Is Zone Defense Bad for Youth Basketball?

Today I watched a video that vilified zone defenses and presses in youth basketball. Now, I am a man-to-man coach and played in man-to-man defense only leagues when I was young. However, as long as zone defenses are legal, I do not see why youth leagues should prohibit them or why coaches should be discouraged from employing them.

Before getting too deep into the argument, I suppose that I should frame the age groups. The video mentioned that zones should not be used before high school. Therefore, our conversation centers on u14s. Now, I do not even believe that players need to play organized basketball until they are 8 or 9. When players begin organized basketball, I believe that they should play 3v3 games, not 5v5 (more on this below), which is why I created the Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues. I do not see a need for 5v5 games until players are 10 years old or older, so the argument of zones or no zones has to do with the 10-14 year-old age group.

What is the argument against zones and presses?

Generally, coaches feel that zones and presses are lazy. Coaches imagine other coaches stationing five players in the key to force jump shots and protect the basket. Of course, this happens. I have heard of coaches who play a 2-3 zone defense and literally tell the bottom three defenders to stand on the block, in the middle of the key and on the block, respectively, and not to move. To prevent this type of lazy coaching, coaches vilify all zone defenses.

Of course, I also know coaches who play man-to-man defense and tell 1-2 players not to worry about their players (the weaker players) and concentrate solely on help defense. However, nobody suggests outlawing man defense because of this type of over-competitiveness.

Coaches believe that teams who play zone defense force young, unskilled players into outside shots which they cannot make consistently. They believe that presses benefit the biggest, strongest players who overwhelm young players who lack the strength to exploit the entire court.

To me, the answer is not to outlaw zone defenses. How does ignoring the problem (inconsistent shooting, lack of strength, lack of passing under pressure) help anyone?

The problem is one of spacing, which is easily fixed by reducing the number of players on the court. In top European soccer academies, players do not play full 11v11 games until they are 11 or 12-years-old. They start with small-sided games using a smaller field to encourage more touches for each player and to make the game more manageable.

In basketball, when a team employs a zone defense and packs in the defense against a youth team, it condenses the space. The offense cannot use the entire width of the court; well, it can use the entire width, but due to a lack of skill, the defense does not play the entire width. Of course, a team can do the same with man-to-man defense as well: if the coach knows that nobody on the opposition can shoot a three-pointer, his defender can back off several feet and play the passing lanes.

The answer is not strategy, but structure. Fewer players on the court opens more space for players to practice their skills. Fewer players on the court means more touches for each player.

The same is true for a press. Presses work against younger teams because players lack the strength to throw over top of the press. Therefore, the defense can shrink the court and put all five defenders in the back court. Of course, a team can do the same thing with a man defense too, especially with the press breaks that most teams employ. If using fewer players, there is plenty of space for offensive players, and the press cannot condense to space or overwhelm the offensive players.

Why is the argument against zones just semantics?

One cannot play good man-to-man team defense with understanding zone principles and one cannot play good zone defense without understanding man-to-man principles. For this reason, no youth teams play really good team defense.

Let’s look at a generic 2-3 zone defense (played well) versus a good man-to-man defense:

2-3 Zone

This is a very generic defense and a very generic play. However, in a basic 1-3-1 set against a 2-3 zone, the point passes to the wing and cuts to the corner. One of the top defenders (O1) takes the ball and the other (O2) takes the high post. The bottom outside defender (O3) takes the corner, the middle defender (O5) fronts the low post and the weak-side baseline defender (o4) helps in the middle of the key.

Man Defense

In the man-to-man example, the offense starts in the same 1-3-1 set and runs the point to the corner to create a strong-side triangle. The defense defends in the same manner as above, except different defenders defend different positions. O2 takes the wing; O1 follows the point to the corner; O4 fronts the low post; O5 takes the high post; and O3 helps in the middle of the key.

The basic difference between man-to-man and zone defenses is the way that the defense defends cutters (with or without screens). In man-to-man defense, defenders deny and follow cutters to a point and then deny or play help-side defense; in zone defenses, defenders follow and release the cutter to the next defender and then recover to their zone.

However, strong-side defense and weak-side defense remain largely the same. On the strong-side, someone defends the ball and a defender is responsible for a quick closeout to any perimeter players, while a defender typically denies any penetrating pass into the post (low or high), though some zones at the college level are designed to force mid-range jump shots, so they do not cover the high post too closely and concentrate more on the three-point line and low post, like many college man-to-man defenses.  On the weak-side, the defenders play with one foot in the key, two feet in the key or on the mid-line, depending on the amount of help defense.

