Outlawing Youth Zone Defenses

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If you watched this Stan Van Gundy video below from our last article, you'll remember that Stan also doesn't like zone defense at the youth level. Well, some of you may be wondering why. Well, we're going to take a deeper look at why many experienced coaches believe zone defenses should be banned at the youth level.

Why Youth Coaches Go To Zone Defenses

First off, I don't have a problem with zone defenses. I believe that zone defenses combined with good defensive fundamentals can help teams win games. However, in most cases, they should not be used at the youth and middle school level because of the way our current system is designed.

Under the current system, most coaches get the unnecessary burden of having to teach skills, zone offense, man offense, press breakers, and defense with limited practice time. Some coaches only get one hour per week. Even at the high school level, it takes me at least 10 to 20 practices to get a good base to handle these situations. Some youth coaches barely get 20 practices within two seasons.

Not to mention, most youth coaches are volunteers who have full-time jobs and kids! So they barely have any time to educate themselves on how to teach basketball to youth players. Nobody educates them on the age-appropriate skills and how kids learn.

So what happens is that a coach hears from a colleague, faces a zone defense, or sees another team playing zone. Then, they see how much trouble it is giving the opposing team. Next, the coach implements the zone defense and realizes it only takes a few minutes a day to practice. And they weren't even sure how to teach man to man defense in the first place. Next, games are closer and you might be winning a few games you shouldn't. So the coach decides he's sticking with the zone defense.

With the instant gratification of winning now and the need to please parents, coaches end up coaching for the outcome, rather than the process. And this does hurt youth players' development in the long run.

Why Zone Defenses Work At The Youth Level

Zone defenses also work at the youth level because:
  • Players have not practiced enough yet to develop the proper ball handling skills to beat zone defenses and break presses.

  • Players are not strong enough to throw passes far enough and crisp enough to beat a zone. Defenses can send 3 or 4 defenders at the ball and still be effective.

  • Players have not developed the necessary strength and coordination to shoot accurately from long-distance.

  • Players have not developed the cognitive skills necessary to recognize situations quickly and react in the appropriate time needed.

  • Coaches don't have enough practice time to cover all of the situations.

Why Teaching Zone Defense Can Handicap Your Youth Players' Future

1. Players Form Bad Defensive Habits

A big problem with zone defenses is that many youth coaches allow their players to develop bad defensive habits. Because youth players have not developed, defensive habits such as swarming the ball and lunging out of position for the steal every time will benefit them on the scoreboard. In a zone defense, they also tend to just watch the ball and they can still be successful in regards to wins and losses at the youth level. In order to be successful with a man to man defense, they have to be aware of both the man and the ball.

As these youth players get older, all of the sudden these bad defensive habits get exposed because kids are bigger, stronger, more coordinated, and more skilled.

Now, the kids with bad defensive habits are cut from teams, get less playing time, and in the extreme case, could even lose out on scholarship opportunities. Now, if you're at a school that doesn't cut, you just end up with a poor team and this hurts the player's chance of getting recruited. College coaches usually want good players from winning programs.

And you might be wondering, why doesn't coach just teach them the right way to play when they get to high school?
  • It can takes years to break the bad defensive habits. After players have spent most of their youth basketball career using poor defensive fundamentals, it's very difficult to break the bad habits.

  • They'd rather keep the players with good habits and spend their time on other things to make them better players and make the team better. After trying to do this a few times, most coaches just end up cutting these players right away because they have learned that the process is so frustrating and not worth their time. And the coaches do this to keep the team's best interests in mind.
You also have to know man to man defense principles to have success at the higher levels even if you use zone defense as your primary defense. You can ask Syracuse's Jim Boeheim who is known for running a very successful 2-3 zone defense and he will tell you the same thing.

2. More Time Should Be Spent On Fundamentals

As mentioned above, coaches barely have any time to work on everything. As a result, skill work is often limited or even completely left out of practice. Along with small-sided games and athletic development, skill development should be a focus for all youth players.

Youth expert Jim Huber recommends that every player needs to have a ball in their hands as much as possible during practice. Why? Because the more often the player touches the ball, the better their ball skills become which should be one of the first steps in developing a basketball player.

These are just more reasons that I believe in 3v3 should be mandatory before the age of 11 or 12.

Another Argument For Zone Defenses At The Youth Level

I've also heard the argument that zone defenses aren't the problem, it's the lack of fundamentals being taught with the zone defense that is the problem. I agree with this. But it is a rarity at this age level for coaches to teach the proper defensive fundamentals with zone defense. And I still don't believe zone defenses are age-appropriate for youth teams for the same reasons mentioned above. On average, players are too weak and uncoordinated to execute the offensive principles that beat zone defenses.

