies in a large part on the defender physically holding back another player with their body.
Placing themself between the ball and the opposition player prevents the other player from being able to steal the ball from the defender and potentially set up an attack.
A good defender will have mastered this ability and use it well and often.
Practical Tip: Challenge a friend
The best way to improve in this area is to practice.
Next time you find yourself with a spare 5 minutes, simply grab a soccer ball, place it in front of you and challenge a friend to get it off you with their feet.
As your friend tries to tackle you consistently place yourself between them and the ball. Shielding the ball continuously from their attempt to take possession of it.
17. Ability to Slow Down an Opposition’s Attack
A significant part of defending is having the ability to slow down and ultimately stop any attacks from the opposing team.
If a defender can reduce the speed at which the opposition is moving forwards, it allows their own team time to regroup and defend the goal effectively as a defensive unit.
This quality is especially important during a counter-attack when the ball has suddenly changed possession and the defending team has players out of position and they need time to get back to defend together.
There are a number of ways a defender can slow down an attack when an opposition player has the ball:
- They can intercept the ball as it’s passed to another player or tackle the player with the ball
- They can stand in the way of the player to stop them from moving forward as quickly
- or they can, with their body position, direct the player away from the goal and towards the edge of the soccer field.
A good defender will do all they can to prevent the other team from getting into a position where they can take a shot on goal and potentially score.
Practical Tip: Defending drills
One of the best ways to improve in this area is to regularly practice drills that focus on slowing down attacks.
One of the most effective drills is to find another player and get them to run at you with the ball at their feet. Instead of trying to tackle them, simply try to prevent them from dribbling the ball past you by constantly blocking their path and standing in their way.
The more you practice this the better you’ll become.
To find more soccer drills go to this article I wrote which outlines a step by step guide to my 10 Best Soccer Drills.
18. Ability to Tackle Well
A good defender should be a great tackler.
This quality will be called on multiple times during a game.
To be a great tackler a defender has to have a near-perfect sense of timing. Attempting a tackle a moment too soon or a moment too late can be the difference between winning the ball or fouling the player.
Practical Tip: Watch the player and the ball
Occasionally I’ve heard coaches say that a defender should focus only on the ball and not on the player with the ball. I don’t think this is always helpful advice.
Their intention is that the defender doesn’t get distracted by the player with the ball, especially if they are trying to do a trick to get away, but the problem is that knowing when to tackle a player often relies on the ability to predict where the player and ball are about to go.
This involves reading the other player’s body language in order to make that prediction and commit to the tackle.
Take time to watch the ball and the player with the ball. Follow their movement and make a perfectly timed tackle.
19. Effectively Support the Attack When Needed
One quality in defenders that is not often talked about is the capability of supporting the attacking players when needed.
Sure, there will always be some defenders that stay back and are rarely seen in the opposition’s half, but the majority of defenders will be expected to aid the attack at some point during a game.
The best defenders will know when they are needed upfront.
This involves not just being aware of the team’s tactics in attack but also an awareness of where the other players on the field are at that moment and if moving into the attack is going to leave your team exposed in defense.
A defender’s first priority is defense and assisting the attack always comes second.
If the opportunity does come up either at a set piece or during the natural run of play then a good defender will rush to support the attack and provide an extra player to increase their team’s chances of scoring a goal.
Multiple defenders have scored aver 100 goals throughout their careers. If your interested, this article I wrote about defenders scoring in soccer will tell you much more about them.
Practical Tip: Work on your attacking skills
It can sometimes be too easy to spend all your time focused on defense when you should also be spending time working on your attacking skills.
Get together with some friends and start practicing your attacking skills. Or encourage your coach to give you and the other defenders on your team more time to work on this area.
When you find yourself in a goal-scoring position you don’t want to miss out on the goal because you hadn’t spent enough time practicing!
20. High Level of Fitness
Having the ability to keep operating at peak performance for the 90 minutes of a game requires an extremely high level of fitness.
Especially in those games that feel like everything’s moving at 100mph!
A good defender will be at peak physical fitness throughout the soccer season.
In pre-season, they will have worked hard to get to their top-level and between games, they will work on maintaining this level of fitness.
They know that in order to be the best defender they can be they need to be operating at the highest level of fitness they can achieve.
Practical Tip: Find a fitness plan that works for you
Pro soccer players have multiple fitness professionals working on their performance every week.
For most of us, this isn’t our reality or an option.
Because of this, you may find it helpful to use a fitness app such as this one (click on this link to go to their website) They have thousands of different workout options with more added all the time and will custom design a program to help you meet your fitness goals.
They also offer a free trial to start with so you can give it a go and see what you think.
21. Awareness of and Willingness to Work on Weaknesses
Although this is the last quality on this list, it is arguably the most important.
Unless a defender has the awareness of and willingness to work on their weaknesses they will never improve.
Those defenders who have become the best at what they do didn’t start at the top of the game. They had many areas where they needed to improve.
What makes the good defenders the best is that they decided to focus on these areas of weaknesses and turn them into areas of strength.
Practical Tip: Identify your weaknesses
Take the time to look at which areas you are weakest in.
Once you identify them you can then focus on working on them and seeing your all-round game improve.
This may take some humility and the input of other people that you trust, but discovering what these areas are will set you on a path of dramatically improving your game and making you into a much better player.
If this post has inspired you to get out on the soccer field and improve your skills then head over to my recommended soccer equipment page now to make sure you have the best equipment around to increase your chances of being the best player you can be.
Or to carry on reading, head over to this article I wrote listing the 17 qualities of a defensive midfielder, or this other article I wrote, that every defender should know about, providing an easy to understand guide to the offside rule.