Therefore, when the ball is passed to the wing, a player has essentially the same amount of time and space to execute a move against a good man-to-man defense as against a good zone defense.

Obviously, man and zone defenses and offenses can be far more complicated. However, if the argument is that the players are young, unskilled and inexperienced, would they be doing anything more than the most rudimentary cuts and rotations in man or zone? If a team has a sophisticated man or zone defense or offense with an u11 team, the coach probably is spending far too much time on strategy and not enough time developing general individual and team skills. Therefore, again, the problem is not zone vs. man, but strategy vs. skill development.

If man-to-man and zone defenses are so similar, what is the argument?

When coaches argue against zone defenses and presses at young ages, they make two arguments:

1) They argue against poorly taught or lazy defense, and they blame zones for this.

2) They argue against exploiting unskilled players.

Prohibiting zone defenses does not fix either of these problems. In fact, prohibiting zones could exacerbate the second problem. If zones are prohibited, it is tough to play good help defense. My team when I was young was often called for violations because we played help defense with a foot in the key, as most high school coaches teach. But, if outlawing zone defense, how do you differentiate between good help defense and zone defense?

Therefore, if you prohibit good help defense in the name of outlawing zone defense, the biggest, strongest player has a better opportunity to dominate single-handedly. The best player dribbles the ball up the court, beats his own defender and other help defenders are hamstrung or late because they are a step too far out of position because of the anti-zone defense rule. Therefore, he gets to the basket with ease and scores. On defense, it is easy to put the biggest, strongest player on the ball, teach the wings to deny everything hard and easily exploit weaker, unskilled players with man-to-man pressure.

As for the first problem, their issue is not with zones but poor teaching. I am also against poor teaching. However, I think that man defense can be as overwhelming and poorly taught as zones.

To fix these issues, we need to do two things:

1) Employ more age-appropriate games for young players;

2) Examine teaching methods of zone and man defenses without viewing zones as a four-letter word.

In the first case, if players are unskilled or lack the strength to play against a zone defense, they probably lack the skill and strength to play against man defense as well. The problem is not the defense, but the space. Young, inexperienced and unskilled players need more space and time to execute their skills. Therefore, these players should not play 5v5 leagues, regardless of the defense. Criticizing zones does not get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is a need to create more space and time for players and to get each player more touches so that every player can develop his skills so he has confidence when he moves to a 5v5 game, regardless of defense.

In the second case, we need those who oversee leagues to act more in a role of “coaching the coaches” than just administrating. League directors should assist coaches and encourage good teaching techniques. Zone defense is not the enemy – poor teaching is the enemy. We need to remember the difference. It is possible to play great zone defense and teach players many useful skills that they can transfer from season to season regardless of the defense that their next coach employs.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League<

11 thoughts on “Is Zone Defense Bad for Youth Basketball?

  • i think youth players should learn a little zone. There is nothing wrong with it. Another problem is uneducated/ inexperienced coaches dont know how to teach it correctly. There is never anything wrong with kids learning an aspect of the game. Some high school coaches play zone defense so why not prepare the kids a little for that.

    I dont like how some high school coaches try and manipulate what the younger kids should be learning. Especially when there are thousands of variable inbetween the the frist time a kid touches the ball until they get to highschool that. For example the kid your coaching may move to a district where a coach uses zone. This would give them an advantage in tryouts. Also how many coaches are coaches at the same school for several years? You cant try and and manipulate kids learning when you will be gone the next year.

    My biggest arguement for teaching a little zone is that the range of skill level of kids at the youth level is huge. I coach teams (5th grade) with 1st time players who cant dribble and need to get them in 1/2 the game with only 4 practices and find something that makes them feel successful. If I have a kid stand on the block in a zone he/she may have a better chance to establish position for a rebound. If this kid gets a rebound, I can make a huge deal out of it.

    I think coaches that let their talented star players score 35 points while the rest of them never touch the ball, is worse than a coach teaching some zone.

    The best coach will teach a little of everything to their players. some man to man, and all the diferent zones.

  • J.N.:

    I wrote two more recent articles that touch on the subject and relate to your points:

    1) This one is about the lack of time: However, to me, the lack of time means that coaches should not teach a little of everything to players. I think a youth coach is better off simplifying and focusing on doing a couple things well.

