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 Bob Bigelow recommends that every player needs to have a ball in their hands for at least 1/3 of the 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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CJ Jimenez says:
1/6/2011 at 7:31:23 AM

Great article. People are sometimes more concern about winning rathr than youth development. Besides, "you have got to learn to play man to man before, playing zone defense."

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littlegreenbean says:
1/6/2011 at 8:40:44 AM

I hope more youth coaches read this article. We coach girls 4th grade and have been working on skills dribbleing and defense, the triple threat explaining to these girls why? We have lose 2 won 1 but the girls are playing basketball running simple pick and roll plays, learning to clear the lanes and the importance of getting the rebound. Zone is bad at this age for girls most of them just are not strong enough and have not learned to receive the ball with confidence to play against it. I think man to man is the way to go teach them to watch the floor not just the ball.


Coach Lee says:
1/6/2011 at 9:02:19 AM

In Canada, in Ontario, zone defense (and pressing, double team) has been outlawed up until age 12 in the rep system. Players and teams still cheat by playing a big man in the middle of the key. However, it has been almost 80% or 90% effective. You can see the results this change has been having for us as a country.
I agree with your article, I have only been teaching my team man-to-man principles, except for a zone press. The lack of success for the team because of this has caused players to leave the program. Parents are also difficult to deal with when your team is losing. Therefore there are many other considerations to take into account that will affect this decision. However, I get to teach new players basketball fundamentals each year. I have a core of players that can see the value of the program and I get to pass my passion for the game on to many young impressionable people.
I believe that keeping zone defense out of the game at a young age is important, however, I also believe that teaching press breaking, handling pressure and beating double teams is the most important tactic to teach at the middle school age. That is after ballhandling and shooting fundamentals.


kelly says:
1/6/2011 at 9:20:46 AM

Zone defense is not allowed for my 4th grade boys. This is the down side. There are many teams we play that have the win at any cost mentality. They use the man to man defense to run what I have termed "isolation plays". They usually have the "best" player, which is amazingly usually one of the coaches kids, run a play that takes the rest of the team out of game. I have seen them pull all the kids out to the sidelines and run a kid, one on one, down the middle. Since, the defensive players are required to stay a certain distance from their offensive player they are at the other kids mercy. I told the referee that I was going to have my kids sag off if the other coach continued to run these plays. He said, "You can't do that"... I explained to him that this basically cheating and is teaching the kids nothing about how real basketball should be played. I agree that man-to-man definitely is much better for young fundamental development, but there should also be rules about this type of play. I feel for the kids on those teams. What kind of message is that sending?


EMIII says:
1/6/2011 at 9:30:15 AM

I love this article. I coach 3rd 4th 5th and 6th grade basketball. And i rather see and emphasize to all the kids to have fun and learn the basics and not focus on winning. And I totally agree man on man has to be the way to go for youth basketball and to learn the basics to develop into a good and even great player later on.


Scott S says:
1/6/2011 at 10:13:05 AM

Not sure I agree - certainly in the lower levels but middle school? The issue I have is this - as your article mentions the range of Physical skills is greatly varied in this age level. some teams are small, some are big some are fast some are slow etc. I believe that playing a zone (well taught) at this level enables players of all shapes, sizes and ability levels to compete and feel good about their contributions while man to man can often spotlight their shortcomings. I always hear opponents of the zone mention that defensive fundamentals are thrown out the window - I am always baffled at this idea. In my opinion the concept of help defense is clearly fostered within the zone. In the end I am a believer in fundamentals first - zone or not - and in putting the kids that you have in the best position you can to exeperience success. For some that may be man - for some it may be zone!

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Dale H says:
1/6/2011 at 10:24:45 AM

I am a first year JV girls coach at a small private school. I came into the season assuming (wrongly) that I would be working with girls who knew the basics of defense and planned on mostly running a sagging man defense. I soon found out that they had little idea how to play man defense and mostly followed their girl around the court, which meant we were consistently getting burned when someone attacked. They had little to no awareness of where the ball was and I have had to backtrack and work hard to teach this to them. This isn't something that comes easily. I've been told that I should consider implementing a zone, but without this court awareness, a good team will pick apart our zone as well. And we play a lot of decent teams. The good thing is, I think they are STARTING to get it.

Bottom line, I heartily agree with the sentiments in this article. My girls know how to play a poor zone, they don't know how to play man. Hopefully, once they learn how to play man, their zone will greatly improve too.


Darryl says:
1/6/2011 at 11:03:51 AM

I coach at middle school and understand the problem. I spend every day working on the basic. I have learned that must kids don''t even know how to pivot. Most kids don''t know the proper way to shoot. I spend almost every talking about BEEF.


Coach Carlos says:
1/6/2011 at 11:37:45 AM

Nice, but no sound.


Tom K says:
1/6/2011 at 11:44:30 AM

An even bigger issue is conditioning! I coach a 5th grade boys team. We only have 2 hours of practice a week...the kids are so out of shape, we can only play them 2-3 minutes at a time in a game before they are begging to come out.


Gina Nierenhausen says:
1/6/2011 at 12:02:43 PM

Thank you for sending me these great notes I appreciate your well coaching skills and see that you are well aware of the youth today and why they are so profiled as to who is chosen to be the star rather than have a fair chance to be the stars that they all are. I have a co-ed and all boys teams and they need alot of practice. they are all good fast and have skills but, they are very intimidated when it come to working as a team. They think the better should be handeling the ball. Wrong I feel they all need to be part of the point maikng because they can run circles around their apponents. they just need proper practice and man on man skills. Thank you, I will use your teaching and techniques.


Jeff Pack says:
1/6/2011 at 2:28:13 PM

Great article, thanks.
I am the president of our youth basketball league here in Temecula, California and this year we switched to mandatory man to man for all divisions with the exception of the 7th and 8th grade division.
Our feeling was that ALL players will have more involvement in the actual playing of the game, will be more active and will learn more about the game of basketball.
Our K-1 grade Beginner Division is a start and stop division, no fast breaks, no pressing, coaches on the court, and they use matching wristbands to identify the player they are matching up with.
Our 1-2 grade Advanced Division is coaches on the court, with a little more transition basketball, again with the wristbands.
Those age groups had to keep one foot in the key at all times in years past. We are encouraging the coaches to keep teaching help defense.
Our 3/4 and 5/6 grade Divisions are straight man to man -- encouraging "help" defense.
We are finding some resistance to this rule change, in the latter divisions from coaches, but we knew that would be the most difficult transition.
We are really excited to see the youngers really pick up on the concept and see the improvement of these kids skyrocket.
Most importantly, we are seeing full participation out of these teams, all players on the court seeing the ball, seeing action and being a part of the team -- just by adjusting the nature of the way the game is conducted.


Coach McCormick says:
1/6/2011 at 4:08:47 PM

Scott S. I totally agree. K-4 Grade basketball you can imput plenty of rules. But when you start focusing on only allowing man to man, you will always run into the idea of exclusion. I believe that teaching the basics actually starts with teaching a player how to play defense. "Offense wins Games, Defense Wins Championships" I teach my 5th-8th Grade players how to play zone and man to man defense. Rather than focusing on the lower level players, lets focus on the entire age group. Winning or Losing, life is a challenge! Don't take away the Challenge of Competition, just because parents don't take the time to work with their kids. Coaches can only teach so much during practice. So this actually falls back to all aspects of education "Parent Involvment." But the lets all remember that when these kids reach High School, there is no rule against zone defense.


