What Is The Right Age To Focus On Wins and Losses and Start Playing Zone?

By Joe Haefner

On a page where we discuss defense at the youth & junior high level, I recently received these two questions from a junior high coach:

Do you believe there is an age where it is appropriate to play a zone?

Is there an age where you should start playing Win-Loss basketball?

These are very good questions and these are the conclusions I have come to:

Conclusion #1 – Zones should NOT be allowed until the second half of the Freshmen year in high school (typically 14 to 15 year olds).

Even at the junior high level (12 to 14 year olds), I’m very skeptical of playing zones for development purposes. Some coaches may argue this, but when I coached at the high school level, I dealt with so many kids that played zones at the lower levels that formed some terrible habits. We would spend entire seasons just trying to break bad habits that were formed by teams that trapped, played zones, junk defenses, and pressed when they were at the youth level. Sometimes, we never could break the habits.

When I was coaching a freshmen team, we scrimmaged against another team in the area that was in a league that did not allow teams to play zone until the second half of the season. I thought this was great.

  1. Coaches get to spend more time on the fundamentals and building the player’s foundation, because they don’t have to worry about preparing for zones, presses, junk defenses within the first 10 practices.  Without a solid foundation, it doesn’t matter what you do, you are not going to be as successful.  
  2. Coaches are forced to teach man to man principles before they go unto zone defense. So many coaches skip man to man principles and go straight to zone. As skill level and strength increases, these zones are ineffective because they don’t know man-ball principles, can’t stop the ball from dribbling by them, and some other bad habits (swarming the ball, going after every steal, etc.) that helped players get more turnovers at the youth level do not work anymore.

In other words, the zone that works at the youth level and junior high level won’t work at the high school level, because an effective zone defense at the youth level is not an effective zone defense at the varsity level for reasons listed above.

Conclusion #2 – I believe Win/Loss basketball should start around 7th grade (Age 13).

However, I think it’s a much lower emphasis on wins and losses than a high school varsity team. Your focus would still be on the developmental portion.

When you get to high school varsity, is when I believe that it truly becomes a win-loss philosophy. At the same time, some years you may be a better zone team, but it’s still a good idea to teach man to man defense, because you don’t want to have a player that doesn’t make it at the college level because he doesn’t know how to play man to man defense. It could literally cost them thousands of dollars through scholarships.

If you focus too much on the win-loss at youth and junior high level (and some would even say the junior varsity level), it could be detrimental for different reasons:

  1. Undeveloped kids don’t develop because they don’t get any playing time. That’s why it’s key to get everybody fairly equal playing time. You have no idea who is going to be the best when they get older. A 5’10 kid who already matured may dominate now, but the 5’8 skinny kid who hasn’t hit puberty yet and grows to 6’8 by the time he is a senior may be the best chance for success as they get older.  How is he going to get any better if he’s not playing?
  2. Tactics that work at this age (organized presses, zones, traps) won’t work at higher levels, because the foundation (fundamentals) has not been developed. On average, these presses are NOT run correctly. They just swarm the ball and the player that is 1 pass away, because the players are not strong enough to throw down the court and have not developed the ball handling skills to quickly react.

The truth is that COACHES and PARENTS are WAY more concerned about winning than kids under the age of 13. Most kids just want to play. They want to have fun. They are thinking about their own little world, not winning. And even if they think about winning, it’s not nearly as important to them as it is you. By the time, the game is over, they are just thinking about where they will get some pizza. Kids move on really fast. But parents and coaches dwell on the loss for days and hours. That’s too bad.

Trust me. A high school coach would much rather have you work on fundamentals and build a great foundation. If they have a great foundation, it’s relatively easy for them to throw in an effective trap, press, or zone. Not the other way around.

High school coaches please leave your comments on this as well, so youth coaches understand your perspective as well.

Why It is Good to be a Salesman When Coaching Basketball

By Joe Haefner

If you have ever coached, you know that if the team doesn’t believe in what you’re trying to teach them, you’ll never be successful.

You have to convince your team and SELL to your team the coaching tactics and philosophies that you are trying to incorporate.

For example, I’m a big believer in rebounding and lowering turnovers. When trying to stress the importance of rebounding and lowering turnovers, I take my players to chalk board.

First, I put up on the board.

44 to 38.

Assume all shots are worth two points.

Team A – 35% Field Goal Percentage.

Team B – 45% Field Goal Percentage.

Then, I ask the team, “Which team do you think won?”

Usually, the team will respond with Team B. Some may say Team A. I don’t reveal my answer yet and continue on.