    2) This one is about the question of whether to play zones: Basically, I don’t think it should be a question; if you’re worried about the effect of zones or presses, you should be playing with less people, not trying to figure out whether to use no zone or no press rules.

  • Zone Defense is a FOUR letter word in Youth Basketball.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said however I believe much of the argument against ZONE defense is completely overlooked and/or not understood. If I only have part of a story and am left to judge it, I am likely to misjudge the entire story, yes?

    I’ve spent the last two years researching the reports published by Michigan State University in 1993, 2003 and 2013 that studied Participation and attrition in Youth League Sports. I’ve also studied Youth Sports Psychology and Childhood development during the same time frame. I’ve been apart of youth league sports as a player parent and a coach since 1972. Forty years of doing things the way most have taught and believing it was the right way. But what I have found is that we all collectively are missing a huge piece of the puzzle with youth sports. Based on what I now know ZONE defense is killing the game of basketball.

    ZONE is a Strategy Focus form of def. While Man to Man is a Skill development focused form of Defense.

    The argument that a player could beat his defender then have an uncontested shot suggest that we should sacrifice the skill development of all, for the ability of one simply because he/she could exploit another one. Basketball isn’t about one or two players its about everyone on the team. A double team on mister domination will slow him down and if not then there is no reason to believe that this same kid couldn’t easily find the weakest player in a zone and dominate him as well or breakdown a 2-3 zone. Still we are thinking about the one kid who has skills and not the ones who need theirs developed. 80% of youth playing basketball will stop playing and never return to the sport by age 12. Why? Because its not FUN to Stand on defense with your hands up hoping the ball will bounce your way, so that you can catch the rebound and have your coach jump for joy. It’s not FUN to run back and forth never being involved in the real action. It’s not FUN to feel too weak to shoot from the distance required to get off a shot. It’s not FUN to be constantly double or triple teamed causing nervous poor technique resulting in repeated turnovers. For most players playing against a ZONE they feeling during and after is it’s too hard to score, too easy to lose the ball, too hard to pass against. Every Offensive skill that requires time and practice to develop is nearly impossible to perform verse such an advance Defense. With such difficulties its hard to find positive acknowledgment. Which brings me too what JN replied.

    (for JN who replied to this article) If you need to wait for an unskilled player get a rebound so YOU have something to to make a huge deal about then your focus is off. Your understanding of why kids play basketball is incomplete. Kids play basketball to score! PERIOD! I have only met in my 40 plus years in Youth Basketball, maybe half dozen young kids of the thousands I’ve coached, that have said they didn’t want to shoot the ball and that they really only like getting rebounds. Believe me that kids who you are cheering for a rebound would much rather drop in a bank shot.

    Furthermore, I practice making a huge deal for many thing. Such as; proper stances, Good passes and catches, Setting picks, Hustling, Communicating with the teammates and every other thing that is happening away from the person with the ball. 9 of ten on the court will not have the ball, they need to be doing something and what that something is needs to be recognized, acknowledged and rewarded. Because that’s what 7 to 12 year old, concrete operational age kids want, need and respond to.

    ZONE def. makes skill development for the offensive players a near impossible task. Smaller less skilled players have the ball swatted away, stolen by the web of hands in a zone. In essence its three or four on one with so many bodies are so close together. This is very frustrating for a child, AKA not FUN. Their self esteem is damaged as they realize that they aren’t strong enough to take a perimeter shot, not skilled enough to dribbling past several defenders or pass through the web of arms. Everything the worked on in practice fails and it fails on display in front of family and friends. This is demoralizing. If You kill their spirit you lose the kid.

    Zone defense is a GREAT defense. Even weak, slow moving, less skilled players can play it effectively to some degree because of its strategic design that places players close together making helping out easy and interior shooting very difficult. It also helps with boxing out and def rebounding. It focuses on only allowing outside ranged shots and reduces the opponents chances of getting a second shot due to coverage of bodies around the board.

    OK so don’t need to tell you about ZONE def and its ease to teach and execute. Nor about the difficulty it is to score against. But thats the problem.

    It’s easy to teach, so coaches teach it. It’s effective so coaches like it. But youth league sports isn’t about pleasing coaches. It’s about developing kids and keeping them involved in sports.