Glenn Woppman says:
1/6/2011 at 4:56:38 PM

I have purchased two videos from Breakthrough on youth bball coaching. A beginners one that starts with teaching the key areas of the court, simple drills, etc. and Bob Bigelows youth video.
I like zone for beginners as basketball is one of the most complex sports to coach and teach. The other sports like baseball, etc. have obvious breaks between offense and defense, time between actions, etc. Basketball is realtime switching in seconds. So I used Zone so kids could learn to play the block, elbow and center. On offense I use point, wing and block. I do not use numbers (1-5) or guard/forward/center. I found by telling my girls they play right block on offense and right block on defense they learned the court and also help with their confidence. Nothing worse for a kid then having to play man-to-man and getting burned by lay-up city. Confidence and interest in the sport is dashed, parents not happy, etc.
As many have noted as youth coaches practice time is limited to 1 hour or so. Keep it simple, allow the kids to gain a little confidence and enjoy the sport. Zones also keep the scores lower in most cases so the game is more competitive. No kid likes to get blown out.

Last, kids like to play, parent like to win. Parents also would rather see there kid play then the team win and there kid not play. So
that is the reality we face a youth volunteer coaches. We need to find the right balance for our team and parents.

A zone allows you to still compete if some players are weaker skilled. Thus, the weaker skilled player gets to play the 2 quarters that Bigelow says we all must do as a minium without hurting the team as a man-to-man might have occur.

I agree with outlawing man-to-man defense if you're a select league and every kid has basketball #1 as their sport, I want to play high school ball, etc. If you want a bunch of kids to just play the game and help their team then I think a zone simplifies things, and let's slower developing players have a chance also.

My 5th grade girls have been playing together year-round for 3 years and we are moving from zone to man-to-man now and to be honest they told me they like zone better. In Plano, Texas middle school only allow man-to-man so the girls will keep learning to find their man and continue to improve sliding, etc. to gain confidence.

So my viewpoint is both zone and man-to-man are okay for youth and the coach needs to decide based on talent, the amount of practice time, is he or she developing a rec team or a select team. Clearly Gundy is coming from developing future NBA players, well less than .1% will make it so take that as input, but not law.



Pete May says:
1/6/2011 at 6:18:28 PM

great article indeed. ironically, the article reinforces my instinct to continue having my middle school girls team play zone. Most girls in this league of small schools and tiny, skinny girls can't shot at all from the outside. And a zone can also help make sure not to expose a couple of our girls who just aren't athletic enough or are too spacey to follow their girl in man-to-man. Also, since this isn't a super competitive league, i think zone also helps create better team cohesion and commaradery, and less finger pointing than man to man. we will however, play man to man during the fourth quarter, when pressing is allowed. comments/suggestions welcome.


Keith says:
1/6/2011 at 9:33:30 PM


Glad you allow discussions on your articles. It allows us coaches to see a wide variety of views.

I have coached both zone and m2m at the youth level. Two years ago, I eliminated zone entirely and stuck with m2m remembering my goal is teach basketball rather than coach. I coach/manage the team during the game.

Let's remember we are dealing with youth players and the way they learn is through repetition.


Tariq says:
1/6/2011 at 9:51:48 PM

what is the best drill (or drills) to use to teach kids proper transition offense and defense ?


Joe Haefner says:
1/7/2011 at 11:58:31 AM

Tariq, I like to use these drills:




Jeff Pack says:
1/7/2011 at 12:55:44 PM

I really am amazed at how many coaches just won't give up the ghost on this. I keep reading, "Ya, its better for them fundamentally ---- but the kids like zone better, or it gives the weaker kids a chance to compete, etc., etc."
Maybe the concept of man to man is misunderstood.
Playing man to man doesn't require the Arkansas Razorback's 40 Minutes of Hell. It's not denial defense on both ends of the floor. Defenders don't have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the player they are guarding.
In my opinion, playing HELP man to man is MORE effective and more versatile than a zone defense.
If you're "competing" against superior athletes, sag the defense and protect the key, if you're playing against weak ballhandlers, get out and challenge them. Depending the age group level, the skill level it can be many things. Shoot, you can have four kids with one foot in the key and still be playing man to man defense. If the kids are little more skilled, get them out into passing lanes and work denial defense.
It's the concept of playing man to man defense that scares a lot of people.
Lastly, its the kids that ARE a little bit weaker athletes that NEED your coaching the most. And in recreational basketball, isn't that what we are supposed to be doing? Coaching the entire roster?


Jeff Pack says:
1/7/2011 at 1:01:59 PM

Furthermore, I have seen dozens of kids come through youth programs that have NEVER played offensively against a man to man offense. These players never developed using their Left (or "bad" hand) to dribble because they never had to. If they were a talented player, opposing coaches would just pack it in and the better players just dribbled and dribbled until they found "the weaker" player in the zone, and then attacked it.
So, not only do i believe the zone defense, if taught exclusively, early on hurts the development of the defensive player, it stunts the development of the offensive player.


Fred Mack says:
1/7/2011 at 5:29:30 PM

I kind''''a agree with most of the comments but I do think that zone defense is very important early in a players career. I coach kids from 7-14 (league and AAU) and the biggest difference I see is that kids that are just starting out are just not able to keep up with the speed of the game playing man on man. With the limited amount of time that I have with them from week to week, I dont have enough time to teach them properly how to guard an offensive player with and without the ball (its not easy teaching help-side-defense). In a zone defense I have had better success teaching the fundamentals of "team" defense. My goal every year is to play at lease the last third of the season man-to-man. I do that weather we are ready or not just because I think they need to experience how the game is really played.


John says:
1/7/2011 at 9:23:49 PM

Outstanding article... I'm so fed up with club coaches and parent coaches who simply want to win and and not teach so they play zone and press full court.

The only way to stop it is to create leagues and tournaments where it's not allowed.

All of us should continue to push for this type of fundamental teaching.


Bryan says:
1/7/2011 at 9:52:22 PM

I'm coaching a couple youth teams right now and zone is banned here in Alberta (Canada) at the youth level. I think every coach would like to stress teaching fundamentals but reality catches up to you when you have one practice a week. That's just not enough time to work on skills, because you have to get your team running some sort of offence. The reality is, at a community league level, kids are left to learn the fundamentals on their own. You need at least 2 practices a week to teach anything useful, there is just no way around it, and one of my teams just doesn't have the gym time available to make that happen.


Lew says:
1/8/2011 at 10:15:07 AM

The leaders of the leagues need to set the rules. No zones, etc. Make sure the teams follow the rules and make sure the level of play is balanced. Advanced and lower. This way the game can be constructive and instructional at the level that it needs to be.


DJames says:
1/8/2011 at 11:40:47 AM

I have been coaching at the middle school level for a while. I always teach man to man defense for my J.V. players (5th & 6th grade) My varsity players work on man to man most of the time but I teach zone (3-2) only used to stop an inside game (when man to man isn''t keeping them from getting inside due to height or a very effective post player that continues to get inside.) I agree that man to man teaches the best defensive skill. I always start the game with man to man and only switch to zone in a necessary situation. We sometimes will scrimmage with the boys and use zone to stop them from getting inside and it is very effective. In a zone I allow a player to go out and pick up a man with the ball and have the other 4 players watching the inside. I am not sure that zone should be banned but definitely not used as a primary form of defense. I feel that teaching both builds skill in teaching your players how to shoot from outside and jump shots. I have several girls who can shoot 3 point shots because we have worked on them in shooting practice. The girls are not intimidated when they meet a zone. I also do muscle building drills to help them build the strength to shoot from the outside. We also work on fundamental dribbling skills I try to make a practice plan that workd on all areas of fundamentals I break it down into minutes because I have 1 hour and a half. If I see that we need more work in a specific area I spen more time on that. Teaching press breakers and plays, our practice is broken down into segments so that we are always covering everyting that we can!


Rocky says:
1/9/2011 at 3:38:56 PM

This guy must be a Democrat - doesn't like something and thinks it should be outlawed.

Zone Defenses are part of Baksetball - just as man to man defenses. Get over it.


Rocky says:
1/9/2011 at 3:41:25 PM

I can appreciate much of what he says - but it's far better to encourage coaches to coach properly than to outlaw zone defenses.


Jeff Haefner says:
1/9/2011 at 8:43:15 PM

For all you youth coaches that like and run zone defense with 5 to 10 year olds, I'm curious. Do you think it would be better for your players if all the teams in your league played man to man? Or no?

