What volleyball can teach us about zone defense

I play in a men’s league where virtually all of the teams, including mine, play zone defense. I never played zone defense at any level, as I played for strict man2man coaches. Also, this league isn’t very good. However, I noticed something when I entered the game for the first time. Our defense changed.

Our team, like most, is quiet. Quiet zone defenses are easy to play against because players have no awareness of what is behind them or outside of their peripheral vision. If a player does not keep his head on a swivel, someone is bound to cut into an open area, and the defender will be a step or more late.

I started our first game on the bench (first five to arrive start). The other team hit a couple three-pointers. When I entered, I played the top of the zone and pointed out the shooters on each possession. I shifted the zone accordingly.

This is a common practice in volleyball. As a team serves, the other players communicate and point out the hitters. With the liberalized positioning rules, the three front-row players do not always appear to be the three front-row players. The players point, talk and anticipate which player is going to hit in what position. The offense, of course, attempts to confuse the defense with different timing, different set locations, etc., so the initial anticipation is not always correct. However, by pointing and communicating, the players know who to watch and who the hitters are, and are not surprised by a player attacking an open net because she was stacked on the sideline and appeared to be in the back row or because she was off the net as a passer.

I naturally pointed out the shooters on each position and shifted the zone. It seems like an obvious thing to do. If the shooter was on the wing on my side, I told the other top player to take the ball. If the shooter went to his side, I took the ball initially. By shifting the zone, there was no long closeout to a shooter off the first pass (and since this league isn’t very good, that is often all it takes).

At the high school and college levels, coaches do more to get shooters open against zone defenses. However, the same approach applies. Players should point out the shooters and communicate. Players need to know whose responsible for closing out to the shooters at all times. This awareness, with the same players and level of intensity, makes a defense at least 10-25% better. Same players, same intensity, improved performance, just by taking one simple pre-play routine from volleyball.

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

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