Look at the baseball system. Players are eventually going to be taking leads off of first base and pitching from 90 feet, but we don't start the youth players out that way. We shorten the mound and we don't let players take leads off of first base until they reach a certain age. Baseball modifies the game for youth, not the other way around like the current basketball system.

Possible Solution To Work on Zone Offense With Advanced Youth Players

I wouldn't advise this until the kids are 12 or 13, but if coaches got together before a game during the second half of the season and said let's work on playing against a 2-3 zone defense during the 2nd quarter, I believe the benefits would be outstanding. That way, you could introduce zone offensive principles when the kids are ready and work on them in a game environment.

What do you think? What are your experiences? Do you have any thoughts, ideas, and suggestions?


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Angus says:
11/14/2020 at 12:42:51 AM

I am a player in Australia. I am 13 but am playing in an under 17 level (up to 16 year old 'kids'). I am doing this because my friends, although the same year at school as me, are born a year earlier. Our centre is 5"10 and our backup is 5"7 whilst most teams we play have centres that are 6"6 plus. We are continuously being beaten by more than 60, because teams play strictly zone. We have no elite shooters, and, when we drive we have no hope of scoring, except for drawing fouls. We have resorted to shooting outside shots and praying for the best.
On defense we run mtm with basic shell drill concepts (splitline, help, deny, ball). We are quite succesful until the teams start to play through the post. I was wondering if any one could give advice on how to beat a zone, and for a defensive plan. Not including zone.
Thanks all

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
11/14/2020 at 6:53:15 AM

In regards to stopping post players, we've had really good success double teaming the post player. We spend plenty of time shell drill practicing this. The double team comes from weakside defender. This help player must go early, on flight of pass to post. He/she must put chest into offensive players shoulder so they can NOT turn/pivot to the middle.

Most post players have trouble finding the open perimeter player on opposite side of court.... but if we get there early and take away the pivot to the middle, it's even harder and teams really struggle with this... even when they are 6 inches taller or more.

Regarding beating the zone, there are lots of methods to do that. It usually comes down to a few simple universals concepts that allow you to distort zone coverages. Once you understand the responsibilities of each zone defender, you can get them out of position so they can't do their job. You can do this with screens, overloads, cuts, and putting players into gaps. We have plenty of resources for attacking zones:


Franco says:
3/11/2019 at 8:38:16 PM

Thanks Jeff!

Appreciate your reply, love talking hoops with passionate coaches, regardless of the philosophical position. At the end of the day, we all love the game and want to push our knowledge. The philosophies underpinning why we do what we do is a significant part of this discussion.

I agree such an experimental study would be challenging. Can you imagine the potential ethics committee debates if a coach sat on the panel? "..but we will knowingly be withholding m2m principles from the intervention cohort..." it'd never get approved!

I think we agree! I've been playing/coaching for ~25 years now in various forms. Here's what I think talking in broad strokes about the m2m vs zone debate misses, by a wide margin. To paraphrase the great Allen Iverson: "We're talking about coaches".

Your point, and the point of many others is well taken: What I see that I believe is "damaging", the coach who says: "stand there..." or "get in position" and that's it.

However I do want to be clear: this isn't a zone defense issue. This is a bad coach issue.

Same with the argument of zone being addictive: It's a bad coach issue. What these coaches lack is a grounding in defensive principles.

(We could also talk about the lack of coaching credentials and minimum standards in the US, it's significant issue IMO...but that's for another time.)

However this isn't the fault of the zone defense.

When those peach baskets were first nailed up, the game was stupidly simple. There were no dogmatic defensive philosophies and the only defensive rule was essentially no goaltending. For better or worse, I like to keep things stupidly simple with my players via a set of non-negotiable defensive principles. I believe coach education needs to emphasize these more:

Defensive stance, communication, position and vision, protecting the paint, ball pressure, rebounding. Not surprisingly, these principles do not change, whether I instruct in zone or m2m.

Why? Because the goal is to build defensive IQs. Not adherence to systems.

Consequently I teach zone and man based on these principles, without apology. To me not knowing one or the other would be like a drummer that spends all their time with single/double stroke rolls and no paradiddle.

So from my perspective, any coaches out there that haven't coached before, probably best to go to m2m until you really get principles nailed down. However in my opinion, anyone who can truly teach it, should take the opportunity to broaden their players' basketball education.


Franco says:
3/5/2019 at 9:26:09 PM

Sorry but I''m putting my scientist hat on. Is there any evidence whatsoever that teaching kids zone first has negative consequences long term, when taught well? I''m heavily skeptical any coach that encourages good defensive principles, teaches kids to protect the paint, trap aggressively, communicate regarding spacing and awareness of offensive players is going to harm a kid''s long term viability as a basketball player, let alone compromise them in a man to man situation. Also, the idea that it''d be taught in a vacuum is ludicrous. Good coaches naturally will teach zone and man. There are many skills in the game, the junior coaches job is to expose to all, so the journey to mastery can commence. This takes time. (If anything, the return to coaching has shown me is how little time we have to develop kids. 8 week leagues with one hour per week become little more than social events.) Considering the multivariate nature of a basketball education, reductionism to zone vs man discussions are, at least from my point of view, without basis.