    From the kids perspective it’s hard to score, it’s hard to pass around and through, it’s hard to dribble through. Yet most kids don’t have the strength, the handles or skills to drop 3’s.

    Why is it we choose to make things easy for the coaches yet hard on the kids?

    Man-D isn’t easy to learn, it isn’t easy to teach but if you want a good zone defender he/she should first be a good Man-D defender.

    Yes Man to Man with kids looks a mess. Confusion with matching up but it forces them to communicate to each other. Communication is a necessary skill to develop. It keeps their heads on a swivel, developing more court awareness. Man-Defender have to chase players around the court developing agility, quickness, and reactionary skills. The mess is a blessing because while they are working on the difficult task of learning MAN to MAN defense, the lesser skilled players on offense will have opportunities to be unguarded for uncontested shots or easy chances to dribble/drive to the basket. Resulting in higher scores and more players scoring. More positive feelings of accomplishment as they achieve the primary goal of basketball which is to put the ball in the basket.

    I’ve coached in leagues where zones were not allowed and there are fun to watch, high scoring. Lots of kids from each team get shot opportunities, they all feel like they are a part of the action because they all get chances to shoot which is FUN. And that’s really what its all about. Making it fun for the kids and the parents who will deal with their child’s emotions after the game is done.

    Man allows coaches to match players up with equal skilled players making FUN challenges for everyone. Two unskilled players battling it out is just as FUN for everyone as watching two skilled players going at it.

    Zone makes it so that the most skilled can find the least skilled defenders to play against creating mismatches. Again that’s strategy and/or coach focused ball instead of player focused skill development ball.

    So all in all, playing Zone with kids has few if any benefits for kids and nearly of of those could still be taught with Man D. The positives help the coach not the child since it’s Zone is Strategy based. While the benefits of playing Man-D are far more suited to Skill development for the kids and perhaps more difficult to teach and manage during a game for a coach.

    I choose the kids ease of learning over the coaches difficulties!

    ZONE is for advance skilled kids who have good Man to Man skills.

    Zone vs Man, is like Crawling verses Running. It’s not a choice it’s a level of advancement. Basic math vs Geometry. You don’t teach geometry to children who have yet to master basic math then Algebra, that’s nonsensical. Yet, it’s this illogical policy of teaching Zone before man that is debatable??? Really?

    Imagine if we did this with the math example, Kids would flunk out of school at rates that would equal the attrition rate of kids playing youth sports. A drop out rate over 70%.

    So we should stop teaching and playing ZONE until kids are Mentally mature enough, physically skilled enough to it play it if there is any hope of improving on the current, horrible and embarrassing drop out rate.

  • As I have said repeatedly, if children have that hard of a time scoring against zone defenses, the answer is to play 3v3, not to eliminate zone defense.

    If you want children to score more, playing 3v3 gives each player more opportunities to shoot and score (McCormick et al., 2012).

    To be a good zone defender you have to know man. Agreed. To be a good man defense, you have to be a good zone defender.

  • Hey Brian, thanks for the reply. Let me try to better explain what I mean. First of all I completely agree with 3 v 3. In fact for my first level developmental kids I start with 2 v 2. I also match kids based on ability to face off with each other. I start with Naismith rules of no dribbling (another curse of basketball in the sense that coaches focus too much on the complex skill too early. Certainly a topic of another discussion). Once certain skills are mastered then 3 v 3. Like many I too believe we should play 3v3 until kids demonstrate they are at the formal operational stage of development (typically 13 years and older). However logistically this creates issues the supply and demand. Youth coaches, qualified youth coaches are few while kids signing up for sports are many.

    Kids want to play not sit on a bench waiting to get in. 5v5 allows for 10 kids to play all at once. With 3v3, six player squads are perfect but if you have 60 kids wanting to play you suddenly have to accommodate ten teams verses 6 teams. So logistics are a huge issue. Aside from that, yes spacing is better with fewer players and 3 person zone would be easier to penetrate than a five player one.

