The other day I read a nice article on Coach Enbom’s Blog about his thoughts on playing zone defense in youth teams. Among coaches there are different opinions about whether playing a zone defense at this age makes sense, when coaching young teams, say age 16 and under.

What comes to mind at first, when you hear about a zone defense is, that five players line up in the paint and try to defend it from their opponent. Here in Germany playing the zone is prohibited by the federation until players move to the 18U league.

Among coaches there has always been a debate about using the zone defense over man-to-man defense (M2M) on younger levels. Basically there are three standpoints:

1.) Coaches, who use zone defense.
2.) Coaches, who endorse M2M instead.
3.) Coaches, who are open to either concept.

My position
My standpoint is, that being able to play the zone defense is an important tactical repertoire in the skill set of any good basketball team. But, I totally agree when Johan when he says, that a zone defense should not be used for the sake of winning youth games.

What commonly happens is, that coaches in youth leagues apply a zone defense for quick wins. This is because young players can’t shoot too well from the outside, so the defending team doesn’t have to move to much, while being on defense. The disadvantage is, that you teach your players to play stationary. In my opinion, this is not the way we should go as coaches. It should be our goal to win by skill, not by exploiting physical weaknesses in this way and on this age level. Help your players to be a vital part of the program in the upcoming years and seasons. Let’s put our players in a position, where they can be successful in every aspect, not just defined by a won game.

I try to develop players by using their talents & strengths, and by working on their weaknesses, so every team member can contribute to the effort. This is what team sports is all about and from experience I know, that too many coaches look at quick wins for short term success, and most often they teach the zone defense while neglecting the M2M fundamentals.

When I would apply a zone defense
I coach a senior womens basketball team and we have since been playing a zone defense most of the time. Based on the talent I had in the team at that time, playing the zone defense fit perfectly into the concept. When I took over the program, the average age of my players was roughly in the mid or end 20s, so bringing an uptempo style of game, especially in defense, was a great challenge and took a lot of time to implement. As more and more younger players joined the senior team from their age levels, there was a change in the way we played basketball.

In the end of the first season three new players joined our team, which where quick and had good footwork skills. This enabled us to put a lot of defensive pressure on our opponents and moved our game to a new level.

In games, we usually start off by playing straight M2M. I feel, that by having a direct player to guard, the responsibilities are clear and it allows us to control the game a bit more. When we want to change the speed of the game from time to time, therefor we play zone defense inbetween. Also when playing big teams we usually play zone, so we can take their most important scorers out of the game by double-teaming and rebounding.

During practices I mix zone and M2M defense from time to time. This helps my players to make use of our offensive systems and teaches them to switch from different

Why I would teach M2M defense first
There are a few reason to teach man-to-man defense first:

Footwork:
Being able to play great defense, no matter if M2M or zone, players will need to have great footwork. You can’t play defense without moving your feet properly and I feel, that when you have mastered the M2M footwork in an efficient way it will be a lot easier to make the switch in playing zone defenses successfully.

Pressure:
As mentioned earlier I think that teams, which put pressure on the ball 40 minutes per game, will outplay their opponents easily. Offensive decision made under pressure will force the opponent to make mistakes, which we can benefit from. Controlling the tempo of the game will put you in a right direction for winning the game and I feel with M2M we have the right tool to do so.

Teaching M2M early will plant the right (aggressive) attitude to applying fullcourt pressure in press defenses.

Help-Side game:
In the 1st divion European basketball league there have been changes made to the court. Mainly, the 3pt-line has moved further away from the basket, and at the same time the shape of the zone has changed. In the past it was shaped like a trapezoid, now it is rectangular, like in the NBA.

For the defending team this means, it has to work on more space, with the same number of players. The offense moves closer to the basket near the baseline, and at the same time the help-side has to be quick to defend the shot from the 3pt-line.

Those of you interested in reading about the impact of the new court and the rules, please read this article. It summarizes the thoughts of Svetislav Pesic, one of the most respected and successfull coaches in European Basketball. It is a great read!

By constantly using the help-side concept correctly when playing M2M, the players will easily adapt to the help-side style of play in zone defense.

Conclusion
My tendency is to use man-to-man defense when teaching young players to get the right fundamentals in places. Once the fundamentals are mastered to a certain degree, why not work on from there? I think it is a matter of philosophy, but not only. As a coach you should apply what suits your team best and puts them in a good position to win games, based on skill and effort.

There are many things to consider when chosing “your” defensive style, but don’t limit yourself to a certain style because it is “what has always worked”.

[info_box]Picture credit: JMRosenfeldCreative Commons Attribution[/info_box]
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