Also, do you agree that when you run zone, most of the players shoot long distances shots and don't get many shots close to the basket? That is why it works so well? Do you think it's good for your players and your opponents to shoot (chuck) the ball from long distances? Do you thing that affects their long term shooting habits and technique?


Keith says:
1/9/2011 at 9:01:04 PM


From my point of view, the detriment is to the defensive side. Most of our teams run a pass and cut type offensive.

Many of the zones I see arent run that well. They usually too much thinking too much to play it correctly. It takes more practice time to execute and I believe it stifles development.

Of course that's just my observation.


Tom K says:
1/9/2011 at 9:07:42 PM

The Youth League that I coach in, many of the teams are already "formed" year-after-year. I am the coach of a "new" team, that is compiled of all the players that are 1) first year players, 2) new to this league. On an individual man-for-man talent analysis, we are "outmanned" in virtually every game. I believe in man-to-man defense and have always used it, however with this group of players; we got "lit-up" when we played man-to-man. Using a zone defense, propoerly taught has helped us to keep the games respectable. Opposing coaches do not "call of the dogs" and allow for a learning experience to occur...I'm not whining, simply stating a fact. In the youth leagues of today, WINNING may not be the most important thing; but avoiding the embarrassment of being beaten by 30-40 points each game is important. As a long time man-to-man proponent, I have come to accept that there are circumstances where zones defenses are acceptable. I'm no longer hung up on the macho, altruistic belief that if you don't play man-to-man defense you are somehow cheating your players out of the marvelous experience that is playing basketball. I believe that a coach must access his players and adjust his style to meet the talent available. If that means playing a zone, teach the skills of the zone and play it to the highest level possible.


Tariq says:
1/10/2011 at 10:03:45 AM

I am very interested in coaching and teaching kids how to play basketball. I have just about everything on DVD and most of the so-called great books on youth and college coaching. I am working with an established area youth coach and benefit from his experiance. I need to know when is the right time for me to actually coach a team during a game? How did I learn to manage a team during a game ?


Jeff Pack says:
1/10/2011 at 1:10:45 PM

@Tom K - Sounds like you need to change the way those teams are formed. That may be a huge mountain to climb. A year ago, we changed from a coach draft format to a league draft format. My opinion was that we wanted coaches that wanted to coach basketball -- whether they knew or had evaluated the kids or not -- and the biggest complaint I got last season was that "the games were too competitive." Ya, imagine that comment coming into my inbox.
In your situation in THAT league, I can completely understand you wanting to give the kids a fighting chance against stacked teams. Shoot, if the leagues were pre-formed like that in a league i was coaching in, if there's no shot clock, I might be inclined to go four corners and hold the ball. And when they complain to you about "letting the kids play," you turn to them and say, "split up the teams fairly and balanced and then we can start 'playing.'"


Lawson says:
1/12/2011 at 8:13:09 AM

I am a 5 year elementary school coach as well as a coach's kid. I've played ball my entire life through college and this is my take on the discussion: m2m defense as well as zone is a myth! The reality is TEAM defense. All players on the court are responsible for defensing the opposition. Teaching them the tenants of "see man, see ball" see and make contact with cutters, talk on defense and completing the sequence by team rebounding are paramount! My teams play positions on the court on defense and utilize those basic skills, regardless of talent or the win loss columns! If that's a zone, so be it! It takes a Team effort to play good team defense. My team (and talent is a variable each year) is able to limit penetration, force bad shots, and rebound better as a result. Outlawing Team defense is nonsense, I watch pro ball and most teams run some form of it, same with college and particularly high school ball! Coaches need to coach fundamentals and apply them to whatever scheme they run!


Frank says:
1/13/2011 at 11:24:47 AM

I coach a combined 5/6 grade girls team,that are forced to play teams that all have 6th graders. I have 6-fifth graders and 4-sixth graders on this team. I think the zone D should be outlawed at this age because no team is going to have any player that will have the necessary dribble,shooting,skills to play or have any success against this defense.That is the simple fact of why teams only play this type of defense because winning matters most to them,and it shouldn''t,not at this developement stage.We have had 3 games this year and all have used the 2-3 zone and we have a combined 3 points made so far.I was thinking about changing my D,but after reading this article I''m not! The only thing I think that can be done is to practice or scrimmage my team while putting them in a zone defense,so they can attempt to crack it a little with some coaching instructions to help.


Patrick Doherty says:
1/14/2011 at 10:53:47 PM

There are a number of realities that deserve mention.

There is really only one type of defense; that is limiting the options of the player with the ball in various degrees; stopping the shot, preventing the inside pass, channeling the player to the side or limiting the opportunities of particular players or positions to receive the ball - whatever. To implement defensive strategies the player needs to be competent within the rules of the game to guard a player in possession, or a player without the ball. The "man" supporters will argue compellingly that defense comes down to one player guarding one player and that doing so requires particular skills such as closing out, stance, sliding, turning and chanelling and so forth.


Ken from Western PA says:
1/22/2011 at 12:46:19 AM

Okay Stan, let me see you teach m2m to this 5th grade team profile: Two kids are above average, 4 kids are good athletes, but haven't played before, one big kid is timid and has frozen foot syndrome, one can't keep his mouth shut and doesn't remember drills from the previous practice and two kids would be better off taking music lessons and they slow the teaching/learning process for the entire team.

I've been coaching kids elem bball much longer than Stan has been a pro-bball head coach. Here's a pointer Stan, teach what fits your kids. Sometimes you'll get a batch of fast kids that you can teach odd front pressure zone D, and, depending on their basketball learning ability, you may be able to teach them some m2m. Then you experience a couple of years where you have maybe one kid who can handle the ball and the rest are big and slow. Here's where the 3-2 may be applicable and pray that your ball handler shows up for the games.
I can tell you one thing, you will always get a couple of kids who are lost, but you feel compelled to give them some PT because they show up for practice and put forth some effort. You better be ready to hide them in a zone when they step out on the floor because kids are poor at matching up and you don't have 10 time outs in a game to straighten your m2m D out. That's the reality of elem/youth bball in a small town.

Oh, here's another problem with kids playing m2m: Their court awareness is not well developed at this age simply because they haven't played that many years along with the fact that they have a short attention span and usually spend their free time playing video games rather than watching some of the good college teams play m2m (Pitt) and zone (thank you Jim Boeheim). A lack of court awareness shows up pretty fast in m2m and to a much lesser degree in zones.

Lastly, keep it simple, keep it fun and get the kids to want to come back to the next practice. That's the best development advise I've ever received and always like to pass it along.


Darren Brown says:
1/26/2011 at 4:45:51 AM

I agree completely with the article. Here in the UK we have banned Zone defence in competition for Under 14 players so that their development is not compromised. The problem here, however, is that many schools do not have teachers or coaches that are knowledgeable enough to teach GOOD M2M defence. On the upside, my U16 team don't even think about Zone until I decide they understand enough about fundamentals. This season we're unbeaten with a points difference of 156 over only only 9 games. I'll let those results speak for themselves.


Joe Haefner says:
1/30/2011 at 10:26:29 AM

Ken, this is probably the most important advice:

“Lastly, keep it simple, keep it fun and get the kids to want to come back to the next practice. That's the best development advise I've ever received and always like to pass it along.”

At the same time, I don’t think you can question Stan’s experience. If you look at his resume he has coached at the youth, college, and pro levels. He understands what’s happening on every level. Not to mention, his dad is Bill who is coaching legend, so he’s been learning since how to coach since he was a little guy.

Now, if you’re hiding the kid in the zone, are you really helping them or doing them a disservice? Since basketball is such a late developing sport. MJ got cut on varsity as a sophomore, Bill Russell was 5’9 as a sophomore. We had two kids on our varsity team who is currently 12-0 and ranked #2 in 6A. I’m not saying this to try to toot our horns, but to let you know that these are legit players who were on the B team as freshmen. One of them is our leading scorer averaging 17 a game and shooting 57% from 3.