    I think the issue I have with you saying that a good man defender you need to be a good zone defender is two fold. First the reality is man d individual, zone d individual and team def responsibility aka the helping out def you referred to. The skill sets in a zone are more in tune with team defense due to the proximity of the defenders and the ease for which help can occur. (Get past the guard there is a forward to deal with) while man can create clear out situation for one on one opportunities that never happen with zone.
    So if you are referring the skills of team play within a zone being needed needed to be good Man to Man player then Yes I fully agree. But if you suggest that the strategy which creates difficulties for the offense which zone does is needed for majority of kids under 13 years of age then I will turn to the published reports done by universities, child psychologist pediatricians and many other well respected websites and coaches as well as the polls that blatantly express why kids quit playing sports for evidence along with my opinion, whatever my 40 yrs of experience is worth, to respectfully yet full heartily disagree.
    The word Zone, perhaps Symantec, is were the issue is as I believe to be the problem. You can teach good man technique to a zone player, yes, of course. The team def, the help out def, which is easier to teach in a zone can also be taught in Man-d. So with that understanding why teach zone? If I can learn to play positional man, switch off man, deny man, sag man, tight man. Double team and ball or team def from man-d why teach zone with its short cuts and limitations?

    Kids come to play basketball not some game called Defend the basket or zone ball. They come to dribble and shoot. Period. They don’t like to pass the ball the all scream for the ball to be passed to them. The only part of defense they like is stealing the ball so they can have the ball. It’s the basketball and the hoop that gets them excited most. Next is competition but not in the wind and loses we think of, no just the can I shoot over you and make a shot, or dribble around you to get a shot off, or steel the ball so they can do they other things I mentioned that’s it’s.
    So with competition you invite def. They want to play def that steals or gets the ball back to them quickly. Young kids have short attention spans, many of them will “Zone out” if they are not truly engaged. Man to man Def is very engaging. It’s like “Tag” or some other chasing game that kids love to play. Zone is not that at all. It goes against their natural instincts when you tell them to cover whoever enters your zone but stop covering them when they leave, too much to think about. Much easier for the kid to stick to number 3. Than to cover and release. Or as some coaches do “eyes on the ball move with in your zone based on movement of the ball regardless of players entering their zone” then of course their are hybrids of these. But they are far more complex than simply marking and sticking to that mark. Again what ever benefits a kid could get from zone could be taught with man-d and overall team def. (I make it a part of my fake package I teach the kids.
    Basketball is full of fake passes fake moves fake shots and fake coverages. Strategy delivered by the player. Skills that can be developed and recognized.) So if my kids can get what they need and want why teach what they don’t need or want? Why teach them something that gives them what they want and need that includes things that they don’t want or need?

    Why do we hold basketball up to a different level than other sports?

    We (youth league basketball) were slow to reduce the size of ball, slow at lowering the rim, still moving slow on reducing numbers from 5v5 to 3v3. Slow on changing rules, allowing 3 pt shots, that in-effect damages shooting form, why?

    Baseball has tee-ball then coach pitch, soccer reduced fields, balls, 6v6. Football has flag football, Volleyball lower nets smaller courts everyone gets to serve and rotate to play every position. It’s no wonder that volleyball participation bucks the participation and attrition trend of the other youth sports.

    Now to say if you still say that if a child can’t score they should play 3v3 but not eliminate zone after this distinction then I’d ask you to continue studying this because the evidence is way larger than space I have to write the arguments that even I’m aware of. Put yourself in the shoes of each and every child you coach. Why is he/she here? What is his/her dream? Will what you teach and play help them achieve that dream or will your methods turn that dream in a nightmare of frustration. Zone defenses attribute to the latter 3 person zone is easier but it’s still more frustrating for little guys with vastly different abilities than Man. Concrete operation kids 7-12 years old need easy rules fairness as best as we can make it. Older kids understand the more disciplined Zone they get roles and why there are important. Younger kids understand what you tell them and can even repeat but they don’t get the concept. So playing zone puts mental pressures on kids, that’s like asking them to write a non-plagiarized essay, not going to happen! These are “cut and Paste” people at this age. KISS the kids, keep it super simple. Zone KISSes the coaches not the Kids.

    So again just to clarify if you mean that zone should be taught because there are parts of a good zone defender that will make a man defender even better, I totally agree. What I’m saying is that most everything if not everything that represents a good zone defender that would make a man defender better can be taught fro a man defense/ team defensive model. Without the downside that zone brings to the table. Yes both have downsides, there is no silver bullet, to fix everything, a way to make every child the next Michael Jordan. But we can do things that will change every child’s experience of the game so that they will be more likely to continue playing after the age of 12. The game is simple, put the ball in the basket, kids are simple, in that they are mentally developing as well as physically growing. We adults should keep the game simple. Making a shot is challenging, I still play at 53 3-4 times a week myself. I feel good when I make a shot and bad when I miss. If I miss too many I get frustrated but I’m knowledgeable and mature enough to know that I won’t always be frustrated I won’t always miss. For a kid that 12-14, moving into formal operational age, they now can analyze and predict. They see the past experience of basketball and predict the same for their future. They quit! Still they are not old enough to have the perspective of potential change based on lack of experience as full grow adults can. Young teens make rash, hard often ridiculous decisions about their present and future. Knowing this, we should make the concrete years easier, more fun, less Win Win, more instructional with positive feedback. So in terms of basketball eliminating zone would help achieve that goal. Thank You!

