Why Youth Coaches Go To Zone DefensesFirst 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 LevelZone 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' Future1. 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.
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 LevelI'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?