And by hiding these late developing players, their development is being hindered. Rather than hiding them, get them out there and make them guard. Make them figure it out. You can adjust the m2m principles based on your team. Slow – packline. Fast – aggressive. Because I’ve seen so many kids come into high school that played zones and haven’t learned proper defensive fundamentals, I agree with him 100%.

If their court awareness is not developed, why don’t we try to develop it instead of hiding it?

Don’t know where I first heard this or where I got it, but this my favorite line in regards to youth and JV basketball. “Coach to develop the players. Players play to win.”


Diana says:
2/4/2011 at 7:17:05 PM

Coaching boys in 1st and 2nd grade who can barely shoot, dribble or rebound and we play for 75 minutes each Saturday means we play zone. In 3/4 grade - maybe they''ll learn it. I need to get these boys some confidence and not knowing where their man is or "running" an offense (are you kidding me?) vs m2m, I don''t think so. Need to let them have fun and get a little skill for the future is more important. We can''t steal off the dribble or defend past a certain point, and we DON''T keep score. Geez, the #1 rule is to have fun.


Eric says:
2/7/2011 at 1:21:34 AM

I believe you need to teach both defenses and teach them well. I teach my fifth/sixth graders both. We also switch defenses from play to play at certain times.. This teaches the kids to react quickly and keeps the other team off balance.

I have coached youth basketball for a while and have seen many teams play zone. However, I also have also seen many play man. I have seen both played well, and both played poorly. I kept seeing people write everyone plays zone in their league so they win. My question is, if everyone in your league is playing zone....how does that guarantee more wins/losses, or you winning that particular game? Further, if you have kids that shoot well, or move the ball well they will tear up a poorly played zone. These are things you need to teach your kids as well. And although many kids do not shoot well, many do if they spend the time working on it. As far as pressing. Even at the younger ages teams that press poorly give up many easy shots.

I agree that the fundamentals should be taught. I also believe the kids should still learn to play different defenses and not just one. If your kids are in 5th/6th grade and not practicing or playing enough to learn both....the chances are they have a lot of catching up to do to play on a competitive team in Middle/High School/AAU ball.

Many coaches seem to get macho about playing one type of defense. I believe in learning them all and using the best one for the situation. Why be so stubborn? Also people assume that only unathletic teams play zone at the higher levels. That is often true. However, look at Syracuse. They have great athletes making a well executed zone defense even better. I think if more athletic teams played zone it would be viewed as an even more effective defense at higher levels. Teams that are forced to shoot from the outside more, will shoot a much lower percentage in the long run. That is the main goal of your defense anyway isn't it?.


Jeff Haefner says:
2/7/2011 at 8:12:02 AM

Thanks for the feedback an thoughts. All good points, feedback, and considerations.

Just keep in mind one thing that I think will clear up some of the questions and why are stubborn about this...

We give advice to the MASSES. The reality is that youth coaches range from volunteers who never played to pro coaches with years of experiences. The other reality is that 95% of the youth coaches don't understand the intricacies of basketball defense, offense, and fundamentals. Many of them are parent/coaches learning as they go. We wholeheartedly believe that recommending man to man defense to the masses of the youth coaches is the right thing to do.

The other reality is that a good zone defense is harder to teach than a good man defense. Sorry but most youth coaches just don't get it because they don't have enough experience yet. So if we give advice and say "it's ok to play zone or man defense, if you do a good job either defense will work" then we end up with a bunch of crappy zone defenses and lazy kids sitting back in their zone. It's just not realistic to expect youth coaches to do that.

There are other factors here too. For example, if a youth coach is doing a really good job of teaching multiple defenses that takes A LOT of time. I would question if that much time should really be spent with young kids. Remember Steve Nash didn't play basketball until he was 13! Now look at him. Bill Russell and Michael Jordan stunk when they were sophomores in high school. Basketball is a late blooming sport.

If you think your child is getting behind because they don't know the technical details of a zone defense you are full of you know what. Players truly get good after they hit puberty. Pre-puberty kids need to work on coordination (while it can be improved before they are too old). This includes balance, hand eye coordination, fine motor skills, ambidexterity, accuracy/hand accuracy, spatial awareness, and rhythm. Not to mention athleticism like agility, strength, quickness. These young players will be much better off improving in these areas than spending their time learning multiple defenses.

How do you improve coordination and athleticism? One of the ways is to play multiple sports like soccer, gymnastics, swimming, flag football, martial arts, etc.

If a kid is learning multiple defenses and playing that much basketball, I doubt they have time to play other sports and have a chance to develop athletically. If they do, they certainly have NO time for unstructured play which is also very important for a child's development.

You also have to consider BURN OUT which is a huge problem in this country. Frankly kids play too many basketball games and many of them quit and/or burn out by the time they hit high school.


I'm considering the idea of writing an article giving an objective view of whether a youth coach should play man or zone. However to make it truly accurate it will probably be 30 pages and that will take time to do.

We study basketball for a living. We do this stuff all day long every day. We get advice from the best coaches in the world. Do you really think all the professionals that give this advice too are wrong? So you really think experts like Bob Bigelow, Stan Van Gundy, Don Kelbick, Ken Sartini, Coach K, Jim Boeheim, and all these other coaches are wrong?

If you ask 100 coaches with at least 15 years of coaching experience, right around 98 or 99 will tell you M2M defense is the way to go with youth teams.

If you look at the WHOLE all the kids would be much better off if all these youth coaches taught man to man.

We have talked and chatted with THOUSANDS of youth coaches. We have seen it all!! We have heard all the excuses. We still have not heard a valid excuse. We believe that the teaching man to man is the way to go. Then if you have a truly great man to man, you can introduce an additional defense when they get older. Just remember it's not all about winning. Someone on here said...

"Geez, the #1 rule is to have fun. "

When it comes down to it, I agree. Having fun, setting a good example, and teaching life lessons is more important than all this "defense and technical stuff".

But if we had our choice, youth coaches would teach M2M defense, fundamentals, AND have fun too. :)


Tariq Mujahid says:
2/7/2011 at 8:42:53 AM

I coach a 8 -12year old youth team in Newark. I have a problem with fighting and aurguing. How do I control disipline and attitudes?


Mike says:
2/7/2011 at 5:12:44 PM

I would be very interested to hear what coach K has to say about zone defense for youth teams. Maybe you could get him to post a short video on why zones are not good for player development. Then maybe more coaches would get it. I agree with your philosophy on teaching man defense 100%.


Eric says:
2/7/2011 at 7:05:14 PM

I agree with you Jeff that the main objective is for kids to have fun. I also understand you are writing to the masses. However, some things people are writing seem a little ambiguous. Just to make it clear, I don't mean that as an insult. I think most of the people writing are being sincere, very well intentioned, and I respect their knowledge and opinions. Just like most of the people writing posts, I have a passion for basketball. However, I also understand that many kids and adults play the game recreationally. There is nothing wrong with that. The reason I mentioned ambiguity is many on here say kids should explore many sports. I agree. However, if they are just exploring basketball as a recreational sport and having fun.... nobody is going to die if they play poor defense in a pick up game on the playground. For those that have explored other sports and really like basketball, then I agree with you.... learn to pay attention to detail and learn the fundamentals the best you can.

I like to see the game played the right way. But to be honest, most people don't take it as seriously as we do. Most people that only into basketball recreationally would find posts like this to be boring and a waste of their time. lol

Also if so many can turn into a superstar at 13 without ever playing....why is everyone stressed about what they are doing at age 8? While I agree there are many natural athletes that can pick up the game quickly, these are the exceptions more than the rule. Further, I think part of the problem with fundamentals declining as a whole is too many coaches at the upper levels recruit athleticism first. While there is no doubt you need athletes to compete, should olympic caliber athletes with poor fundamentals, always be recruited before above average athletes with excellent fundamentals? This is why many countries compete with the US in basketball so well as of late. They stress fundamentals and athleticism more equally. That is why the average European big man handles and shoots the ball so much better than the average US big man.

