Zones, Presses, and Youth Basketball Questions

One of the most asked questions that I receive is about zones and presses. Should they be allowed in youth basketball? The question is not as simplistic as many suggest.

Should presses be allowed? My initial instinct is yes, as it is part of basketball. I hate when I see players in “no press leagues” turn to the defense after getting a rebound and yell “no press” rather than dribbling or passing. Worse, players who throw the ball directly to a defender and then yell “no press.” I just don’t think a “no press rule” was instituted to protect the offense in these situations, and I find these occurrences to be annoying because the offensive player is taking no responsibility for his or her mistake, and there is no learning.

On the other hand, presses represent the embodiment of the Peak by Friday mentality, as coaches take advantage of the offensive player’s lack of strength to condense the space available. Younger players with less developed skills need more space and time, and presses take away that space and time.

Of course, youth teams struggle to score and get shots in the half-court because of the same lack of strength. Presses tend to create a full-court game, rather than a half-court game, and 10 players spread out over the entire court creates more space than 10 players in the half-court.

Zones have and same positives and negatives. Often, coaches implement a zone because of the Peak by Friday mentality – it’s an easy way to make it hard for the other team due to lack of strength and lack of outside shooting capabilities. However, in leagues that prohibit zones, many coaches clear out and have their best players go 1v1 to take advantage of their best players’ size, strength, speed, or skill. I don’t see how either represents the best interests of players.

When asked these days, my answer is simple: If administrators, coaches, and parents believe players are old enough to play full-court 5v5 games, they are old enough to play against presses and zones. The answer is not to legislate different rules. Instead, the answer to the question of zones and presses is to play 3v3, not 5v5.

For those who are against zones and presses, the reasoning is generally that players lack the strength and skill to play against the press or zone, and the defense overwhelms the offense and does not afford players an opportunity to develop. If that is the complaint, why play 5v5? Three-on-three games provide more ball contacts and more space and time for players to execute skills. Therefore, this is a better environment for skill development. If that is the goal, why tinker with the rules and allow players a crutch? Why not change the game? Why not make a positive change to create an environment that affords more development?

The other argument is that players do not learn to play proper defense if playing a press or zone. To this point, I’d argue that few u8-10 teams really develop good defensive principles because the concepts are above the understanding of children this age. When I coached u9s, several coaches and parents told us that we had the best defensive team that they had seen all season. We spent very little time practicing defense and never really talked about proper rotations and help defense. Despite ignoring these important components, we were very good defensively. What does that say about the teams who devoted tons of time to defensive strategy? We simply relied on children’s natural instinct, whereas many coaches try to change these instincts and control players. Three-on-three simplifies defensive understanding as well; most of our defensive practice occurred during 2v2 full-court games.

If the parent, coach, or administrator is unwilling to make the big change to a small-sided game, and insists on 5v5 play, why prohibit presses or zones? By playing five-on-five, you are implying that players are able and skilled enough to play 5v5 or you are saying that it does not matter whether or not players are skilled enough. Why modify the rules when modifying the number of players creates a more meaningful change?

Do presses and zones typify a Peak by Friday mindset? Often. Does prohibiting zones and presses prevent the Peak by Friday mindset? Hardly. Focusing on the press or the zone is misguided; the change has to be to the philosophy. Clearing and letting one’s best player go 1v1 is no better than sitting back in a packed in zone and waiting for the opponent’s errant shots. As long as winning is paramount in youth basketball, the specific strategies don’t really matter.

When I coached u9s, we pressed. However, we focused on developing players skills during practice. Pressing did not prohibit development. We adapted to the games and focused on developing skills within the players’ reach: ball handling, lay-ups, and defending on the ball. Other skills – specifically passing and shooting – were beyond the strength of the players, where as other skills – rotations, help defense, screens, etc. – were beyond their comprehension.

Pressing or our opponents’ pressing did not prohibit skill development or players’ improvement because we emphasized skill development at practice. While we coached to win, maybe too much, we did not allow our desire to win to prevent our players from improving. The philosophy and the emphasis, more than the specific strategy, had more to do with the players’ skill development.

If parents, coaches, or administrators are concerned about the effects of presses or zones, they should focus first on the philosophy. Presses or zones are not the problem; the Peak by Friday mindset or the lack of coaching experience/knowledge is the issue. We should work to change the mindset or provide more training to coaches. Playing 3v3 reduces some of the need for experienced coaches and helps to change the mindset, as coach’s strategies have less of an effect. Rather than debating the good or bad of zones and presses, young players should play 3v3. If they are old or skilled enough for 5v5, zones and presses should not be an issue.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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