  • Interesting. I would argue that passing is a more complex skill than dribbling. In fact, I’d argue that dribbling is the simplest skill in basketball. Now, making decisions off the dribble is different, but that involves passing or shooting too.

    As for 2v2, I don’t get to 3v3 until Level 3 of the Playmakers Basketball Development League. Also, in terms of participation and coaches, that is the benefit of a 3v3 league, in my opinion.

    Let’s take a local rec league: 6 teams with 10 players per team. Typical rec center gym, so two teams can practice at the same time (each has a half, or three baskets) and two teams play at a time. Let’s say the teams practice for 1 hour twice per week and play 1 game. That requires 9 hours of gym time and 6 head coaches. During games, half of the players sit on the bench and half play, meaning +/- 16 mins of game per player per week plus 2 hours of practice.

    In a 3v3 league, playing halfcourt (physical activity was the same in 1/2 ct 3v3 as fc 5v5 with freshmen boys, McCormick et al., 2012), you can use at least 4 baskets (sometimes 6). In one hour, 8 teams could play 4 12-minute games. Personally, I’d use 4-person teams, which means that each player plays +/- 9 mins per game or 36 mins per hour. To get all 60 players into 4 games would require 2 hours of court time, not 3, leaving an extra hour for more game or an extra hour of practice. Let’s play more games, meaning each player gets 6 games per week or +/- 54 mins of game time. That leaves 6 hours of practice time, which can be divided into 4 90-min clinics. Assign 30 players to each one and each player attends 2 clinics or 3 hours of practice per week.

    So, in the same amount of court time per week, players get 3 hours of practice, not 2, and +/-54 mins of game time compared to +/-16 mins.

    As for coaching, at most, you need 4 total coaches: 1 per basket during the games. So, a need for 4 coaches, not 6.

    Also, what I see in rec leagues is 2 coaches know what they’re doing, 2 are okay, and 2 are just there because nobody else would volunteer. Why not let the 2 who know what they are doing do most of the coaching for all of the children, not just the lucky teams? So, put the 2 coaches in charge of the clinics and let the 4 assist.

    Players get more games, more court time, more shots, etc. and average out to better instruction.

    As for a clear out, as opposed to zone, what does clearing out, and forcing the defense to clear out with the offense, teach the offense or the defense? Why not just play a 1v1 league? A smart man2man team is not going to clear out; they will be in help defense, much like a zone.

    Again, I think blaming zone is simplistic. I don’t play zone. I have never taught a zone defense. I just do not think it is the greatest villain. Whatever reason that you have for eliminating zone defense, my answer will always be 3v3 or small-sided games (SSGs). Players are too small to play against presses? SSGs. Players aren’t strong enough to shoot against zones. SSGs. Players have limited skills. SSGs. Players want to shoot more. SSGs.

    I just think that focusing on zones diverts the argument away from 3v3 vs 5v5, and I think that is the more appropriate argument developmentally.

  • Sounds logical in theory, but the reality is that most youth leagues I know of and all that I’ve ever been a part of court space and good coaches are rare. I coach a Developmental league of kids ranging in age from 5 to 9 years of age. I also coach an 8 and 9 year old team this season and have coached 10-11 and 12 and up teams in the past. In all my years I have only on one or two occasions got to practice on a full court with any of the dozens of teams I’ve coached in my 40 plus years in youth sports. I try to find a park with an open court to get in some transition, fast break plays but often that task is impossible. The indoor facility we use has 6 baskets, we have six teams of ten players per team with one hour of court time for each of our age groups or divisions as we call them. Going to a four man format, is logistically impossible for most if not not all the places that Im aware of. So what are leagues ,which I believe is the majority of youth leagues, to do when the half court idea is unavailable because court spec is already maxed out?

