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.


  1. Dan Chicorel — January 29, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Hi Joe -

    I subscribe to the site. But I wanted to thank you again for providing such valuable info. I’m new in the coaching ranks, steering my son’s 4th and 5th grade BB and I have many questions like these and a large learning curve of my own and this site gives me great guidance. Thank you!

  2. Omar Louis — March 10, 2009 @ 4:04 am

    Hey Joe,

    Thank you for including this article. Many of things you mentioned, I experienced firsthand. When I arrived in Kuwait, we had young men who couldn’t take three dribbles without kicking the ball off their feet. Fundamentals was a foriegn concept to many them. Yet in still, we faced Embassy schools who that although they weren’t exactly talented, benefitted from everyone elses inexperience. These schools would beat us unmercifully, often pressing us from the opening tip, until the final buzzer. Our staff decided then, that we were going to take our lumps early in hopes that perserverence will lead to later success. That success came nine years later with our first National Kuwait Championship. Two of things we stressed was a system that concentrated on strict man to man principles and a sound offense. From that point on, we have had great success. We also realized that many of the schools we faced, really haven’t progressed past the gimicky offenses and defenses that they were able to employ when our teams were inexperienced. I know I’ve written much, but I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of building a program that is built upon fundamentals and patience.

  3. David Goodrich — March 10, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    We have debated this issue for years and we have come to several conclusions.

    1. At the younger ages, man to man defense is very difficult because the athletes are focused on the ball and “spacing (ie-man/ball relationship)” is almost impossible to teach. In fact, most of the kids will simply chase the ball if given the opportunity.
    2. At the younger ages (or until the ball moves faster than the players can run), kids readily understand shapes and have difficulty with the “regular” nomenclature (ie- 122, 212, 131, etc).
    3. As an alternative, we have found that kids can play a “square” (box and one) and/or a “triangle” (triangle and two) very well.

    In the “square”, one player always plays the best player on the other team and the other four players form a square inside the key (as the coach, I have a sign with a square on it to designate).

    In the “triangle”, one player always plays the best player on the other team, another player always plays the ball (which leads to fantastic double teams on the ball when received by the best player on the opposing team) and the other three players form a triangle inside the key. You can play the triangle with the base toward the basket with two big people and inverted (base toward the foul line) with one big person (as the coach, I have a sign with a triangle on it to designate).

    Generally, we have found that the better players understand the zone and those players new to basketball readily understand the “and one” or the “and two” concept of the box and triangle, respectively.

    It has truly allowed all the players to feel like they are participating during the game (ie-what a responsibility to guard the ball and/or best player on the other team).

    Meanwhile, the more advanced players in the box or triangle can be taught the nuances of spacing/boxing out/etc. As they get older, we put in a modified “line” where two people (usually the better players) “stack and cheat” in the lane (since they now understand spacing) and the other three players play man2man on the opposing top three players.

    Since the better players are playing the zone, we can readily switch “on the fly” to man2man.

  4. Michael Kotsanas — March 10, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    Hi Joe,
    I have been receiving this newsletter for more than a year and have been implementing a lot of the information with a great deal of reward in the improvement of my under 18 team here in Melbourne Australia. We have just recently secured a spot in the elite competition in our state, and I tribute this success to the hard work of my team in taking on board this information and putting it into practice.
    So in short, keep up the good work in providing top level information.
    It is truly appreciated down under.
    Regards, Michael Kotsanas.

  5. nilesh — March 12, 2009 @ 11:11 pm


  6. Dave Thompson — March 15, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    I’m an assistant coach for a 6-8th team and handle the 6th-7th B team. I agree with your thoughts on teaching man to man first, unfortunately the league rule is just the opposite and no man to man is allowed until the 4th quarter or 8th grade. So how can I get these kids ready to play man? A match up zone?

  7. Joe Haefner — March 16, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    Hi Dave,

    That’s a tough one. You could always teach the man to man defense that you want them to learn in practice. Then, to get them to understand how they would want to play match up zone, run this overload drill: http://www.breakthroughbasketball.com/drills/basketball-overload-defense-drill.html

  8. Tom — March 17, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    Hey Joe,
    As far as man to man and zone goes, I believe zone should be played in the grade 6 and 7 levels as there is more focus on the ball as opposed to where your check is. I believe this is a fun time in b ball so the kids will want to play grade 8 and higher levels. This is when kids should be focusing on dribbling, shooting, passing and positioning both on offense as well as defense. Once they are in grade 8 they have had a couple of seasons under their belt and I find they adapt to man to man better.

    With wins and losses, I believe there should be a focus on winning and losing at grade 6. Not a huge emphasis, but at the same time, if these kids don’t start to understand the winning and losing aspects I find it hurts them when they get into playing junior b ball because the first 3/4 of the season they are more worried about their amount of playing time whether the team wins or loses as opposed to getting better or working harder in practise to get more floor time to help the team win.
    There is a reason why there is a provincial tournament at the Junior A level and it is because winning matters. You continue to develop in practise so you can ultimately win on the floor and in everyday life.
    For the schools such as the Juior High I coach at, for Junior A ball we have kids on the team from grade 8 to grade 10 because we are not a big enough school to only have grade 10s on the team so the lack of understanding at a grade 8 level from both players and parents can cause challenges for the team.

