by Paul Cortes
Head Boys Varsity Coach, International High School
Director of Player and Coach Development, Bay City Basketball
At the ages of 14 and under, which is what is widely classified as “youth basketball”, I do not believe in set plays and zone defenses. Here’s why:
It is my conviction that basketball is, first and foremost, a game of decision-making. This is based on my countless hours of study in the scientific fields of skill acquisition and motor learning. The formative years of 14 and under are when the components of decision-making—perception and action, cognition, spatial awareness, anticipation, and so on—are most ripe for development. In one of my favorite articles on this site Brian refers to the sum of these components as the “speed of thought in sports”. To best develop this crucial decision-making aspect of basketball, it is my goal to maximize decision-making reps by committing to motion offense and man-to-man defense.
In motion offense, players are given principles of play but are given the freedom of choice as to how to execute those given principles. For example, one of our core principles is to move after making a pass. This can be utilized with a cut, with an off-ball screen, an on-ball screen, and so on. Those movements are taught in a progression as my teams advance in age, so that by the time players get to high school they have all been taught all the basic tactics of how to move without the ball. As they learn and apply these tactics, players might make mistakes and it can be messy at times but that is how they learn.
In man-to-man defense, players are given the responsibility of always guarding the ball and their man at the same time, when it is unpredictable as to where ball and man might go at any given instance. To guard both requires court vision, which is a term often applied to offense but not to defense, when on defense it is just as important. When placed in a zone defense I do not believe that players develop this defensive court vision that all great defenders have. It is something that, like motion offense, takes a long time to truly learn but pays off in the long run.
To both these last two paragraphs you might think, that’s great and all—but what about when those tactics aren’t working? When the motion offense is leading to turnovers and bad shots, shouldn’t we use a set play to generate an easy basket? When the man-to-man defense is leading to defensive breakdowns and open shots for the opposition, shouldn’t we switch to a zone defense to make it easier to stop them from scoring? Those are valid points. My counter is that when we struggle the most is our biggest opportunity for learning, When the motion offense and/or man-to-man defense aren’t working, it allows us to problem-solve and figure out how to get better at those things. At this age, I choose to commit to those opportunities for learning. With that commitment comes times where we’re willing to accept the short term loss for the long-term gain.
This brings us back to the idea of maximizing decison-making reps, which are often referred to in the skill acquisition field as “repetition without repetition”. The long term gain doesn’t take as long when the decision-making reps are maximized. In both motion and man-to-man, players are constantly making decisions and figuring out ways to attack the opposition on both ends. When youth players spend every moment of every practice and game working on motion offense and man-to-man defense principles, the learning process is accelerated. Using the games approach to practice increases decision-making reps and accelerates the learning process as well. That being said, it still takes time.
Teaching and learning motion offense and man-to-man defense isn’t easy. It can be hard for coaches to teach, it can hard for players to learn, and it can hard for parents to watch. But when it works, when it truly clicks, it’s also the most beautiful form of basketball for coaches to teach, for players to learn, and for parents to watch, because it is a sign that players have gained the skill and basketball intelligence necessary for players to be great players and for teams to be great teams. Then when they get to the high school level, if they know how to cut, how to screen, and how to pop/curl/fade/etc. off a screen, running a set a play will be easy. If they know how to match up, see ball and man, close out, rotate, communicate, and box out when a shot goes up, running a zone defense is easy. Those things are blocks of a triangle to be added later to the existing foundation on which we’ve chosen to commit to building in the formative years.
There are other fine coaches that do employ zone defense and run set plays, and some of those coaches do a fantastic job of implementing those things. I do not wish to judge those coaches or consider myself better than them just because I employ a different philosophy. All I can focus on are my convictions, my rationale behind those convictions, and committing to them because I believe in them. That being said, there’s a good argument to be made that putting in a couple simple set plays can’t hurt, and that throwing a zone defense out there every now and then is a good change of pace.
The reason why I still don’t do those things is because I don’t just want to players to learn how to play man-to-man defense, I want players to learn how to be great at man-to-man defense; I don’t just want players to learn how to play motion offense, I want them to learn how to be great at motion offense. To borrow a term from my favorite team growing up the Oakland Raiders, it takes a commitment to excellence to be great. So I choose to commit to that, 100%, even if it usually doesn’t appear excellent at first.
It is my belief that if I stick with it, and that if my players stick with it (some of their parents will take them elsewhere which is fine), by the time they reach the next level they will be great offensive and defensive players. Now if you think that it’s naive to believe that each and every player will be great on both ends as a result of this coaching philosophy, then by all means go ahead and call me naive, but by all means I’m committed toward reaching that goal. I challenge any youth coaches that are reading this to make that commitment as well.