I do get the spirit of what everyone is saying about the importance of learning man to man defensive principles first. I understand it is difficult and takes time. This is especially true if you are just a recreational coach and do not have much time. I do disagree though, that you cannot learn or work on zone defense at all until they are at an advanced age( you practice more often). It also takes time to work on shooting, dribbling,passing, layup, footwork, you could go on forever. However, we don't just work on shooting and nothing else because it takes so much time to learn to shoot the right way.

I do appreciate everyones passion for basketball in these posts and enjoy reading everyones comments and viewpoints. To answer your question, no I do not think any coach is wrong for believing a certain way. To me different philosophies is what makes basketball so fun. You can find so many contrasting views on things. Is anyone really 100 percent right or wrong? While most of us agree on most basic tenets of the game, it is the differing philosophies on the game that make it enjoyable. If we all thought exactly alike, we would just be robots. lol I enjoy everyone's input on here. If my viewpoint is different from yours I still respect your knowledge and opinion.


Jeff Haefner says:
2/8/2011 at 8:17:41 AM

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eric. It's good for everyone to share their thoughts and viewpoints.

In addition to the US recruiting athletes, European programs approach teaching differently. Here we usually play 3 games to 1 practice, Europe generally has 3-4 practices to each game. Players are not limited in how much they can practice, and therefore spend from 60 to 90 minutes in the morning working on footwork, shooting and ballskills. The same players then practice another 60 to 90 minutes in the afternoon on more team-oriented concepts. There is no separation of big guys and guards, every player works on the same skills. As a result, European players are generally more well-rounded and more fundamentally sound.

Tariq - Check out this article for your discipline issues:


Keith says:
2/8/2011 at 8:36:01 AM

Hey all,

I am not speaking for Joe, for he certainly do that for himself.

The way I understand about his comment regarding keeping it fun is:

* the reason why kids play is because it's fun.

* the way it remains fun is because they are able to execute certain aspects of the game.

Let's think about it this way. If you playing basketball and couldn't dribble, pass, shoot, etc. How long would game remain fun?

I believe at all levels, even recreationally, kids play because it's still fun to them.

We all agree the fundamentals should be taught. I guess the argument is what level, age, and to what extent should it be implemented.

Great forum.


Eric says:
2/8/2011 at 6:27:36 PM

You are very right about the low practice to game ratio Jeff. I think everyone is best served fundamentally by having a higher ratio of practices to games.


Kevin Dade says:
3/24/2011 at 10:34:13 AM

This information is great for coaches and players I must admit I am thankful for this helpful information!


jackie says:
4/19/2011 at 2:00:13 AM

I agree totally with teaching m2m defense over zone at young ages. I work with kids now from grades 2-5, and coached my own sons team at a area youth league. I now also coach co-ed fifth grade at our school. When I was just starting to work with my older son, the coaches he had at the time taught zone defense, and I watched him progress through grade school and into high school with only this defense....he only played m2m the one year I had him in 6th grade. It has been frustrating to watch over the years, as he was told when he was in 7th grade they couldn''t play m2m because he and another player were too slow...I find that really funny now since he has physically changed and just this year he just missed advancing to state in cross country by 1 spot as a sophomore. He is now one of the quickest players on his team...go figure. Fortunately I was able to get him instruction at camps etc...and they played solely m2m so he could develop the skills in guarding and stopping penetration as well as court awareness...but I still watch his other teammates who had become lazy with zone defense and they let the other team penetrate easily one basket after another. They still do not understand how to manuever themselves and expect someone else to stop the ball, or just take the easy way of reaching in to try and swipe the ball. They just haven''t practiced the see man see ball concept and been held accountable for a man to guard.

As a result, I will not let the same thing happen to my youngest son. I have become actively involved with the youth basketball program here...it has taken quite a bit of talking to convince individuals to play m2m, in our youth league, but slowly I am getting others to change. I can already see the benefits for the groups that play m2m, both offensively and defensively. And yes, I have worked with those young kids who are still clueless, but guess what, usually they get to guard someone on the other team that is in the same boat!!

What I have found, usually, each team we play has someone slow to guard, someone tall to guard, etc..so we just try to match them up as best as possible. Usually by the end of the season, I see improvement in each player...and at some point in their career of basketball...it will click. After teaching music for 20 years...it is not much difference...repitition, repitition, repitition.

I feel m2m is the basic ingredient to eventually teaching zone or other defenses...sort of like learning the alphabet is to writing words...It really needs to be part of the fundamentals of shooting, dribbling, lay-ups, footwork, etc.

With the younger kids grades 2-4 we reinforce see man--see ball--many of them just get the see man concept and forget the ball...but some start to identify both. In 5th grade we repeat the shell drill at most of the practices as a slow down review of defense positioning...and get into just a little post defense later as well as touch on defending cutter..focus is still see man see ball...being a help player.

I watched the 6th grade group play this year whom we have had work this now a couple years, and the payoff is starting to show. The junior high coach was frustrated this season and decided to try m2m, and found more success, especially with the players we had worked with...those same sixth graders were outplaying defensively the better 8th graders whom had not been taught m2m. I watched those 8th graders get burned by the opponent several times, but when those 6th graders went in the game to sub, they did not. They were executing great pressure on the other team, with their only downfall being their size...two years can make a difference. I am excited to see how the next couple of years play out when all of the players will have gone through our changed system.

I could go on and on about how many things are being benefitted as we are slowly making this transition. I can see the difference already with my younger son in 4th grade When we took him to a 3 on 3 tourney..he and 2 girls won the boys division because they could play defense and helped each other ...it was awesome to watch!! My older son didn''t make it past the first 2 games at this same age. Also his ballhandling skills are better when dealing with ball pressure since he has had to practice with someone guarding him regularly in his practice rather than standing back and waiting for him to approach the lane...I saw the same benefits with the 6th graders I mentioned earlier, much better passing, penetration, and handling ball pressure since this was a regular aspect of their practices.

Hope this doesn''t bore too many...but it is exciting as I continue to see the pay off--and made me a believer in starting out with m2m...no matter if you win or lose at a young age...your players will definitely benefit in the long run!!!!


54495-319145 says:
9/2/2011 at 1:47:18 PM

What many players, parents and coaches fail to realize is once you reach a certain level as a player who you can guard at any given postion becomes just as important if not more so than how well you can play that position offensively...

What use is any player, at any position who can score but can't stop his man from scoring? I feel much of the onus should be placed on these coaches...lack of practice time and so forth shouldn't excuse anyone from teaching proper fundamentals...if you only have an hour to practice then that hour needs to be spent productively...

I travel around and work out with a lot of AAU kids on all levels and their fundamentals (both offensively and defensively) are usually horrendous...

I once asked an AAU coach at a practice I was attending how are you teaching plays to kids who don't even know how to play? To me this is the crux of the matter...These youth coaches must understand first and foremost they are there to instill the right things into these that will enable them to be successful beyond today...We need to have a much broader focus in the coaching community with regards to where these kids will be 5 or 10 years after they leave our nest...Are we preparing them to thrive in any given environment or are we enabling them to become the next generation of below average and mediocre players?

At the end of the day, it is the coaches responsibility to utilize whatever amount of time he has to train his team productively, effeciently and correctly...


Tom says:
9/29/2011 at 2:02:58 PM

I coach a 3rd grade team. The rules are no pressing and the defense can not go outside of the 3 point line. They can only defend inside the 3 point line. Do you still believe man to man is the way to go with this rule?


Jeff Haefner says:
9/29/2011 at 2:15:25 PM

Tom - I would play man to man with youth kids whether they could defend past the 3pt line or not. Man to man defense is better for young players for lots of reasons -- if anything it's so your players can develop better foot speed and coordination. I sure would not want my child sitting back in a zone. I would want them to develop athleticism by playing man to man. Then when they get older, if the high school coach wants to play zone, fine. But no way would I want my own kid playing a zone defense at that age.


