Defense Wins Championships Theory

We’ve all heard the cliche, “defense wins championships.” But is this actually true? I'm not going to do a statistical study to prove a point, but I will explain my theory why I think there is truth to this cliche. In theory, in most sports at least, offense and defense are equally valuable. You can’t win if you can’t score, and you can’t win if you allow the opposing team to score on every possession. So why do so many coaches believe in the “defense wins championships” mantra? They believe this because they’ve experienced it. We’ve all have seen championship teams that were defensively oriented. It doesn’t always happen, but it seems that defensively oriented teams defeat offensively oriented teams in championship games more often. The 2014 Super Bowl featuring the Seahawks (defensively oriented team) and the Broncos (offensively oriented team) is just one example.

In my theory, the reason why defense wins championships is related to fine and gross motor skills and pressure. In most sports, offense requires more fine motor skills such as throwing, shooting, and catching, while defense mainly relies on gross motor skills such as running and jumping. The difference between fine and gross motor skills is that fine motor skills require more confidence and relaxation to execute. These fine motor skills are stored in an athlete’s “muscle memory,” or subconscious mind. In order to allow these “instincts” to take over in games, athletes must stay confident and relaxed. If they are too nervous and tight, they will make more mistakes. On the other hand, gross motor skills don’t require as much confidence and relaxation to execute. Playing good defense mainly just requires the motivation to give 100% effort. Even if you are nervous under pressure, defenders are still able to run fast and jump high.

As most athletes have experienced, championship games come with a lot of pressure. They are the ultimate goal. Players work all year long for this one game. If you win, you feel great, but if you lose, you feel terrible. There is a lot on the line, so there is a lot of pressure. Compared to the average regular season game, there is a lot more pressure in championship games. Therefore, offenses are less likely to play up to their potential in championship games. During a regular season game, an offense may be very high scoring, but come the championship game, the offense may under-perform because they can’t handle the pressure. On the other hand, a defense that dominated the regular season is more likely to play up to their potential during a championship game because the pressure doesn’t affect them as much.

But both teams have an offense and a defense. Both offenses are equally impacted by the pressure of a championship games. So shouldn’t this impact be canceled out and not benefit either team? This is only true if both teams rely on their offense and defense in the same way. But it is not true if one team relies heavily on their offense to win games while the other team relies heavily on their defense to wins games. In this case, the team that relies heavily on their offense won’t play up to their overall potential as much as the team that relies heavily on their defense. 

For example, let's say offense and defense are equally valuable. Let’s say an offense and defense can each provide up to 10 value points, for a total of 20. An offensively oriented team may have averaged 9 out of 10 value points on offense during the regular season but only 5 out of 10 value points on defense. Let’s assume that the pressure of a championship game decreases an offense's performance by 25% but a defense’s performance by 10%. Using this math, this offensively oriented team will provide 6.75 value points on offense and 4.5 value points on defense. In total, this team scores 11.25 value points in a championship game. Now let’s compare this to a defensively oriented team. A defensively oriented team may have averaged only 5 out of 10 points on offense during the regular season, but 9 out of 10 value points on defense. Using the same math, this defensively oriented team will provide 3.75 value points on offense and 8.1 value points on defense. In total, this team scores 11.85 value points in a championship game. Their 11.85/20 is greater than the offensively oriented team’s 11.25/20, so in theory, the defensively oriented team should defeat the offensively oriented team in a championship team.

Furthermore, these assumptions involving this math problem may be too generous towards offenses. In can be argued that the pressure of a championship game actually improves the performance of defenses and has an even greater harmful effect on offenses. But anyways, this is the logic behind the theory that defense wins championships.

However, it is important to know the exceptions to the rule. Defenses don’t always perform well in championship games, and offenses don’t always choke under the pressure of a championship game. Sometimes, an offense is able to handle the pressure well and perform up to their standard during championship games. However, this requires great mental toughness that not every team possesses. In some cases, an offensively oriented team may be exceptionally mentally tough and not allow the pressure to affect their performance, while a defensively oriented team may not be as mentally tough, In these cases, the numbers in the math problem may be different. The offense’s performance may only decrease by 10% while the defense’s performance may decrease by 15%, so the combined totals would be in favor to the offensively oriented team. However, this is usually the exception, not the rule, but it is important to understand so you don’t automatically rule out the offensively oriented team’s chances to win.

Secondly, an offensively oriented team may be so good, that a 25% decrease in their performance won't even matter. If the opposing defense isn't that good, the offensively oriented team can still win despite the negative effects of pressure.

The point of this theory is not to start overvaluing defense too much. Both offense and defense are still very valuable. Truly great teams have both great offense and defense. You can’t just rely on either one. However, it is not always possible to have both a great offense and a great defense. A team only has so much practice time. Time is scarce. To develop a great defense, you often have to sacrifice time spent practicing offense, and vice-versa. This is even more true for professional teams that have salary caps. You can only spend so much money on offensive and defensive players. You need to budget. But using the logic behind the “defense wins championships” theory, it can be smart to purposely build a defensively oriented team. To do this, in practice, you can dedicated 60% of the drills to defense and only 40% to offense. Likewise, a pro team can spend 60% of their budget on defense and only 40% on offense. Depending on your sport and league, you can decide how exactly to split the pie. A 60-40 ratio may be better in certain situations while a 80-20 ratio may be better in other situations.

Comments