  9. DuWayne Krause — June 25, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    I contend that just because it is hard to teach/learn M-M defense at the youth level is a poor reason to play zone. I say it is time to learn to be a better teacher. Teaching/learning M-M defense is a long, slow process. Most coaches who play zone at the youth level do so to win. I also disagree with emphasizing winning at the middle school level. It has been my experience that emphasizing winning at that level hurts thier performance in the long run. Emphasizing winning tells players nothing about how to earn it. If you emphasize skill mastery the wins will take care of themselves, skill level will be higher, you will have more commitment and group cohesiveness will be greater. I contend that this is just as true at the high school varsity level as it is at the youth level. It has been studied multiple times and kids do not play sports to win. They want to win, but winning consistently comes in around 7th or 8th place as the reason kids plays sports. The play because they have fun at it, for the exercise, to improve skills, to be part of a group, etc. if you take care of these other things, which are far more motivating to most kids, the winning takes care of itself. It is us adults, living and dieing by the wins and losses, who mess it up for the kids.

  10. james — June 29, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    im really ultra competitive with all things and recently have just finished coaching a U14s rep side. I went into this year knowing that these kids have just started playing and learning, so ive had to curb my ultra competitive-ness and focus on their 100% or their best and never giving up, (in our last game, we fell asleep got down by 23 to come back and tie it at end of regular and lose by 2 in overtime)and not focusing on the wins and losses.

    they were told at the start of the season that they wouldnt win a game but defied that to come 4th and have a hellavalot fun along the way.

    We played man to man because they were the rules of the comp but i believe in man2man early on then zone later.. yes it maybe hard to learn – take the time, keep it fun and simple as possible and you will see results

    good luck coaches!!


  11. Darnell Almanzar — October 13, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    Thanks alot for this article. I was so caught up in preparing for this season. This is our first year of high school and I was thinking about winning so much to help put our athletics on the map. I do believe that I do have some players that can play college ball and I would not want to mess their chances up. This article was very insightful.

  12. Neil — August 25, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

    I have been coaching for 3 years now, and I come to the realization that you coach both defenses , and I worked with the kids to call out the defense they want to play at the time North Carolina is zone, husky was man to man, I tried to have them decide ie point guard decide when to use these defenses, and when to change. Kids enjoyed the responsibility, and learned how to react in different situations, like when the other team was taller, a Zone was called to help on rebounding, or when we were a quicker team we called man to really put the pressure on. I love the debate, cause there are credible points for both sides.
    In the end you want to teach the kids, and let them control what they are doing, and most of all have fun at it, cause if you cant enjoy what you are doing then its all pointless!!!
    Footwork, and communication can work in a zone, just has to be applied!!

  13. Joe Haefner — August 27, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    Neil, you’re definitely right that it is all pointless if they can’t enjoy it!

    Have you read our youth defense article?

  14. Scott — November 22, 2012 @ 5:10 am


    Love the site and philosophies.

    I am currently coaching a 6 to 8 yr old team in a 3 month season league (12 games). I am a first time coach and we started the first 4 games playing M-M because half the team was first timers and majority didn’t have the attention span to listen and learn the positions so we just decided it was easier to assign the player to guard and spend majority of the prac doing drills which you can imagine they needed badly. So right before every quarter, I’d have to look over at the other team and assign each kid someone to guard. Just wanted to know how everyone else did it. Keep in mind my kids are 6-8 yrs old and 5 of 10 are first timers.


  15. Eric — January 14, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    The youth programs need to teach the basics, ball handling, man to man, spacing….It then allows the varsity coaches to get in to the more technical side of things. Things are getting so technical now a days, if a player doesn’t have the basics down by the time he is a freshman, he is way behind the competition.

    As far as everyone playing, I have to disagree in a sense. Why do the ones that try hard, hustle and prove to be better, have to sit why the kid that doesn’t care plays just as much? It would be ideal to have teams with only 6-10 players. Then everyone could get playing time. The school where I am at, does not have cuts and only has one team. The seventh grade team last year had 21 players! Either everyone gets equal playing time and none of them learned anything, or the “better” ones play and the rest suffered. But I also agree you need to keep all the kids playing. Split up the teams. Even having an “A” and “B” is beneficial. No reason the “B” cannot play in a less competitive league. Out of the 21 players from last year, only 13 play this year.

  16. Mark — October 14, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    Love the article here. Am on a board for a rec league and we don’t allow zone before 6th grade. I have gotten a lot of pushback from parents and coaches to allow zones but have held my ground. Getting hard to do as so many parents want to win now w/ 1st graders vs teaching basics. My teams always start off slow as I only do basics & fundamentals at that age. By the end of the year, we are typically very competitive. I have also watched many of my former “kids” go on to playing feeder teams and high school. I have also noticed that my own kids often remember the one win we had was more memorable than other seasons where they won all their games. Keep it fun and make them want to come back.

  17. Coach A. — January 19, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

    Maybe Im missing something here I find it easyer to coach zone defense then man to man for 9-10 year old its help defense and we do well most kids that age are not physicaly fit to match up on to man to man

  18. Joe — January 20, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    Coach A, check out this article. It dives into the issue of zone defense at the youth level.


  19. Greg Reynolds — January 3, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

    I am supportive of kids learning fundamentals. I just wonder though if coaches stop to consider that we have nearly 100 kids playing youth basketball at a 6th grade rec and club level, but only a few of them will have a chance to play high school basketball. What about all those other kids? Wouldn’t they like to have a chance to have a winning season, experience the playoffs, maybe even be part of a championship team?

    We currently have 11 teams of 10 kids each, mainly due to lack of coaches. Each team typically has 2 strong players. Having 14 teams of 8 kids each with an upper and lower division would probably be preferable for the development of the players. But who would coach the lower division teams? It’s the parents with the stronger players who are participating and coaching the teams. Maybe the rec could hire coaches and charge the teams more that don’t have a coach? Or we give up on rec and just put the better kids in club which is common here. Even with better players the club teams all play zone as well.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Don't change this text:

Leave this blank: