Pressing and Skill Development in Youth Basketball

On another site, coaches discussed the merit of a no-press rule for pre-high school players with many different suggestions. The argument against pressing was the lack of skill development to handle the press (something that continues to the high school level).

This is true. But, I do not understand how it is true.

Now, at younger ages, when players cannot throw the ball the length of the court, teams can cheat and put five defenders in the back court to take away space and make it more difficult to break the press. For this reason, when I coached u9 boys and u10 girls, we used our bigger players to break the press because the smaller guards lacked the strength to throw over the top and relieve the pressure.

At younger ages, I understand the struggles to break the press to a certain degree. However, the discussion centered largely around 6th – 8th graders.

When I played, our league only allowed man2man defense. However, teams could use a zone press in the back court, so many teams pressed. We ran two different presses. I played point guard and I never felt overwhelmed by pressure. We had players who could dribble with both hands with their eyes up and players who could pass the ball, and we generally had no more trouble with a press than with half-court defense (incidentally, in our recent blowout victories, we’ve given up more points with our press than our half-court defense, as most teams cannot get off a good shot against half-court man defense).

I never played organized basketball until 5th grade, and we played only 20-24 games per season from 5th – 8th grade. However, we were able to handle a press. Today, children start organized basketball at 6-years-old and cannot handle a press by 8th grade. What is wrong with this picture? Why the rush to organized basketball if skill development appears to be receding, not improving?

There are reasons to explain this: defenses areĀ  more sophisticated, children are more athletic, etc. However, at the high school level, we run one press and teams struggle against it. When I was in 6th grade, we ran two different presses plus played full-court man, so my high school team is less sophisticated than my 6th grade team.

I am not a huge proponent of pressing at early ages because the defense is ahead of the offense, and it does hurt some players’ confidence and make for some uneven contests. Of course, I also believe young players should play 3v3 and not 5v5 for the same reasons – younger less experienced players need more space to make moves and play the game and 3v3 offers the space and more touches for all players, not just the star.

Also, some teams that press spend all their time practicing their press, engaging in the Peak by Friday mentality rather than preparing their players, teaching them how to play and developing well-rounded skills.

However, the coaches who complain about the pressing teams need to focus more on developing their players’ skills. Now, in tournaments, sometimes there is a big discrepancy in ability levels. Playing half-court defense does little to solve these discrepancies. If competitive balance is the goal, tournament directors and coaches need to do a better job of creating more equitable competitive levels. Once within the same ability level, coaches need to teach skills so players can handle a press.

In our last game, our opponent called timeout and went to a 2-2-1 press, a press that we have not faced or practiced against all season. I had to get two players’ attention because they had set up in our half-court offense. Once I told them to look down court, they filled the right spots. We broke the press with four passes and two dribbles and finished with a lay-up and a 15-foot jump shot. Our opponent quickly took off the press.

We were not bigger and faster than the other team. We work on passing, cutting and pivoting every day in practice in general drills so that players can adapt to any defense. We talk about spacing and angles every day because most of the top teams rely on presses to win at this level. We are prepared for a press because we develop these fundamental skills in every single practice (in our first scrimmage in October, we could barely get the ball across half-court against a press because we had practiced only 4-5 times before we scrimmaged a top team).

I have mixed feeling about the no-press rule. However, if the argument is that we cannot press because it impedes fundamental development, as some argued, I disagree. With beginners and very young/small players (who should be playing 3v3 anyway), I would disallow a press. However, by 8th grade, players should have enough strength to handle a press if they have developed their fundamentals.

The argument should not be whether or not to press, but how to eliminate the Peak by Friday mentality in the league, whether a team presses or not.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

2 thoughts on “Pressing and Skill Development in Youth Basketball

  • I just had a game where my boys team was down by 18 pts. The league and referee told the other team not to press my team out of sympathy. Here is my problem with that philosophy; as you stated in your article my team has a better opportunity to score off a weak press than a set half court defense. Also, this is really counter intuitive in that they will never learn the pressure of having to recover of a big lead. What are your thoughts? My league is U14. Middle school ages with some elementary kids.

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