Coach John says:
10/5/2011 at 1:33:26 PM

M2M D, when ran well, often resembles a good Zone D. I think if you can run good M2M, you'll be able to implement & run good zone. A lot of coaches say "we don't have time to work on a lot of defensive stuff"....true indeed, if all you're working on is Offense & trying to teach set plays.

M2M D keeps them active, and quite often results in the offense we're looking for (ie. turnovers & fast breaks, transition basketball).

I coach our 10U/9U squad. We work on footwork, agility, speed, quickness....spacing (not "riding" your offensive man), denying passing lanes, eyes on ball/eyes on man (get your guns up), help defense, talking on D, etc...


Maceyko says:
12/18/2011 at 2:36:34 PM

This season I am coaching a Jr High Girls team and I have focused on using Man-to-Man Pack Line Defensive concepts and it is paying off in a big way! As the kids get used to staying on the pack line, providing helpside, and sealing off the gaps we are finding that their confidence is growing. Up to this point we have stressed not allowing any lay-ups and we double down on all low post entries. We have given up 27, 25, 7, and 17 points in our four games so far and in that order. We have played NO zone and I see no need for it at this point. Our Pack Line was confusing enough for one coach that he was yelling at his kids to run their "zone" offense! You can teach man D and make it work at the youth level without worrying about all of that other stuff. Now we will still pressure you full court, but again we teach it as full court pressure man defense. We will let the kids jump-switch in the middle of the court and trap the ball in corners, but we base everything on man principals. Don''t be fooled into thinking that you have to play zone to be successful. And if you''re wondering I coach at a small county school and we typically only have 7 or 8 girls each year on the team so we are not a power house team with 15 or more kids to choose from on our bench. Now don''t think you can teach everything at this level because I believe coaching youth follows the 2 Hand Rule. Kids will grasp one concept in each hand and hold onto it, but when you add the third concept they tend to put down one of the other two things you''ve taught in order to grasp the new one! That is simplifying things, but I think you get the point. Good luck and you should feel good that you are spending your time teaching our youth. So thank you to any coach who is willing to do what''s right out there!!!


Ken Sartini says:
12/18/2011 at 4:42:43 PM

I've read most of these replies. both pro and con.... Kudos to the coaches that are teaching m2m defense at the youth level. You can say what you want about zones... but IF you cant DEFEND.... and somewhere along the line you will have to play m2m .. you will be in a lot of trouble. Yes, HELP LINE D is the most important part about playing m2m because players will get beat and there has to be someone there to stop the ball.

As youth coaches your goal should be to get them ready to play at the next level and ultimately at the high school level. As a retired high school coach I can tell you first hand that we loved the kids that came in that knew how to play m2m D and it was pretty easy to pick out the ones that didn't have a clue. It takes a long time to correct bad habits let alone teach good m2m principals.... whether it is pack or deny. Forget about winning at the youth level ( yes everyone wants to win ) teach them fundametals, let them have fun and find a love for the game.

Congratulations to Jeff Pack for the way they run their program .... too bad every organization doesn't do this.

To the other coaches, do your kids a favor and teach them m2m D and the fundamentals of this game. Your reward will be IF and when they play at the high school level. I bet that if you asked the high school coaches in your area about zones vs m2m, the vast majority would say, play m2m. JMO


Greg says:
12/28/2011 at 1:53:14 PM

I'm 100% in agreement about no pressing but don't buy into the complete baning of Zone D. At the rec level you get rec level coaches. Most are no better at teaching m2m then zone.

Also, while winning is by no means the most important aspect of youth sports, competing is one of the mos timportant aspects. Zone (taught properly) allows all kids to compete regardless of how 'good" they are.

I could see banning Zone at the AAU level but banning it at rec level makes ZERO sense.

I run a rec league and coach everything from 7 - 17 year olds. I never press, always run M2M in practice and mostly run Zone in the games.


Ken Sartini says:
12/28/2011 at 6:58:52 PM

I would guess its all about what your goals are...
- to run a rec league for fun and enjoyment
- to have a league where fundamentals are taught to get the kids ready for the next level.. hopefull to play high school ball.

At least you are teaching m2m fundamentals, thats the first step.... but by playing zones its hard to simulate ballside / helpside, since in the zone you are already there...... IF you have seen some middle school kids play you will know what I mean... HELPSIDE is the most important part of m2m defense... it defines the great m2m D teams from the rest.

Keep teaching m2m, let the kids have fun and just maybe you play 50% m2m?


Ron A. says:
1/31/2012 at 11:35:27 PM

I agree with a lot of the comments about developing the fundamentals first. I fill that there is no need (at K-2 grade) to keep score. The kids just need to concentrate on their skills, and not have to worry about if they are winning or losing. I think that the Zone is part of the game, and can be taught too be used in curtain situation.(without playing it as a full defense) By eliminating it in full, will just be confusing to the concept of the game.


Ken ( Coach Sar ) says:
2/1/2012 at 7:50:00 AM

Its obvious that people are going to coach what they are comfortable with - I know I started out as a ZONE coach.... the more ball I watched at the high school level the more I realized that IF my players were going to be able to play at the next level, they would have to be able to play GOOD m2n defense.

A lot of coaches teach zones because its easier in their mind or they really don't understand how to teach m2m.

If we could get off the WIN mentality and teach young kids how to play the game... starting with the fundamentals - pass, catch, pivot, dribble, shoot and playing defense- M2M

Its hard enough for young kids to shoot the ball, put a zone out there and they will never get close enough to the basket to get a decent look... so you see them throw it up there. Its too bad the Youth Leagues don't use smaller balls, lower the baskets and maybe 3 on 3 games... THAT would be FUN for them.

Jeff talked about B team players being successful at the Varsity level - ask any Varsity coach and I bet he has several stories like that,.... I know I did... kis that went on to become all conference. One B teamer didn't even play much when I brought him up as a sophomore ( out of necessity ) He went on to become an All Conference player, a great shooter - especially from the arc.... went on to play Jr College ball and broke the 3 point shooting record for his Freshman year.

To all the youth coaches out there... try and find some professional coaches and ask their opinions.. High school, college and IF You know a Pro coach, ask them their opionions on this. I would bet that you would hear the same thing we are saying here... m2m.

Go watch some high school teams and you will see the good team playing m2m and the bad ones.... the bad ones are like that because they had no real training / coaching on how to play good m2m defense .. I mean like their man is on the opposite side of the floor and they are watching him like he was carrying 100s of dollars. Trust me, I've seen it, I have watched their practices and what they teach doesn't transfer... so what is happening? A lof of these coaches are forced to turn to zones - just because these kids didn't come in prepared to play high school ball. THAT should be the goal of a YOUTH coach. JMO


Malcolm Dixon says:
2/2/2012 at 1:18:23 PM

I agree totally with man to man vs. zone defenses at such an early age. Kids need to be properly taught the fundamentals of all aspects of basketball and not the zone. Once a player can properly execute man, then the zone is easy. I stopped coaching in the youth leagues because of its policies of allowing little kids to stand in a packed zone while the other teams threw the ball to the rim barely making it reach. I really dont think we should teach them offenses rather basic offensive and defensive fundamentals. If a kid cant dribble, shoot a layup and simply cant play, what good will it do to teach an offensive system? Knowing it in theory wont help them apply it. Unfortunately, most youth league coaches cant properly teach m2m nor zone but what they do is get 10 players, throw them a ball and say play. Ive even seen coaches out there playing and running over kids. Another travesty is that most youth league coaches think they know basketball because they see it on TV or they played in High School or some rec league. Its really awful watching the kids run up and down the court like wild children without a clue of what basketball is while coaches on the sideline yelling at them or looking stupid and not knowing what to say to correct a kid. A team pressed my 2 boys team and I sadly sat on the side watching how frustrated the kids were not knowing how to advance the ball while the best thing the coach said was" come on guys you can do it" It was a simple man to man press. Someone help us PLEASE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IM FED UP.