    To your point about two coaches knowing anything and the others just there because, well I agree that most youth league level coaches know little about how to coach to little kids. Most bring their college or High School experience with a copy of “coaching basketball for dummies” with them and call themselves coaches. Little kids don’t get the abstract training methods that these volunteers bring with them. I could write a book, in fact I have, on the problems with youth league coaching. Here the problem with your wonderful idea, If it were only so easy. Your typical volunteer coach volunteers to coach his/her own child. (85% of all youth league coaches coach their own child according to a Michigan State USA today nationwide survey in 2013 conducted with over 10,000 kids ages 5-14) They want to put their child in the best positions and play them most of the game and they want to win trophies. EGO EGO EGO , BIAS BIAS BIAS, is what we are dealing with. Getting these types of coaches to fall in line, set their egos aside and do the right thing is a wonderful dream. But in my experience it’s very very difficult. You will get a few but if you have over 200 kids at a YMCA wanting to play basketball from December to March what you end up with is that 85% number. Funny thing is that after this type of coach’s kid is done playing youth sports this type of coach stops VOLUNTEERING. So yes your idea of reducing coaches sounds great, I wish it could be that easy because even with the league I’m running with paid coaches getting them to put their EGO aside for the betterment of the kids has been impossible. There is something about this need to look good by winning games that won’t let these people see the bigger picture.

    Ok so you’ve never taught zone defense! If its not so bad why not teach it? It seems funny that you are defending something you don;t believe in enough to teach.

    Im with you 100% on SSG’s but there are supply and demand, egotistical and logistical issues as mentioned before that make this idea a slow snail in mud. Great idea if we could ever one on board. But with the money in youth sports focused on Feeder programs the demand will be with 5v5. Educating the public and getting the AAU, travel type programs on board both are monumental task. So simply answering SSG to every reason suggest that bigger picture realistic thinking hasn’t been applied. And so to the contrary, blaming ZONE is anything but too simplistic. But it is a simple way to solve some issues that many of these untrained, bias driven volunteer coaches bring to coaching.

    Lets talk about athleticism. Which player will become more agile, quick, fast and reactive? Which player will develop more endurance, explosiveness and stamina? A kid playing zone from ages 6 to 11, or this same kid playing man-d. The answer every time is the kids playing man. If we are wanting to better the chances of our players getting a shot at playing High School ball, developing a kids Athletic Abilities is as important and arguably more important that developing their fundamentals of the game. If given a choice most high school coaches will take a good athletic over an average athlete with good skills. Now there are always exceptions but general its harder to get a 14 year old with good fundamentals to become a great athlete than vise versa.
    Zone defense retards the true potential athletic development of a child. While Man maximizes it. Again Man is heavy on Skill development and Zone is light on Skill development.

    Poor untrained volunteer coaches, which make up the bulk of youth league coaches, will play ZONE. Why? because its easy for them anybody can open any “how to youth coach” book and point their players to the blocks and elbows on the court and say: “go stand there!” Another WHY? because in general it limits the number of potential scorers from the opposition. As you have answered with the SSG comments, I.e. players too small, limited skills, etc… The results are that the other team doesn’t score that much. So to the untrained eyes of onlooking parents and the coach his defense is awesome! Way to Go Coach! If we could only fast forward five years to show all these parents that 8 out of ten their children no longer like basketball because of rules and behaviors of the league and the coaches.

    Lets talk untrained volunteer coaches and the strategy they use with zone. I have on my team three pretty good range shooters the other 7 guys either can’t shoot even from the free throw line. But I could have my star drop in three 3 pointers take a 9 to 4 point lead then when facing a zone never attempt another shot. If the coach wants to pack in the paint so be it. Clock runs out, we win. Strategy right? However if Zone is not allowed, presses are not allowed, double teaming is not allowed as suggested by the guys at then this running out the clock strategy is harder to pull off. The untrained coach, the father of the star coach, that volunteer that stop once his child stops playing kind of coach will download apps like Sports plan with 100’s of plays, Subscribe to winning strategy blogs and websites. EGO will invite strategy, ZONE is a Strategy focused Defense. But if you take it away, then they will have to teach those players to match up and stick to the opposition keeping themselves between the basket and their MARK. They have to chase the cutters run all over the court and keep their eye and head in such a way that the peripheral vision expands and develops.