  1 reply  

Jeff says:
3/6/2019 at 6:53:00 AM

Franco -

I don't know of any true scientific tests to prove or dis-prove this. It would be very difficult to truly test this from a scientific perspective.... you'd need a huge test pool that you followed up with for 5 to 10 years.

But I do know this...

I have watches hundreds of youth basketball games in several different states for the last 15 years.

I watch the teams/coaches that run zone. And I watch the teams that run man to man.

Even though, it is possible to do a pretty darn good job developing players running a zone defense, it ALMOST NEVER HAPPENS!

I watch those kids sitting in the back of the zone playing lazy, their footwork is not getting challenged, and frankly they run the zone wrong because they can get away with poor technique and still succeed!

It is somewhere around 1% to 5% of the teams that run zone that actually do a good job. Those coaches are very disciplined, very experienced, and have a very strong understanding of basketball. And I still believe their kids would be better off playing man to man defense in the long run.

The zone defense makes it so easy for youth (often times volunteer parents) to skip many important steps in development. Just simply asking players to defend 1v1 over a long distance does amazing things for foot coordination, agility, quickness, reaction time, developing body control, learning complex footwork patterns. Those poor kids that play the center of good zones... never learn that. The forwards don't get much either. The guards in the zone can be challenged but often times they are not because coaches don't teach it that way.

When I watch teams play man to man defense, the majority of the players are getting challenged and getting a lot more out of it. It does not solve every problem... some coaches are just really bad. But the zone is a crutch that is very easy to lean on TOO MUCH. It's fools gold.... coaches have a lot of success but kids are not learning good habits or developing.

Here's the other problem. The zone defense is addicting. Once you start it's very hard to go back to man to man. How many youth coaches have the guts to win most of their games the first season playing zone and then take a step back the next season running mostly man to man and lose many of their games? It's much easier and more fun for kids to see improvement instead of regression. When you teach man to man, it might take a little longer to learn... but you see improvement and development... which is a lot of fun for everyone.

I could go on and on about this subject. Read this article for more reasons that man to man is recommended for youth teams:


James says:
1/16/2017 at 4:08:38 AM

My theory to this is different than Van Gundy. I belive a 2-3 zone D especially, is what's best for children at the youth level. Any Defense is great when taught properly. Man takes proper repetition on top of proper repetition to be good at. Most youth levels don't have gym time everyday like a high school program Likely. The skill work needs to be done even when your in season mode at any level of this wonderful game of basketball. It makes a difference to work on personal skill development on the kids future as a basketball player.


C says:
10/27/2015 at 7:59:56 AM

There is nothing wrong with teaching zone defense to youth players. Zone defense helps to teach kids defensive concepts of protecting an area, pressuring the ball, stepping out on the shot, etc. Saying you won't teach zone is like having a wrench in your tool box and saying you don't need it because you only use your hammer. It's another tool. I think youth players should learn zone FIRST and understand that it is far more important to protect the paint than chase your man all over Kingdom Come which is what most youth man to man players do until you can really teach them help defense and what the entire POINT of defense is, which is to prevent scoring, not chasing your player around the entire floor.

  1 person liked this. 1 reply  

James says:
1/16/2017 at 4:02:33 AM

Agreed 100%


Sean says:
9/18/2015 at 9:54:30 AM

Nice discussion.

I disagree that zone causes players to be lazy or fundamentally weak. A poor coach teaching m2m the wrong way can also introduce a lot of bad habits just a coach who can teach zone the correct way can encourage a lot of good habits. Zones taught the right way are active and need a lot of rotation as the ball is reversed. Also as some other coaches have said, m2m here at the youth level is mostly nothing but clutching and grabbing, while refs who just want to get home call 1/4th of the fouls they should be calling.

In the end IMO the best coaches are not one who teaches m2m or zone. The best ones are those who are really fair in playing time, encourage kids to make mistakes, encourage an equal opportunity offense, don''''t scream non-stop from the bench and allow the kids to find their own voices. Too many coaches here take money from parents only to sit their kids on the bench while patronizingly telling them that they are doing so for the benefit of the kids. Playing time, responsibility, especially at a young age, and encouraging the passion in a kid is much more of a key in how a player develops as they grow older than any offensive or defensive scheme you can teach a kid.


Coach Tom says:
4/10/2015 at 7:34:11 AM

I am struggling with this right now, I consistently watch my team (10-12 year old middle school team) struggle against 2-3 zones while I force our kids to play man to man. Every game we've played, we've encountered the other team playing zone.