Jeff Haefner says:
2/2/2012 at 1:51:51 PM

When we face M2M press, we just get the ball to a ballhandler, have everyone clear out (run to their basket), and the ballhandler brings the ball up the floor one-on-one. That's about all you can or want to do against a man press. If you don't have players that can dribble the ball up the floor one-on-one then all you can do is practice ballhandling until they can. Good luck!


Ken says:
2/4/2012 at 3:23:28 PM

I'm not sure who I learned this from but after inbounding the ball ( vs m2m pressure ) the inbounder would cross the face of the ball handler... that way he could see the trap coming IF they trapped at all.

Another thing I figured out was to take the ball with your weak hand to the far side of the floor, then crossover, you have the entire floor to beat you man with yout strong hand then. AND, IF you can get slightly in front of him you can dribble in his path, he will spend the rest of the time trying to get off your back. Just a thought.


Juan says:
3/13/2012 at 9:37:50 PM

Hi there, Im from argentina, I play basketball since a very young age. And here at the club I play for (and usually is this way in all the basketball clubs), the coaches start teaching zone defense to their players at the age of 13-14, and it seems to work allright.

When I was younger (10 years old) I played to a team that came from brazil, and they were already playing zone defense at that age (we started playing zone at 13). And when we re-played that same division of that same team at 14 (part of a development deal between both clubs, in wich we had reunions in both clubs over the years), we were a better team defensively both on zone defense and on man-to-man defense.
I think that the right age to start teaching kids zone defense is at 13-14 range, because they are already used to the defensive habits of man-to-man wich they really need on zone defense.
What coaches should do before the 13-14 age (like, at 11-12), is to explain to their playes what a zone defense is, and give them the basic concepts of it, maybe even practicing a little bit without using it at any game.


Coach D says:
1/8/2013 at 10:27:12 PM

I completely agree that man defense is the way to go and that zones at most should be used in special situations to throw off the opposing offense.... But the biggest problem that remains is time. I recently purchased the Man to Man defense eBook and I was very impressed but the issue is that there simply is not enough time for all of this to be taught. In the league I coach in (6th grade select) we only have 6 practices (1 hr each) compared to 8 games plus play offs. There is also a huge pressure to win by the parents (some coaches have even been canned!) If I decide to teach m2m defense we will barely scrape the surface and my kids will walk into games with an incomplete knowledge of defense. They will be severely unprepared to handle what the rest of the league will throw at them. I only have 6 total hours of practice time and in the end I am afraid they will forget the knowledge of m2m defense because it didnt work when they used it. If I had 20 practices I would absolutely install m2m defense but I dont even have a third of that. If I installed the defense on day 1 we would have no hope of even getting half way through the book because the fundamentals can not be rushed. The kids need time to learn them and the leagues today promote more games rathan than practices to improve. I am still in a dillema on what to do. I am very familiar with zone defense and could probably incorporate m2m principles in it. Any suggestions?


Ken Sartini says:
1/9/2013 at 1:31:30 PM

Coach D -

You have a tough gig.... not many practices and parents who think that winning is the only important thing.

Sit down with them and try to explain that you are trying to teach their kids HOW to play the game so that JUST maybe they can play at the next level.

Whether you play man or zone, somewhere along the line your kids will have to be able to defend someone.... and he in the help position on the floor..... IF you cant defend, you really cant play... zone or man. Man is where it starts.
Its a shame that your league allows zone defenses at that age with little practice time - pretty hard to develop players that way.

Good luck


B Dub says:
1/16/2013 at 1:25:34 PM

Maybe I'm missing something, but I put in a zone defense with my 3/4/5 girls because they all go to the ball which in man coverage they all do. There are no double teams in my rec league so this is my way of combating it and adding some order on the court instead of them all gravitating to the ball. For me this will also help me on getting them to space the floor on offense. I only get 1 hour a week for practice.


Ken says:
1/16/2013 at 2:52:05 PM

B Dub -

While I am a proponent of m2m defense at the youth level..... you have ONE hour of practice a week.... not sure that I wouldn't do the same thing.... just try to teach them some m2m fundamentals.... they will have to guard someone during the game.

Good luck


Jeff Haefner says:
1/16/2013 at 3:43:55 PM

Read this article for other reason to run man to man. I think it will give you some interesting perspectives.

Having just 1 hour is definitely tough. I think the biggest problem with going zone is the kids in back aren't developing athletically and once you start zone, it's very hard for most youth coaches to go back to man.


B Dub says:
1/16/2013 at 3:50:19 PM

I don't do complete zone for 4 quarters. I do it for one half and m2m for the other. My concern is the complete condemning of zone at youth level.


Ken says:
1/16/2013 at 4:49:55 PM

I think that a lof of the coaches here believe in m2m defense at the lower levels.... Zones don't teach you to play D on the ball...... play D 1 pass away, play D 2 passes away etc. Help defense is so important.... and what Jeff said about the players in the back of the zone not learning a lot is true. JMO

I coached 6-8th graders for 13 years... it took me 10 years to figure out that teaching them how to play m2m is the only way to go. They need to have the basics of man defense to play a good zone. JMO


Jeff Pack says:
2/15/2013 at 4:21:03 PM

Three years after making the no zone change, everyone has settled in and is doing well with the changes. tybl.org
Here is the breakdown on how we do it:
Grades K-1: Play stay in the key defense
Grades 1-2: Play man to man with matching wristbands for each team so each kid knows who they should be guarding.
Grades 3-4: Play man to man, limited pressing, encourage help defense. (shorter court), not encouraging double-teaming.
Grades 5-6: Play man to man with more pressing (full size court) Encouraging help defense and double-team help.
Grades 7-8: Can play zone or man.

I think the biggest change I have seen is player participation. Even the least skilled player is an ACTIVE participant in every game. Our registration numbers have gone up each of the last two seasons.
The second biggest change has been how coaches that work to include their entire roster into the flow of the game seem to have more success than the coach who runs the offense through one or two kids. No matter how good those one or two are, teams that have 5 kids playing good defense on the floor at the same time can shut them down and do. On the offensive side, those 5 work better together as well.
The last two seasons, our best record teams, haven't won the tournament title. I believe that is because the teams that do end up winning the trophies, used the regular season to teach basketball to their team, rather than win games by hiding weaker players, etc.
In All-Star challenges, our teams generally play Man, but when they play zone, they are even more effective. That tells me they've learned the defensive fundamentals needed to play a zone WELL.
The middle school league we run as well also is seeing marked improvement in defensive and offensive skill. Playing and playing against man to man for 4 seasons requires players develop ball handling and ball moving skills and moving without the ball skills.
Overall, I think its gone well. Of course, with 114 teams, it takes a strong board to give guidance and watch over how things are being taught ... but I am lucky to have that.


Joe Haefner says:
2/16/2013 at 12:03:56 PM

Great stuff, Jeff. I'm glad to hear about your success!


coach baracuda says:
4/4/2013 at 3:00:07 PM

I coached a team this summer ages 11-12 and my son was one of my 7 players. My son who was 10 at the time was pushed up age levels due to his ball I.Q. The next 6 player never played organized ball so I played man to man and was destroyed. My team was small and fast so I used that to adjust playing styles. My motto "play hard play fast." Then I used the 1-3-1. Three quarter court press and teams couldn't get through it. My point is adjust to your team and don't adjust the team. Teams will find there style and coaches adjust to the teams style. We lost in the championship by 3 to the first team. In my book this was a successful season.


Ken Sartini says:
4/4/2013 at 4:48:34 PM

Coach -

IF your goal was to win games, then you were successful...

IF your goal was to teach them how to play the game and get them ready to play at the next level.... maybe not so much?


