Every team has a lock-down defender. When this player is in the zone, you can see it in his or her whole body. They get low on defense, their eyes seem to stare through the opponent, and they play suffocating defense on the poor offensive player they were assigned.
A lock-down player can make a good defense a great one. Neutralizing your opponent's best offensive player can wreck havoc on a game plan. So what's the secret?
Yes, you need natural quickness. Quick hands. Quick feet. A good feel for the game. But James Harden has all of these, and no one is calling him an elite defender.
The secret is the eyes
Elite defense requires great mental focus, specifically great defensive vision. This is true whether you are on the ball or off, but looks slightly different in each case. Either way, peripheral vision is the key.
Most people don't think "intense focus" and "peripheral vision" go together well, but it is absolutely what makes special defenders stand apart from the crow.
Lessons From an Arcade Game
I have only seen the Strike-A-Light (click link)arcade game once in my life, and it was at a corporate event. The game is simple enough: you have six buttons in a hexagon on each side of the table, and they light up two at a time. Whenever you hit one light, another turns on elsewhere. One player stands at each end, and you race to see who can hit more lights in one minute.
My friend's first impulse in playing this game was to look around to try to see the lights. It was hilarious - his head was moving so fast, scanning to find the next light, that I am shocked he didn't pull a muscle.
I tried a different approach: I stared into the middle of the hexagon (which, to be clear, is nothing). And I destroyed him. Final score: 121 - 58.
By focusing on the middle, and using my peripheral vision intensely, I was able to track all the movement happening at twice the rate he was. My friend, flabbergasted, asked for a rematch. I accepted, but told him to try my tactic. I still won, but it was much closer: 115 - 92.
Did you catch that? His score went up 50% in one round just by switching his mentality. I am sure if he had practiced a few more times he could have beat me.
But Defense Isn't An Arcade Game!
Not quite, but pretty close. When you play defense on the ball, you have to track a lot of things: the feet, the hands, the ball, the head. If you look at any of these individually you will get distracted, faked out, and left in the dust. But if you focus on the ball handler's hips you will suddenly find you can track the rest of the body in your peripheral vision much better
The same is true off the ball. You need to track the ball, your man, and the other seven players on the court. Where do you look? The same spot as Strike-A-Light: in the middle. Yes, it may be in the middle of nowhere: nothing in particular. But I guarantee you will be able to track the game much better. Fifty to a hundred percent better.