Next, I write on the board:

Team A – 15 offensive rebounds & 9 turnovers

Team B – 3 offensive rebounds & 17 turnovers

Team A – 32 extra possessions (15 offensive rebounds & 17 forced turnovers)

Team B – 12 extra possessions (3 offensive rebounds & 9 forced turnovers)

I pause for a second, then write on the board: “32 – 12 = 20 extra possessions for Team A in which they got a shot.” Then, I begin to write the following.

Team A took 62 shots.

Team B took 42 shots.

Team A – 62 shots X 35% FG = 22 made shots & 22 x 2 points = 44

Team B – 42 shots X 45% FG = 19 made shots & 19 x 2 points = 38

Then, I circle Team A and say, “Even on a bad shooting night, Team A won the game, because they rebounded the ball and took care of the ball.

Of course, there are other factors such as fouling, 3-point shooting, free throw shooting, and so on, but you want to simplify things to get the point across to your players.

If you can use examples like this and sell your tactics and philosophies to your players, they will be more like to work hard at the things you focus on, because they understand why you emphasize the things you do.

Are You Spending Enough Time on 1-on-1 Defense?

By Joe Haefner

I hear so many coaches say, “My defensive help is great, but I can not seem to get my on-ball defenders to stay in front of their man.” I’m not going to lie. I’ve said this, too.

Think about it.  If your on-ball defense is below average that means your constantly playing the game 4 on 5. It doesn’t matter how good your help defense is, it’s going to eventually break down, because you can not play the game 4 on 5 and plan to be successful.

So why does this happen? It’s not like you don’t teach your players how to guard the ball.

1. It all goes back to what you emphasize.

Personally, I found myself drilling 1 on 1 defense, but never really emphasizing it during scrimmages and other drills. I was always concerned with the help defense. If the defender got beat off the dribble, my first reaction was “Where is the help?” In reality, I should’ve been holding the on-ball defender more accountable.

I also found that my 1 on 1 drills weren’t competitive enough. I would do some full court 1 on 1 stuff, but I never really applied drills with real game-like situations that would occur in the half court defense. I didn’t use any drills that would make the defender really stop the ball in a half court setting.

2. Players have a sloppy defensive stance and/or defensive slide.

A lot of coaches forget to spend time teaching and correcting a player’s defensive stance and/or slide. If you have kids off-balance and/or they don’t know how to move properly, your team defense will suffer as well.

The defensive stance is the starting point. Once the defensive stance looks good, you can focus on your players slide defensively. Make sure to spend some time every week breaking down the stance and the defensive slide until your players can recite everything back to you about the defensive stance and slide.

Besides, using your typical 1 on 1 defense half court and full court drills, you can use some of these competitive 1 on 1 drills.

One on One Moves Drill

Top 1 on 1

Wing 1 on 1

These drills were written with the emphasis on improving offense, but with a tweak here or there, you can make it defensive oriented. For example, allow the offensive player to take a few extra dribbles.

If you would like to learn how to build your defense from the ground up, check out our Man to Man Defense System.

It doesn’t matter if you have short and slow or tall and quick players. We break things down and will show you what type of defense is best for you.

Four Great Ways To Keep Your Team’s Attention

By Joe Haefner

Want to get your player’s attention or find a useful way to handle large groups of kids at practice or camps? Having problems with kids messing around during practice? Check out the tips below.

Many coaches struggle keeping their player’s attention throughout practice, especially at the youth level because they have really short attention spans and brains of younger players are actually designed to get excited and hyper even if they don’t want to. They really can not help it, so it’s a bad idea to punish them.

Here are some ways to keep their attention and keep practice flowing smoothly:

1. Keep lectures short (2 minutes or less). If you lecture any longer than this, most kids will be in “lala” land by then. And kids don’t come to practice to hear you talk the whole practice, they come to have fun.

2. Keep drills short and fun (half court – 5 minutes or less, full court – 10 minutes or less). If you stay on a drill for too long, it becomes monotonous and the kids lose interest.

3. Clap Method – You tell the kids at the very beginning of your first practice that whenever you clap, they have clap the same number of times you clap. You clap twice, they clap twice. Make sure to also tell them that this is time for them to listen.

You can usually get everybody’s attention after 2 to 3 sequences of claps and that only takes normally 3 to 5 seconds. Much better than yelling so much you can’t talk the next day.

4. Line Method – Whenever you blow whistle or yell “lines”, the kids race to an assigned line and sit down. You might have 5 lines of 6 or 3 lines of 3 depending on the size of your group. The team that lines up and sits down first wins. Congratulate them with some enthusiasm by giving them fist-pounds, high fives, and/or verbal praise.

I’ve seen both of these methods work in small practices and huge groups.

If you need some ideas for fun drills, check out our 60 Fun Youth Basketball Drills & Games.