Norm says:
12/15/2013 at 11:05:02 PM

In my league (7 year old boys) every other team besides us plays a 2-3, or 2-1-2 zone. Everything in this article is true, the kids can't dribble, pass well enough, or shoot from far enough away to be effective against a zone. What strategy would you recommend we employ to defeat a zone? We try to attack the gaps, overload, work the high post, etc. nothing has really been working. Thanks


Jeff Haefner says:
12/16/2013 at 10:02:32 AM

Norm - This might not be the answer your looking for... but I would find another league or create your own league by inviting teams to play you.

I don't think there's anything you can do against zone when you can't shout outside or have the skills to post up. If there is a way to beat a zone at that age, I have no idea how because I have never tried to beat a zone with kids of that age.

I suppose if you spent the whole season trying to figure out some plays to distort the zone, you might be able to get some looks inside. But talk about a huge waste of time??? That's not helping the kids develop.

When I coach 2nd and 3rd graders, we play mostly 3on3 and some 4on4 games. I make sure we play only man to man defense. Sometimes I invite other teams to play/scrimmage us. Or play in local 3on3 tournaments. I can't imagine trying to play against zone with kids at that age. What a waste of time.


Ken Sartini says:
12/16/2013 at 10:14:31 AM

Great answer Jeff -

Why they would be playing zones at this age is beyond me.... of course, we know why. The almighty W!

Norm its hard at this age because of the lack of shooting abilities.... continue to work the gaps, flash your players into open areas and maybe think of working somebody behind the zone? Utilizing the short corners?

Back to what Jeff said.... find another league next year or at the very least, try to get them to outlaw zones in this one. Tell them to come to this site and find out what the people in the know have to say about playing zones at this age.

Good luck


Ken Sartini says:
12/16/2013 at 10:14:31 AM

Great answer Jeff -

Why they would be playing zones at this age is beyond me.... of course, we know why. The almighty W!

Norm its hard at this age because of the lack of shooting abilities.... continue to work the gaps, flash your players into open areas and maybe think of working somebody behind the zone? Utilizing the short corners?

Back to what Jeff said.... find another league next year or at the very least, try to get them to outlaw zones in this one. Tell them to come to this site and find out what the people in the know have to say about playing zones at this age.

Good luck


Joe Click says:
1/2/2014 at 4:56:17 PM

I disagree. Zone defense should be a part of a youth program but only when the kid is old enough to understand the difference. I coach a youth advanced team with 7th and 8th grade kids and have never had a problem in 2 years. I have m2m defense as well and only use in out of bound situations or extremely close games. Very good read with this article though.


Coach Sean says:
1/12/2014 at 3:03:18 AM

I am coaching a league with 1st and 2nd graders and everyone in the league is playing a 2-3. I rufuse to play zone and plan on a big push after the season to encourage the league to ban zone defense, especially at such a young age. I agree with everything in the article but want to reiterate that if you are up front at the beginning of the year that you will likely lose games because you are more interested in teaching basketball skills and having fun, parents will respond to this. Certainly the short corner and high post are weaknesses in a zone but difficult to exploit with the strength and abilities of young players (which is why zone is played...to win). We lose more than we win to less skilled teams but our players are learning fundamentals and parents see this. We still run pick and roll off the top of the zone to get penetration and work on spacing and they are starting to get it (slowly). More importantly, my weaker kids are learning to find their man and defensive slide drills in practice are paying dividends. No one likes to lose but we need more coaches that see the bigger picture! We really don't focus on "beating the zone" in practice because we have so many other fundamentals to learn in our limited practice time. We will continue to celebrate small successes during each time out and intermission and hope that our kids continue to enjoy this great game, no matter how frustrated some of them may become at playing against a zone defense at such a young age. Norm, keep up the good fight, knowing your kids will be better for it!


Ken Sartini says:
1/12/2014 at 1:19:49 PM

Coach Sean -

First of all, Kudos to you for working with this age group..... and more so for teaching them m2m defense.

Who cares if they go 20-0 and cant play at the next level? Your success will be when you see your kids on the high school floor. (as long as the next coaches teach m2m also)

The best part is the parents of your kids UNDERSTAND why you are doing this.... otherwise it could be ugly. I hope you can convince the league next year about outlawing zone defenses, THAT will be the FIRST step in developing those kids to play the game.

Keep up the good work.


Paul N says:
2/27/2014 at 1:18:29 PM

I coach a boys 6th grade team that plays spring ball after the regular season ends. The team consists of some of the better players from 3 different teams. On average then, I have a pretty good team... good ballhandlers, good scorers and good bb IQ. That said, these young players still need lots of work on fundamentals, especially defense.

We will not play zone defense in games, simply because I don't think it is in the interest of youth OFFENSIVE players to face it. At this age, players lack the strength to make long, crisp passes, or shoot from outside (and by outside I mean pretty much anything outside 12 feet) with any semblance of proper technique. Like Jeff H said above, you get alot of "chucking". Even if the shot is made, it typically is not made with good technique. I have a boy who can drain 3-pointers, but he shoots from the hip, then chest, then heaves it up. It's a shame he's wasted his time learning to make that shot because he's going to have to re-learn how to shoot at the next level.

We will face zone defenses in tournaments, so I still have to prepare for it. That is also a shame because it takes away from practice time that could be better spent developing that left hand, cutting and screening skills, or improving shooting technique. Skills they will actually benefit from next season.


DH says:
3/29/2014 at 11:00:58 PM

I agree with most of the things being said about man defense, as far as player development is concerned, but outlawing zones would not be a productive solution. My team is comprised of mainly 6th grades, and to be honest, we love playing against zones. When we play against a team that employs man defense, it is often really ugly basketball. All the opponents do is hand check and mug my players, there is zero freedom of movement. The other players grab and hold onto my players jerseys, and it is difficult to get free. Generally, my best dribblers are able to get pass them, and we set picks constantly; but much less passing occurs and a few players end up with most of the points. I would much rather go against a team that plays zone. We reverse the ball constantly and attack the middle; the ball touches multiple hands before a shot is put up. Often times, every single player on my team will score.

This being said, the argument that zone defense is hurting the offensive player development is not necessarily true. We have tried multiple leagues, and for the most part the hand checking and holding onto jerseys is not called very often by the refs. Because the other team is allowed to get away with fouling, my weaker players often lose the ball and are not strong enough to keep the opponents off of them.

In the end, I believe that a coach who employs man defense but is encouraging their kids to foul is doing more damage than a coach using a zone. Man defense, taught right, can be beneficial for both sides; but that is just not simply the case. I have coached many seasons in multiple youth leagues, and I really do not see many teams that play fundamental man to man defense. All the kids on the other teams do are go for steals and reach in if they fail; and my team burns them for it. We win games by more points when they play man, but when they play zone it feels like a true team win because everyone gets their opportunity to contribute. A zone where everyone just stands on the blocks would be counter productive for the defensive players, but I do not see a problem with an active zone built on man principles that does not have an emphasis on trapping.


Mariah says:
4/8/2014 at 2:06:28 PM

I'm so glad I found this article ... I coach a very talented team of 11 and 12 year old girls who unfortunately have not been playing together for very long. I have a lot of good ball handlers and more outside scorers than I know what to do with - our game is severely lacking DEFENSE.

I had considered teaching them a zone to try and force them to work on their defense as a team (lots of my girls play to STEAL instead of playing to stop the shot) but as my main goal is always getting them ready for the next level, I will stick with our man-to-man and introduce a help component.

I also love what he said in the video about how we tend to teach our bigger players that they can't dribble, that they have to get the ball to a guard and go stand under the basket. I was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade when I really started playing, and I found this was true with a lot of coaches. I now have TWO girls that are nearly six feet tall and have found myself telling them to "get it to a guard." Now I have his voice in my head reminding me that it's just as important to teach my super tall kids to be great ball handlers as it is to teach my super small kids to be great rebounders.

This site is fantastic - I've found more drills on here than I can feasibly run in one season, but I bookmark them all and plan to use them in the future!!


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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%


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.


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:


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.


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