It has lead to some very lopsided scores (it doesn't help that this is also the first year for the sports program either).

But I keep telling myself that it will be better for the kids in the long run, that the kids I'm working with will have better defensive fundamentals down the road. I explained to my own son (who is also on the team) that it is like trading a win now for a bigger win later, when it means more, I think he understood, though he said he would rather win both :D

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
4/14/2015 at 5:27:35 PM

This story is also encouraging:

Also, read the first comment.


martin says:
2/2/2015 at 5:51:35 PM

I grew up in Australia and we ONLY ever played zone defence. Man to Man was a very rare thing.

I am not seeing the connection between fundamentals of BBall and man to man defence? Correct defensive stance, stopping a drive, shuffle, communication, rebounding and dribbling are all essential to playing a good zone. They have to be taught regardless of the defence deployed.

I am now coaching 6th grade boys in the the USA where zone is outlawed and I am seeing a number of issues with this approach. 85% of all scoring comes from one on one driving to the bucket. The man to man defense does not encourage shooting and greatly benefits the athletic driver of the ball.

My coach preached ball movement till we got tired of hearing it. Less dribbling, more ball movement to stretch the zone. Open up the gaps for an inside pass or a clean outside shot.

So as a result: We had great ball movement and good shooting. We were very heads up looking for the open man and gap for the pass. We had great defensive communication.

Coaching sixth grade I find as many bad habbits from just man to man being taught the players. Over reliance on screens and picks. Failure to know when to help defence. Over reliance on the dribble and beating a man one on one. Too many three point attempts - and no emphasis on mid range shooting. Its a drive or a 3 point bomb - with little in between.

I also find that at junior levels the man to man allows teams to exploit a mismatch matchup. One weak player becomes a major liability - so stops playing the game/ gets cut etc. In a zone there is much greater chance of supporting and helping the weaker defender - making it a more enjoyable game for all.

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
2/2/2015 at 7:17:43 PM

Thanks for the thoughts, Martin. You can find a more detailed discussion on this page:


Mark D says:
10/3/2014 at 4:18:53 PM

As "Coach Lee" said above: zone is outlawed before U-13 in Ontario and, despite whiny 'win first' coaches feeling handcuffed by the rules, it works. Now coaching U-15 and we still do not play zone, ever. They can learn standing around airing out their armpits in college if they need to but we're ingraining proper man-to-man concepts until then.

Bonus: M2M and lots of pressing tires them out, so (almost) no complaining when they sub off. Every coach I know using zones has waaay more playing time issues then we do. Nobody cries for more minutes when they're exhausted.

Or instead of banning zones, follow the pros: Defensive 3 Second Violation. This is about the ONLY thing the NBA gets right over younger levels, no more trees planted under the rim.


Brian Sass says:
9/2/2014 at 9:47:51 AM

When it comes to zone defenses at the youth level, it is important to account for two things youth players are not physically developed enough to do:

1). Throw the skip pass
2). Shoot the Three

These have a huge impact on the effectiveness of zone defenses. Running them at the youth level, and the reason they are effective at the youth level, is because these two weapons aren't available to many young athletes at this stage in their athletic development.

SKIP PASS: the ability to gather the ball and throw a cross court pass from one side of the floor to the opposite side of the floor. This is a very difficult pass, impossible for some, to throw well from a set position.

As a result, most zone defenses don't encounter this, and gain no experience in defending it. It tricks kids playing zones into believing what they are doing is more effective than it will be when they get into older competition.

Now, man defenses also have this issue. Teaching to close out on a man instead of an area of the for is more important to combating this, and most zones do not teach kids to do this as effectively as man to man.

Just my opinion.

THREE POINT SHOT: Many youth players are not developed enough to handle this shot. Think about this now, I'm not talking about being able to get the ball to the rim, or even being able to make a decent percentsge.

I'm talking about catching and shooting with good fundamental shooting form. For youth players (many, not all), shooting a three requires a catch, a slow load process, and a very un-fundamental shot loaded from the hip of chest.

This is also misleading for youth defenders on close outs. They think they'll have more time than they will when they get older. It is a shot some good youth coaches won't let their kids take because they won't be form perfect in order to take it. It takes advantage of the physical lack of development.

The game is a game of habits. You can teach kids playing zones good defensive fundamentals. But zones will still create some bad habits that will do a disservice to players at older levels.

I view that youth coaching actually MUST be, in part, a partnership between the two coaches of the opposing teams. The end goal of player development must be foremost in the minds of both coaches in order to insure player development and success.

On a last note, I began using Geno Auriemma's high post offense last year. I found it easy to implement, and fun for the players to learn. More importantly, I found it to be effective against zone and man. This allowed me to avoid wasting time teaching a separate zone offense. Instead I was able to devote time to teaching the offensive and individual fundamentals necessary to beat any defense.


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