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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?
- 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.