    As far as your question about clearing out. Why not play a 1v1 league? Really! I guess Im suppose to have 30 teams of two man teams with 30 coaches or your community coaching approach with Oh I don’t know what 20 half courts. Please! That’s why I’d like to keep this about what realistic and probable not wild or wishful.

    Dribbling as an easy skill? Passing more difficult? First I never made that distinction. Passing is difficult as well but passing is a common skill with many sports. Lots of b-ball players play football, baseball and other sports this frisbee that involve passing and catching. It’s a crossover skill. Though the mechanic are slightly different the hand eye coordination is virtually the same. The over head pass is similar to a sideline throw-in in soccer for example. However dribbling is unique to most sports. Handball has a bounce catch sort of dribble but how many kids play handball? So basketball will be their first and only attempt at mastering this type of skill. Yes dribbling is kind of easy if you are standing still but is that the reason we dribble? Besides most kids don’t use their fingertips properly or force-drive the ball. Their posture is typically all wrong off balanced and not suitable for effective movement. The act of dribbling isn’t for show. It’s should not be the default option that kids immediately
    jump to when in triple threat. It’s a process of moving the ball. The better faster way to move the ball is passing, period. Most players never master dribbling. Not everyone can be Chris Paul with the ball, but every NBA player passes and catches the ball, everyone! So I disagree that Dribbling is an easier skill than passing. Dribbling with your eyes up while focusing on player movement rather than thinking about the ball hitting your hand takes lots of time to master and some never get that skill down. But whether you and I agree on what is more difficult isn’t really important. What is important is developing kids the right way. In a way that they are able to understand. In a way that keep them wanting to play. A way that better meets the goals they have which is to shoot, score and dribble but mostly make baskets.

    I applaud you for only teaching MAN-D. You will likely have a much higher retention and participation rate than the national average. Of there are other coaching factors that play a huge role in kids quitting or remaining in sports but for what ever your reason you only teach man, a say bravo!

    We both have answers, yours is to play 3v3! I suggest that getting people to change basketball as most know it from 5v5 to 3v3 is difficult for the reasons stated above. I know because I’ve been doing it for a few year now, with great resistance. Im handcuffed to only using it in my Developmental program.

    My answer is eliminate ZONE! Because everything a child needs to learn about defense can be taught with man. Team D is team D a subset of either style. The problems that it creates for the development of athleticism, offensive skill sets along with strategic opportunities for ego driven volunteer coaches to LOOK good and win make it a much easier fix. No zone or technical foul, period! Games will be higher scoring more kids get chances to score etc.

    Yes much of these could be fixed with 3v3 because of spacing but a 1-2 or 2-1 zone is possible and if played would reduce the energy that a defender would need to cover the opposition. (athleticism)
    SSG MAN would be ideal because it covers everything but we have logistic and traditional issues to content with, So Doing away with ZONE until kids are mature enough, (around age 13-14) That’s the easier stronger long term and more practical solution.

    Thanks for the exchange, I appreciate your thoughts and the time you have afforded me! Have a great day!

  • There simply is too much to respond to.

    However, if you can teach all parts of defense through man defense, which parts can you not teach in a zone defense?

    I don’t teach zone defense because I’m not good at teaching it, and I think it’s easier to play against for offensive players. That’s my bias based on my playing experience.

    I worked with a 6th grade girls team this fall. In scrimmages, nearly every girl could dribble; almost none could complete a pass. The hardest part of dribbling is the pass to finish the dribble.

    I’ve never seen a zone defense played in a 3v3 game.

    Playing SSGs is the easier solution. It is done in every other sport: The best soccer clubs in the world start with 4v4; I taught a beginner’s volleyball league that was 4v4; football plays 7v7; rugby plays 7v7…

  • Interesting conversation. Good to read both sides

    I teach the 2-3 zone for my youth teams and they excel at it. In fact, my team this season is giving up an average of 6 points a game. 6.

    I teach them to play match-up in their zone and to trap in certain spots, depending on what I call. I also teach them how to play weak-side help, to talk to one another (call the ball), boxing out, shutting down the lane and run the break off the zone. I also will use a 2-2-1 half court press that can drop into the 2-3 if it is broken.

    So I disagree with people who complain about zones. I have tried every defense over the years and my 2-2-1 “Scorpion” dropping into an aggressive 2-3 is the best D I have developed.

    However, when the situation calls for it, I will run man and man/zone combos too. Therefore I agree teaching the skills to play both is important.

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